Jason Padgett's Struck by Genius struggles with itself

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Struck by Genius
By Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg. HarperCollins, 227 pp, hardcover

In 2002, Jason Padgett was, by his own admission, a “pretty aimless” 31-year-old futon salesman whose hobbies consisted solely of partying and working out. But the Tacoma, Washington, native’s life of superficial pleasures came to a crashing halt when he was viciously mugged outside a karaoke bar.

As he details in his book, Struck by Genius, authored with Maureen Seaberg, Padgett sustained a traumatic brain injury that left him with obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. It also turned him into a math savant who suddenly could see the underlying geometry of the world in crisp detail.

Water flowing from a tap transfixes him for hours. The college dropout becomes obsessed with pi, and without any math vocabulary to express himself, he obsessively sketches his ideas—filling a circle with 720 triangles, and producing accurately hand-drawn fractals.

He does this in a four-year self-imposed isolation, as he wrestles with intense agoraphobia. Finally, during a rare foray out to a Subway restaurant, a physics professor catches sight of his drawings and encourages him to study math at a local college. If this were a novel, the narrative would continue on a happy arc, with the protagonist eventually becoming a professor at some illustrious university.

Padgett’s story, however, meanders. He meets his future wife at school, but his studies are cut short by crippling back pain, and he remains, to this day, a furniture salesman. He finds kinship among fellow synesthetes—people whose sensory perceptions are melded, and who see colours or hear music when presented with numbers or letters. Eventually, his self-diagnoses of acquired savant syndrome and synesthesia are confirmed by neurological experts.

No doubt Padgett’s story is a powerful one, as it hints at the hidden abilities that may lie in everyone’s brain. Unfortunately, its telling is muddled, full of clumsy transitions from Padgett’s daily struggles to treatises on physics or the brain.

There are also whiffs of narcissism, as Padgett inevitably describes himself as unique or particularly gifted. He even claims to have cured one woman’s depression after a four-hour conversation at his futon store.

Some self-editing, along with a more gifted coauthor, could have transformed this disappointingly pedestrian book into something truly enlightening.

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