August 25, 1996
Mensa's 50th Birthday: Games in the Name of Brains
By SARAH LYALL
ONDON -- Mensa was founded 50 years ago in Oxford, by a pair of Englishmen who wanted to create a society for people whose only common quality was an uncommon intelligence, or, alternatively, who were able to meet Mensa's standards for being in the top 2 percent of the population intellectually -- roughly an IQ of at least 148.
Since then, Mensa (Latin for "table," suggesting a gathering of great minds) has seen its super-smart reputation tarnished somewhat. In recent years, there have been allegations of financial impropriety by the group's now-former executive director. There has been a much-ridiculed proposal to start a depository for Mensan super-sperm in California.
And there has been a growing public perception that, in the words of the writer Christopher Hitchens, Mensa is basically just a "singles club for nerds."
But at London's Metropole Hotel, where some 1,100 of the brighter-than-average gathered last week to celebrate Mensa's 50th anniversary, all was running smartly. Most members, in fact, professed not to have read Hitchens' scathing denouncement in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in which he describes taking a Mensa I.Q. test that, among other things, gave him a list of words (house, school, dog, cinema, church) and asked, Which does not belong? (Dog.)
Unbloodied and unbowed, the group went about happily doing what anyone does at a convention: socializing, flirting, sightseeing, drinking too much, forming cliques, staying up late, and listening to lectures ("My Life as an Erotic Artist," was the offering on Wednesday, given by Mark Hutchenreuther).
But with all that aggressive extra intelligence floating around, there was a feeling here that if the world really is divided into "us" and "them," then Mensans are "us."
"When I joined Mensa, it was the first place where I felt I could be totally relaxed," said Megan Edwards, 43, who lives in a 32-foot mobile home and travels around the United States, editing an on-line magazine called "Road Trip America." "You could let on that you were interested in things, something it's harder to do in the wider world."
For 47-year-old Steev (yup, two e's in the middle) Schmidt, who works for the California Department of Education, Mensa means meeting people "who are at the same level as you intellectually."
"Conversation might start out very similarly as it does with regular people: How are you? Where are you from?" he said. "But then if you happen to mention something that is a keen interest of yours -- say, nuclear power -- then they could talk intelligently about it."
The convention gave members a chance to see old friends, to visit the London Dungeon (the museum of medieval horrors) and to mingle with the Gallic chapter of Mensa on a day trip to Paris. It also gave them the opportunity to learn about the vast array of Mensa special interest groups -- sub-groups of the smart.
There was a group for pagan Mensans, a group for people who like Italian, a group of Mensans who believe in the occult, a group for those interested in politics. There was the Star Trek group ("In 'The Enemy Within,' I can understand why the landing party couldn't beam up," gripes one contributor in the current newsletter, "but what was wrong with sending down a shuttle?")
Mensans bristle at the prevailing stereotype about them: that they are lonely losers who rarely wash and who exhibit all the social skills of Dustin Hoffman's idiot savant in "Rain Man."
"A lot of people refer to us as 'Densans,' " said Erika Barrows, 61, a retired elementary school music teacher who lives in Medford, Ore.
"Yeah, people who can't pass the Mensa test," said her husband, Thor, 66, a retired government training officer.
"We often get asked, 'If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?' " Mrs. Barrows said.
But the Barrowses admit to having met their share of Mensa weirdos, like the members who arrived at one meeting with their herd of goats, in order to publicize their new Mensa commune.
Another member came to at a dinner party, only to spend the evening sleeping under the Barrowses' grand piano. He was not drunk, Mrs. Barrows said. "I guess he just didn't have very good socialization skills."
Joking aside, members say that some outsiders are extremely impressed at their ultra-bright status.
"I know a plastic surgeon who joined just so he could put the magazines around the waiting room," said Nancy Wilson, 56, of Petaluma, Calif., a lover of trivia who cleans up at Mensa party word games and who, among other things, once won almost $10,000 on "Jeopardy." "Plastic surgeons," she said, "are really concerned with appearances."
Why do people join Mensa? "It's easier to communicate, because people are making an effort that they don't always make in the real world," Schmidt said. "Of course, that could be the nature of social organizations, which are by definition social."
Barrows said it was a question of finding somewhere to fit in, finally.
"A lot of people join because it's the only club that will take them that they can tolerate," he said. "Who was it who said he wouldn't join any club that would have him as a member? Well, this is that club."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
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Created: 01 Sep 96