Truman Capote on Being ‘Subnormal’ (1957)

“Naturally, in the milieu aforesaid, I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented. Still, I despised school – or schools, for I was always changing from one to another – and year after year failed the simplest subjects out of loathing and boredom. I played hooky at least twice a week and was always running away from home. Once I ran away with a friend who lived across the street – a girl much older than myself who in later life achieved a certain fame because she murdered a half-dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Someone wrote a book about her. They called her the Lonely Hearts Killer. But there, I’m wandering again. Well, finally, I guess I was around 12, the principal at the school I was attending paid a call on my family, and told them that in his opinion, and in the opinion of the faculty, I was “subnormal”. He thought it would be sensible, the humane action, to send me to some special school equipped to handle backward brats. Whatever they may have privately felt, my family as a whole took official umbrage, and in an effort to prove I wasn’t subnormal, pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the east where I had my I.Q. inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and – guess what? – came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don’t know who was the more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn’t want to believe it – they’d just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy. Ha ha! But as for me, I was exceedingly pleased – went around staring at myself in mirrors and sucking in my cheeks and thinking over in my mind, my lad, you and Flaubert – or Maupassant or Mansfield or Proust or Chekhov or Wolfe, whoever was the idol of the moment. I began writing in fearful earnest – my mind zoomed all night every night, and I don’t think I really slept for several years. Not until I discovered that whisky could relax me. I was too young, 15, to buy it myself, but I had a few older friends who were most obliging in this respect and I soon accumulated a suitcase full of bottles, everything from blackberry brandy to bourbon. I kept the suitcase hidden in a closet. Most of my drinking was done in the late afternoon; then I’d chew a handful of Sen Sen and go down to dinner, where my behavior, my glazed silences, gradually grew into a source of general consternation. One of my relatives used to say, “Really, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was dead drunk.” Well, of course, this little comedy, if such it was, ended in discovery and some disaster, and it was many a moon before I touched another drop. But I seem to be off the track again. You asked about encouragement. The first person who ever really helped me was, strangely, a teacher. An English teacher I had in high school, Catherine Wood, who backed my ambitions in every way, and to whom I shall always be grateful. Later on, from the time I first began to publish, I had all the encouragement anyone could ever want, notably from Margarita Smith, fiction editor of Mademoiselle, Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar, and Robert Linscott of Random House. You would have to be a glutton indeed to ask for more good luck and fortune than I had at the beginning of my career.”