Located along the banks of the Piscataquis River, just ninety miles south of the Canadian border, the sleepy town of Howland, Maine, has managed to keep much of its rural charm intact over the years. The most exciting news around town nowadays in Howland is a tourist spotting an occasional moose or bald eagle. But back in 1894 the town was ground zero of an intriguing mystery, one that defies our deepest assumptions about the resilience of the human spirit.
During the summer of that year, on a warm July day, Percy Spencer was born. There was nothing unusual or extraordinary about Percy’s birth or about his family. His father, Jasper Spencer, worked in Howland’s sawmills. His mother, Myrtle, following the tradition of the times, stayed at home taking care of the household. Percy’s childhood was set to be quite normal, and so it was at first. But when he was just a toddler, tragedy struck at the sawmill. A rotating saw unexpectedly splintered, and the centripetal force sent shards flying in all directions. One of the pieces struck Percy’s father, who died almost instantly.
The news sent Percy’s mother into shock. The disaster proved too much for her to handle, and soon after the incident she fled the family home, never to return. Now orphaned, with no one to take care of him, young Percy was sent to live with his aunt and uncle.
Losing one’s parents, especially at such a formative age, obviously has a lasting emotional impact. But fortunately for Percy, he had a roof over his head and family who loved him. He developed a special bond with his uncle, who became like a father to him. They both enjoyed tinkering with machinery. When Percy was just five, his uncle brought home a steam log hauler—essentially a locomotive that did not require train tracks—that was in need of repair. The large machine had recently broken down in the heavy winter snow, and Percy’s uncle had been entrusted with its care. The mechanical wonder was like nothing Percy had ever seen before, and his excitement was palpable.
Percy also developed a love of nature and animals and spent much of his free time in the woods. On one occasion he spotted a cougar—one of the last remaining in Maine—up in a tree. But just as young Percy was acclimating to his new life, tragedy struck once more. When he was seven, his uncle died. The loss was a crushing blow to the family emotionally, but it also took a huge financial toll. Times were hard, and although Percy showed a penchant for learning, he was forced to drop out of school before completing the fifth grade to help support the family. The remainder of his childhood consisted of an adult regimen: wake up before dawn, put in a full day at the spool mill, and return home after sundown.
Put yourself, for a moment, in young Percy’s shoes. You have no memories of your biological
parents. Your mother left you when you were an infant. Your uncle, who was like a father to you, died when you were in second grade. And armed with only a fifth-grade education, you now spend every workday performing manual labor. It wouldn’t be surprising if your sense of trust in the world around you began to erode. “Everyone who loves me either ends up dying or leaving,” you might start to reason. You might even go as far as to blame yourself for the disasters that occurred: “Why is this happening to me? Why did my mother abandon me? Is my life always going to be filled with hardships?” Eventually, even a hardy soul can lose strength.
Difficult life events can take a psychological toll on an individual. Indeed, the notion that traumatic life events cause psychological harm seems so obvious that for many years psychologists assumed that it was virtually always the case. Experience a significant hardship, the belief went, and your life will be impacted for the worse.
This harm-leads-to-distress model of human psychology became a truism in the field—that is, until psychologist Emmy Werner came along. A newly minted Ph.D. with a specialty in developmental psychology, Werner had no idea she was about to throw her entire discipline into disarray. As a young professor, Werner spent most of her time performing statistical analyses on a project that tracked mothers and their babies living in Kauai, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian archipelago. When the project’s chief researcher retired, Werner inherited the project’s data. For a developmental psychologist, it was a gold mine. The first thing she did was to broaden the study’s scope and follow a cohort of children from birth onward, tracking their performance over the course of their lives. Instead of observing participants in an artificial laboratory setting, she monitored real people living their lives.
To collect the new data, Werner assembled a team of professionals— social workers, nurses, physicians, a clinical psychologist— who helped her track the children. The researchers even collected prenatal data. Essentially, the study subjects, all 698 of them, were recruited as participants before they were even born.
“At the time, the focus of our study and others like it,” Werner explained to me, “was very much on risk.” Remember that psychologists were under the impression that children who grew up in difficult environments would inevitably develop psychological distress. Werner wanted to measure how these kids fared in the face of adversity.
Although some of the children that Werner followed were at risk, a large group that essentially served as a control came from healthy, normal backgrounds. For the most part, those children led completely ordinary, regular lives. In other words, they were not exposed to any major life stressors and enjoyed supportive home environments. And, as you might expect, for the most part they performed well in school, stayed out of serious trouble, and did not manifest any major psychological issues.
The other children from the cohort, though, were born into difficult circumstances. Like Percy Spencer, who struggled with financial and emotional loss in rural Maine, those children faced any number of obstacles. Most lived in poverty. Many of their parents suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, or were not around at all. Among this group of children, most, unfortunately, did not fare well. Their grades were poor. They acted out in school or got into trouble with the police. Many of these children eventually dropped out of school and became teenage parents. Unfortunately, that is what Werner expected to find.