What Ever Happened to Daphne?

The smartest kid in Maine intended to win a Nobel Prize by the time she was 25. Life didn’t quite work out that way.

By Mel Allen

Jun 12 2008

This Yankee Classic feature was originally published in October 2001.

If it hadn’t been for the test, most likely nobody outside of Aroostook County, Maine, would have heard or cared about what Daphne Brinkerhoff did with her life. She would have remained a local phenomenon, like a hidden waterfall that only a few know how to find. But she took the test in Presque Isle on a January morning in 1988, a 12-year-old bundled against the frigid Maine air, riding 50 miles northward through snow squalls in her mother’s ’83 Dodge. In time millions of people would know what the villagers in New Limerick and Hodgdon and Amity and Haynesville had known for years: The smartest kid in Maine lived right there, growing up beside the snow-covered farms and woodpiles and the tired machines that lay across the yards waiting for their parts to one day resuscitate other tired machines.

It was a Saturday morning in early spring with snow clinging to the ground when the trajectory of her young life changed. On that day her mother, Barbara Brinkerhoff, stepped out the door of the house that stood along a back road in New Limerick, a village of 524 people, and set out for the general store and post office next door. Jill Carton handed her the letter she had been waiting for since January. Though it was addressed to her daughter, Barbara opened the envelope.

“My mother came in the house,” recalls Daphne. “She threw the mail on the couch. She went to the wood stove and stood there looking out the window. My mother always knew I was smart, but maybe just smart for Aroostook. This said more. ‘These are your SAT scores,’ she said. ‘Now I know you can do anything you want.’ “

A few weeks later at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Julian Stanley took note of Daphne’s College Board tests. As founder of Johns Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth, he had spent nearly two decades finding the nation’s brightest young students. Every January, seventh- and eighth-graders who score 97 percent or above in standardized math or verbal achievement exams test their skills on the same College Boards that high-school juniors and seniors take. The highest scorers have the opportunity to spend three weeks in the summer at a super camp for the smartest kids in the land.

Daphne’s test scores — 740 in math and 710 in English (out of a possible 800) — would have caught Dr. Stanley’s attention no matter where she lived. But she attended a rural school in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country. “I was surprised to find such a high score in that isolated place,” he said recently. “Very rare, especially with that family background. The family was poor. Her father didn’t go past the tenth grade. Her mother just finished high school. I wanted to give this unusual girl a chance.”

In his soft Southern voice, Dr. Stanley told Daphne that Johns Hopkins would give her a full scholarship to spend three weeks in Saratoga Springs, New York, living and studying at Skidmore College. A world beyond Aroostook opened for Daphne. For the next two summers Daphne left just before the potato fields were in blossom, immersing herself in literature and science. She tasted her first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, shopped at her first used-book store, made friends with kids from across the country who did not seem to find her as strange as the kids at home did. She skipped the eighth grade (she would later also skip the tenth) and entered the 256-pupil Hodgdon High School at age 13.

The Maine Sunday Telegram, the state’s largest newspaper, sent a reporter to follow Daphne around for a day. “Her I.Q. is 145, possibly higher, because she exceeded the test scale on some measures,” the story reported. The story spoke of “her hungry mind, always changing and gyrating towards greater complexity.” At age 15 she took the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) again and scored a near perfect 790 in math. Harvard University brought Daphne to Boston and assigned a student from Maine to show her the campus. In December of 1990 Parade magazine, with a circulation of 34 million, featured Daphne in a cover story on child prodigies. The photographer asked Daphne to remove her thick owlish glasses and stood her in a potato field, her head resting lightly on her mother’s shoulder. “Daphne has put New Limerick on the map,” people told Barbara.
Ten years ago when she graduated first in her class of 63, Daphne’s future stretched ahead with the same unblinking promise and optimism she expressed to Parade. “Some days now, Daphne wants to be a physicist,” the story concluded. “Other days a writer … By New Year’s Eve, 1999, Daphne wants to be rich enough to throw a family party. She also intends to win a Nobel Prize. ‘For literature or physics — I don’t know which,’ she says. ‘Maybe I’ll be the first to win it for both.’ “

I tore out the story about Daphne from Parade more than a decade ago, placed it in a box among other clippings, and forgot about it. Late one November night in 1999, while I sorted through piles of old papers, the story of Daphne caught my eye. “By New Year’s Eve … Nobel Prize.” I called information and the telephone operator said there was one Brinkerhoff listed in New Limerick.

Barbara Brinkerhoff answered the phone.

I just found the Parade story, I said, and I wondered: What ever happened to Daphne? She was quiet for a moment. “A lot of people ask me that,” she said. “I tell them Daphne lives in Portland.”

Being special brings no joy with it. It’s a great struggle to be at the top of the pile — but get there, and it’s still a pile. I was so good at everything as a kid, and all that gets you is people asking, “What next?” I wanted to be the best at everything, a Superkid. If I wasn’t the best, I was nothing.

Maybe I should’ve flunked something early on. I failed at things: I never learned to swim or ride a bike, but I just devalued them. I made them “not-Daphne.” “Daphne” was someone good at school, lousy at sports, alone, bookworm, nerd, ugly. Someone of the mind and not the body. Someone teachers liked and students hated. And then I did fail. It’s thrown me for a loop. — e-mail from Daphne

— — — —

I met Daphne Brinkerhoff for the first time on a November afternoon at Portland’s waterfront. We sit at a small table by a window in a cafe that’s known for its chowder. She is 25 years old. She has lived in Portland for two months and she has just been suspended for four days from her $6-an-hour cashier’s job at a Portland 7-Eleven located at a busy intersection two blocks from the house she shares with three roommates. Her transgression: selling beer to an underage woman. The woman had shown Daphne an ID card, but the woman in the ID wore glasses and the woman holding the beer did not. Daphne ignored the discrepancy.

I ask if she’s been in trouble before; she says yes, during her sophomore year at the University of Maine in Orono. A lingering depression had set in and she stopped going to class. “I flunked everything,” she says, “except chorus. I got an A in chorus.” The university suspended her for a year and took away her full scholarship. She returned to New Limerick, moved in with her parents, and washed dishes at the Elm Tree Diner in Houlton.

After a year she returned to college, wrote poetry, studied literature, and eventually graduated with honors. She wanted to be a poet. She stayed in Orono cooking burgers and making salads at Pat’s Pizza for nearly two years; she was not gifted as a short-order cook, and her writing discouraged her. What she describes as “the great lump in the center of my life” took over. “The great lump is the judgment,” she wrote, “the constant having to live up to, the feeling that I have to be good, or great, or special, or whatever. Instead of valuing where I am.” Thoughts of suicide danced around the edge of her life. A therapist helped her understand the negative self-doubts that plagued her. “I was addicted to this sense of myself. I knew I had to change. I definitely wanted to change.” To start a new life, she moved to Portland.

She speaks without self-pity in a clear, forthright voice. She is interested that I am interested in trying to understand the unexpected bumps in her life. She has been trying to understand them herself for many months. Her brown eyes behind her round glasses hold my gaze. Her brown hair, streaked with premature gray, touches her shoulders. She is pale, as if she has not seen sun for weeks.

“I know people will want an explanation,” she says. “Maybe my flunking out was a covert rebellion. I remember a conversation I had my senior year in high school. I had a boyfriend then and I didn’t care about school. I had a term paper months overdue. Mrs. Dunphy (JoAnn Dunphy, the Gifted and Talented Coordinator for the school district) came to talk to me. I said I was sick of having to get straight A’s. I said I couldn’t wait to go to college and get C’s.”

“No,” said Mrs. Dunphy. “What about graduate school?”

“Oh, all right. I’ll get A’s in college and C’s in grad school.”

“But what about a career?”

“Oh, I guess I have to get A’s forever.”

For the next few hours she tells me the story of a girl who, growing up, stayed in her tiny bedroom six feet by six feet with a curtain for a door, the ceiling three feet high in places. She’d pluck books like chocolates from the little green bookcase her mother built, sometimes reading 100 pages an hour, while her mother urged her to go outside, swim in the lake, ride a bicycle, or simply get fresh air. But she never learned to ride a bike or swim; she fell down and hit her head walking on the ice as a child and the outdoors seemed more menace than friend. The only place she felt safe was nestled in her bed with written words. Her home, she said, was often turbulent, subject to the moods of her father, David. “I hated fighting,” she says, “and all I knew was my father was pissed off a lot.” She pauses. “The older I get, the more I get along with my dad.”

David Brinkerhoff was known throughout The County for his eccentric brilliance, his disdain for convention and for anyone who couldn’t follow his thoughts. He’d argue his point until he won because he knew he was the brightest person arguing. He quit school in the tenth grade, certain his teachers had nothing to teach him. He became known as a man who could figure out and fix any machine.

“When I was really young we lived in a camp,” Daphne says. “No running water, no electricity. When I was four we moved into our house. We had no running water until my mother finally put in plumbing. In winter we slept beside the wood stove in sleeping bags, and we hung blankets to keep heat from escaping upstairs.”

They were poor, and behind her back kids made fun of Daphne’s lack of grooming. But from the day Daphne entered kindergarten she became a star. Teachers had heard of the child who inhaled books and arithmetic. While other kindergartners learned to read, Daphne went to the library to pore over books with Mrs. Tidd, the librarian. At six she learned to program her father’s homemade computer. “She was programming in machine language,” recalls her mother, “a series of hexadecimal symbols. It was beyond me.” Teachers said they had never seen such a student in their district. By fourth grade the school placed her with eighth-graders for prealgebra, and she stayed with the older kids for language arts. “When I went through puberty it was a problem,” she says. “I’d get crushes on these guys who’d never look at me.

“I wasn’t popular,” she says. “The other kids thought I was a snob, but I was totally shy and terrified that people wouldn’t like me. When I was in seventh grade kids called me ‘AIDS,’ like I was a disease. I’d play this game: Which would I pick, being beautiful and popular, or being smart? Popular kids always had someone to sit with at lunch. I’d choose smart. It was kind of like a pep talk.”

Her fourth-grade teacher wrote on Daphne’s report card: “Daphne is the dream of every classroom teacher.” She added this cautionary note: “We must be careful to remember that she is still a ten-year-old. We must include her in as many group activities as possible to ensure she does not become a loner.”

In academic competitions, she became the target. “Everyone wanted me to lose in spelling bees,” she says. One day in seventh grade she raced from an Odyssey of the Mind competition in the morning to the state spelling-bee championship at Colby College. “I got there late,” she says. She was furious when she missed “noisome.” That year she went to Washington, D.C., as the youngest and only female on the Maine Math Counts team. She remembers competing for a spot on the four-person state team and sitting in a hallway when “a boy came up to me. He said, ‘You’re Daphne Brinkerhoff? I’m going to beat you.’ “

In Washington Daphne found herself matched against the brightest math students in the country. “I saw these kids on the stage doing equations, solving problems, while I was still trying to figure out what the problem was. I remember thinking, ‘So this is the end of the whole genius thing. There are people out there so much smarter.’ “

She had one friend, a boy named Christopher. They shared fantasy fiction books and played Dungeons & Dragons on the playground, inventing worlds only the two of them could inhabit. Then Christopher moved away. Daphne would imagine that she was walking around a world full of enemies and she would not let them see her pain. She wrote for hours in her journal, her one constant friend. She had academic medals and trophies and ribbons and report cards filled with only A’s, but the smartest girl in Maine may also have been the loneliest.

Everyone assumed Daphne would attend Harvard or Yale, both of which accepted her eagerly. But Daphne never filled out the final papers to attend. “I think I was afraid,” she says. “I knew I lacked discipline. It didn’t matter at Hodgdon. The teachers knew I was smart. I got the A’s. At Harvard I would have felt I had to do well. I didn’t know if I could. There was this mystique: Harvard — the hardest school in the country. My guidance counselor said to me, ‘Harvard called. They wanted to know why you turned them down. I told them you’re thinking of transferring later.’ ” The University of Maine seemed like a pool of warm, shallow water, and a boyfriend she had her senior year would also be attending.

I drive Daphne to her house on a quiet Portland street. I ask if she’d write me about herself. A short time later she sends a 5,000-word e-mail.

When winning is predictable, it’s boring. Winning is a psychodrama, it’s a metaphor, which is why it reaches us so strongly. It says: She wanted that and she got it, and I can get what I want. It’s a dream of effectiveness. Power, but in the sense “power to,” not “power over.” I guess I’m upset because I didn’t really want all those things I won, and I wonder how many times that’s true in the world, people struggling to get these honors they don’t care about. What did I care about winning the spelling bee? I just wanted to do it because I could, because I felt it was expected of me. The question here is why did I feel this need to win everything all the time? … Because I’m a Brinkerhoff, and Brinkerhoffs think they know everything.

We stayed in touch sporadically. She was fired from 7-Eleven four months later. The gas man came to her house to turn off the heat. She had 23 books overdue from the Portland Public Library and owed $32 in fines. She was still fighting the desire to stay in bed or play computer games all day.

When I see her again in May of 2000 she is working as a census taker. We eat at a floating restaurant docked in the harbor. I ask if she misses the 12-year-old Daphne, the prodigy. “What people saw in me is still there,” she says. “But I know people will be incredulous. I know I’ll have to explain all this.”

She says, “I know I’m not a genius. I can learn math and get degrees in it, but my creativity is not there. It would be much more clear if I was a genius: ‘Oh, that’s what I’m here on earth to do.’ I’d have no choice but to follow it.”

She says she wants to find a way to make a living that is socially responsible. She wants to be a writer, but suffers from writer’s block, what she calls “this emptiness, dry like a riverbed.” She knows she cripples herself by overanalyzing:

“What do I have to say that is useful to anyone” she writes, “that is ‘mine’ and not just a copy of someone else’s thoughts? If it’s faith, then I’ll stay up all night writing until my fingers fall off, if that would bring me inspiration. But most likely it won’t. I seem unable to act from a place where I can remember the simple solidity of my fingers resting on this keyboard, from a place where the moment is not on the way to something else but is just here. I can act. I can shape and form. I know what it is I can do. I can speak. But there is nothing to say.”

To my surprise, she seems happier. “I think my right path will come,” she says. “I haven’t lost all faith in myself. I hope I’m leaving my angst behind. I’m trying to trade the pursuit of intellectual achievement for wisdom. My intelligence has always been there — but not my wisdom, whatever that means.” She says if she could be anyone else she’d want to be the author Ursula K. LeGuin. “She’s wise,” she says. “If ever I had a conversation with her, I think she’d agree with me about the pointlessness of fame and money.” She’s been reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, “trying to think about how the world really works. The Western way of thinking is the status quo, climbing the ladder. This book is the opposite.”

I ask what she likes about herself now. “I’m less likely to think a stranger will be ready not to like me,” she says. “Even at Pat’s Pizza I knew people liked me, and I liked them.”

I found Ursula LeGuin’s translation of the Tao. I read:

“Knowing other people is intelligence, / knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength, /overcoming yourself takes greatness. / Contentment is wealth.”

Later I phone Dr. Julian Stanley. I ask if he has kept track of Daphne. He said he knew she had graduated from college in 1997, but that was all he knew. I tell him some of her story. “Some of the brightest students don’t have ambition,” he says. “I brought a boy to Johns Hopkins — he finished in three years. Now he delivers pizzas. I used to sort of worship I.Q. But you can’t major in I.Q. There’s a lot to be said for the work ethic. It can be so hard for some of these students if they don’t have role models. If they are just by themselves, their intelligence can be a dilemma.”
Dr. Jean Gibbons, associate director at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, listened patiently to Daphne’s story. “It’s really hard to be a minority of one,” she says. “It’s easy to think there’s something wrong with you, not something wonderful.”

I speak with two teachers who had taught Daphne when she lived in New Limerick. They both have lost touch with her, and both say the same thing: “Have you met the family?”

There is a personal history I crave to erase. — e-mail from Daphne

— — — —

I am driving Daphne north to New Limerick on a late October day, nearly a year after we first met. Daphne has never learned to drive — the bus ride from Portland is long, and she has not been back for many months. Her phone calls home are now as rare as if she lived in a foreign country. She started a new job in June, conducting phone interviews for a marketing-research company. It is part-time, but she finds she can do this work well. It is nearing five when we reach her house. Her mother will soon be home from her job at Wal-Mart in Houlton. I drop Daphne off at the house, which is just as she described it — a pickup without a motor sits in the front yard; a few feet away, a yellow Jeep with a splintered windshield and no brakes, as if untouched since her childhood. I say I’ll go to Houlton and pick up pizzas for everyone.

I return an hour or so later. Daphne lets me in. I walk through the living room dominated by her father’s motorcycle that will be stored here for the winter, then into the ” ‘dining room,’ although there hasn’t been a table in there for years,” where her father keeps his collection of 20 guns. The house needs attention. “It’s not pretty,” Barbara will soon tell me, “but it’s paid for.” She will add that their property taxes are $58.62 a year. Daphne’s father is growing deaf in his left ear, and his voice dominates a room. I hear him rising over the conversation before I see him. Daphne had called him “the genius of Houlton.” He’d bring canisters of helium and let the children experiment to see what they could lift with balloons and plastic bags. He brought home an old computer and let them explore its innards.

Her father, mother, brother David, and David’s girlfriend are gathered in the kitchen. Her father looks up, focuses for an instant on the stranger bringing pizzas, and barks, “Talk about Jewish!” Daphne looks away and retreats to the corner with her mother. The room is quiet for a moment, then conversation begins again while pizza boxes are opened.

Her brother David sits on one end of the table with his father. He is broke and out of work. “Everyone in this family is a genius except me,” he says. “From the time I went to school, it was, ‘That’s Daphne’s brother.’ I think it’s a good deal to talk with people who don’t know my family.” His girlfriend says just a few weeks earlier she had told her business teacher she was dating David Brinkerhoff. “He said, ‘Oh, Daphne’s brother.’ “
Barbara was the first female on both sides of her family to graduate from high school. She sits beside Daphne in a corner of the kitchen, away from the men, smoking Kools. She brushes Daphne’s long hair.

“So, did you feel pressured?” Barbara asks.

“Yes,” says Daphne.

“But you learned to relax.”

“After,” says Daphne.

“Will you go back to grad school?”


“I always put a big effort into not talking about this,” Barbara says. “I got sick of being the mother of a genius. I feel she was a spectacle at school. I was at a school meeting and a teacher said to me, ‘It’s no wonder Daphne’s so smart. Look who her father is.’ “

At this moment her father is washing down his pizza with donuts and beer and handfuls of salted pine nuts. He holds up his fingers, showing off the stubs on the index finger and thumb of his left hand. He says he blew off the fingertips as a boy while playing with blasting caps. “Makes it easier to open a beer bottle,” he says.
He worked as an electrician at the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, a wafer wood mill in New Limerick that dominates the area and keeps property taxes low. Then, when Daphne was 14, he left the mill to open a motor repair shop with a friend. The business was not successful. After three years he hurt his back and spent months lying down. His garage became a tinkerer’s haven. In here he has rigged up a generator that runs off a chain saw; he’s invented a way for skidders to start in extreme cold; he says he has yet to see a machine he can’t figure out, yet there’s no backup heat in the house and if anything gets repaired in the house it’s Barbara who must do it. “He never finishes things,” she says. “He works when and for as long as he wants.” He never made much money, but he never cared. His needs were few. “The only way to ride,” he says. “Live cheap and play.
“I have my own little world,” he says. “I construct things for pleasure. I don’t care about using them. Everything is fun to me. People think it’s the end product that you’re after. No, it’s doing the work.” When he’d fire his rifles and pistols and machine guns, the joy came from seeing the machines work to perfection, he says. It distresses him now that his shooting helped destroy his hearing, and his eyesight is also fading.

He speaks slowly, savoring every word with an audience. “I went to high school one year, and they thought I was retarded or something. Sent me to a school psychologist. My stepfather said I’d never amount to anything. There’s only one teacher I remember,” he says. “He was a potato farmer named Byron. If I asked him a question and he didn’t know the answer, he’d say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but we can find out.’ And he’d find out.”

Daphne had told me he was singularly unimpressed with her academic achievements. He’d soak up technical manuals, not understanding her desire to read poetry and novels.

“Drivel,” he’d say.

“It’s my opinion,” he announces this evening, “when someone says you’re smart, it’s in comparison to someone who’s mediocre. Intelligence to me is if you’re in an entirely new situation and can figure things out. That’s intelligence, not what you already know. Life is not fun unless I’m learning something,” he says. He taught himself to weld, to be a pipe fitter. “I always liked taking a job I didn’t know a thing about. If there was a job for a rocket scientist, I’d say, ‘Sure, I’ve done that,’ then I’d teach myself.”

Suddenly he turns to Daphne.

“How do you measure heat?”

Daphne pauses. “A thermometer?”

“You idiot,” her father says. “That measures temperature, not heat.”

The phone rings. Barbara answers it in the next room. “It’s for you, Daphne.” Daphne is surprised. “Who would be calling me here?” On the phone is a member of her 1991 high-school graduating class. The tenth anniversary reunion will be in summer. Would she come?

When Daphne returns to the kitchen she shrugs, “Oh, I don’t know if I can go back until I’ve done something.”

The next morning I return to the Brinkerhoffs’ to pick up Daphne for the drive back to Portland. Barbara is at Wal-Mart. Daphne and her father are in the kitchen. Without an audience he speaks softer. I ask him how many people live in New Limerick. “That would be low on my list of things to know,” he says.

When Daphne rises to leave, her father gives her a long hug. “I remember when they were little,” he says. “I remember my son David, he’d spend hours putting pencils in holes, in and out. I’d just sit and watch him. When they took their first steps, how they’d giggle.”

On the way home Daphne wants to stop in Orono and get lunch at Pat’s Pizza. When she walks in the waitresses come over and hug her. She asks about everyone. I look at Daphne hugging the employees, see the flush of acceptance on her face, and I realize she is passing her greatest test — just learning how to be a part of a world where she will always be different.

In April of 2001 Daphne was promoted by Critical Insights, a strategic marketing-research firm in Portland that is one of the nation’s leading researchers for antismoking advertising campaigns. For the first time she would be full-time, benefits and all. “I saw her potential,” says Nancy Harman, Information Center director. “She was so versatile. Obviously superior. Not only was she a good interviewer, but she could edit, code, and enter data.”

A few weeks before Daphne’s high-school classmates will gather in Houlton for their reunion, I phone Daphne. She says she won’t be going. “I still can’t drive,” she explains. I can’t go to my reunion having my mother drive me.”

“Every time I speak with her, her voice sounds more assured. “I’m sure I won’t be rich and famous,” she says. “I hope I can just be friendly. I envision all these people coming to me and saying, ‘Daphne, you didn’t really achieve what we thought, did you?’ And I’d like to say, ‘No, but I love my cat. Here’s where I am and I’m happy with me.’ “

“You know,” she says. “The 20th reunion is the important one. That’s when our lives are more formed. I’ll be there for that one.”