Chasing Down a Child Genius in Montana

(Courtesy of Promethea Pythaitha / The Atavist)

Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha renamed herself at age 13, the year she graduated from Montana State University, with the belief that “her life, and its work, would have meaning.” A prodigy who had begun to read at nine months, Promethea grew up in poverty with her mother in Montana. She took on several courses of study, determined to earn degree after degree, but never wanted to leave the state for something bigger. Promethea was satisfied just to educate herself — a “rage to learn” as one psychologist described it — to expand her knowledge any way she could. News of her talents spread throughout the Greek diaspora and a mysterious benefactor became obsessed with paying for her education and controlling her life, eventually stalking Promethea and her mother in Montana and changing their lives forever.

Journalist Mike Mariani has been following Promethea’s story for years, and he finally catches up with her at age 26 in this feature for The Atavist. When he first meets her, he isn’t sure what to make of the prodigy.

Initially, when we were one-on-one, Promethea’s disposition disarmed me. Her mood was cheerful but her affect was flat, as though something had been stripped from it. I struggled to find my footing in conversation because the usual notches and grooves weren’t there. At one point she quoted Star Trek’s Spock, and I wondered if she drew inspiration from a character who balanced near perfect intellect with extreme stoicism. I also thought about how socially isolated she’d been all her life: homeless and homeschooled as a young child, taking college classes by age seven, earning two bachelor’s degrees with her mother by her side every day.

[I was told] that Promethea “never knew how to end conversations or begin conversations or ratchet herself back.” I experienced this while ferrying her through the Montana landscape. After small talk, which came in fits and starts, Promethea would shift into a high gear I wasn’t ready for. She would talk about her family, then Greek austerity politics, then science, with nary a breath in between. There was no conversational ebb and flow. I didn’t so much participate as try to steer her thoughts now and then with questions.

But while it was clear that I was in the presence of the smartest person I’d ever met, Promethea’s intellect wasn’t the most striking thing about her. She didn’t have the sarcasm, cynicism, or irony many young people use to construct their personalities and establish repartee. She wasn’t quotable in the droll or pithy way that makes a journalist’s job easy; she was earnest and expansive. Our conversations were airless because Promethea had no airs — no hint of attitude, vanity, or ego. Perhaps in missing out on opportunities to develop her social self, she’d eluded artifice altogether.

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