Main Personality, Character, and Intelligence: Part Three from What the Dog Saw

Personality, Character, and Intelligence: Part Three from What the Dog Saw

Year: 2009
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Language: english
ISBN 10: 0316086185
ISBN 13: 9780316086189
Series: What the Dog Saw 3
File: EPUB, 527 KB
Download (epub, 527 KB)

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ALSO BY MALCOLM GLADWELL



Outliers

Blink

The Tipping Point





For Henry and David





Copyright



Copyright © 2009 by Malcolm Gladwell

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

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New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

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First eBook Edition: October 2009


Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


Essays previously published in The New Yorker.


ISBN: 978-0-316-08618-9





Contents


Copyright

Preface



PART THREE: Personality, Character, and Intelligence

Late Bloomers

Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?

Most Likely to Succeed

How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?

Dangerous Minds

Criminal Profiling Made Easy

The Talent Myth

Are Smart People Overrated?

The New-Boy Network

What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?

Troublemakers

What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime



Acknowledgments

About the Author





Preface



1.


When I was a small child, I used to sneak into my father’s study and leaf through the papers on his desk. He is a mathematician. He wrote on graph paper, in pencil — long rows of neatly written numbers and figures. I would sit on the edge of his chair and look at each page with puzzlement and wonder. It seemed miraculous, first of all, that he got paid for what seemed, at the time, like gibberish. But more important, I couldn’t get over the fact that someone whom I loved so dearly did something every day, inside his own head, that I could not begin to understand.

This was actually a version of what I would later learn psychologists call the other minds problem. One-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too: they have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head. Sooner or later, though, children come to understand that Mommy and Daddy don’t necessarily like Goldfish, too, and that moment is one of the great cognitive milestones of human development. Why is a two-year-old so terrible? Because she is systematically testing the fascinating and, to her, utterly novel notion that something that gives her pleasure might not actually give someone else pleasure—and the truth is that as adults we never lose that fascination. What is the first thing that we want to know when we meet someone who is a doctor at a social occasion? It isn’t “What do you do?” We know, sort of, what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we’re quite sure that it doesn’t feel at all like what it means to sit at a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars. Such questions are not dumb or obvious. Curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.





2.


All the pieces in What the Dog Saw come from the pages of The New Yorker, where I have been a staff writer since 1996. Out of the countless articles I’ve written over that period, these are my favorites. I’ve grouped them into three categories. The first section is about obsessives and what I like to call minor geniuses — not Einstein and Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and the other towering architects of the world in which we live, but people like Ron Popeil, who sold the Chop-O-Matic, and Shirley Polykoff, who famously asked, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” The second section is devoted to theories, to ways of organizing experience. How should we think about homelessness, or financial scandals, or a disaster like the crash of the Challenger? The third section wonders about the predictions we make about people. How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well? As you will see, I’m skeptical about how accurately we can make any of those judgments.

In the best of these pieces, what we think isn’t the issue. Instead, I’m more interested in describing what people who think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals. I don’t know what to conclude about the Challenger crash. It’s gibberish to me — neatly printed indecipherable lines of numbers and figures on graph paper. But what if we look at that problem through someone else’s eyes, from inside someone else’s head?

You will, for example, come across an article in which I try to understand the difference between choking and panicking. The piece was inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash in July of 1999. He was a novice pilot in bad weather who “lost the horizon” (as pilots like to say) and went into a spiral dive. To understand what he experienced, I had a pilot take me up in the same kind of plane that Kennedy flew, in the same kind of weather, and I had him take us into a spiral dive. It wasn’t a gimmick. It was a necessity. I wanted to understand what crashing a plane that way felt like, because if you want to make sense of that crash, it’s simply not enough to just know what Kennedy did. “The Picture Problem” is about how to make sense of satellite images, like the pictures the Bush administration thought it had of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. I got started on that topic because I spent an afternoon with a radiologist looking at mammograms, and halfway through — completely unprompted — he mentioned that he imagined that the problems people like him had in reading breast X-rays were a lot like the problems people in the CIA had in reading satellite photos. I wanted to know what went on inside his head, and he wanted to know what went on inside the heads of CIA officers. I remember, at that moment, feeling absolutely giddy. Then there’s the article after which this book is named. It’s a profile of Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer. Millan can calm the angriest and most troubled of animals with the touch of his hand. What goes on inside Millan’s head as he does that? That was what inspired me to write the piece. But after I got halfway through my reporting, I realized there was an even better question: When Millan performs his magic, what goes on inside the dog’s head? That’s what we really want to know — what the dog saw.





3.


The question I get asked most often is, Where do you get your ideas? I never do a good job of answering that. I usually say something vague about how people tell me things, or my editor, Henry, gives me a book that gets me thinking, or I say that I just plain don’t remember. When I was putting together this collection, I thought I’d try to figure that out once and for all. There is, for example, a long and somewhat eccentric piece in this book on why no has ever come up with a ketchup to rival Heinz. (How do we feel when we eat ketchup?) That idea came from my friend Dave, who is in the grocery business. We have lunch every now and again, and he is the kind of person who thinks about things like that. (Dave also has some fascinating theories about melons, but that’s an idea I’m saving for later.) Another article, called “True Colors,” is about the women who pioneered the hair color market. I got started on that because I somehow got it in my head that it would be fun to write about shampoo. (I think I was desperate for a story.) Many interviews later, an exasperated Madison Avenue type said to me, “Why on earth are you writing about shampoo? Hair color is much more interesting.” And so it is.

The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just so much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is. (I’ll let you judge whether I’m right in that instance.)

The other trick to finding ideas is figuring out the difference between power and knowledge. Of all the people whom you’ll meet in this volume, very few of them are powerful, or even famous. When I said that I’m most interested in minor geniuses, that’s what I meant. You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world. My friend Dave, who taught me about ketchup, is a middle guy. He’s worked on ketchup. That’s how he knows about it. People at the top are self-conscious about what they say (and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect — and self-consciousness is the enemy of “interestingness.” In “The Pitchman” you’ll meet Arnold Morris, who gave me the pitch for the “Dial-O-Matic” vegetable slicer one summer day in his kitchen on the Jersey Shore: “Come on over, folks. I’m going to show you the most amazing slicing machine you have ever seen in your life,” he began. He picked up a package of barbecue spices and used it as a prop. “Take a look at this!” He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase.

He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase. That’s where you find stories, in someone’s kitchen on the Jersey Shore.





4.


Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, and then in my last year of college, I decided I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to eighteen advertising agencies in the city of Toronto and received eighteen rejection letters, which I taped in a row on my wall. (I still have them somewhere.) I thought about graduate school, but my grades weren’t quite good enough. I applied for a fellowship to go somewhere exotic for a year and was rejected. Writing was the thing I ended up doing by default, for the simple reason that it took me forever to realize that writing could be a job. Jobs were things that were serious and daunting. Writing was fun.

After college, I worked for six months at a little magazine in Indiana called the American Spectator. I moved to Washington, DC, and freelanced for a few years, and eventually caught on with the Washington Post — and from there came to The New Yorker. Along the way, writing has never ceased to be fun, and I hope that buoyant spirit is evident in these pieces. Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else’s and says, angrily, “I don’t buy it.” Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you’ll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head — even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be. I’ve called these pieces adventures, because that’s what they are intended to be. Enjoy yourself.





PART THREE


PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, AND INTELLIGENCE




“‘He’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.’ — And he was.”





Late bloomers


WHY DO WE EQUATE GENIUS WITH PRECOCITY?



1.


Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me — my dad was so proud of me… . It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning — a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 a.m. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another — and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional bestseller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the 1990s. His breakthrough with Brief Encounters came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.





2.


Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity — doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with Moby-Dick. Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old … I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two percent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s 44 percent. For Stevens, it’s 49 percent.

The same was true of film, Galenson points out in his study “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.” Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho — one of the greatest runs by a director in history — between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at fifty-eight.

The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were Picasso and Cézanne. He was an art lover, and he knew their stories well. Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas, produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career — including Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.

Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris — the finest collection of Cézannes in the world — the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his midtwenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his midsixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer — and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.





3.


The first day that Ben Fountain sat down to write at his kitchen table went well. He knew how the story about the stockbroker was supposed to start. But the second day, he says, he “completely freaked out.” He didn’t know how to describe things. He felt as if he were back in first grade. He didn’t have a fully formed vision, waiting to be emptied onto the page. “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a facade, haircut, clothes — just really basic things,” he says. “I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”

He began to collect articles about things he was interested in, and before long he realized that he had developed a fascination with Haiti. “The Haiti file just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Fountain says. “And I thought, OK, here’s my novel. For a month or two I said, I really don’t need to go there, I can imagine everything. But after a couple of months I thought, Yeah, you’ve got to go there, and so I went, in April or May of ’ninety-one.”

He spoke little French, let alone Haitian Creole. He had never been abroad. Nor did he know anyone in Haiti. “I got to the hotel, walked up the stairs, and there was this guy standing at the top of the stairs,” Fountain recalls. “He said, ‘My name is Pierre. You need a guide.’ I said, ‘You’re sure as hell right, I do.’ He was a very genuine person, and he realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to go see the girls, I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t want any of that other stuff,” Fountain went on. “And then it was, boom, ‘I can take you there. I can take you to this person.’ ”

Fountain was riveted by Haiti. “It’s like a laboratory, almost,” he says. “Everything that’s gone on in the last five hundred years — colonialism, race, power, politics, ecological disasters — it’s all there in very concentrated form. And also I just felt, viscerally, pretty comfortable there.” He made more trips to Haiti, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. He made friends. He invited them to visit him in Dallas. (“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house,” Fountain says.) “I mean, I was involved. I couldn’t just walk away. There’s this very nonrational, nonlinear part of the whole process. I had a pretty specific time era that I was writing about, and certain things that I needed to know. But there were other things I didn’t really need to know. I met a fellow who was with Save the Children, and he was on the Central Plateau, which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”

In Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in. “After the novel was done, I don’t know, I just felt like there was more for me, and I could keep going, keep going deeper there,” Fountain recalls. “Always there’s something — always something — here for me. How many times have I been? At least thirty times.”

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research,” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting… . I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:


The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.

Where Picasso wanted to find, not search, Cézanne said the opposite: “I seek in painting.”

An experimental innovator would go back to Haiti thirty times. That’s how that kind of mind figures out what it wants to do. When Cézanne was painting a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, he made him endure eighty sittings, over three months, before announcing the project a failure. (The result is one of that string of masterpieces in the Musée d’Orsay.) When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on 150 occasions — before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.

Mark Twain was the same way. Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on Huckleberry Finn so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

One of the best stories in Brief Encounters is called “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” It’s about an ornithologist taken hostage by the FARC guerrillas of Colombia. Like so much of Fountain’s work, it reads with an easy grace. But there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation. “I struggled with that story,” Fountain says. “I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations.” Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.





4.


Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types — conceptual and experimental — has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else — that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

“All these qualities of his inner vision were continually hampered and obstructed by Cézanne’s incapacity to give sufficient verisimilitude to the personae of his drama,” the great English art critic Roger Fry wrote of the early Cézanne. “With all his rare endowments, he happened to lack the comparatively common gift of illustration, the gift that any draughtsman for the illustrated papers learns in a school of commercial art; whereas, to realize such visions as Cézanne’s required this gift in high degree.” In other words, the young Cézanne couldn’t draw. Of The Banquet, which Cézanne painted at thirty-one, Fry writes, “It is no use to deny that Cézanne has made a very poor job of it.” Fry goes on, “More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.” Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.

This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counselor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to accept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

Not long after meeting Ben Fountain, I went to see the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the 2002 bestseller Everything Is Illuminated. Fountain is a graying man, slight and modest, who looks, in the words of a friend of his, like a “golf pro from Augusta, Georgia.” Foer is in his early thirties and looks barely old enough to drink. Fountain has a softness to him, as if years of struggle have worn away whatever sharp edges he once had. Foer gives the impression that if you touched him while he was in full conversational flight, you would get an electric shock.

“I came to writing really by the back door,” Foer said. “My wife is a writer, and she grew up keeping journals — you know, parents said, ‘Lights out, time for bed,’ and she had a little flashlight under the covers, reading books. I don’t think I read a book until much later than other people. I just wasn’t interested in it.”

Foer went to Princeton and took a creative-writing class in his freshman year with Joyce Carol Oates. It was, he explains, “sort of on a whim, maybe out of a sense that I should have a diverse course load.” He’d never written a story before. “I didn’t really think anything of it, to be honest, but halfway through the semester I arrived to class early one day, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I have this chance to talk to you. I’m a fan of your writing.’ And it was a real revelation for me.”

Oates told him that he had the most important of writerly qualities, which was energy. He had been writing fifteen pages a week for that class, an entire story for each seminar.

“Why does a dam with a crack in it leak so much?” he said, with a laugh. “There was just something in me, there was like a pressure.”

As a sophomore, he took another creative-writing class. During the following summer, he went to Europe. He wanted to find the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. After the trip, he went to Prague. There he read Kafka, as any literary undergraduate would, and sat down at his computer.

“I was just writing,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was writing until it was happening. I didn’t go with the intention of writing a book. I wrote three hundred pages in ten weeks. I really wrote. I’d never done it like that.”

It was a novel about a boy named Jonathan Safran Foer who visits the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. Those three hundred pages were the first draft of Everything Is Illuminated — the exquisite and extraordinary novel that established Foer as one of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation. He was nineteen years old.

Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”

He began to describe his visit to Ukraine. “I went to the shtetl where my family came from. It’s called Trachimbrod, the name I use in the book. It’s a real place. But you know what’s funny? It’s the single piece of research that made its way into the book.” He wrote the first sentence, and he was proud of it, and then he went back and forth in his mind about where to go next. “I spent the first week just having this debate with myself about what to do with this first sentence. And once I made the decision, I felt liberated to just create — and it was very explosive after that.”

If you read Everything Is Illuminated, you end up with the same feeling you get when you read Brief Encounters with Che Guevara — the sense of transport you experience when a work of literature draws you into its own world. Both are works of art. It’s just that, as artists, Fountain and Foer could not be less alike. Fountain went to Haiti thirty times. Foer went to Trachimbrod just once. “I mean, it was nothing,” Foer said. “I had absolutely no experience there at all. It was just a springboard for my book. It was like an empty swimming pool that had to be filled up.” Total time spent getting inspiration for his novel: three days.





5.


Ben Fountain did not make the decision to quit the law and become a writer all by himself. He is married and has a family. He met his wife, Sharon, when they were both in law school at Duke. When he was doing real-estate work at Akin, Gump, she was on the partner track in the tax practice at Thompson & Knight. The two actually worked in the same building in downtown Dallas. They got married in 1985, and had a son in April of 1987. Sharie, as Fountain calls her, took four months of maternity leave before returning to work. She made partner by the end of that year.

“We had our son in a day care downtown,” she recalls. “We would drive in together, one of us would take him to day care, the other one would go to work. One of us would pick him up, and then, somewhere around eight o’clock at night, we would have him bathed, in bed, and then we hadn’t even eaten yet, and we’d be looking at each other, going, ‘This is just the beginning.’ ” She made a face. “That went on for maybe a month or two, and Ben’s like, ‘I don’t know how people do this.’ We both agreed that continuing at that pace was probably going to make us all miserable. Ben said to me, ‘Do you want to stay home?’ Well, I was pretty happy in my job, and he wasn’t, so as far as I was concerned it didn’t make any sense for me to stay home. And I didn’t have anything besides practicing law that I really wanted to do, and he did. So I said, ‘Look, can we do this in a way that we can still have some day care and so you can write?’ And so we did that.”

Ben could start writing at seven-thirty in the morning because Sharie took their son to day care. He stopped working in the afternoon because that was when he had to pick him up, and then he did the shopping and the household chores. In 1989, they had a second child, a daughter. Fountain was a full-fledged North Dallas stay-at-home dad.

“When Ben first did this, we talked about the fact that it might not work, and we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’ ” Sharie recalled. To her, ten years didn’t seem unreasonable. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became twelve and then fourteen and then sixteen, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him, because, even during that long stretch when Ben had nothing published at all, she was confident that he was getting better. She was fine with the trips to Haiti, too. “I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place you haven’t at least tried to visit,” she says. She even went with him once, and on the way into town from the airport there were people burning tires in the middle of the road.

“I was making pretty decent money, and we didn’t need two incomes,” Sharie went on. She has a calm, unflappable quality about her. “I mean, it would have been nice, but we could live on one.”

Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also — to borrow a term from long ago — his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.

This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story of Cézanne’s circle. First and foremost is always his best friend from childhood, the writer Emile Zola, who convinces the awkward misfit from the provinces to come to Paris, and who serves as his guardian and protector and coach through the long, lean years.

Here is Zola, already in Paris, in a letter to the young Cézanne back in Provence. Note the tone, more paternal than fraternal:


You ask me an odd question. Of course one can work here, as anywhere else, if one has the will. Paris offers, further, an advantage you can’t find elsewhere: the museums in which you can study the old masters from 11 to 4. This is how you must divide your time. From 6 to 11 you go to a studio to paint from a live model; you have lunch, then from 12 to 4 you copy, in the Louvre or the Luxembourg, whatever masterpiece you like. That will make up nine hours of work. I think that ought to be enough.

Zola goes on, detailing exactly how Cézanne could manage financially on a monthly stipend of a hundred and twenty-five francs:


I’ll reckon out for you what you should spend. A room at 20 francs a month; lunch at 18 sous and dinner at 22, which makes two francs a day, or 60 francs a month… . Then you have the studio to pay for: the Atelier Suisse, one of the least expensive, charges, I think, 10 francs. Add 10 francs for canvas, brushes, colors; that makes 100. So you’ll have 25 francs left for laundry, light, the thousand little needs that turn up.

Camille Pissarro was the next critical figure in Cézanne’s life. It was Pissarro who took Cézanne under his wing and taught him how to be a painter. For years, there would be periods in which they went off into the country and worked side by side.

Then there was Ambrose Vollard, the sponsor of Cézanne’s first one-man show, at the age of fifty-six. At the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet, Vollard hunted down Cézanne in Aix. He spotted a still-life in a tree, where it had been flung by Cézanne in disgust. He poked around the town, putting the word out that he was in the market for Cézanne’s canvases. In Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne, the biographer Philip Callow writes about what happened next:


Before long someone appeared at his hotel with an object wrapped in a cloth. He sold the picture for 150 francs, which inspired him to trot back to his house with the dealer to inspect several more magnificent Cézannes. Vollard paid a thousand francs for the job lot, then on the way out was nearly hit on the head by a canvas that had been overlooked, dropped out the window by the man’s wife. All the pictures had been gathering dust, half buried in a pile of junk in the attic.

All this came before Vollard agreed to sit 150 times, from eight in the morning to eleven-thirty, without a break, for a picture that Cézanne disgustedly abandoned. Once, Vollard recounted in his memoir, he fell asleep, and toppled off the makeshift platform. Cézanne berated him, incensed: “Does an apple move?” This is called friendship.

Finally, there was Cézanne’s father, the banker Louis-Auguste. From the time Cézanne first left Aix, at the age of twenty-two, Louis-Auguste paid his bills, even when Cézanne gave every indication of being nothing more than a failed dilettante. But for Zola, Cézanne would have remained an unhappy banker’s son in Provence; but for Pissarro, he would never have learned how to paint; but for Vollard (at the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet), his canvases would have rotted away in some attic; and, but for his father, Cézanne’s long apprenticeship would have been a financial impossibility. That is an extraordinary list of patrons. The first three — Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard — would have been famous even if Cézanne never existed, and the fourth was an unusually gifted entrepreneur who left Cézanne four hundred thousand francs when he died. Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the lifestyle of her profession and status — that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord, which is what she settled for.

But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and — in his own querulous way — Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once — never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for Brief Encounters belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”


October 20, 2008





Most Likely to Succeed


HOW DO WE HIRE WHEN WE CAN’T TELL WHO’S RIGHT FOR THE JOB?



1.


On the day of the big football game between the University of Missouri Tigers and the Cowboys of Oklahoma State, a football scout named Dan Shonka sat in his hotel in Columbia, Missouri, with a portable DVD player. Shonka has worked for three National Football League teams. Before that, he was a football coach, and before that, he played linebacker — although, he says, “that was three knee operations and a hundred pounds ago.” Every year, he evaluates somewhere between eight hundred and twelve hundred players around the country, helping professional teams decide whom to choose in the college draft, which means that over the last thirty years he has probably seen as many football games as anyone else in America. In his DVD player was his homework for the evening’s big game — an edited video of the Tigers’ previous contest, against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Shonka methodically made his way through the video, stopping and rewinding whenever he saw something that caught his eye. He liked Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, two of the Mizzou receivers. He loved William Moore, the team’s bruising strong safety. But most of all, he was interested in the Tigers’ quarterback and star, a stocky, strong-armed senior named Chase Daniel.

“I like to see that the quarterback can hit a receiver in stride so he doesn’t have to slow for the ball,” Shonka began. He had a stack of evaluation forms next to him, and as he watched the game, he was charting and grading every throw that Daniel made. “Then judgment. Hey, if it’s not there, throw it away and play another day. Will he stand in there and take a hit, with a guy breathing down his face? Will he be able to step right in there, throw, and still take that hit? Does the guy throw better when he’s in the pocket, or does he throw equally well when he’s on the move? You want a great competitor. Durability. Can they hold up, their strength, toughness? Can they make big plays? Can they lead a team down the field and score late in the game? Can they see the field? When your team’s way ahead, that’s fine. But when you’re getting your ass kicked, I want to see what you’re going to do.”

He pointed to his screen. Daniel had thrown a dart, and, just as he did, a defensive player had hit him squarely. “See how he popped up?” Shonka said. “He stood right there and threw the ball in the face of that rush. This kid has got a lot of courage.” Daniel was six feet tall and weighed 225 pounds: thick through the chest and trunk. He carried himself with a self-assurance that bordered on cockiness. He threw quickly and in rhythm. He nimbly evaded defenders. He made short throws with touch and longer throws with accuracy. By the game’s end, he had completed an astonishing 78 percent of his passes, and handed Nebraska its worst home defeat in fifty-three years. “He can zip it,” Shonka said. “He can really gun when he has to.” Shonka had seen all the promising college quarterbacks, charted and graded their throws, and to his mind Daniel was special: “He might be one of the best college quarterbacks in the country.”

But then Shonka began to talk about when he was on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles, in 1999. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the NFL he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.

The year before, the same thing happened with Ryan Leaf, who was the Chase Daniel of 1998. The San Diego Chargers made him the second player taken over all in the draft, and gave him an $11 million signing bonus. Leaf turned out to be terrible. In 2002, it was Joey Harrington’s turn. Harrington was a golden boy out of the University of Oregon, and the third player taken in the draft. Shonka still can’t get over what happened to him.

“I tell you, I saw Joey live,” he said. “This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence.” Shonka got as misty as a 280-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. “He’s a concert pianist, you know? I really — I mean, I really — liked Joey.” And yet Harrington’s career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.





2.


One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is value added analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school in September. When the students are retested in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

It’s only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What’s more — and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world — the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the United States is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the United States could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.





3.


Kickoff time for Missouri’s game against Oklahoma State was seven o’clock. It was a perfect evening for football: cloudless skies and a light fall breeze. For hours, fans had been tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium. Cars lined the roads leading to the university, many with fuzzy yellow-and-black Tiger tails hanging from their trunks. It was one of Mizzou’s biggest games in years. The Tigers were undefeated and had a chance to become the No. 1 college football team in the country. Shonka made his way through the milling crowds and took a seat in the press box. Below him, the players on the field looked like pieces on a chessboard.

The Tigers held the ball first. Chase Daniel stood a good seven yards behind his offensive line. He had five receivers, two to his left and three to his right, spaced from one side of the field to the other. His linemen were widely spaced as well. In play after play, Daniel caught the snap from his center, planted his feet, and threw the ball in quick seven- and eight-yard diagonal passes to one of his five receivers.

The style of offense that the Tigers run is called the spread, and most of the top quarterbacks in college football — the players who will be drafted into the pros — are spread quarterbacks. By spacing out the offensive linemen and wide receivers, the system makes it easy for the quarterback to figure out the intentions of the opposing defense before the ball is snapped: he can look up and down the line, “read” the defense, and decide where to throw the ball before anyone has moved a muscle. Daniel had been playing in the spread since high school; he was its master. “Look how quickly he gets the ball out,” Shonka said. “You can hardly go a thousand and one, a thousand and two, and it’s out of his hand. He knows right where he’s going. When everyone is spread out like that, the defense can’t disguise its coverage. Chase knows right away what they are going to do. The system simplifies the quarterback’s decisions.”

But for Shonka this didn’t help matters. It had always been hard to predict how a college quarterback would fare in the pros. The professional game was, simply, faster and more complicated. With the advent of the spread, though, the correspondence between the two levels of play had broken down almost entirely. NFL teams don’t run the spread. They can’t. The defenders in the pros are so much faster than their college counterparts that they would shoot through those big gaps in the offensive line and flatten the quarterback. In the NFL, the offensive line is bunched closely together. Daniel wouldn’t have five receivers. Most of the time, he’d have just three or four. He wouldn’t have the luxury of standing seven yards behind the center, planting his feet, and knowing instantly where to throw. He’d have to crouch right behind the center, take the snap directly, and run backward before planting his feet to throw. The onrushing defenders wouldn’t be seven yards away. They would be all around him, from the start. The defense would no longer have to show its hand, because the field would not be so spread out. It could now disguise its intentions. Daniel wouldn’t be able to read the defense before the snap was taken. He’d have to read it in the seconds after the play began.

“In the spread, you see a lot of guys wide open,” Shonka said. “But when a guy like Chase goes to the NFL, he’s never going to see his receivers that open — only in some rare case, like someone slips or there’s a bust in the coverage. When that ball’s leaving your hands in the pros, if you don’t use your eyes to move the defender a little bit, they’ll break on the ball and intercept it. The athletic ability that they’re playing against in the league is unbelievable.”

As Shonka talked, Daniel was moving his team down the field. But he was almost always throwing those quick, diagonal passes. In the NFL, he would have to do much more than that — he would have to throw long, vertical passes over the top of the defense. Could he make that kind of throw? Shonka didn’t know. There was also the matter of his height. Six feet was fine in a spread system, where the big gaps in the offensive line gave Daniel plenty of opportunity to throw the ball and see downfield. But in the NFL, there wouldn’t be gaps, and the linemen rushing at him would be six five, not six one.

“I wonder,” Shonka went on. “Can he see? Can he be productive in a new kind of offense? How will he handle that? I’d like to see him set up quickly from center. I’d like to see his ability to read coverages that are not in the spread. I’d like to see him in the pocket. I’d like to see him move his feet. I’d like to see him do a deep dig, or deep comeback. You know, like a throw twenty to twenty-five yards down the field.”

It was clear that Shonka didn’t feel the same hesitancy in evaluating the other Mizzou stars — the safety Moore, the receivers Maclin and Coffman. The game that they would play in the pros would also be different from the game they were playing in college, but the difference was merely one of degree. They had succeeded at Missouri because they were strong and fast and skilled, and these traits translate in kind to professional football.

A college quarterback joining the NFL, by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real NFL game.

Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an IQ test — the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores — which are routinely leaked to the press — they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had IQ scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.

We’re used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors. We now realize that being a good doctor requires the ability to communicate, listen, and empathize — and so there is increasing pressure on medical schools to pay attention to interpersonal skills as well as to test scores. We can have better physicians if we’re just smarter about how we choose medical school students. But no one is saying that Dan Shonka is somehow missing some key ingredient in his analysis; that if he were only more perceptive he could predict Chase Daniel’s career trajectory. The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft — that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance — and how well he played in the pros.

The entire time that Chase Daniel was on the field against Oklahoma State, his backup, Chase Patton, stood on the sidelines, watching. Patton didn’t play a single down. In his four years at Missouri, up to that point, he had thrown a total of twenty-six passes. And yet there were people in Shonka’s world who thought that Patton would end up as a better professional quarterback than Daniel. The week of the Oklahoma State game, the national sports magazine ESPN even put the two players on its cover, with the title “CHASE DANIEL MIGHT WIN THE HEISMAN” — referring to the trophy given to college football’s best player. “HIS BACKUP COULD WIN THE SUPER BOWL.” Why did everyone like Patton so much? It wasn’t clear. Maybe he looked good in practice. Maybe it was because this season in the NFL a quarterback who had also never started in a single college game is playing superbly for the New England Patriots. It sounds absurd to put an athlete on the cover of a magazine for no particular reason. But perhaps that’s just the quarterback problem taken to an extreme. If college performance doesn’t tell us anything, why shouldn’t we value someone who hasn’t had the chance to play as highly as we do someone who plays as well as anyone in the land?





4.


Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: “A is for apple… . C is for cow.” The session was taped, and the videotape is being watched by a group of experts, who are charting and grading each of the teacher’s moves.

After thirty seconds, the leader of the group — Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education — stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.

“What I’m struck by is how lively the affect is in this room,” Pianta said. “One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She’s not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.”

Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.

“A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids’ leaning over as misbehavior,” Pianta went on. “ ‘We can’t do this right now. You need to be sitting still.’ She would have turned this off.”

Bridget Hamre, one of Pianta’s colleagues, chimed in: “These are three- and four-year-olds. At this age, when kids show their engagement it’s not like the way we show our engagement, where we look alert. They’re leaning forward and wriggling. That’s their way of doing it. And a good teacher doesn’t interpret that as bad behavior. You can see how hard it is to teach new teachers this idea, because the minute you teach them to have regard for the student’s perspective, they think you have to give up control of the classroom.”

The lesson continued. Pianta pointed out how the teacher managed to personalize the material. “C is for cow” turned into a short discussion of which of the kids had ever visited a farm. “Almost every time a child says something, she responds to it, which is what we describe as teacher sensitivity,” Hamre said.

The teacher then asked the children if anyone’s name began with that letter. “Calvin,” a boy named Calvin says. The teacher nods, and says, “Calvin starts with C.” A little girl in the middle says, “Me!” The teacher turns to her. “Your name’s Venisha. Letter V. Venisha.”

It was a key moment. Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback — a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student — seems to be most closely linked to academic success. Not only did the teacher catch the “Me!” amid the wiggling and tumult; she addressed it directly.

“Mind you, that’s not great feedback,” Hamre said. “High-quality feedback is where there is a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.” The perfect way to handle that moment would have been for the teacher to pause and pull out Venisha’s name card, point to the letter V, show her how different it is from C, and make the class sound out both letters. But the teacher didn’t do that — either because it didn’t occur to her or because she was distracted by the wiggling of the girls to her right.

“On the other hand, she could have completely ignored the girl, which happens a lot,” Hamre went on. “The other thing that happens a lot is the teacher will just say, ‘You’re wrong.’ Yes-no feedback is probably the predominant kind of feedback, which provides almost no information for the kid in terms of learning.”

Pianta showed another tape, of a nearly identical situation: a circle of preschoolers around a teacher. The lesson was about how we can tell when someone is happy or sad. The teacher began by acting out a short conversation between two hand puppets, Henrietta and Twiggle: Twiggle is sad until Henrietta shares some watermelon with him.

“The idea that the teacher is trying to get across is that you can tell by looking at somebody’s face how they’re feeling, whether they’re feeling sad or happy,” Hamre said. “What kids of this age tend to say is you can tell how they’re feeling because of something that happened to them. They lost their puppy and that’s why they’re sad. They don’t really get this idea. So she’s been challenged, and she’s struggling.”

The teacher begins, “Remember when we did something and we drew our face?” She touches her face, pointing out her eyes and mouth. “When somebody is happy, their face tells us that they’re happy. And their eyes tell us.” The children look on blankly. The teacher plunges on: “Watch, watch.” She smiles broadly. “This is happy! How can you tell that I’m happy? Look at my face. Tell me what changes about my face when I’m happy. No, no, look at my face… . No… .”

A little girl next to her says, “Eyes,” providing the teacher with an opportunity to use one of her students to draw the lesson out. But the teacher doesn’t hear her. Again, she asks, “What’s changed about my face?” She smiles and she frowns, as if she can reach the children by sheer force of repetition. Pianta stopped the tape. One problem, he pointed out, was that Henrietta made Twiggle happy by sharing watermelon with him, which doesn’t illustrate what the lesson is about.

“You know, a better way to handle this would be to anchor something around the kids,” Pianta said. “She should ask, ‘What makes you feel happy?’ The kids could answer. Then she could say, ‘Show me your face when you have that feeling. OK, what does So-and-So’s face look like? Now tell me what makes you sad. Show me your face when you’re sad. Oh, look, her face changed!’ You’ve basically made the point. And then you could have the kids practice, or something. But this is going to go nowhere.”

“What’s changed about my face?” the teacher repeated, for what seemed like the hundredth time. One boy leaned forward into the circle, trying to engage himself in the lesson, in the way that little children do. His eyes were on the teacher. “Sit up!” she snapped at him.

As Pianta played one tape after another, the patterns started to become clear. Here was a teacher who read out sentences in a spelling test, and every sentence came from her own life — “I went to a wedding last week” — which meant she was missing an opportunity to say something that engaged her students. Another teacher walked over to a computer to do a PowerPoint presentation, only to realize that she hadn’t turned it on. As she waited for it to boot up, the classroom slid into chaos.

Then there was the superstar — a young high-school math teacher in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson — the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer — he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard MO would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.





5.


Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers — that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students’ needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel that he or she was getting his personal attention. But these aren’t cognitive skills.

A group of researchers — Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress — have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications — as much as they appear related to teaching prowess — turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

Another educational researcher, Jacob Kounin, once did an analysis of “desist” events, in which a teacher has to stop some kind of misbehavior. In one instance, “Mary leans toward the table to her right and whispers to Jane. Both she and Jane giggle. The teacher says, ‘Mary and Jane, stop that!’ ” That’s a desist event. But how a teacher desists — her tone of voice, her attitudes, her choice of words — appears to make no difference at all in maintaining an orderly classroom. How can that be? Kounin went back over the videotape and noticed that forty-five seconds before Mary whispered to Jane, Lucy and John had started whispering. Then Robert had noticed and joined in, making Jane giggle, whereupon Jane said something to John. Then Mary whispered to Jane. It was a contagious chain of misbehavior, and what really was significant was not how a teacher stopped the deviancy at the end of the chain but whether she was able to stop the chain before it started. Kounin called that ability withitness, which he defined as “a teacher’s communicating to the children by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: ‘I know what’s going on’) that she knows what the children are doing, or has the proverbial eyes in the back of her head.” It stands to reason that to be a great teacher you have to have withitness. But how do you know whether someone has withitness until she stands up in front of a classroom of twenty-five wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts and tries to impose order?





6.


Perhaps no profession has taken the implications of the quarterback problem more seriously than the financial-advice field, and the experience of financial advisers is a useful guide to what could happen in teaching as well. There are no formal qualifications for entering the field except a college degree. Financial-services firms don’t look for only the best students or require graduate degrees or specify a list of prerequisites. No one knows beforehand what makes a high-performing financial adviser different from a low-performing one, so the field throws the door wide open.

“A question I ask is, ‘Give me a typical day,’ ” Ed Deutschlander, the co-president of North Star Resource Group, in Minneapolis, says. “If that person says, ‘I get up at five-thirty, hit the gym, go to the library, go to class, go to my job, do homework until eleven,’ that person has a chance.” Deutschlander, in other words, begins by looking for the same general traits that every corporate recruiter looks for.

Deutschlander says that last year his firm interviewed about a thousand people, and found forty-nine it liked, a ratio of twenty interviewees to one candidate. Those candidates were put through a four-month “training camp,” in which they tried to act like real financial advisers. “They should be able to obtain in that four-month period a minimum of ten official clients,” Deutschlander said. “If someone can obtain ten clients, and is able to maintain a minimum of ten meetings a week, that means that person has gathered over a hundred introductions in that four-month period. Then we know that person is at least fast enough to play this game.”

Of the forty-nine people invited to the training camp, twenty-three made the cut and were hired as apprentice advisers. Then the real sorting began. “Even with the top performers, it really takes three to four years to see whether someone can make it,” Deutschlander says. “You’re just scratching the surface at the beginning. Four years from now, I expect to hang on to at least thirty to forty percent of that twenty-three.”

People like Deutschlander are referred to as gatekeepers, a title that suggests that those at the door of a profession are expected to discriminate — to select who gets through the gate and who doesn’t. But Deutschlander sees his role as keeping the gate as wide open as possible: to find ten new financial advisers, he’s willing to interview a thousand people. The equivalent of that approach in the NFL would be for a team to give up trying to figure out who the best college quarterback is, and, instead, try out three or four good candidates.

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot — both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

Is this solution to teaching’s quarterback problem politically possible? Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one. Teachers’ unions have been resistant to even the slightest move away from the current tenure arrangement. But all the reformers want is for the teaching profession to copy what firms like North Star have been doing for years. Deutschlander interviews a thousand people to find ten advisers. He spends large amounts of money to figure out who has the particular mixture of abilities to do the job. “Between hard and soft costs,” he says, “most firms sink between a hundred thousand dollars and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on someone in their first three or four years,” and in most cases, of course, that investment comes to naught. But if you are willing to make that kind of investment and show that kind of patience, you wind up with a truly high-performing financial adviser. “We have a hundred and twenty-five full-time advisers,” Deutschlander says. “Last year, we had seventy-one of them qualify for the Million Dollar Round Table” — the industry’s association of its most successful practitioners. “We’re seventy-one out of a hundred and twenty-five in that elite group.” What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?





7.


Midway through the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma State–Missouri game, the Tigers were in trouble. For the first time all year, they were behind late in the game. They needed to score, or they’d lose any chance of a national championship. Daniel took the snap from his center and planted his feet to pass. His receivers were covered. He began to run. The Oklahoma State defenders closed in on him. He was under pressure, something that rarely happened to him in the spread. Desperate, he heaved the ball downfield, right into the arms of a Cowboy defender.

Shonka jumped up. “That’s not like him!” he cried out. “He doesn’t throw stuff up like that.”

Next to Shonka, a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs looked crestfallen. “Chase never throws something up for grabs!”

It was tempting to see Daniel’s mistake as definitive. The spread had broken down. He was finally under pressure. This was what it would be like to be an NFL quarterback, wasn’t it? But there is nothing like being an NFL quarterback except being an NFL quarterback. A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice. Maybe that interception means that Daniel won’t be a good professional quarterback, or maybe he made a mistake that he’ll learn from. “In a great big piece of pie,” Shonka said, “that was just a little slice.”*


December 15, 2008





Dangerous Minds


CRIMINAL PROFILING MADE EASY



1.


On November 16, 1940, workers at the Consolidated Edison building on West 64th Street in Manhattan found a homemade pipe bomb on a windowsill. Attached was a note: “Con Edison crooks, this is for you.” In September of 1941, a second bomb was found, on 19th Street, just a few blocks from Con Edison’s headquarters, near Union Square. It had been left in the street, wrapped in a sock. A few months later, the New York police received a letter promising to “bring the Con Edison to justice — they will pay for their dastardly deeds.” Sixteen other letters followed, between 1941 and 1946, all written in block letters, many repeating the phrase dastardly deeds and all signed with the initials F.P. In March of 1950, a third bomb — larger and more powerful than the others — was found on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. The next was left in a phone booth at the New York Public Library. It exploded, as did one placed in a phone booth in Grand Central. In 1954, the Mad Bomber — as he came to be known — struck four times, once in Radio City Music Hall, sending shrapnel throughout the audience. In 1955, he struck six times. The city was in an uproar. The police were getting nowhere. Late in 1956, in desperation, Inspector Howard Finney, of the New York City Police Department’s crime laboratory, and two plainclothesmen paid a visit to a psychiatrist by the name of James Brussel.

Brussel was a Freudian. He lived on 12th Street, in the West Village, and smoked a pipe. In Mexico, early in his career, he had done counterespionage work for the FBI. He wrote many books, including Instant Shrink: How to Become an Expert Psychiatrist in Ten Easy Lessons. Finney put a stack of documents on Brussel’s desk: photographs of unexploded bombs, pictures of devastation, photostats of F.P.’s neatly lettered missives. “I didn’t miss the look in the two plainclothesmen’s eyes,” Brussel writes in his memoir, Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist. “I’d seen that look before, most often in the Army, on the faces of hard, old-line, field-grade officers who were sure this newfangled psychiatry business was all nonsense.”

He began to leaf through the case materials. For sixteen years, F.P. had been fixated on the notion that Con Ed had done him some terrible injustice. Clearly, he was clinically paranoid. But paranoia takes some time to develop. F.P. had been bombing since 1940, which suggested that he was now middle-aged. Brussel looked closely at the precise lettering of F.P.’s notes to the police. This was an orderly man. He would be cautious. His work record would be exemplary. Further, the language suggested some degree of education. But there was a stilted quality to the word choice and the phrasing. Con Edison was often referred to as the Con Edison. And who still used the expression dastardly deeds? F.P. seemed to be foreign-born. Brussel looked more closely at the letters and noticed that they were all perfect block capitals, except the Ws. They were misshapen, like two U’s. To Brussel’s eye, those Ws looked like a pair of breasts. He flipped to the crime-scene descriptions. When F.P. planted his bombs in movie theaters, he would slit the underside of the seat with a knife and stuff his explosives into the upholstery. Didn’t that seem like a symbolic act of penetrating a woman, or castrating a man — or perhaps both? F.P. had probably never progressed beyond the Oedipal stage. He was unmarried, a loner. Living with a mother figure. Brussel made another leap. F.P. was a Slav. Just as the use of a garrote would have suggested someone of Mediterranean extraction, the bomb-knife combination struck him as Eastern European. Some of the letters had been posted from Westchester County, but F.P. wouldn’t have mailed the letters from his hometown. Still, a number of cities in southeastern Connecticut had a large Slavic population. And didn’t you have to pass through Westchester to get to the city from Connecticut?

Brussel waited a moment, and then, in a scene that has become legendary among criminal profilers, he made a prediction:

“One more thing.” I closed my eyes because I didn’t want to see their reaction. I saw the Bomber: impeccably neat, absolutely proper. A man who would avoid the newer styles of clothing until long custom had made them conservative. I saw him clearly — much more clearly than the facts really warranted. I knew I was letting my imagination get the better of me, but I couldn’t help it.

“One more thing,” I said, my eyes closed tight. “When you catch him — and I have no doubt you will — he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”

“Jesus!” one of the detectives whispered.

“And it will be buttoned,” I said. I opened my eyes. Finney and his men were looking at each other.

“A double-breasted suit,” said the Inspector.

“Yes.”

“Buttoned.”

“Yes.”

He nodded. Without another word, they left.



A month later, George Metesky was arrested by police in connection with the New York City bombings. His name had been changed from Milauskas. He lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his two older sisters. He was unmarried. He was unfailingly neat. He attended Mass regularly. He had been employed by Con Edison from 1929 to 1931, and claimed to have been injured on the job. When he opened the door to the police officers, he said, “I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.” It was midnight, and he was in his pajamas. The police asked that he get dressed. When he returned, his hair was combed into a pompadour and his shoes were newly shined. He was also wearing a double-breasted suit — buttoned.





2.


In Inside the Mind of BTK, the eminent FBI criminal profiler John Douglas tells the story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of Wichita, Kansas, in the 1970s and ’80s. Douglas was the model for Agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. He was the protégé of the pioneering FBI profiler Howard Teten, who helped establish the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, at Quantico, in 1972, and who was a protégé of Brussel — which, in the close-knit fraternity of profilers, is like being analyzed by the analyst who was analyzed by Freud. To Douglas, Brussel was the father of criminal profiling, and, in both style and logic, Inside the Mind of BTK pays homage to Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist at every turn.

BTK stood for “Bind, Torture, Kill” — the three words that the killer used to identify himself in his taunting notes to the Wichita police. He had struck first in January 1974, when he killed thirty-eight-year-old Joseph Otero in his home, along with his wife, Julie, their son, Joey, and their eleven-year-old daughter, who was found hanging from a water pipe in the basement with semen on her leg. The following April, he stabbed a twenty-four-year-old woman. In March 1977, he bound and strangled another young woman, and over the next few years, he committed at least four more murders. The city of Wichita was in an uproar. The police were getting nowhere. In 1984, in desperation, two police detectives from Wichita paid a visit to Quantico.

The meeting, Douglas writes, was held in a first-floor conference room of the FBI’s forensic-science building. He was then nearly a decade into his career at the Behavioral Science Unit. His first two bestsellers, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and Obsession: The FBI’s Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back, were still in the future. Working 150 cases a year, he was on the road constantly, but BTK was never far from his thoughts. “Some nights I’d lie awake, asking myself, ‘Who the hell is this BTK?’ ” he writes. “What makes a guy like this do what he does? What makes him tick?”

Roy Hazelwood sat next to Douglas. A lean chain-smoker, Hazelwood specialized in sex crimes, and went on to write the bestsellers Dark Dreams and The Evil That Men Do. Beside Hazelwood was an ex–Air Force pilot named Ron Walker. Walker, Douglas writes, was “whip smart” and an “exceptionally quick study.” The three bureau men and the two detectives sat around a massive oak table. “The objective of our session was to keep moving forward until we ran out of juice,” Douglas writes. They would rely on the typology developed by their colleague Robert Ressler, himself the author of the true-crime bestsellers Whoever Fights Monsters and I Have Lived in the Monster. The goal was to paint a picture of the killer — of what sort of man BTK was, and what he did, and where he worked, and what he was like — and with that scene Inside the Mind of BTK begins.

We are now so familiar with crime stories told through the eyes of the profiler that it is easy to lose sight of how audacious the genre is. The traditional detective story begins with the body and centers on the detective’s search for the culprit. Leads are pursued. A net is cast, widening to encompass a bewilderingly diverse pool of suspects: the butler, the spurned lover, the embittered nephew, the shadowy European. That’s a whodunit. In the profiling genre, the net is narrowed. The crime scene doesn’t initiate our search for the killer. It defines the killer for us. The profiler sifts through the case materials, looks off into the distance, and knows. “Generally, a psychiatrist can study a man and make a few reasonable predictions about what the man may do in the future — how he will react to such-and-such a stimulus, how he will behave in such-and-such a situation,” Brussel writes. “What I have done is reverse the terms of the prophecy. By studying a man’s deeds, I have deduced what kind of man he might be.” Look for a middle-aged Slav in a double-breasted suit. Profiling stories aren’t whodunits; they’re hedunits.

In the hedunit, the profiler does not catch the criminal. That’s for local law enforcement. He takes the meeting. Often, he doesn’t write down his predictions. It’s up to the visiting police officers to take notes. He does not feel the need to involve himself in the subsequent investigation, or even, it turns out, to justify his predictions. Once, Douglas tells us, he drove down to the local police station and offered his services in the case of an elderly woman who had been savagely beaten and sexually assaulted. The detectives working the crime were regular cops, and Douglas was a bureau guy, so you can imagine him perched on the edge of a desk, the others pulling up chairs around him.

“ ‘Okay,’ I said to the detectives… . ‘Here’s what I think,’ ” Douglas begins. “It’s a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old high school kid… . He’ll be disheveled-looking, he’ll have scruffy hair, generally poorly groomed.” He went on: a loner, kind of weird, no girlfriend, lots of bottled-up anger. He comes to the old lady’s house. He knows she’s alone. Maybe he’s done odd jobs for her in the past. Douglas continues:

I pause in my narrative and tell them there’s someone who meets this description out there. If they can find him, they’ve got their offender.

One detective looks at another. One of them starts to smile. “Are you a psychic, Douglas?”

“No,” I say, “but my job would be a lot easier if I were.”

“Because we had a psychic, Beverly Newton, in here a couple of weeks ago, and she said just about the same things.”



You might think that Douglas would bridle at that comparison. He is, after all, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who studied with Teten, who studied with Brussel. He is an ace profiler, part of a team that restored the FBI’s reputation for crime-fighting, inspired countless movies, television shows, and bestselling thrillers, and brought the modern tools of psychology to bear on the savagery of the criminal mind — and some cop is calling him a psychic. But Douglas doesn’t object. Instead, he begins to muse on the ineffable origins of his insights, at which point the question arises of what exactly this mysterious art called profiling is, and whether it can be trusted. Douglas writes,


What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with … and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure, any more than the novelists such as Tom Harris who’ve consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.





3.


In the late 1970s, John Douglas and his FBI colleague Robert Ressler set out to interview the most notorious serial killers in the country. They started in California, since, as Douglas says, “California has always had more than its share of weird and spectacular crimes.” On weekends and days off, over the next months, they stopped by one federal prison after another, until they had interviewed thirty-six murderers.

Douglas and Ressler wanted to know whether there was a pattern that connected a killer’s life and personality with the nature of his crimes. They were looking for what psychologists would call a homology, an agreement between character and action, and after comparing what they learned from the killers with what they already knew about the characteristics of their murders, they became convinced that they’d found one.

Serial killers, they concluded, fall into one of two categories. Some crime scenes show evidence of logic and planning. The victim has been hunted and selected in order to fulfill a specific fantasy. The recruitment of the victim might involve a ruse or a con. The perpetrator maintains control throughout the offense. He takes his time with the victim, carefully enacting his fantasies. He is adaptable and mobile. He almost never leaves a weapon behind. He meticulously conceals the body. Douglas and Ressler, in their respective books, call that kind of crime organized.

In a disorganized crime, the victim isn’t chosen logically. She’s seemingly picked at random and “blitz-attacked,” not stalked and coerced. The killer might grab a steak knife from the kitchen and leave the knife behind. The crime is so sloppily executed that the victim often has a chance to fight back. The crime might take place in a high-risk environment. “Moreover, the disorganized killer has no idea of, or interest in, the personalities of his victims,” Ressler writes in Whoever Fights Monsters. “He does not want to know who they are, and many times takes steps to obliterate their personalities by quickly knocking them unconscious or covering their faces or otherwise disfiguring them.”

Each of these styles, the argument goes, corresponds to a personality type. The organized killer is intelligent and articulate. He feels superior to those around him. The disorganized killer is unattractive and has a poor self-image. He often has some kind of disability. He’s too strange and withdrawn to be married or have a girlfriend. If he doesn’t live alone, he lives with his parents. He has pornography stashed in his closet. If he drives at all, his car is a wreck.

“The crime scene is presumed to reflect the murderer’s behavior and personality in much the same way as furnishings reveal the homeowner’s character,” we’re told in a crime manual that Douglas and Ressler helped write. The more they learned, the more precise the associations became. If the victim was white, the killer would be white. If the victim was old, the killer would be sexually immature.

“In our research, we discovered that … frequently serial offenders had failed in their efforts to join police departments and had taken jobs in related fields, such as security guard or night watchman,” Douglas writes. Given that organized rapists were preoccupied with control, it made sense that they would be fascinated by the social institution that symbolizes control. Out of that insight came another prediction: “One of the things we began saying in some of our profiles was that the UNSUB” — the unknown subject — “would drive a policelike vehicle, say a Ford Crown Victoria or Chevrolet Caprice.”





4.


On the surface, the FBI’s system seems extraordinarily useful. Consider a case study widely used in the profiling literature. The body of a twenty-six-year-old special-education teacher was found on the roof of her Bronx apartment building. She was apparently abducted just after she left her house for work, at six-thirty in the morning. She had been beaten beyond recognition and tied up with her stockings and belt. The killer had mutilated her sexual organs, chopped off her nipples, covered her body with bites, written obscenities across her abdomen, masturbated, and then defecated next to the body.

Let’s pretend that we’re an FBI profiler. First question: race. The victim is white, so let’s call the offender white. Let’s say he’s in his midtwenties to early thirties, which is when the thirty-six men in the FBI’s sample started killing. Is the crime organized or disorganized? Disorganized, clearly. It’s on a rooftop, in the Bronx, in broad daylight — high risk. So what is the killer doing in the building at six-thirty in the morning? He could be some kind of serviceman, or he could live in the neighborhood. Either way, he appears to be familiar with the building. He’s disorganized, though, so he’s not stable. If he is employed, it’s blue-collar work at best. He probably has a prior offense, having to do with violence or sex. His relationships with women will be either nonexistent or deeply troubled. And the mutilation and the defecation are so strange that he’s probably mentally ill or has some kind of substance-abuse problem. How does that sound? As it turns out, it’s spot-on. The killer was Carmine Calabro, age thirty, a single, unemployed, deeply troubled actor who, when he was not in a mental institution, lived with his widowed father on the fourth floor of the building where the murder took place.

But how useful is that profile really? The police already had Calabro on their list of suspects: if you’re looking for the person who killed and mutilated someone on the roof, you don’t really need a profiler to tell you to check out the disheveled, mentally ill guy living with his father on the fourth floor.

That’s why the FBI’s profilers have always tried to supplement the basic outlines of the organized/disorganized system with telling details — something that lets the police zero in on a suspect. In the early 1980s, Douglas gave a presentation to a roomful of police officers and FBI agents in Marin County about the Trailside Killer, who was murdering female hikers in the hills north of San Francisco. In Douglas’s view, the killer was a classic disorganized offender — a blitz attacker, white, early to midthirties, blue collar, probably with “a history of bed-wetting, fire-starting, and cruelty to animals.” Then he went back to how asocial the killer seemed. Why did all the killings take place in heavily wooded areas miles from the road? Douglas reasoned that the killer required such seclusion because he had some condition that he was deeply self-conscious about. Was it something physical, like a missing limb? But then how could he hike miles into the woods and physically overpower his victims? Finally, it came to him: “ ‘Another thing,’ I added after a pregnant pause, ‘the killer will have a speech impediment.’ ”

And so he did. Now, that’s a useful detail. Or is it? Douglas then tells us that he pegged the offender’s age as early thirties and he turned out to be fifty. Detectives use profiles to narrow down the range of suspects. It doesn’t do any good to get a specific detail right if you get general details wrong.

In the case of Derrick Todd Lee, the Baton Rouge serial killer, the FBI profile described the offender as a white male blue-collar worker between twenty-five and thirty-five years old who “wants to be seen as someone who is attractive and appealing to women.” The profile went on, “However, his level of sophistication in interacting with women, especially women who are above him in the social strata, is low. Any contact he has had with women he has found attractive would be described by these women as ‘awkward.’ ” The FBI was right about the killer being a blue-collar male between twenty-five and thirty-five. But Lee turned out to be charming and outgoing, the sort to put on a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots and head for the bars. He was an extrovert with a number of girlfriends and a reputation as a ladies’ man. And he wasn’t white. He was black.

A profile isn’t a test, where you pass if you get most of the answers right. It’s a portrait, and all the details have to cohere in some way if the image is to be helpful. In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed 184 crimes to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That’s just 2.7 percent, which makes s