It’s not news that parents of prodigiously talented children can be ruthlessly ambitious and even abusive to them.
Bobby Fischer’s mother, who wrote newspaper ads to find competent chess partners for him when he was as young as eight years-old-old, abandoned him at age seventeen. Beethoven’s father, in pushing his son to be a Mozart-styled child pianist, abused and neglected both Beethoven and his brothers. (Indeed, by the time Beethoven was nineteen, he filed and won a legal order against his father, making him the de facto head of the household.)
The long-forgotten, but once famous math prodigy, Zerah Colburn wowed the American public with his feats. Cashing in on his fame, his father brought him to Europe. But when the father died, penniless Colburn was left to fend for himself, returning twelve years later, at age nineteen, to a mother who did not recognize him.
But surely one of the most heart-rending stories of a child’s prodigious talent and a parent’s narcissistic interest in it is that of Barbara Follett’s.
As early as age eight, Barbara Follett believed in herself as a writer and when her father, the critic and editor, Wilson Follett, bought her a typewriter, she closeted herself in her bedroom and began work on her first novel.
It was to be a tale, written, revised and re-written, of a girl who ventures into the woods and vanishes into nature. Friends, when needed, could always be imagined. “I pretend,” she once explained, “that Beethoven, the two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me.”
Her father, Wilson Follett, having already written about his three-year-old daughter in Harper’s, contacted Knopf. Barbara’s novel, The House Without Windows, came out to overwhelming praise in 1927. Barbara was twelve.
The Voyage of the Norman D followed. The Times Literary Supplementlauded it. The Saturday Review featured it alongside Dorothy Parker. She was no longer just a childish anomaly; she was an author.
But just a week before the book came out, Wilson Follett announced to Barbara and his wife that he, having just turned forty, was leaving them for a younger woman. And he did, leaving them in dire financial straits on the eve of the Depression. At sixteen, Barbara was taking subway into New York to work as a secretary.
Without the support of her father, Barbara, remarkably, continued to write, creating two other manuscripts. But eventually her writing stopped. She married and for a while they were happy, hiking and backpacking between her secretarial jobs. Barbara briefly traveled to Mills College where she studied dance. But on returning to her home in Boston, she discovered that her husband had been seeing someone else. They soldiered on, but within a few months they quarreled, Barbara left. And was never seen again.
For reasons never to be known, her husband waited two weeks to go to the police and four months before requesting a missing persons bulletin.
Betrayed first by her father and then by her husband, Barbara Follett was never found, her prodigious talent unrealized. All that remains of her work today is in six archival boxes in the Columbia University library.
And both the irony and tragedy of the loss of Barbara Follett is encaptured in an anonymous essay Wilson Follett wrote for The Atlantic.With muted guilt Wilson Follett asks: “Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days…” The father, having left the daughter, never found her.
And I would one day love to write the biography of a child writer about whose life we know next to nothing. But that wouldn’t be a biography, really. It would be fiction