The fallout from the appallingly self-serving memoir, The Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother, has been considerable. And it must have given its author, Amy Chua, exactly what she hoped for: notoriety, exposure, controversy, sales and appearances on The Colbert Report and Today, as well as a host of other media interviews. The Tiger Mother is a household name, and the juxtaposition of her jaunty, self-assured demeanor (think Sarah Palin) with her draconian approach to parenting sends a weirdly-mixed message.
In all this, no mention is made of how Sophia and Lulu, the subjects of Ms Chua’s writing, are faring. One assumes they are doing their very best—because they must. And one assumes that they will not become depressed or suicidal, in spite of a 2007 Department of Health and Human Services study that found suicide the second-leading cause of death in Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24.
One assumes that these pushed-to-be-prodigies daughters will do well, in spite of the media scrutiny their mother invited into their lives.
But there is something creepily symbiotic about a parent and his or her relationship to the prodigy.
Children whose talents are ardently or even ruthlessly encouraged by their parents are still children and therefore vulnerable—and maybe even more so than other children whose lives are more differentiated by a broader range of experiences.
Bobby Fischer’s mother, who wrote newspaper ads to find competent chess partners for him when he was as young as 8 years-old, abandoned him at age 17. Beethoven’s father, in pushing his son to be a Mozart-styled child prodigy, abused and neglected both Beethoven and his brothers. (Indeed, by the time Beethoven was 19, he filed and won a legal order against his father, making him the de facto head of the household.)
The long-forgotten, but once famous math prodigy, Zerah Colburn wowed the American public with his feats. Cashing in on his fame, his father took him to Europe. But when the father died, penniless Colburn was left to fend for himself, returning 12 years later, at age 19, to a mother who did not recognize him.
But surely one of the most heart-rending stories of a child’s prodigious talent and a parent’s narcissistic interest in it is that of Barbara Follett’s.
As early as age 8, Barbara Follett believed in herself as a writer and when her father, the critic and editor, Wilson Follett, bought her a typewriter, she closeted herself in her bedroom and began work on her first novel.
It was to be a tale, written, revised and re-written, of a girl who ventures into the woods and vanishes into nature. Friends, when needed, could always be imagined. “I pretend,” she once explained, “that Beethoven, the two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me.”
Her father, Wilson Follett, having already written about his 3-year-old daughter in Harper’s, contacted Knopf. Barbara’s novel, The House Without Windows, came out to overwhelming praise in 1927. Barbara was 12.
The Voyage of the Norman D followed. The Times Literary Supplement lauded it. The Saturday Review featured it alongside Dorothy Parker. She was no longer just a childish anomaly; she was an author.
But just a week before the book came out, Wilson Follett announced to Barbara and his wife that he, having just turned 40, was leaving them for a younger woman. And he did, leaving them in dire financial straits on the eve of the Depression.
At 16, Barbara was riding the subway to her secretarial job for which she had had to learn shorthand and dictation.
Without the support of her father, Barbara, remarkably, continued to write, creating two other manuscripts. But eventually her writing stopped. She married and for a while they were happy, hiking and backpacking between her secretarial jobs. Barbara briefly traveled to Mills College where she studied dance. But on returning to her home in Boston, she discovered that her husband had been seeing someone else. They soldiered on, but within a few months they quarreled, and Barbara left. And was never seen again.
Her husband waited two weeks to go to the police and four months before requesting a missing persons bulletin.
Betrayed first by her father and then by her husband, Barbara Follett was never found, her prodigious talent unrealized. All that remains of her work today is in six archival boxes in the Columbia University library.
Both the irony and tragedy of the loss of Barbara Follett is encaptured in an anonymous essay Wilson Follett wrote for The Atlantic. With muted guilt Wilson Follett asks: “Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days. . . .”
The father, having left the daughter, never found her.