An insightful ode to oddballs

Annie Murphy Paul

THE WASHINGTON POST – Weird is a distinctly odd creation. A medley of social science reporting, autobiographical confession and in-depth interviews with an array of “weird” people, it is held together – just barely – by the singular voice of its author, Atlantic magazine writer Olga Khazan, a voice unlike any I can remember encountering on the page. By turns insouciantly candid, calmly authoritative and poignantly insightful, Khazan’s persona has a startling freshness that ultimately wins over the reader, though not without inspiring a fair amount of head-scratching and eyebrow-raising along the way.

Khazan, she tells us, has evoked such bewildered reactions all her life. She has always felt weird, not like others – a painful and seemingly permanent state that she traces back to her childhood as a Russian immigrant transplanted to Midland, Texas. Her experiences growing up in this Bible Belt oil town are a mix of bafflement, biting mockery and rueful humour – often featuring her father, a larger-than-life personality notable for his strong opinions and gleeful penny-pinching. “One day, someone toilet-papered our house, and I had to explain to my parents that this is what American kids do to losers,” Khazan recounts. “Undeterred, my dad eagerly raked the toilet paper into a garbage bag and put it in his bathroom for future use. ‘Free toilet paper!’ he said happily over dinner.”

Now a successful magazine writer, securely partnered, living in Washington, Khazan nonetheless acknowledges that “having been weird for so long still haunts me in so many ways.” It’s a status that others seem to sense immediately. “Sometimes,” she writes, “strangers ask me if I’m lost.”

“Weird” is Khazan’s attempt to find herself – in the psychological and sociological literature she regularly covers for the Atlantic, and in the narratives of other people who feel they don’t fit. On her wide-ranging tour of the former realm, she examines research on norms, conformity, ostracism, prejudice, loneliness and “impostor syndrome” – a voluminous catalogue of the ways humans create groups that include some and exclude others. One framework to which Khazan returns repeatedly concerns tight vs loose cultures. “Tight cultures are those in which social norms are strict and formal, and the punishments for breaking them are severe,” she explains. Loose cultures, by contrast, “permit a wider range of behaviours.” This distinction appears in a less academic form in many of the weird-people stories Khazan proceeds to tell: Although they range over a mind-bogglingly diverse group of individuals, most of these narratives trace a path of liberation from a rigidly rule-bound community to a more liberal and accepting milieu. “It’s easier to be weird in a loose culture than in a tight one,” she observes.

This is Khazan’s own journey, of course, and the book is driven by her search for answers to her eternal questions: Why are some people made to feel weird? How do such “weirdos” come to feel more comfortable in their skin? To her credit, however, Weird does not lapse into a session of solipsistic self-analysis. Instead, Khazan trains her attention outward, on a cast of real-life outsiders and misfits. The first of these is Michael Ain, a professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Ain’s difference from others is immediately apparent: He has achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and stands only 4 feet 3 inches tall. When he first interviewed for admission to medical school, Khazan reports, “some admissions officers would go through the motions. Others stared awkwardly, then dismissed him from the meeting. ‘Patients won’t respect you,’ one said. ‘They want tall doctors with long, white coats.’ He was rejected from every single school.”

More oddballs follow: a male pre-school teacher, a female racecar driver, a Mormon missionary who doubts his faith, a rebellious teenager in an Amish order, a liberal professor in a conservative small town, a transgender city council member in another conservative small town – so many purportedly weird people, in fact, that their biographical details begin to blur. It’s not clear, either, if there is any essential quality that unites this motley group; as Khazan herself hastens to acknowledge, she doesn’t intend “to imply that I consider the low-level unease of, say, a white immigrant to be equivalent to the obstacles faced by people of colour or those living with rare medical conditions.”

Yet Khazan is looking for commonalities, and she finds them, making connections among her many sketches and drawing parallels to her own story. She notes that a common (if regrettable) strategy on the part of an excluded individual is to disparage someone even further outside the fold, thereby allying herself with the dominant group. Khazan takes the opposite tack, extending deep empathy and genuine curiosity to her subjects. Their shared weirdness, even if of different kinds, creates a bond. She tells the story of Asma, an African immigrant and devout Muslim who moved with her family to a small town in the American South when she was 10 years old. “When I asked Asma if she ever felt a distinct I-don’t-belong feeling, she knew exactly what I meant,” Khazan relates.

Toward the end of the book, the author experiments with trying to become less weird, while also advancing the notion that being odd is actually an advantage. Both of these efforts feel a bit halfhearted. “Weird” is at its strongest when Khazan allows herself to explore, with bracing candor and unexpected humor, what it feels like to be weird – a state that is “at once energising and maddening, like trying to squeeze into a space where you might plausibly fit, but don’t quite.”

Even readers who have not organised their identity around being different, as Khazan has, will relate to the fundamentally human experience of being the odd man or woman out. In her memorable description: “Being weird feels like showing up alone to a party where you only know the host, except the host is in the bathroom, are you even in the right house? Except the party is your life.”