By Pamela Sieger
Students who are perceived to be gifted may be brilliant in their craft, but we must consider what, if any, criteria are used in determining student’s abilities that led us toward identifying them as gifted. We must consider how these students and their talents were nurtured, cultivated and fostered, and if those abilities and gifted learners are not developed, how can they become emotionally and psychologically balanced to become confident, and successful; excelling in what initially brought them happiness as a child. This study analyzes Margot from the film: The Royal Tenenbaums and her transition from her gifted, younger self, with hopes and aspirations toward becoming a recognized playwright, propelled years later in the movie to a woman without purpose. This analysis will highlight the negative effect her disconnected upbringing and family surroundings had on her as she declined from childhood to her adult, numb-like state of being.
Gifted students can be hidden in the cracks of walls, in the delicate fabric of our worn chairs, as we sit waiting for our students to enter the classroom, or in my case, as they log into their computers, waiting to hear my voice and view my PowerPoint.
Gifted students can be hidden in the cracks of walls, in the delicate fabric of our worn chairs, as we sit waiting for our students to enter the classroom, or in my case, as they log into their computers, waiting to hear my voice and view my PowerPoint. However, in some cases, the term “gifted” is over-used, possibly misunderstood, without proper identifying factors and evaluators, coining this word haphazardly and without true identification. Was Margot truly gifted? Was she “a person who has an IQ of 130 or higher”? Did her school identify her using “multiple criteria indicating gifted ability,” using a matrix created by the school district to determine her abilities? (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2014) Margot and her siblings were all deemed gifted, as stated and fostered by their mother, who also displayed traits of having exceptional qualities. Margot may have been a brilliant playwright, but we must consider what, if any criteria were used in determining her abilities, how were they nurtured, cultivated and fostered, and if not, how could Margot have become more emotionally and psychologically balanced to become a confident, successful woman, excelling in what initially brought her happiness as a child?
Margot, even as a young child, was fascinated with plays: watching them, studying them, as well as performing in school plays to further immerse herself into this world of originality and make-believe. Though she dedicated an intense amount of time developing her craft, perhaps her gift, as we watch and study her actions, character traits and disposition, nothing above the ordinary makes the observer feel that she is truly exceptional; that is, until the narrator discloses that she began writing her own plays instead of following the school’s scripted version to be performed by herself and her peers. We do not know much of her academics, but that does not give us the permission to solely dismiss her potential to be gifted. Margot’s apparent gift was innovative in nature, writing to express while generating excitement on a stage. Her level of excellence was more concentrated and specialized in one area: “Specialist excellence refers to statements by teachers acknowledging a child’s strength in a particular area” (Libby Lee, 1999, p. 186). To fully grasp the premise that Margot had extraordinary abilities in writing and creativity, we must understand that “excellence may refer to one or more areas of high ability and does not require that a person be an All-rounder to be regarded as gifted” (Libby Lee, 1999, p. 187).
Along with an innate ability, rather intense, emotional need to be in performance mode, Margot suffered from emotional withdrawals, witnessed as a young child.
The underlying question is differentiating between “gifted” and “very bright,” determining whether Margot possessed the identifying characteristics of being gifted, rather than being bright or creative in nature, especially in relation to her writing abilities (Libby Lee, 1999, p. 188). In this context, the narrator did not elaborate on the determining factors leading to giving every child in the Tenenbaum household a gifted label. As the observer, we are left with questions resulting from how these children were identified, what factors were given in this evaluation and how were their gifts cultivated in school? What we can establish that is above the norm for a 15-year-old child is that Margot wrote, directed and participated in her own original plays when she was in 9th grade, earning the prestigious Braverman grant for $50,000. There are many creative writers in this world that can draw us into their vision, extracting emotions from us that we did not know existed, encapsulating us into each scene; however, to be recognized as having the ability to do so as a child is truly remarkable and worth exploring.
Writing that is recognized and rewarded on a higher level would suggest that Margot painstakingly thought out every word, scene, and context into her plays, leading toward perfectionism. Her writing was expressive yet had the characteristics of maintaining perfectionism so that others could see and share in her ability as she and her selected group of peers performed on stage (Rice, Leever, Christopher, Porter, 2006, p. 524). Perfectionism is an identifying factor for gifted students because in their strive to perform well, they hold themselves to a higher caliber and expectations than those around them: “Perfectionism in its maladaptive forms has been linked to a wide range of psychological and physical problems,” resulting from the need to always be at their best, to prove to others, but also to prove to themselves that they are capable (Rice, Leever, Christopher, Porter, 2006, p. 524).
Margot’s father displayed all the negative characteristics and dispositions that negate and suffocate the fabric of a healthy childhood environment.
Along with an innate ability, rather intense, emotional need to be in performance mode, Margot suffered from emotional withdrawals, witnessed as a young child. Researcher Christine Fonseca quoted Hébert in her work, Emotional Intensity, stating, “Emotional intensity refers to a gifted child’s deep, often overwhelming, emotional sensitivity to themselves and the world around them” (2016, p. 17). While observing Margot’s demeanor, the observer cannot help but see her become less social, more withdrawn, less focused and underachieve after the night of her award. In determining the significance of the pivotal moment in her life, we must dive into her family dynamics as we explore the breakdown of a young, innovative mind.
Margot’s father displayed all the negative characteristics and dispositions that negate and suffocate the fabric of a healthy childhood environment. Margot simply did not have the support, encouragement, acknowledgement or even love and acceptance of her adoptive father. Not once during her upbringing did he recognize her as an integral family member, albeit, even as a basic family member, as he refused to identify her as his daughter. With this demeaning, disparagingly illusory excuse for a father, Margot removed herself from her own world, becoming a shell of who she could have been: “Exploring the full potential of the gifted child is a long and difficult process and usually requires the encouragement and understanding of (their) parents and teachers” and in Margot’s case, her father robbed her of this emotional connection and need (Agrawal and Purohit, 2014, p. 1525).
Margot was failed by those who should have been most supportive to her in helping her self-identify.
Margot’s mother supported her ventures; however, she was often not present during the most significant transitions of her life. In opposition to her estranged husband who attended Margot’s events, yet would find fault and negative comments to share when discoursing with her, Margot’s mother appeared as an apparition in her life, adding to Margot’s negative perception of relationships as a young child, resulting in feeling numb and disconnected from her adoptive family: “There is some evidence that high-achieving or gifted students at risk for depression, hopelessness, and suicide may be especially interpersonally sensitive and introverted, tend to feel isolated and have few friends, and may be especially self-disparaging” (Rice, Leever, Christopher, Porter, 2006, p. 525). Her parents contributed in rushing Margot and her siblings into becoming young adults, pushing them and forcing them into growing up too fast, adding to the negative disposition of the home life: “Hurrying children into adulthood violates the sanctity of life by giving one period priority over another,” adding that if “we really value human life, we will value each period equally and give into teach stage of life what is appropriate to that stage” (White, 2002, p. 9).
This transitional need in Margot’s life simply did not occur, was not present for her or her siblings, and added to her not only underachieving, but removing herself from her initial desire to write and express, as well as create and share. Margot’s feeling of betrayal from her family led to disastrous behavior and feeling like a failure, stemming from a father who was destructive, alcoholic, lied, cheated the system and his family, and refused to recognize her as an integral family member. It is no surprise that Margot began to contribute to her own feeling of being worthless and insignificant. At age twelve she began to smoke and hid the fact that she smoked from her entire family and second husband, who ironically was a psychologist almost twice her age. When she was 14, she ran away for an extended time, returning to receive her prestigious award, negated by her father, resulting in further diving herself into a deep abyss of darkness, resentment and depression. Looking at Margot’s demeanor, her family and teachers should have been able to recognize her risk for suicide or suicidal thoughts, such as relating to her “unusual sensitivity and perfectionism, isolationism related to extreme introversion, and over-excitabilities” (Cross, 2013, p. 36). Margot’s “social isolation” led her to marry at 19 for one day, going through many lovers, as she learned to disrespect herself and destroy the people who truly tried to love her, and as she remained incapable of showing emotion as she grew older each year (Cross, 2013, p. 37).
Having a positive, accepting support system would have helped Margot grow in her confidence, exploring opportunities to grow her talents, and using those talents to begin to heal from the trauma of being dismissed at home.
Margot’s first ability to show any real emotion since her father dismissed her award when she was in 9th grade, when her brother tried to commit suicide because of his obsession for his sister, though not blood related. Just as in studying the implications of having an unhealthy childhood for Claire Trainor, a gifted woman who chronicled her journey toward mental wellness, there are noted similarities between Claire and Margot. Both women lost motivation, “felt withdrawn and out of place,” had “sensitivity and low self-esteem,” and “felt awkward” socially (Solomon, Trainor, 2016, p. 83). This is especially challenging for gifted children and adults because without having a supportive family or peer structure, as they are unable to self-actualize, and go through life feeling lost and disconnected: “Physiological needs, and a need for safety, love, and self-esteem, must be met in a hierarchical order if an individual is to reach self-actualization,” and neither woman felt the ability to progress through life productively because they did not recognize their true capabilities, which contributed to them not aspiring to their full, gifted potential, recognized when they were young children (Hébert, 2011, p. 97).
Margot’s mental health and psychological well-being were destroyed when she was a child, unable to look to her parents or a close friend to help her understand who she was and how important her needs to be loved and appreciated were to her. Margot regressed to underachieve in every aspect of her life, settling at being a shell, navigating herself through life with numb-like qualities: “Underachievement in gifted students is fundamentally identified as an incongruity between a student’s potential to achieve and the student’s actual performance” (Bennett-Rappell, Northcote, 2016, p. 409). Margot was failed by those who should have been most supportive to her in helping her self-identify. Proper interventions should have been implemented to help her dig herself out of the suffocating world of existing in life just to get by, rather than living life to inhale the potential her gifts had to offer to herself and others.
What matters is that children should know that the people in their lives care about them, their needs, their accomplishments, as well as their failures.
There is “no single intervention strategy for reversing underachievement in gifted students that has met with significant documented success, perhaps due to the diversity within the population of underachieving gifted students,” yet that does not dismiss the responsibility that her parents and teachers had to help Margot realize that she did matter, that she was important (Bennett-Rappell, Northcote, 2016, p. 409). Margot regressed and underachieved because those most important to her were not supportive, were too caught up in their own lives to see her shrivel in front of their eyes, as she attempted escape at every moment she could. Having a positive, accepting support system would have helped Margot grow in her confidence, exploring opportunities to grow her talents, and using those talents to begin to heal from the trauma of being dismissed at home. Teachers and adults could help gifted children “explore their own conception of the life they have lived by sharing their triumphs and tragedies, to develop action plans that explore personal challenges, to profile someone meaningful in their lives, or to conduct actions to solve a problem” (Hébert, 2011, p. 178).
With Margot’s gifts and talents revolving around her depth and raw ability to write and express herself through her plays, giving her the task to explore herself through writing would have been highly therapeutic and well received by Margot herself. This simply did not happen, resulting in Margot feeling dejected from those who should have been her biggest supporters. Giving Margot the task of problem solving her own issues at home with her family, she could have identified the problem, her feeling of isolation and not belonging, by writing about it and designing her own “course of action…to address the issue” through writing and play acting (Hébert, 2011, p. 178). This could have been the catalyst propelling her toward healing and accepting who she was and where she came from.
Though it is important to properly identify a child who is deemed gifted, putting the right support systems in place to cultivate a child are critical because all children deserve to feel empowered for who they are.
However, having her parents become actively involved in her ability to heal and find acceptance from within could only heighten Margot’s success. Her mother was too self-absorbed in being highly successful and intelligent herself, married to an emotionally abusive man, who displayed no affection toward Margot until his final days where he admitted she was his daughter at an ice-cream parlor, leaving “too little, too late,” now that Margot has already begun to learn to believe in her playwright abilities, though still not to her fullest potential. Her parents and teachers also should have worked to help her create and maintain friendships, because “friendships influence all of us on many levels and have significant value in shaping a life well lived” (Hébert, 2011, p. 182). If teachers would have taken the opportunity to observe Margot self-destructing in school, running away, not performing to her original abilities, they too could have intervened in helping to foster Margot’s emotional and psychological well-being. However, this did not happen for Margot, rendering her unable to trust and giving up on being motivated to live her life.
If I had the opportunity to work with Margot, I would have tracked her growth through her gift, her ability to bring her vision to life through writing. Whether Margot was truly gifted or not actually does not matter in the context in studying her character. What matters is that children should know that the people in their lives care about them, their needs, their accomplishments, as well as their failures. Having a dependable support system, one that Margot could have counted on, looking forward to matriculating and growing with, would have been what I offered her. I would have worked with her parents, as well as other teachers and guidance counselors, addressing Margot’s need to feel loved, accepted and not isolated and rejected or dismissed. Though it is important to properly identify a child who is deemed gifted, putting the right support systems in place to cultivate a child are critical because all children deserve to feel empowered for who they are. However, once recognizing the needs of our students, we have the responsibility to address them, work with the students in helping them to problem-solve and self-heal, as well as tracking their progress and maintaining consistency for the gifted child, such as Margot. Finally, realizing that children are more than a grade, or an IQ and that their emotional and psychological health is just as important to helping them reach their potential, it becomes even more profound that teachers, that I, affect positive change and helping students like Margot recognize their worth and showing them that their lives do matter.
Agrawal, Bharti, & Purohit, Surabhi. (2014). Difference between emotional aspects of gifted girls and boys. Indian Association of Health, Research and Welfare. 5(12), 1525-1526.
Cross, T. L., & Cross, J. R. (2018). Suicide among gifted children and adolescents: Understanding the suicidal mind. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Fonseca, Christine. (2016). Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Hébert, T. P. (2011). Understanding the social and emotional lives of gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Lee, Libby. (1999). Teachers’ Conceptions of Gifted and Talented Young Children. European Council for Ability. DOI: 1359-8139/99/020183-14.
Pennsylvania Department of Education: Gifted Education-Frequently Asked Questions. (August 2014). Retrieved from URL.
Rice, Kenneth, G., Leever, Brooke, A., Christopher, John., & Porter, Diane. Perfectionism, Stress and Social (Dis)Connection: A Short-Term Study of Hopelessness, Depression, and Academic Adjustment Among Honors Students. (2006). University of Florida. DOI: 10.1037/0022 018.104.22.1684.
White, Scott. (2002). Are the Best Minds of a Generation Being Destroyed by Madness? The Journal of College Admission. 176(1), 5-11.
Pamela Sieger is a graduate student in the Master of Education in Gifted Education program