Podcast Episode: Flowers for Algernon

“He doesn’t realise I was a person before I came here,” is one of the many heart-breaking realisations discussed in a sci-fi masterwork centred on neurodivergency and trauma. I’m talking about Flowers for Algernon, a Hugo and Nebula-winning novel by Daniel Keyes.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will discuss Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes. I came across it thanks to a recommendation of a BookTube channel I watch regularly, Zara, from BooksWithZara (her link will be in the description). I devoured Flowers for Algernon in a single day and knew I had to alter my episodes schedule to talk about it.

Before starting, let me make some disclaimers:

  • Flowers for Algernon is not for the feeble-hearted. And if you have past experiences of trauma, childhood abuse, and being bullied as a child… you may not want to pick it up.
  • Likewise, although I will not be explicit in this episode, you may want to be prepared to hear about emotional abuse. Thus, be aware that there are spoilers in this podcast.
  • Finally, what you will hear is my subjective analysis of this book. You are allowed and entitled to disagree and differ.

That said, let’s start with some trivia about the book and author.

Daniel Keyes received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College in 1950, and eventually, he began writing for Atlas Comics, the precursor for Marvel Comics. In 1959, he wrote a novellete titled Flowers for Algernon which won a Hugo award. Keyes extended it to a novel, published in 1966, and that won the Nebula Award. In 1968, the book was adapted into a movie (titled Charly), which won both ran Academy Award and a Golden Globe. From 1966 onwards, Keyes taught creative writing at Wayne State University, and passed away in 2014.

Flowers for Algernon has some unique qualities that I want to mention.

  • First of all, I could classify this as period sci-fi. Yes, I completely invented that subgenre. My point is that this book is not set in a near- or far-future society, but in a timeline that was current to the time it was written, but that now lays in the past; in this case, the storyline happens in the mid-1960’s. Therefore, the time and society in which it is set actually impacts the narrative.
  • Second, the science is explained quite subtly, glossed over and, albeit it enables and drives the plot, it is discussed in an accessible way.
  • Third, this is an epistolary narrative, told from a collection of progress reports (think of it as a personal diary) written by the protagonist, Charlie Gordon.

In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon (our protagonist) was diagnosed with phenylketonuria (also known as PKU). According to the Mayo Clinic, this is “a rare inherited disorder that causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up. Untreated phenylketonuria can lead to brain damage, intellectual disabilities, behavioural symptoms or seizures.”1 According to the websites of the Mayo Clinic and Boston Children’s Hospital2, one in 15000 babies are born with PKU, screening is mandatory for all newborns, and diagnosed people will need a special diet to reduce the risk of brain damage.

In this book, set in the mid-1960s, Charlie is (unsurprinsingly) left untreated, and by his mid-thirties, he demonstrates considerable brain damage. His memory is short-term only, he has no imagination and takes everything at face value. He cannot spell or speak correctly, has motor problems, and so on. At his age, Charlie continues to attend a school for quote-on-quote “slow of learning” adults.

Thrugh that school, Charlie is picked up by two doctors, Nemur and Strauss, who have a research grant to investigate the use of enzymes to revert the effects of PKU. The readers are explained that they experimented in several mice and that the last one (named Algernon, currently alive) has quote-on-quote “maintained its intelligence” for long enough to move into human trials. Nowadays, it would be outright impossible to perform the experiments on this book due to the Ethical Reviews that are currently in place. Anyways, the doctors contact Charlie’s long-lost sister, who signs a consent on his behalf, and Charlie is operated on, expecting he will become “super intelligent” and a “genius”.

Up to here, and with a 2023 mindset, you are probably rolling your eyes at the quote-on-quote trope of: “guy that undergoes experiment and becomes super-intelligent, then something happens”. Nowadays, there are plenty of books, comics, and movies with a similar trope; in most cases, the now-intelligent person becomes emotionally detached and distant, as if they are above emotions. Yet that… couldn’t be farthest from the truth; Flowers for Algernon is entirely different.

In actuality, Charlie does acquire logical intelligence progressing in strides until he actually surpasses the doctors and makes the equations that irrevocably demonstrate that Algernon is dying and that he will probably die as well. Yet throughout the storyline, Charlie’s logical intelligence is taken as a given, with the occasional demonstration that the guy actually became extremely intelligent.

The actual focus of Flowers for Algernon is what makes it such a heart-breaking, ahead-of-its-time story by delving into three main themes.

  • First, as Charlie gains intelligence and reasoning, he stops taking people’s actions at face value, and begins to realise that emotional intelligence is as important as logical intelligence. Charlie goes on a journey from not understanding his own emotions to seeing that a laugh can actually be mocking.
  • Second theme is actually the effects of a traumatic childhood. Charlie’s mother was abusive, he was bullied in school, subjected to pseudo-science, and eventually abandoned. As he gains emotional intelligence he recalls those events, links them to current traumatic responses, and suffers panic attacks.
  • The third and last theme discusses how people are worthy of love and respect regardless of their intellectual abilities.

I want to touch these three elements. As I mentioned briefly, the book uses the period-accurate R-word to refer to Charlie; instead, I will use the currently accepted term neurodivergent-Charlie to refer to him before the operation, neurotypical-Charlie for him immediately after the operation, and genius-Charlie for when the character exceeds the doctors in intelligence.

As I mentioned, the story is told through the collection of Charlie’s progress reports, which is a diary he keeps as part of the experiment–and the author used the spelling and sentence structure to demonstrate Charlie’s neurodivergency. At the start, the text is completely mispelled to the point it is hard to read, punctuation is scarce, and the choice of words is simplistic–short, simple words, used to generate a child-like assessment of the world.

Through Charlie’s writing and before the operation, we read distressing events, especially because you have the juxtaposition of Charlie’s misinterpretation plus your own judgement as a reader about what he is describing.

For example, at the start, Charlie works as a janitor in a bakery; the other neurotypical adults there mock him, push or hit Charlie to make him tumble to the floor and laugh. Once, they take him to a pub, get him to dance with a lampshade on his head, then send Charlie to the other block to “see if it is raining”, only to ditch him at midnight… yet neurodivergent-Charlie sees them as “friends” and that “everything is funny” because “they were laughing”. At some point, we get told that at the bakery, the other employees say they, quote-on-quote, “pulled a Charlie Gordon” whenever they do something dumb or foolish.

That is bullying, as readers we can see that clearly… but neurodivergent-Charlie doesn’t. Let me read you a quote from a progress report. “This morning […] the head baker […] used my name when he shouted at Ernie because Ernie losst a birthday cake. He said Ernie for godsake you trying to be a Charlie Gordon. I dont know why he said that. I never lost any packiges.” (sic)

This Charlie, before the operation, takes gestures at face value–namely, if a person is laughing, therefore they are happy; he doesn’t understand that laughter can be mocking or bullying, nor that people are laughing at him, and not with him… which is something that he eventually begins to unravel.

Curiously, as soon as the operation is done, they assign Dr Strauss (a psychologist!) to work with Charlie. Dr Strauss says to Charlie, “Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth. And I think that you’ll find that as you progress, there will be many things you’ll want to talk me about. I just want you to remember that this is the place for you to come when you need help”. Remember. This book was written in 1959, and the storyline is, very early from the start, highlighting that mental health and emotional intelligence are both as important as logical intelligence.

Why did Dr Strauss say this? Well, we can infer it first, and then we slowly read it. At the start, with full PKU, Charlie only has short-term memory. So, as the effects of the operation begin to take hold, Charlie slowly gains long-term memory… thus remembering the harassment and abuse he has lived through. Moreso, because he now has a more neurotypical interpretation of body language and intentions, Charlie begins comprehending the sad truth–that he was relentlessly bullied because he was neurodivergent.

For example, Charlie remembers one time when two work colleagues (Joe and Frank) took him to a pub and forced a woman (named Ellen) to dance with Charlie–and when Charlie remembers this, he begins comprehending. Let me read from the book: “I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Her rubbing up against me made me feel funny. Everyone was laughing at me and all of a sudden I felt naked. I wanted to hide myself so they wouldn’t see. […] I found the stairs and ran out into the street and walked for a long time before I went to my room. I never knew before that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around just to make fun of me. Now I know what they mean when they say ’to pull a Charlie Gordon.’ I’m ashamed.”

Heartbreakingly, Charlie slowly begins to realise how most neurotypical people will often despise those different from them. Charlie writes: “People think it is funny when a dumb person can’t do things the same way they can,” which leads us to a key point within the story–Charlie gets fired from the bakery. Why?

Well, in the story, Charlie’s boss argues that everybody else is scared of Charlie’s changes and suggests he asks the people in question. Charlie, unexpectedly, goes to do just that and Frank (the bully from before) shouts at Charlie that, “Because all of a sudden you are big shot, a know-it-all, a brain! Now you’re a regular whiz kid, an egghead. Always with a book–always with all the answers. […] You come pushing in here with your ideas and suggestions and make the rest of us look like a bunch of dopes.” This is the face-value of what is happening, and something I also discussed in Episode #1–that people hate those more intelligent because seeing other people succeed or have the answers will, in turn, show how simple-minded they are. This is a erronous because someone’s abilities do not invalidate someone else’s worth… yet even nowadays, in 2023, a lot of people will feel threatened by someone more intelligent.

Nevertheless, the important bit is what Frank’s words imply. You have to understand that these people bullied Charlie for seventeen years. The laughed at him, pranked him viciously, and abandoned him on the street simply because it seemed quote-on-quote “funny” to tease a neurodivergent person. They hit him, stroked him, and even joked with Charlie’s name… because neurodivergent-Charlie didn’t understand what was happening to him–but now, neurotypical-Charlie knows. And Charlie’s knowledge brings the guilt in the abusers; their actions are now out in the open… and that bothers them.

Let me ask again, why? Why does Charlie’s change bothers them? Because intelligence does not determine someone’s worth. However, for the bullies, neurodivergent-Charlie was not worthy of respect or human kindness simply because of his diagnosis. In the bullies’ twisted mindset, Charlie’s operation made him neurotypical and (as terrible as it sounds) worthy of a respect they never offered.

Let’s dive into how Flowers for Algernon discusses this theme.

At the beginning of the book, Charlie is described to have “an unusual motivation to be smart”. On the first few pages, neurodivergent-Charlie writes “I just want to be smart like other people, so I can have lots of friends who like me,” which is sad, because, at that point, Charlie was thinking like the bullies–that he will have friends (namely and sadly, be worthy) once he became “smart”. When the psychologist asks why Charlie wants to be “smart” (which is purposefully quite a vague choice of words), Charlie says, “All my life I wanted to be smart and not dumb and my mom always told me to try and learn, but it is very hard to be smart.”

We will discuss Charlie’s mother (named Rose) when talking about childhood trauma. Let me say that, toddler-Charlie heard Rose yell about this multiple times. Rose shouted that, “He’s normal! He’s normal! He’ll grow up like other people. Better than others. […] He’ll go to college someday. He’ll be somebody”. Let me make a pause and declare my abhorrence for Rose’s character–I have seldom hated a character as fast and as strongly as I hate Charlie’s mother; every single sentence about her induces vomit.

Breathe in, breathe out; rant over. Okay, let’s move on with the argument. We can see that Charlie grew up with this awful mindset of equating intelligence to worth. Nonetheless, as he begins to become neurotypical, Charlie reaches an incredible realisation, saying that: “But as I write these words, something inside shouts that there is more. I’m a person. I was somebody before I went under the surgeon’s knife.” (Let me make a parenthesis, and picture me shouting ‘Finally, Charlie!’).

Moving on, the doctors doing the experiment, actually make several poignant remarks implying that they quote-on-quote “created” Charlie. Neurotypical-Charlie, now understanding the implications of body-language and verbal-language, actually writes: “[…] that is one of the things I resent here–the attitude that I am a guinea pig. Nemur’s constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings. […] He […] doesn’t understand there are human feelings involved. He doesn’t realise that I was a person before I came here.”

To further impress that point, the doctors take neurotypical-Charlie to a psychology conference and literally put him on display. Charlie is sitting in the conference while they show videos of his neurodivergent self open-mouthed and failing at simple motions… and everybody laughs! While Charlie is sitting there! Charlie, however, has opinions about it, writing that: “No one in this room considered me an individual–a human being. The constant juxtaposition of ‘Algernon and Charlie’ […] made it clear that they thought of both of us as a couple of experimental animals.” A little bit after that, Charlie adds, “I wanted to get up and show everyone what a fool [Nemur] was, to shout at him: I’m a human being, a person–with parents and memories and a history–and I was a person before you ever wheeled me into that operating room!

Charlie literally escapes from the doctors after that, takes his savings from the bank, and rents an apartment where nobody knew who he was… and the story shows us through the attitudes of his new neighbours how differently he is treated. The landlady is kind to him and appreciates him, his girl-next-door actually flirts with him and takes him to dance, and taxi-drivers treat Charlie with apparent respect since he is dressed in a suit.

Eventually, genius-Charlie returns to the doctors and takes over the experiment to find out why Algernon is dying. The lead doctor, Nemur gets extremely angry at Charlie, asking, “I want to know if you feel gratitude for all the things that have been done for you–the abilities you’ve developed. […] You know we’ve always treated you well–done everyone we could for you.” By this point, Charlie is (and probably the readers, as I was), rightfully fed up with this ableist nonsense. Charlie answers: “Everything but treat me as a human being. You’ve boasted […] that I was nothing before the experiment, and I know why. Because if I was nothing, then you were responsible for creating me, […] You look shocked! Yes, suddenly, we discover that I am always a person–even before–and that challenges your belief that someone with an IQ of less than 100 doesn’t deserve consideration. Professor Nemur, I think when you look at me, your conscience bothers you.”

In modern terms, that is a blazing mic-drop. Moreover, it actually ties in with the attitude of the colleagues at the bakery–they wanted him out of it because their conscience bothered them. They could easily mistreat neurodivergent-Charlie, who didn’t have the means to understand that he was being bullied… and then they couldn’t withstand being near him when Charlie had the ability to call them out in their abusive behaviour. These bullies, even Professor Nemur, wanted someone docile, someone who would let the abuse go on… but then shifted the blame back to Charlie to appease their own marred consciousness.

In any case, the book drives the point home–neurodivergent-Charlie was as worthy of love as genius-Charlie was. Now, sit back and remember that Flowers for Algernon was coined in 1959. Let that sink in. I told you it was ahead of its time.

Let’s move on to the last (and equally important) theme. By now, you understand that:

  1. neurodivergent-Charlie was bullied and abused (both emotionally and physically), but that
  2. he also didn’t have the means to realise that.

Point #2 is the reason why he was assigned a therapist from the start. And I want to return to Charlie’s despicable mother. As we mentioned before, neurodivergent-Charlie doesn’t have long-term memory, and he only begins recalling his mother’s abuse as the experiment progresses.

You may have guessed it from the quote above, but Charlie’s mother (named Rose) exhibits (at first) and extreme denial of Charlie’s condition and, instead of loving him and helping him, Rose wants to force him to be normal. For example, in one scene the mother shouts, “He’s not a dummy. He’s normal. He’ll be just like everyone else!” while 6-years-old Charlie plays with a spinner. In an outburst, she knocks it off his hand and forces him to play with the alphabet, but Charlie gets increasingly scared all while Rose continues to shout at him. The father asks, “Why don’t you leave him alone?”. Rose answers, “Because I want him to be like everyone else.”

As a child, Charlie has incontinence issues and, Rose being the monster she is, spanks him more violently every time, even reaching for a belt or a plank. Charlie gets traumatised by this, and whenever he gets scared, even genius-Charlie feels his bowels softening when people get angry around him–which is one of the many triggers of a traumatic response we see in this story.

Do you remember that Flowers for Algernon is set in the mid-sixties? Well, Rose starts splurging money to take Charlie to a pseudo-science scammer who straps 7-years-old Charlie to a table, puts a cloth in his mouth, and shocks him with electricity. The treatment is presented as expensive, Rose wants to take him there twice a week, saying that “Maybe [this doctor] can make him like the other children.”

When Charlie gets a sister (called Norma), Rose’s attitude changes radically, and she becomes increasingly more violent. At this point, genius-Charlie narrates the events of his youth in third person, and tells a heart-breaking story: “Now he had the clear picture of Charlie’s mother, screaming at him, holding a leather belt in her hand and his father trying to hold her back. ‘Enough, Rose! You will kill him! Leave him alone!’ His mother is straining forward to lash at him, just out of reach now so that the belt swishes past his shoulder as he writhes and twists away from it on the floor.”

In the current timeline, some events happen that are similar to what actually sparked Rose’s irrational wrath… and genius-Charlie breaks. He is talking to a woman (a teacher), but he blanks, and says he was “waiting for the panic”, adding that “it started: the buzzing, the chill, and the nausea. […] Ashamed, and no longer able to control my anguish, I began to sob.” In other words, Charlie went through a trauma trigger (something that sparked the memory of a traumatic scene), thus bringing forth the fear he felt as a child when Rose got irrationally angry–and although the situation (in the current timeline) was not dangerous, Charlie’s mind made the fear to be real.

Returning to Rose–why did she stop wanting to change Charlie? The book is challenging to read at this point, so I’ll summarise it. Norma was (perhaps as the name clues in) neurotypical, and thus Rose had a quote-on-quote “normal child” now; as she grows, teenager-Norma gets bullied for having Charlie as a brother. Norma starts telling everyone that Charlie was adopted, until one night (and in a rage!), Charlie’s mother flings a kitchen knife to her husband, forcing him to pick Charlie and literally dump him in a house for neurodivergent children.

At some point, genius-Charlie (when he was surpassing the doctor’s abilities) actually ties his mother’s desire for him to be normal, to that vague motivation to be smart that I mentioned before. Charlie realises that: “Now I can see where I got the unusual motivation for becoming smart […]. It was something Rose Gordon lived with day and night. Her fear, her guilt, her shame that Charlie was a moron. Her dream that something could be done.”

We can see that poor Charlie had parents who actually despised him (Rose was violent, and his father referred to Charlie as quote-on-quote “cross to bear”, which is utterly disgusting), was abused emotionally and physically, while at the same time had no way of knowing or understanding what was happening to him. Yet the doctors doing the experiment, terrible as they were, understood Charlie would need a psychologist’s support as he began to rationalise these events–namely, mental health was equally important.

This leads us to a brief tangent that reinforces the underlying theme of emotional intelligence is as important as logical intelligence. Genius-Charlie states this: “Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown.”

Before the experiment begins to wear off, genius-Charlie manages to make a ground-breaking discovery that demonstrates, with mathematical equations, how the experiment would wear off–demonstrating he is about to return to who he was before. At this peak of neurotypical intelligence (and this is a mighty spoiler)… do you know what genius-Charlie does?

He goes to his mother’s house, to give her the academic paper he just published! When he reaches the house, and sees Rose on the porch, Charlie narrates: “My tongue kept getting in the way, like a huge obstruction, and my mouth was dry. […] With all the things I had learned–in all the languages I had mastered–all I could say to her, standing on the porch staring at me, was, ‘Maaaa.’ Like a dry mouthed lamb at the udder.”

That is trauma, people. At that point in the story, Charlie was a genius, knowing almost every language and scientific discipline, challenging contemporaneous theories… but even then, the sight of his primary abuse, his mother, destroyed him. Left him speechless.

Let me add a bit of context, so that we can all get enraged together. Flowers for Algernon, written in 1959 and expanded in 1966, shows the effects of a traumatic childhood and how triggers can be carried into adulthood–we just discussed that in length. However, the American Psychiatric Association only introduced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a mental health diagnosis in 19803–exactly 24 years after this book. Worse off, Complex PTSD (caused by prolonged or repetitive exposure to a series of traumatic events) was proposed as a diagnosis in 1992, and rrecognised by the World Health Organisation in 20184. Flowers for Algernon was waaaaay ahead of its time.

So, that trope of “person gets very intelligent and emotionally detached?” Nope, you won’t find that in Flowers of Algernon. On the contrary, you’ll go on an emotional ride of a man who becomes a genius while still dealing with the sequels of the abuse he suffered. Yet, regardless of how grim Flowers for Algernon is… there is a fantastic takeaway–one that I discussed here.

Someone’s worth is not, and will never be, tied to their intellectual abilities. We are all worthy of love, regardless of what we can and cannot do. Remember to be gentle with people; don’t be like Rose, like Frank or Joe, or like the doctors. Be kind, be respectful, and above all, remember that you are dealing with other humans as valuable as you.

That said, and before this episode ends, let me acknowledge that I only covered the tip of the iceberg. Flowers for Algernon has actually so much more to offer. Other secondary themes I found, are:

  • How reasoning allows you to question authority.
  • How society is not prepared for the exceptional cases, on either sides of the spectrum.
  • And there is a subplot of neurotypical/genius-Charlie disassociating from young/neurodivergent-Charlie and talking about him in third person (which could likely be related to the childhood trauma).

Furthermore, if you are going to pick it up, I recommend that you read Flowers for Algernon (physical or ebook) or do an immersive reading, rather than picking up only the audiobook. Why? Because you have to witness the spelling and the writing itself, since that is used to show Charlie’s progress.

With that said, I hope you have enjoyed this second episode! Remember, this is just my opinion, and you are entitled and allowed to interpret Flowers for Algernon differently. So, what are your thoughts on it? And also, do you have any book recommendations for me?

Thanks for listening, and happy reading.

If you are on Goodreads, you can read my review of FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON here. As you can imagine, I gave it 5 stars.