There is a novel with that title by Daniel Keyes, later made into a movie, first published as a short story in 1959. It is the story, told in diary form, of an experimental surgery to increase a retarded man’s intelligence. The experiment works wonderfully, as it did on lab mouse Algernon, and Charlie Gordon, the first human subject, a barely literate simpleton in the first entry of his diary, quickly develops into a genius.
I can give you all this detail not because I have a fantastic memory, except for the bare bones of the Flowers for Algernon story, which I read 50 years ago, but because we now have the impeccable digital memory of the internet that allows me to refresh my recollections of the details, quickly learn details I hadn’t known before, and link you to the actual text.
I am thinking of the story, also known as Charly (the title of the Academy Award winning movie), because of its tragic dramatic arc. Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68, undergoes an experimental surgical procedure to increase his intelligence. He goes from semi-literate janitor to an eloquent genius with an IQ triple his original one. His brilliance complicates his life, but he is grateful for it, until he sees Algernon lose all his post-surgical intelligence and wind up in worse shape than he began.
Charlie Gordon’s fate is tragically clear as Algernon, now his pet, quickly regresses and dies, to Charlie’s, and the readers’, great sorrow. The flaw in the experimental surgery that his own research discovered is confirmed. He feels it all slipping away and we watch, his journal entries deteriorate and his new found powers slip away. In the end he is as he was before, even a bit worse, and the last thing he asks for is for someone to put flowers on Algernon’s grave.
What starts with all the promise in the world, ends with Charlie as he was before, even a bit worse off.
I am thinking of this Algernon phenomenon in relation to my great experiment. Against the odds I singlehandedly created and conducted a program that worked exactly as I imagined it could. I was in one school, where it went well, as it did in the three other schools where I launched it, at a reform school and even at the sessions for chronically ill adults.
At its peak the workshop was active in three schools. Then two. Then one. Then none. It’s hard not to see that as backwards progress, lose the optimism that kept me chasing the miraculous aspect of what I felt I was beginning to accomplish.
I don’t remember if Charlie Gordon was beset with self-pity as he felt it all slipping away, though it’s hard to imagine that feeling could have been absent from his journal. In my own case, it is entirely possible, one hopes, that after conducting 100 successful workshops, making several short promos of students at work featuring their original animation, writing increasingly concise and descriptive materials about the program, that I will get the business and funding help I’ve needed from the beginning.
It is not impossible, after all, that the New York City Agency that helps small businesses recruit, train, fund, negotiate government contracts and so forth, will provide exactly the help I need to make the program a success, in spite of the daunting odds. Not impossible that one of the mentors I wrote to on the new NYS business mentoring site will one day get back to me, offer valuable guidance. Not impossible, no. There’s every chance I will complete the short on-line application for NYC Business Solution’s help as soon as I finish posting this.
But I still can’t help thinking of Charlie Gordon and that mouse Algernon today.