Read an Excerpt
What is dyslexia? Almost everyone who hears the term believes it means seeing words wrong, with their letters reversed or somehow distorted, out of order, or in some other ways twisted. Dyslexics, it is thought, make mistakes when they try to read, write or spell. But this widespread, everyday view of dyslexia is superficial and simplistic, even naive. Dyslexia is a highly complex, extremely puzzling set of shifting and varying conditions that may (but not always) include the letter and word reversals that everybody knows about.
Brilliant Idiot makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the dyslexic condition. Abe Schmitt's towering portrayal is rich, meaningful, and poignant. It is a book of searing honesty in which the author portrays in unstinting detail the lifelong torments he has endured and overcome.
Who is Abe Schmitt? He tells us he is a "brilliant idiot," but what does that mean? Can any one individual incorporate these contradictory attributes? This utterly convincing story gets to the heart of the perplexity that assails most dyslexic individuals through their lifespans. Their lives are filled with uncertainty and contradiction. It is painfully, unbearably difficult for dyslexics to reconcile the discrepant elements of their makeups: areas of high competence, even brilliance and genius, coexisting in some uneasy alliance with grave and humiliating evidences of profound inadequacy.
In this revelatory book, Schmitt makes a clean breast of his painful and cruel life history, shows us how he has come to an understanding of his condition, has struggled to find ways of coping with it, of reconciling the disparate attributes into a unified, gifted, and highly productive life and career. In the process, he has at last attained tranquility and wisdom. He shows us how the gift of dyslexia has enriched and ennobled him. In offering his life story, Schmitt makes us a gift of compassion and understanding that is immeasurably rewarding.
Schmitt was born into circumstances and a lifestyle that is, for most of us, exotic. His family was part of a primitive and pre-literate peasant village, the "Old Colony" Mennonites in the remote, harsh prairies of Saskatchewan. Into this family came Abe, from the beginning a bewildered and confused child, the family "schladontz" (dunce), a hopelessly inept child who could not even tie his shoes or close his fly.
Schmitt learns through intense self-searching that the global, diffuse--but creative--thinking that characterizes a predominately right-brained person like himself is sharply at variance with his confused, bumbling, left-brained mental processes, so that he is unable to handle the linear thought requirements, the organizational skills, and the verbal fluency which the conventional academic system and traditional teaching methods require. His treatment of some of the characteristic dyslexic attributes is lucid and meaningful.
An important contribution in this book is Schmitt's exposition of various possible and likely predisposing factors related to dyslexia: medical, developmental, and sociocultural. He arrives at a surmise, which is nonetheless convincing, about his origins as an Old Colony Mennonite. It may very well be that a common genetic factor within the tightly knit male community is a deeply imbedded proclivity towards language learning deficit and consequent academic inaptitude or incompetence. Perhaps dyslexic preponderance is a major element in creating the homogeneous but migrant culture that moved always to a remote region in a far-off land to shun education, while the outward explanation rationalized this characteristic as the means of protecting their pure and holy religion and lifestyle from the worldly evils of the larger literate civilization.
This book is a testament to the triumphant human spirit and a worthy--indeed indispensable--contribution to our understanding of the broader aspects of dyslexia.
Milton Brutten, Ph.D.
-- Council of Advisors, The Orton Dyslexia Society
-- Founder, Crossroads School for Dyslexic Children
Excerpt from --Chapter 1 -- My Roots
My birth certificate verifies that I was born August 7, 1927 on Section 17, Township 12, Range 13 and west of the Third Meridian in Saskatchewan, Canada. The maternity room was a farmhouse in the village of Blumenort, which was not legally incorporated and so could not be identified specifically in any other way.
I come from a Mennonite peasant village on the tree-less, windblown western Canadian prairie with no legal name. Here in southwestern Saskatchewan a primitive community of peasants had recreated a culture that they kept intact for centuries against all odds. When I was born in 1927 I was welcomed into a system that had changed very little in over 400 years.
During the early part of the 16th century a reformation was triggered within the Reformation. Herein lie my roots. My ancestors insisted on calling themselves neither Protestant nor Catholic, but rather Anabaptists and, later, Mennonites. Because they would not identify with either wing of the spiritual and social upheaval, they found themselves at odds with both and, thus, victims and martyrs on both sides.
The Anabaptists from northern Europe found refuge from persecution in and near Danzig in what was then called Prussia, now Poland. There they found a home where they could live what they defined as the totally committed Christian life. Their efforts to put their faith into practice made them cautious about participating in general society. Their belief in nonresistant love meant they could not serve in any capacity in the military, nor be part of the political system. They would not swear an oath, nor participate in the educational system of their host country. They reinforced their community and their separateness by retaining the Low German language. "Low" refers to the dialect's historic origins in medieval times in the German lowlands. The language was never written, only spoken.
My ancestors came from Friesland in The Netherlands--an area whose people even today are considered conservative, questioning all change as unnecessary or threatening. This group selected the remotest swamplands in Prussia as their home. They drained the land and prospered, and remained relatively untouched by the world for 200 years.