A Tale Of Girl Genius

In the 1920s, Barbara Follett was a child celebrity, a prodigy who'd written a bestseller by 12. So what happened to her?

Although it's 80 years old, this story is depressingly familiar. Not shockingly, Barbara had a father in the industry. While she was undoubtedly gifted, it was her father's ability to bring her book to the attention of editors at Knopf that brought The House Without Windows into print. And, as is clear from Paul Collins' wonderful story in Lapham's Quarterly, her precocity isolated her. "You don't understand why I have my work to do-because, at this particular time, you have none at all," she wrote to a playmate at the time.

The reaction to her story — a fairytale of loneliness and isolation about a little girl who disappears into the woods — may seem hauntingly familiar, too. While the New York Times, who featured Barbara on the cover, called it "the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence" and Barbara was inundated with offers and assignments, other reviewers worried that she was being exploited as a novelty. And, more to the point, that such experiences could be deeply damaging for a child. The New York Herald Tribune's Anne Carroll Moore wrote words that today, in a world of child stars, and former child stars, seem sadly prophetic.

I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of nineteen and thirty-nine, than to have published a successful book between the age of nine and twelve...It is playing with fire. What price will Barbara have to pay for her ‘big days' at the typewriter?

The price came with adulthood. Although Barbara was to publish another successful book, soon her parents had split up and she was struggling to help make ends meet. As Collins writes, "America's next great novelist was now without a high-school degree, without work, and a teen bride." And after her husband left her, she was to disappear, never to be heard from again. Quite literally, she disappeared: the police never found her, dead or alive. Which makes her story especially poignant on both a literal and symbolic level: out of sight once she was an adult, she was also out of mind...and it's a potent reminder of how we as a culture exalt youth and novelty when they're at their most vulnerable, and how devastating that can be.

Vanishing Act [Lapham's Quarterly]