It's tough to measure up to your parents' expectations. Imagine how much harder it would be if your mother told you that your biological father—whom you'd never met—was a Nobel prize-winning genius? NOBEL GENES is the story of just such a boy. His life consists of a series of halves; his genes are half from a donor bank that featured Nobel winners. After years of testing and tutoring, he only lives up to his mother's expectations halfway. He spends half his time sharing in his mother’s manic ups and the other half in her depressive downs. And he always has to be half-awake in the middle of the night so that when his mother wakes up and plays with her pills, he can count them and make sure the proper amount are still there before he goes to sleep.
Perhaps him being a “Nobel son” is a dream. Or a hope. Or a delusion. No matter what it is to his mother, it becomes devastation when he learns that his genius history is a lie. And once the truth is revealed, there is no going back. Even when he thought he discovered the most important truth, in his dreams, he finds one answer that he never imagined. Does it matter who you come from? Or are we all just made from dust?
But not just an ordinary donor baby. Mom wanted a genius baby, so she visited a special sperm bank, to buy me genes from a Nobel Prize winner. She wanted to ensure that her child would be a prodigy, someone special, someone who would give to the world something new and wonderful.
Something went wrong. I’m just a regular kid. I’m not a prodigy. Mom can’t understand why, why my Nobel genes aren’t showing themselves. She says she can’t understand why my phenotype doesn’t correspond better with my genotype. That sounds really weird, but it means she can’t understand why I’m not what I’m supposed to be.
Once I suggested she must have strong genes, stronger than the Nobel genes. I meant it as a compliment, but I guess it wasn’t. She laughed, and then she stopped laughing and just looked at me funny, and then she started to cry and wouldn’t eat anything that evening.
I’ve had my IQ tested about a million times, although it’s been a while now. Mom keeps hoping I’ll start to “blossom,” but it hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it ever will. I’ve learned some of the correct answers on the tests, and I’m getting pretty practiced at the puzzles, but it doesn’t help an awful lot. I’ve never made it into the genius category. I’ve seen my numbers, and they call it highaverage. Mom’s disappointed. I’ve seen the way her gaze skims over “high” and settles on “average” and then moves to me; that heavy, sad gaze that makes me feel like I’m something tiny enough to fit under a microscope. Sometimes I think she’d like to take me back to the sperm bank and ask for a refund.
I’ve wondered if something’s wrong with my brain, if I’m only average because something went wrong. Maybe I didn’t get enough oxygen to my brain when I was born or something, but because genetically I was meant to be a genius to begin with, I was brought down to normal instead of further down. Sometimes that’s almost comforting, to imagine that deep down in my genes I’m as brilliant as my dad is, as brilliant as my mother wants me to be.
Maybe it skips a generation. Maybe my kids will be brilliant and then Mom will finally be happy again—she’ll have a genius grandchild.
I’m not going to let my kids know they carry brilliant Nobel genes, and I hope Mom doesn’t say anything. I’ll just watch silently and if they show promise, I’ll help them find the right direction. That’s all. It doesn’t work, trying to force yourself to become a genius. I’ve tried that and it’s impossible. When I try to understand complicated things, like the relativity theory, it’s like trying to get ahold of something while wearing a thick glove.
I do well enough at school, but there are other kids who do just as well. The only class I’m really good at is art, but there’s no Nobel Prize for drawing or painting.
Mom wanted me to get a scholarship to a school for the gifted, she wanted that ever since kindergarten, but I never scored high enough on their tests for that. We’re not doing that anymore. I’m glad. Mom thinks I’m not trying hard enough, I guess, not applying myself. Sometimes she blames the school, because often gifted children don’t do well in school because they’re bored, the school isn’t challenging enough for them. Sometimes she blames herself for not having sent me to a special preschool for gifted toddlers, to kick-start my gifts and my love of learning, and when I try to comfort her by telling her it wouldn’t have made any difference, she gets angry.
A while ago my mom started thinking my Nobel dad might not have been a scientist after all—he could have been a writer, he could have won the literature prize, and if so, my genius would not be in mathematics and physics, it would be in creative writing. She laughed when she realized this, laughed and clasped her hands around my head, saying something about the wrong brain hemisphere.
And for a while she was happy. She sent me to a summer camp where we read literature and wrote short stories and poems. It was the first time I was away from home, ever. It was fun, although I couldn’t help worrying about Mom. It was the first time she was alone too, the first time since I was born that she wouldn’t have anyone to tuck in at night and check up on five times before morning.
But it was okay. When I went home they sent a big file with me, filled with everything I’d written. Of course, when you’ve been playing around at writing your thoughts down, you don’t want your mom to see it all. It’s private—and well, there are a lot of things Mom can’t handle, a lot of things that make her problems worse. So I had to do some serious censoring on the bus back home.
I took out everything that had to do with my feelings about my dad, and everything that had to do with my worries about my lack of genius, and also some other private stuff. There was a lot left, all the exercises we’d done, and a lot of silly poetry and what the teacher called “philosophical musings,” just general pondering about how the world worked and stuff.
Mom didn’t suspect I’d left stuff out. I’m not sure she read it all. She couldn’t have had the time. While I was away she’d researched literary agents and had a stack of envelopes ready on the kitchen table, names neatly printed on the front. It must have taken her ages, and she spent the night after I came home going through my folder and putting examples of my work in the envelopes.
The next morning she sent me to the post office with the whole bunch. I thought about throwing them away, but I was afraid she’d somehow find out, so I mailed them all.
Over the next few months the replies dropped in through the mail slot. At first Mom rushed to the door every day when she heard the postman, but then she stopped caring. She left the mail on the dresser by the door for days, sometimes, before ripping the envelopes open with her lips pinched, scanning the few lines, and then tearing the letters up and throwing them into the trash can she kept there for junk mail. I guess I don’t write very well.
Whenever she was asleep when the mail arrived, I’d tear up the responses myself to save her the trouble and prevent bad days. That turned out to be a mistake. She had a checklist of all the people she’d contacted, and after a while she started calling those who hadn’t replied, even though she hates to talk on the phone. She’d get angry with them sometimes. I wasn’t caught, though.
After that, my mother thought my father might have been a Peace Prize winner. You don’t have to have any special talents to win the Nobel Peace Prize, you just need to have done something good for mankind. So you don’t have to be a genius in the traditional sense; there’s no need to be good at physics or mathematics or even creative writing.
She was really excited about that for a while, and I was glad, because she was happy again, and when she’s happy, nothing very scary happens. She got me books on sociology and politics, bought me a huge revolving globe from a catalogue, and signed me up with Amnesty International. She spent days in front of the muted television with a pencil and a pad, occasionally jotting down notes, wondering which minorities we belonged to and how I could fight for our rights.
I wasn’t sure how to fight for our rights. I didn’t think we were particularly oppressed. I told Mom so, and she got annoyed and said I’d just have to pick a cause. There were plenty to go around. One day she sent me off to the library to research the world’s problems and bring home a list of possible causes to fight for.
I found out more than I ever wanted to know about the world’s problems. I could go for political prisoners, child slavery, literacy, global warming, saving animals in danger of extinction—there are a million worthy causes to fight for. I was depressed at the end of the day when I closed down the last charity website and stacked my books together, sighing so loudly that the librarian behind me asked if something was wrong. I told her no, but I should have said yes. My list filled several pages in my notebook. There’s a lot wrong with this world, and I never knew about it.
When I got home, Mom asked me if I’d chosen a cause, and I said I needed some time to think about it. But before I’d chosen one, she’d again settled on science and enrolled me in an after-school physics program—after all, most Nobel Prizes go to scientists, so the odds are there.
It’s not easy, having Nobel genes that won’t cooperate. Once when I was tired and my head hurt from too much calculus, I suggested she try again—if she had another Nobel baby, it might work this time.
It was a stupid suggestion. Mom couldn’t have another baby. Mom and I do fine together—we take care of each other. When she can’t take care of me, I can take care of both of us, but a baby needs more. So I shouldn’t have said anything. Mom just stared at me for the longest time, and then she started to cry. I’m always making her cry, no matter how careful I am.
I have a book filled with pictures and bios of Nobel laureates. The book was published ten years ago and lists everyone from the beginning of the Nobel Prize until the year it was published, so my dad is definitely in there. It sounds like a lot of people, but it’s not that many, actually. And I could rule a lot of them out if I did some research.
Not all the Nobel laureates are men, of course. There are women in my book too, not many, but a few, and Mom always points proudly to them, saying they show women could do anything, even back in the Dark Ages—and she flips to the beginning of the book—when few women had the opportunity to go to college. Sometimes she stares at the pictures of the women for a long, long time. I think Mom would have liked to go to college. I guess she couldn’t—she had me instead.
The Nobel book gives information about the laureates’ education and their careers, their accomplishments and triumphs. It’s funny, but I’m more curious about the mistakes of successful people, about their losses and broken dreams. No book ever lists those.
I think about my Nobel dad every day, although I’ve never met him and probably never will. I fantasize about the way he looks and the way he talks, and I wonder if I look like him. When I eat chocolate pudding, my favorite dessert, and I’m watching TV while I eat, not thinking about my dad at all, I sometimes suddenly start wondering if my dad likes chocolate pudding too. It’s like he’s always there, inside my head, jumping out at every opportunity.
Children usually look like their parents, at least a bit. Genes do that. My mouth is almost exactly like my mom’s mouth, and my hair is the same color. So it should be logical that I could find a familiar nose in my Nobel book, or the right shape of an ear or an eyebrow, and I do, but there are just too many of them. One of the men in there is my dad, but it could be almost any of them. I flip through the book often, and I know all the pictures now. I think I’d recognize all these men if I passed them on the street. But I still don’t know which one is my father.
It seems pretty hopeless that I’ll ever meet him. Mom says that’s how it’s supposed to be. He doesn’t know who I am, and I don’t know who he is. I don’t know who decided it should be that way, and I’m not happy about it. My mom says it’s impossible to find out who he is, but I’m not so sure. I have a secret plan. I read about this boy who found his father who was a sperm donor. He sent a sample of cells scraped from the inside of his cheek to a DNA center for analysis. Then he put the data into genetic databases people use to build their family trees, and he found his father.
That was a long time ago, and I read that it’s not quite as easy anymore, but I’m sure I can find a way. I just need to raise money first. DNA analysis and database access are expensive.
When I was little and my mom first told me about my Nobel dad and showed me the book with all these strange faces, I started crying, because I wanted a dad and I didn’t know which one he was. I didn’t quite understand it all then, about the Nobel sperm bank and the Nobel genes, but I knew I wanted a picture of Dad in my room.
My mom did something really nice for me then. It was years ago when she could still go outside the house, and she took me to a store and let me choose a picture frame. Then we went home, and we cut out a picture of the Nobel Foundation logo from a magazine, and put it in the frame. It’s a blue N inside a circle. We put it on my dresser, and my mom ruffled my hair and said it was the best she could do.
It helps. Even now, although I’m not a little kid anymore, it helps. When I lie in bed at night in the darkness and I can’t sleep and I start thinking about my dad, where he is and what he is doing, if he ever thinks about me, I look at that picture. When cars pass by, their headlights hit the glass, and it flashes. It’s like my dad winking at me.
Rune Michaels studied psychology at the University of Iceland and at the University of Copenhagen. Her books include Genesis Alpha, The Reminder, and Nobel Genes. She lives with her family in Reykjavik, Iceland.