What we can learn from oddballs
Soon after FBI agents took Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski into custody in April, Newsweek ran a cover story on the man they referred to darkly as the “eccentric Montana loner.” The article included loaded references (“Kaczynski . . . smirked slightly—the smile of the smartest kid in class”) and a quip about how the ex-mathematician’s solitary lifestyle “makes Thoreau look like a social butterfly” (Newsweek, April 15, 1996). The not-so-subtle implication was that anyone who is smart, reclusive, and, you know, different is Charles Manson material.
Try telling that to Marvin Staples, an ebullient Chippewa Indian from Minnesota who has cured his arthritis, deepened his spiritual life, and made it into the Guinness Book of Records by walking everywhere backwards for years. Or to Connecticut’s high-spirited Norma Jean Bryant, a firefighter-coat-wearing kazoo artist who throws elaborate dinner parties at which nothing but canned food is served and claims to still possess everything she has ever owned.
These and over a thousand other oddballs were the subject of a 10-year study by British psychologist David Weeks. In their book Eccentrics (Villard, 1995), Weeks and co-author Jamie James are careful to distinguish between genuine eccentrics and mentally disturbed individuals (including neurotics, schizophrenics, and psychotics), whose behavior sometimes appears to be similar. Contrary to the popular notion that anyone as out of step with society as, say, Al “Disco” Joyner—who rides around Virginia Beach, Virginia, on a glittering rocking horse-cum-bicycle—must be a misanthropic wretch, Weeks and James argue that because eccentrics have liberated themselves from the stress-producing pressures of social conformity, they tend to be happier and healthier, and even live longer than the rest of us so-called normal people.
Weeks defines as eccentric anyone who is nonconforming, strongly motivated by curiosity, happily obsessed with various projects, opinionated and outspoken, unusual in his or her living or eating habits, and not particularly interested in the opinions or company of others. Of course, except for the “happily” part, this definition does fit what we know about Kaczynski, but it also fits what we know about William Blake, Alexander Graham Bell, Emily Dickinson (talk about reclusive!), Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein, whose contributions to the arts and sciences were made possible in no small part by their unusual way of looking at the world.
The free spirits profiled in another recent book, Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics, and Other American Heroes (Norton, 1995)—such as “Dugout” Dick Zimmerman, whose cavern home in Idaho makes Kaczynski’s much-remarked-upon “unheated shack” look like the Ritz, or New York’s Robert Shields, who has been keeping a minute-by-minute diary of his life for the past 60 years—provide clear proof that the eccentric life doesn’t necessarily breed alienated rage.
So if Kaczynski’s apparent lack of humor regarding his ideals disqualifies him from textbook eccentricity, what is he? One clue is in Pico Iyer’s essay InTime from a few years ago entitled “Of Weirdos and Eccentrics (Which Are a Danger to Society?),” in which he observes that eccentrics are strange because they care too little about society, while weirdos care too much. Eccentrics just want their freedom, but weirdos resent being outcasts and want the rest of the world to conform to their visions—or else! Sound familiar?
Iyer points out that confidence is a distinguishing characteristic of eccentrics, and a confident society can accommodate them best. (He seems to agree with John Stuart Mill’s dictum: “That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”) Weirdness, on the other hand, inspires fear in us because it is a symptom of fear, uncertainty, and rage.
It seems important, then, in this era of fear, uncertainty, and rage, that we try not to demonize those among us who exchange the culturally sanctioned drive toward wealth and power for a gentle cultivation of personal idiosyncracies, because they give us admirable examples of how to assert our basic human right to be whatever we want to be—no matter how odd. After all, if it weren’t for the angora-sweater-wearing filmmaker Ed Wood Jr., we wouldn’t have Plan 9 from Outer Space—and then where would we be?