This is the story:

The child, Nadia, is the second of three children born in Nottingham to Ukrainian immigrant parents. The father is an electrical engineer, the mother a laboratory technician with a Polish Master’s degree in chemistry. Both go out to work. There is also a Ukrainian granny on the premises—“much absorbed in her traditional culture,” as is usually the case with transplanted grannies.

Granny hardly ever speaks. Father is perfectly bilingual. So are his eldest and youngest children. Mother doesn’t feel at home in English, so Ukrainian is the rule at the dinner table. Nadia, born in 1967, picks up a dozen-odd words in her first year and then “loses” them and relapses into silence.

Something is wrong with her. She is large, dumpy, and tends to flop about—incapable of going on a swing or skipping rope. She is perfectly impassive—except when she explodes in a terrible tantrum and smashes things and tries to kick the door to pieces. She looks at the world out of the “corners of her eyes” and ignores any persons except the few for whom she develops an “obssession.” When she wants something, she gestures, or leads someone by the hand to where the thing is. But she must not cross a road; she has no sense of danger.

At the same time, her life is governed by an intense feeling for arrangement. When her clothes are put on (she can’t, or won’t, put them on herself, except at a snail’s pace), everything must be exactly right. She loves new clothes, but only if they are “just so.” Her dolls and teddy bears sit in a fixed order on her bed; great distress arises if one of them is misplaced. She likes tearing paper into thin strips; when she uses scissors, she can get each strip about one tenth of an inch wide with remarkable accuracy.

When she is three-and-a-half her mother has to spend a few months in the hospital. Nadia is “confined to her bedroom for long periods” by her overworked granny and is “overjoyed” to get her mother back. Abruptly, she begins to draw—all over the walls. Her mother is delighted and supplies paper instead. Nadia takes to any sort of paper, even when it is lined or covered with print; she makes do with empty cartons when the paper runs out.

She draws quickly, surely, and with intense concentration, her eyes very close to the paper. She is left-handed. She will have nothing to do with color; she will use nothing but a ball point pen. After one minute or so of rapid drawing, she sits back “to survey the effect,” and after doing so intently “she often smiled, babbled, and shook her hands and knees in glee.”

She chooses most of her models out of books, in particular a rotogravure series published for children with stock pictures of a mare and foal, the mounted guardsman at Buckingham Palace, a rooster in mid-crow, and such like. Her football players and deep-sea divers come, perhaps, from illustrated magazines.

She never copies these subjects, only stares at them with her usual intensity for a long time. A day, or two days, later, she starts producing her versions of what she remembers. The characteristics of the originals are strictly preserved—the guardsman’s plumes, the diver’s helmet, the position of the footballer’s leg when he kicks the ball. But the actual drawing belongs to another world.

It accords as a rule with Gombrich’s theory in Art and Illusion that “the artist cannot start from scratch.” The artist’s innovations are corrections and criticisms of his predecessors’ works. In Wölfflin’s words: “All paintings owe more to other paintings than they owe to direct observation.” Nearly all Nadia’s drawings are vigorous corrections of the originals—living pictures made out of dead ones. They are unconfined, because she cannot see the edges of the paper as a “frame”; if the paper ends before the horse is finished—well, the horse ends too. But if a line that is shaping, say, a horse’s knee suggests additional uses to which it could be put, these uses are seized on at once, so that horses’ heads grow happily out of horses’ legs, and a rooster crows out of a football boot. Many of the drawings, in fact, must be turned this way and that to catch the full roster of up-ended roosters and divergent legs. What’s more, nothing that is once seen (in the original) can be forgotten, e.g., a curious little animal like a hare or a fox that has been thrown across a huntsman’s saddle is repeated invariably, even in somewhat scatty sketches. The same goes for a square of paper or cloth (a flag? a satchel? a proclamation?) that the horses spurn with their front hooves. It is always there.


The work may be done in a few lines; more often than not it is done in hundreds, all wiry and spidery. Many of the figures manage to emerge with remarkable clarity from underneath a whole web of tiny lines. One of the masterpieces (No. 85) shows three diver-footballers (they have been blended into one type) going into action in a whole swirl of lines—with one unattached leg thrown in for good measure. The high-spirited vivacity of these figures, their whirling momentum, would be remarkable in the best of draftsmen, yet what is more remarkable is that the feeling of bulk and weight—the powerful horses, the tough helmets, the leaded boots, the thick suits—is never lost in the fine lines. Nor does the artist have the smallest difficulty with the positions of her figures; they face left or right, forward or backward, with the same grace. No. 32, which shows a huge horse trotting almost directly forward out of the page, would ask considerable training in a school of art, but Nadia tackles it at the age of five.

She can never have seen Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, or Giacomo Balla’s delicious terrier with multiple legs and multiple fluffy tails being walked on multiple leads by a mistress in a skirt with multiple flounces. But she is on the very verge of discovering this truth about what we “really” see in No. 81, with her lady riding side-saddle with multiple reins and a flounced skirt twirling in all manner of circles. No. 100, too, which belongs to the period when she got absorbed in the question of how people sit, cross their legs, and waggle their feet, is a fine example of making four sandals speak for one, as it jogs up and down. Pinheads are good enough for the owners of the legs, not because Nadia has studied modern sculpture but because, presumably, it is not the heads that interest her.

There is only one drawing (No. 52) that gives us the melancholy and distressed feeling that we get from Munch and most psychotic draftsmen. It is of a cat’s face. It is the more disturbing because the cat—probably one of those woolly, stuffed ones in reality—is wearing a bow tie.

At four-and-a-half, this little prodigy is sent to a school for “severely subnormal” children. Though her vocabulary doesn’t grow beyond ten words and her total passivity is interrupted only by regular tantrums (“she would scream and shout uncontrollably for two or three hours at a time”), she is described as “content and generally integrated.” Nonetheless, psychiatric treatment is seen to be necessary, and Nadia starts a perambulation of clinics, including the Mecca of child medicine, The Hospital for Sick Children on Great Ormond Street in London.

It is much to the credit of the many psychiatrists and teachers concerned that one and all saw that they were dealing with a prodigious artist. Perhaps the main reason why they were so clued in is the important part played by drawing in child psychology. Nadia finished up in the hands of Lorna Selfe, to whom we owe this remarkable book, and it is Dr. Selfe who tells us that her department at Nottingham University thought they knew everything there was to know on the subject of child art until Nadia came along.

A competition in the London Observer, “Pictures of Mummy,” had produced no fewer than 24,000 entries by Britain’s brats, and every last one had been donated by the newspaper to Nottingham University. Studied, classified, and rated according to age, the 24,000 showed exactly how and when children begin to draw, how they progress year by year, at what age they grasp technicalities such as composition and perspective. There is overlapping, of course, with three years showing the ability of five, and vice versa, but by and large there is the delightful propriety and niceness of classified order so well beloved by the statistical scientist.

What to say, then, about Nadia, an autistic mute who contradicted 24,000 cases, shot holes in all the textbooks and ability tests, and was half-witted in addition? Dr. Selfe, who is always honest, writes:

I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to study Nadia not just because she was so rare and her ability unique but because she has been important in my personal professional development…. I had to take a new look at many of the concepts used by psychologists. I had to apply concepts which I had taken for granted to a real human being. I found great difficulty in defining such concepts as perception, conception, memory and mental image to aid my understanding of this child.

There are disturbing things about this paragraph, particularly the discovery that real human beings have a part to play in psychology. There is a degree of innocence, too, in the realization that words such as perception, conception, and memory take a lot of figuring out: a history of philosophy from the earliest times to the present day would have shown the doctor that she was not the first to be puzzled. The doctor’s definition of the nature of art shows that in this medium, too, her development is retarded:


Throughout [this book] there is an implied value judgement that one of the important aims of drawing is to be able to reproduce the appearance of the real world. The more faithfully the visual world is represented, the more realistic the drawing, the better it is.

Either this definition is wrong, or horses do grow out of stirrups. But there is no need for us to decide. Dr. Selfe’s definitions, in art as in philosophy, are of no account. If she saw that Nadia was a prodigy, the fact that she saw it for the wrong reason is nothing to complain about. The interesting and important parts of her text have to do with the hundreds of books she consulted in her attempt to “explain” Nadia—and the numerous conflicting opinions she had to weigh up. Many readers will be surprised to discover how many pundits have explored the matter of child art and how thoroughly they have managed to disagree.

But one thing is common to all the opinions. A case like Nadia’s has never happened, and never can happen. The nearest Dr. Selfe could find to one was that of the eighteenth-century Swiss cretin, Gottfried Mind, who specialized in painting cats and made a European reputation. But Mind was a grown man. He had time to practice. His work was not done between three-and-a-half and six-and-a-half, like Nadia’s.

All child prodigies, Dr. Selfe found, had a genius that was based on calculation and memory. They could perform feats of mathematics. They could play masterly games of chess. They could be remarkable musicians. But not one of them could draw. Nadia was the first in recorded history that could. How was this to be explained?

In looking for an explanation, Dr. Selfe set out to be eclectic. She was ready to consider any psychological theory that came to her notice, and to consider it seriously; the only suggestion that has drawn an amused exclamation mark from her is from Brill, Freud’s bearded Viceroy of the United States in days gone by. Brill suggested the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the acceptance of which would mean the replacing of Darwin by Lamarck and would cause any respectable scientist to be sent to the block and have his chair chopped off.

Dr. Selfe’s amusement is her way of saying that to be eclectic is not the same thing as to lose one’s reason. It is also an unintended reminder to the reader that when a science is a soft one, those who practice it don’t like to accept anything that doesn’t look hard. Dr. Selfe’s bent, therefore, is to the apparently scientific side—which is excusable enough, even though most of the scientists in the book are busy rejecting the science of the other scientists and insisting upon a science of their own.

As the field is such a big one, and full of such a huge, international press-gang scurrying round the figure of one demented child, one might mention the few omissions and absentees. Professor Skinner’s brand of Behaviorism is not mentioned, so one can only look forward with tremulous excitement to a review of Nadia by that acidulous abominator of “mentalist” theories. Adler’s Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (Vienna: 1907) would seem to be a must in such a book; but both the work and the author are overlooked. Jung’s version of compensation is also disregarded.

But the strangest omission is the so-called “family constellation.” We are told hardly anything of Nadia’s home life—where the father comes into it, what parts are played by the elder brother and younger sister, what circumstances might be responsible, even in part, for a child’s losing what little vocabulary it had and breaking silence only in order to scream. What little we are told about the family is intriguing and sets our imaginations to work—which is not a scientific way of behaving for those of us who are not Einstein. What is this exclusion we hear about—the long hours shut up alone in a bedroom? Is there lingual exclusion too—a healthy, bilingual family chattering away fluently around a child that can’t compete? A jealousy of the younger sister is hinted at—in respect to whom or what? A closeness to the mother (who died of cancer of the breast when Nadia was eight) is mentioned more than once—should nothing be made of the striking fact that the drawing began only when the child was “overjoyed” by the mother’s return from the hospital and that the mother was “delighted” by this development? Everything would seem to turn on this decisive episode—the more so because praise and admiration seem to get through the barriers of autism in a way that is denied to reason and affection.

Finally, little is said about the relationship between the artist and her subjects. Autistic children often like to rock themselves back and forth for hours on end, and it is surely not a coincidence that this child’s earliest drawings were of a fairground and rocking horses, though she herself was more sitter than rocker. Development, in her case, lies in a progress that turns such wooden beasts into prancing, racing animals; and on their backs are riders with trumpets and hunting horns pressed to their lips. The numerous roosters are all straining to crow, and there are many little sketches which show only the head and the intensely open beak (a tongue which is not present in the original, Dr. Selfe notes, has been inserted into some of them). If these elements, taken together, suggest an infatuation with sound and virile activity in the mind of a mute and stolid artist, do they not indicate a recognition by the artist of her handicaps and her struggle against them?

The question matters not only because it is ignored by Dr. Selfe but because the explanation she favors both of Nadia’s illness and of her genius is a purely psychological one. Putting aside the depth psychologists, she turns to the physiological investigators—those who deal in brains, not minds, in response and reflex actions, not characters, and for whom the psyche is nonexistent. They are psychology’s hard scientists, or would hope to be seen as such; and because most of us are more accustomed to the analytical and ideational breed, Dr. Selfe’s march through the brain structure and nervous system gives us some useful lessons.

The physiological report on Nadia notes among other things: an abnormal EEG, a flattened occiput, a brachycephalic skull (Dr. Selfe says this is “unusual in the normal population”; but some of our best friends are square-heads), left-handedness, speech “deficit,” dull unresponsiveness, urine with abnormal secretions. Added together, these point to “profound damage…in the region of [the] language centers,” possibly from the time of birth. Left-handedness alone, apparently, indicates brain damage, but is significant only in partnership with the other abnormalities.

Brain damage could account for everything that is wrong with Nadia. But Dr. Selfe would like to believe that it also accounts for the one thing that is right—the prodigious talent for drawing. She says in her honest way that she has “no real hard facts” to support this idea with, but she suspects that “compensatory development of the intact areas of the brain” may have brought the phenomenon into being. She gives many details from the textbooks of the brain’s flexibility in such matters, but basically the principle is simply the one that applies when a person loses a leg; the surviving partner grows bigger and better. The brain is capable of “massive compensation” in its rescue work; perhaps, like other compensatory units, it has an accelerator but no brakes. In Nadia’s case, instead of stopping when it got to talent, it went on until it got to genius.

This is interesting to read about. Psychological compensation having been shown the door, the red carpet is unrolled to let physiological compensation march in. Why the helpful “intact areas” chose a genius for drawing for the first time in recorded history is not even discussed; even when we remind ourselves that Nadia may not have been the first in fact—that there may have been other Nadias whose funny drawings simply went into the ashcan—we could expect a few predecessors to have got into the record book, just as Mind, the cretin did.

That drawing could have been the form taken by compensation would be because of the importance of giving a mute an alternative form of self-expression. But surely it would be romantic to suppose that a damaged brain gets het up about a lack of conversation? The most effective thing it can do is make Nadia a mute; after that it is up to her to handle the problem of self-expression as best she can. She, herself, one would think, finds that drawing fills the bill.

But Dr. Selfe is out to show that the art is part and parcel of the injury. That would make it the physiological equivalent of the art that must come out of a neurosis in the postulates of many depth psychologists. But it is hard to put over this “attractive hypothesis,” as Dr. Selfe calls it. No doubt she finds it attractive partly because a brain is hard and a mind is soft, and partly because art and injury tend to go hand in hand in the psychological view.

Dr. Selfe’s honesty is best shown in the fact that she quotes the psychologist who is most damaging to the explanation she likes best. This is Karl Bühler, who, writing in 1930, gave a most unromantic, even bitter account of why children are not more successful in the graphic arts:

By the time the child can draw more than a scribble, by age three or four years, an already well-formed body of conceptual knowledge formulated in language dominates his memory and controls his graphic work…. Drawings are graphic accounts of essentially verbal processes. As an essentially verbal education gains control, the child abandons his graphic efforts and relies almost entirely on words. Language has first spoilt drawing and then swallowed it up completely.

This is not true invariably, of course. Nearly all artists are men who have survived a “verbal education,” and nearly all normal children who have no trouble with language draw much better (as Dr. Selfe remarks) than subnormal children with or without speech deficits. But this does not alter the fact that in the case in hand, Nadia, Bühler is shown to be entirely right. And he is proved to be right by none other than Dr. Selfe and the other psychiatrists and teachers who went to work on Nadia to find (as the jargon has it) “ways in which her potentialities in other directions can be maximized.”

Speech training was of first importance in the maximizing process. It was a slow business, but success of sorts came at last. Nadia started talking—and stopped drawing. As the old joke puts it: the operation was a success but the patient died.

We are not told how her poor brain responded to the operations on her mind. Did it know how to go into reverse? Did it go on pumping in compensation in the graphic arts, while the psychiatrists, like seven maids with seven mops, swept the graphics away and pumped in linguistics? But we don’t care much, anyway, because the whole theory of genius arising out of brain damage looks pretty silly once it has been knocked on the head by the psychiatrists themselves.

We are left with a genius who has had her genius removed, leaving nothing behind but a general defectiveness. What are we supposed to think about such a curious cure? The question doesn’t even occur to Dr. Selfe, but the director of the University of Nottingham clinic, Elizabeth Newson, takes it up in a postscript to the book. She asks:

Is this a tragedy? For us, who love to be astonished, maybe. For Nadia, perhaps it is enough to have been a marvelous child. If the partial loss of her gift is the price that must be paid for language—even just enough language to bring her into some kind of community of discourse with her small protected world—we must, I think, be prepared to pay that price on Nadia’s behalf.

It would be wrong of us to hang our heads and answer: “Yes, doctor.” Every line of Dr. Newson’s cozy summary is thoughtless and bad. How can any psychologist believe that when you are fat, fifty, and feeble-minded, it will buck you up to think that you were a world-beater at the age of five? “Some kind of community of discourse with her small protected world”—what do these soapy euphemisms mean but a life confined to a mental home? As for us who “love to be astonished,” it is surely our business to take a more intelligent view of what genius has to give us, and to see tragedy in its careless destruction.

The genius in Nadia’s case remains, as Dr. Selfe admits, “an enigma.” There is nothing surprising about that; genius has always been an enigma. But there is nothing enigmatic about the ways in which genius can be destroyed, or brought down to the level of common talent. Serious illnesses and starvation, for example, can be as destructive as anyone could want; and good, well-meaning people, such as the city fathers of Leipzig, are doing their little best when they tell their organist, Bach, that he must stop making such peculiar noises and play properly.

In the case of a severely subnormal prodigy such as Nadia, a case could be made for destroying the only gift she has. It could be argued that such a prodigious ability would never develop and would fade away to nothing as the years passed. Much could be made of the fact that autistic children have a terrible effect on home life; with their tendency to screech uncontrollably and smash the happy home to pieces, they can put an unbearable strain on those who must care for them—particularly as a capacity for love is usually absent in them and is replaced by obsessive attachments to certain people in which no affection is present.

But neither Dr. Selfe nor Dr. Newson seems to have felt that there was any need to think deeply about a right course of action in Nadia’s case. They were thrilled by such a phenomenon falling right into their hands; the Star of Bethlehem could not have excited them more. But it never occurred to them to do anything with Nadia but make her as orthodoxly subnormal as possible—at least Dr. Selfe never suggests that they considered an alternative. Certainly they never put their heads together and came to the conclusion that the phenomenon must remain phenomenal at all costs—that the unique element must be protected first and foremost, and that no treatment must be given that might cause it to fade or disappear.

What could be the reason for such insensitiveness? A simple failure to think was obviously present, and with it went, judging from Dr. Selfe’s pages, such excitement about the furor that was going to happen in the world of textbooks that the “real human being” was mislaid, or overlooked. But a larger, more powerful influence was probably at work too—the sort of influence that is hardly noticed as such because it has made itself a habitual, ingrained state of mind.

This influence is the necessity for social communion. If there is one phrase that can be said to dominate the lives of all good people, it is Forster’s famous injunction: “Only connect.” To establish relations with neighbors and friends, to put ourselves in the place of others under the orders of “empathy,” to understand others to the best of our ability—this ideal comes second to none. And language must be considered the first necessity in the approach to this ideal; it is the main road to holy communion.

The graphic arts have no place on this road. They are admired for what they are, although it would not be denied that what they contribute to life should be seen as a communion of sorts. But, as Bühler indicates, they have no hope of competing with language in the major scheme of things. We are all like bad artists; we see with our tongues. Our art is interesting to the psychiatrist as a means of telling him things that have nothing to do with art—what stage of mental ability we have reached, whether our eye-and-finger coordination is up to scratch. But his chosen duty is to see that we can connect in the most rudimentary manner, like plugs poked into acceptable sockets. “Community of discourse with her small protected world” is the best Dr. Newson can imagine for Nadia: it does not occur to the doctor that Nadia, even at the age of five, could establish a community of discourse with thousands of human beings throughout the civilized world.

We are not living in the days when a boy who could sing like a bird was castrated at the proper age, to preserve his most admirable characteristic. But is that extreme more dreadful than its opposite—the destroying of a priceless talent in order to create an average state of subnormality? By what authority may such a thing be done? Or are words such as compassion, empathy, communion nothing but excuses for not bothering to think?

Now, at ten, Nadia has learned “to greet people appropriately.” She has acquired the “use of the pronoun ‘me.’ ” She can “manage simple addition and subtraction.” She has even “begun working with money.” On request, she will draw a portrait of a teacher or doctor—and draw it fairly well. But an element of caricature is present now; Dr. Newson describes it as “Thurberesque.” Certainly, the portrait captioned “THIS IS MISS STAFFORD” shows a command of comic line that would please the old master; and if the predominant note is one of sarcasm, the good doctor has no right to feel surprised.

This Issue

May 4, 1978