Beautiful Minds – Mensans in South Africa

‘I’d much rather understand, perceive and imagine — and be unhappy — than be stupid and content’
Think of a Mensa meeting and you imagine either a bunch of affable masterminds or overbearing snobs. Oliver Roberts discovers that genius is indiscriminate.
On the third Thursday of every month, a group of extraordinary people infiltrates the musty halls of the Old Edwardian Sports Club in Houghton.
Among the brass plaques, framed photographs of conquering teams and smell of Deep Heat they lurk, holding cups of tea and appearing uncomfortable even when they’re comfortable. Some have rounded shoulders, others wear glasses comically repaired with tape, and many flaunt a self-satisfied confidence. They are the brain jocks, and they don’t belong here.
This abode of beer games and towel-flicks is, however, one of the few places they can go to seek refuge from the condition that has both cursed and blessed them throughout their lives. Outside the hall where they find each other is a blackboard with an arrow, and above it, the word that spells out their hope for connection and an exchange of warm, intellectual juices — Mensa.

The social prelude to a Mensa meeting is everything I expected it to be. There are loners with twiggy arms, shapeless women in frocks and a Goth on the verge of suicide by piercing. There are nervous, geeky jokes juxtaposed with sharp wit, a chat about circuit boards, and shifting eyes trying to penetrate thought.

Soft conversation, it seems, is characteristic of genius. Almost everyone speaks in whispers, but some of the quiet voices, I sense, disguise the patronizing sentiment of the gifted. Smatterings of conversation also have the tell-tale rapidity of people lacking social confidence; their interaction is so uncomplicated that to the bystander it’s very obviously awkward and forced.
Anxiety seems high. Perhaps it’s the appearance of new members (they must think I am one) — what if that guy has a higher IQ than me? And why is he taking notes?

Curiously, despite the sign outside the door, one or two people come in and ask, “Is this the Mensa meeting?” I hear someone scoff.
The guest speaker tonight is a guy from Eskom who’s wearing no tie, but buttons his shirt all the way to the top anyway. He is not a Mensa member; he’s just here to talk about the power crisis and field questions from people with IQs in the top 2% of the country’s population.
I am disappointed at the subject up for discussion. I was expecting something far more stimulating and involved — proposed solutions to the Middle East crisis, free will vs. predestination, a discourse on Blake’s Thel.
But there may be a reason for this non-threatening topic — scuffles (mostly mental, some physical) have been known to break out among members when debates get too hot.

Almost as soon as the Eskom speaker begins, I worry that I am surrounded by obnoxious berks. It’s all interruptions, loud heckling, and an unsettling need among some of the male members to publicly assert themselves.
The frightening thing about someone of super intelligence grabbing a microphone and making his point is that he does it with the same allure as a dictator. Arguments are so succinct and foreheads so sweaty that you feel what they are saying is irrefutable.

It’s not long before someone makes a joke about Mr. Eskom’s IQ, though this is not done without clicks of disapproval from some members’ mouths. Then the thing begins to turn into a suburban AGM — the same people hogging the mic, those who look like they’d have something conclusive to say keeping quiet, and some people seeming a bit bored.

By the end of the discussion — it lasts about 90 minutes — my conclusions about Mensans are incomplete. Some members come across as overbearing, arrogant, and friendless. Others are insightful, irreverent and approachable.

I am determined to prove myself wrong on the first assumption because I hate to correlate hyper-intelligence with haughtiness — it’s as bad as assuming that all stupid people are naive. I follow the members into the club bar, hoping they’ll let their guard down and feel less compelled to live up to their IQs.

“When I joined I was a bit of a dickhead,” says Ray Anderson, 50. He’s been a Mensa member for 12 years and is a former chairman. His IQ is 135.
“That whole exerting your intelligence thing — the ‘I know more than you’ attitude and trying to impress with the wittiest comebacks — does exist in Mensa. It’s a very social environment, but it’s also extremely political, especially higher up. All the bickering and infighting and egos — it’s one of the most political organizations in the world.”

I had long fantasized that Mensa had a hierarchy and nepotism similar to the Free Masons — secrets, underhand favors and discounts distributed according to your number status, your IQ.
According to Anderson, this is not the case. “Mensa is a social organization. We do a lot of work helping gifted children and working for the public good.”

Scanning the tables around me — some members reflect a subtle sadness in their posture — I sense something forlorn among a section of these super humans. Special intelligence and a feeling of isolation often go together. Many of your interests are shared by no one but you, and almost every conversation is like small talk. For all of your heightened intelligence, you are bored, lonely and the victim of some kind of mindful prejudice.
“Part of my low self-esteem arose from growing up in a family where intelligence was not praised in girls,” says Cinzia Busi, a 50-year-old medical technologist, IQ 134.

“My mother kept telling me that if I was too clever, no man would want to marry me. My ex-husband was of similar opinion, though he only voiced it when divorce proceedings began.”
For Busi, then, her unusual intelligence appears to be a burden. When she was 35, she had a nervous breakdown — single mother, overworked, and constantly irritated at others’ slowness, lack of imagination and understanding. “Then my therapist taught me it was okay, nay obligatory, to be selfish, to put myself first; since then my life has become much more fun to live,” she says. “I’d infinitely much rather be able to know, understand, perceive and imagine — and possibly be unhappy — than ever be stupid and content.”

According to Anderson, the key to being a happy genius is having an EQ (emotional quotient) on par with your IQ: “Otherwise you are often totally socially inept. We had one guy like that — he was the chairman for a while and caused huge embarrassment for the organization by making racist statements. Mensans like that come and go.”

To qualify for Mensa (the word is Latin for ‘table’, as in ‘round-table society’), your IQ needs to be 132 or above. Most members lie somewhere between here and 140. An IQ above 165 qualifies you for the Mega Society — for those with an IQ that is one in a million. It has one South African member — Garth Zietsman, who has an IQ of 185.
“You need to have a certain amount of arrogance just to take the test,” says 57-year-old Neil Kennard-Davis, Mensa SA’s national chairman. His IQ is 135.

Kennard, who is easy-going and wears spectacles that keep sliding down his nose, explains that Mensa is a social club only insofar as the members share an above-average IQ, “This is the only thing we have in common, and that is the beauty of it. In one evening I can have a discussion with a doctor, a lawyer and a mathematician — people you wouldn’t normally come into contact with in your average day.”

I am eager to know whether Mensa can provide its members with more than just intellectual stimulation. Any flirting over Flaubert? Seduction by symmetric equations? “Mensa SA is 80% male and 20% female, so, mostly, the men are just glad to have us,” says Lorraine Steyn, 45. “People go to Mensa looking to meet other people, and sometimes that turns into dating. Most, though, just want to meet like-minded people.”
One member, Ronel de Freitas (IQ undisclosed), will marry Mensa’s Johannesburg chairman George Smit this month. However, she met him on an online gaming site. De Freitas says she knows of only five Mensan couples — that’s 10 out of 850 members. “Mensans are strange creatures,” she says. “A fair number, especially younger guys, are happily married, most to women of average intelligence. This though, in my opinion, is foolish optimism at best.”

The decision to disclose your Mensa status to friends, and more especially work colleagues, is widely discussed among members. “The big debate on the Mensa mailing list is ‘Have you come out of the closet?’” says Gustav Betram. At 26, he is one of the younger members here this evening.

He’s a programmer possessed of a somewhat Biblical goatee. “It can create unfair expectations in the workplace, that whole attitude of ‘You’re a genius, so why did you make that mistake?’” Busi doesn’t see the point in mentioning it: “Some people look annoyed when they find out,” she says.
The charm of a Mensan is all of your own making. Some are the insufferable farts you’re expecting them to be, while others are engaging and insist on paying for your drink even though you’ve just met them. Their subtle compliment is that, when talking to you, whether through intellectual assertion or genuine interest, none of them behave as though they’ve got something better to do.

Published: Mar 15, 2008 The Times of South Africa

Comments are closed.