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Behavior: Rise of The American Oddball

3 minute read
Christopher Ogden/London

Since he is a millionaire recluse who lives with a monkey and wears a single sequined glove, Michael Jackson qualifies. So does President Andrew Jackson, a card-carrying aristocrat who insisted on creating a backwoods image as “Old Hickory.” Prominent achievers like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford all fit the profile. Others that make the grade are less well known. They include a Long Island vampire expert, a California professor of frog psychology and a Virginia doctor who disports himself in a clown’s nose and goofy hats and refuses to charge his patients.

All are certifiable American eccentrics. So says David Weeks, a clinical psychologist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital in Scotland, who has just published a scientific study of 130 British oddballs, past and present. Among them: Samuel Johnson, the rotund 18th century author who amused friends by rolling down steep hills, and Prince Charles, who talks to plants, if not to his wife Princess Diana. The British study, however, is only a warm-up for a nearly completed analysis of 800 American eccentrics. The tentative conclusion: the U.S. has displaced Britain as the uncontested eccentricity capital of the world. Declares Weeks, a native of Garwood, N.J.: “America, particularly California, has more eccentrics per square foot than anywhere else.”

Weeks theorizes that U.S. prosperity and leisure time in the postwar period have resulted in a rebirth of homegrown oddballitry. He found that American eccentrics are just as humorous as their British peers, but generally kinder and less sarcastic. The Americans seemed to rely more on intuition and chutzpah than logic or rationality. Thanks to the American legacy of political rebelliousness, Weeks says, U.S.-bred eccentrics tend to hold more radical views than their better-born British brethren. “Eccentricity flourishes where there is freedom of expression,” he says. “You won’t find eccentrics tolerated in repressive regimes or countries where social conformity is paramount.”

Zestful exuberance is a common characteristic among Weeks’ collection of American eccentrics. Dr. Patch Adams, for example, is a general practitioner in Arlington, Va., who runs a clinic called the Gezundheit Institute. Adams, who makes his living by lecturing and putting on educational shows, has a volunteer staff, dresses like a clown to cheer his patients and, even more cheering, does not charge them. “He believes laughter is one of the best medicines,” says Weeks.

Stephen Kaplan operates a Long Island vampire-research center and, according to Weeks, has “spent a lifetime studying things that go bump in the night.” Then there is Bill Steed of Emeryville, Calif., who dresses like a Wild West dandy, calls himself a professor of frog psychology and, at his Croaker College, trains jumping frogs. The school’s graduates have been presented to Dolly Parton and Ronald Reagan, who, despite his interest in astrology and passion for jelly beans, is not an eccentric, says Weeks.

American politics, with its demands for centrism and conformity, seems to be a sterile breeding ground for eccentrics. This year’s presidential sweepstakes is no exception, according to Weeks. George Bush and Michael Dukakis, he believes, are Milquetoasts. Weeks is convinced that demonstrable eccentricity should be a required trait for America’s leaders in order to keep them happy, creative and sane. “America needs idealism, vision and humor in the White House,” he urges. “A real eccentric would have all those qualities in abundance. We need another genuine oddball in the White House.”

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