Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My first reread since I started writing blog posts. Flowers for Algernon has long been my answer to the question, what is your favorite book? I realized recently, however, that it had been many years (10-12 probably) since I last read it, putting me at 11-13 years old. It was time for a reread, time to see where it fell on my list. I will say it is still pretty high up there, but if I’m looking at the books from this past year, I think Travels, The Selfish GeneA Brotherhood of SpiesEast of EdenBlack Like Me, and To Kill a Mockingbird are my top few. Not necessarily in that order.

I am actually quite surprised that I enjoyed this book so much when I was younger. Flowers for Algernon is heartbreaking and I seriously struggled as a child (and still) with empathy. For many, many years I would pull my mom aside in certain situations and tell her I was getting “the feeling.” I later learned, though it was embarrassingly recent, that this feeling was empathy. It would be sudden and strong whenever I found myself in situations where someone was being made fun of or judged and did not know it or understand. I would feel physically nauseous and did not understand what the emotion was or more importantly, why everyone wasn’t feeling the same way. I still feel this way often, but as an adult, I’ve learned I can help in these situations, whereas when I was a child, I needed to escape because the feeling took over my whole being. I couldn’t discuss it with my mom beyond telling her I had “the feeling” because discussing it only intensified the emotion.

Side note: not trying to frame myself as a saint here (or emotionally illiterate). I’m a huge asshole the majority of the time.

Anyways, my point is, I’m shocked I was able to get through this story at the height of my inability to deal with empathy. I distinctly remember reading this at my cottage on the lake during a summer I spent mostly with my mom. This was one of her favorite books as well, perhaps she encouraged me to read it so I could learn to deal with that emotion.

If you have not read this story, I highly encourage you to do so. Spoilers below. Flowers for Algernon is told through a series of progress reports written by the main character, Charlie Gordon. Charlie is 32 years old with an I.Q. of 68. His progress reports start out with little punctuation and countless spelling errors. He began writing these reports because he was chosen to undergo a procedure to rapidly increase his intelligence and the scientists wanted to track his progress. Algernon is the name of the mouse who previously underwent the procedure and who saw the most rapid and sustainable increase in intelligence. Charlie is warned of the risks, namely that he may end up being worse off in the end. He accepted the risks because all he ever wanted was to be smart, he also cannot fully comprehend what the risks mean.

As his intelligence increased and he began to soak up all the knowledge he could, he found that his emotional intelligence was unable to keep the same pace. He struggled to relate to people or be intimate with anyone. He went from one end of the spectrum to the other, reaching an I.Q. of 185, but his interpersonal relationships only seemed to get worse. He went from being unknowingly made fun of by people he considered his friends, to acting superior to everyone and pushing people away.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it isn’t all butterflies and rainbows. The story asks some complicated moral questions. Should we ever try to improve others’ mental capacity, especially those who cannot make the decision on their own? What role does intelligence play in overall happiness? Is ignorance really bliss? And who are we, those of us who fall in the middle of the spectrum, to try to answer these questions?

I’ll leave you with one quote from Charlie at the peak of his intelligence:

“I’ve learned that intelligence alone doesn’t mean a damned thing. Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, ” I said. “Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.”

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