A child genius raised in poverty, she wanted to change the world. Then a horrific act of violence nearly destroyed her.
For Georgia Smith, home was a beat-up red Plymouth Voyager minivan with a bad engine block. A Greek immigrant in her early forties, she had been evicted from her San Francisco apartment in the fall of 1996. Georgia didn’t want anyone to alert social services that she and her daughter Jasmine were destitute, so for several months they’d been living as nomads. She shuttled the five-year-old around the city by day before finding a parking lot where they could spend the night. They never stayed in one place for very long.
To Jasmine, a little girl with olive skin and dark eyes prone to faraway expressions, it felt like camping. She wasn’t enrolled in school, so her mother took her to the zoo, the botanical gardens, and the beach. They had a favorite park overlooking the bay where they would take long walks, watch people fishing on the pier, and wash their hair—they both had long, thick black tresses—in a fountain.
One night in the summer of 1997, Georgia decided to surprise Jasmine with the next day’s activity. While driving around, she pretended they were lost. After Jasmine fell asleep, Georgia headed to the campus of Stanford University, 35 miles south of San Francisco, where she parked the Voyager in a dormitory lot. Throughout the night, whenever someone drove past, she grabbed a flashlight and map to look like she’d pulled over for directions.
Her plan was to take her daughter on a morning tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, one of the world’s premier scientific laboratories. SLAC had produced three Nobel Prizes in physics and hosted the first website in North America. Jasmine had been dying to visit the accelerator since she had first read about it in a book. “You know how some kids want to go to Disneyland, because that’s where all the magic happens?” she would later explain. For her that was SLAC. Jasmine wasn’t an ordinary five-year-old.
When she woke up in the van, it was to the oak trees and manicured lawns of Stanford’s sun-dappled campus. “You have a gift coming your way,” Georgia said. The little girl’s eyes lit up with excitement. They joined the first tour of the day, which was otherwise filled with college students and older science enthusiasts. A guide led them through halls lined with framed photographs, plaques, and awards. Jasmine, wearing a drooping T-shirt, blue jeans, a white headband, and Velcro sneakers, was rapt by talk of electrons, X-rays, and lasers.
The tour ended with a question and answer session in an auditorium. Because Jasmine was so short, she and Georgia sat in the front row to make sure she could see the speaker, a physicist. At one point, Jasmine whispered to her mother, “Is it OK to ask a question?” When Georgia approved, the little girl raised her hand, and the physicist called on her.
“How do you prevent the accelerator from melting down because of all the heat created by the particle collisions?” Jasmine asked.
A hush fell over the audience. The physicist took a long pause, his eyes fixed on the little girl. Then he described SLAC’s sophisticated cooling system, satisfying Jasmine’s curiosity, before moving on to other questions.
When the session ended and visitors began filing out, the physicist walked briskly over to Georgia. “I think you should go see Dr. Yearian,” he said, referring to Mason Yearian, a professor who led one of the Stanford physics department’s labs. With the speaker’s help, Georgia scheduled a meeting for that day.
Yearian was tall and thin, with gray and white hair carefully combed to one side of his forehead. When Georgia and Jasmine arrived at his office, he asked to see the young girl alone. He wanted to make sure that what had happened in the auditorium wasn’t orchestrated by her mother. Yearian led Jasmine into a spacious room lined with textbooks and file boxes, then picked her up and set her in a chair opposite his desk. She swung her legs up and down, her feet nowhere close to touching the floor, before settling with her knees pulled up to her chest. As Yearian talked, Jasmine kept looking at a pink slinky perched on a shelf.
Why, he asked, had she inquired about the accelerator melting down? Jasmine answered matter-of-factly: Particles moving nearly at the speed of light create an enormous amount of thermal energy that must be contained. The professor followed up by asking her about the physics principles behind a pendulum. Jasmine described oscillation, conservation of energy, and frictional damping. This is the real deal, Yearian thought.
He called Georgia into the office. “You have an extremely bright child,” he said. “How did she learn so much?” Everything Jasmine knew, Georgia explained, she had taught herself.
Back then, Georgia didn’t consider her daughter a prodigy so much as a miracle. Georgia had been 36 and pursuing a literature degree at Montana State University, in the city of Bozeman, when she became pregnant with her third child; she already had a son, Apollo, and a daughter, Vanessa, from a short-lived marriage in her twenties. Georgia was poor and single, and due to a preexisting medical condition, a doctor warned her that carrying to term would come at great risk for her (hemorrhage) and the baby (death). But Georgia said, “If God has put it in, then I’ll let God take it out.”
On March 13, 1991, she went into labor in her one-floor clapboard house. Her midwife, who was dating a veterinarian, came straight from helping her partner deliver a calf. As predicted, Georgia lost a lot of blood. When Jasmine Li Lysistrata was delivered, according to her mother, the midwife clamped the umbilical cord with an instrument used to birth the calf. “It’s perfectly safe,” she assured Georgia. In the following days, Jasmine developed an infection, and her mother suspected that the device hadn’t been sterilized properly. Gradually, though, the pair recovered from their first shared brush with death.
It didn’t take long for Georgia to recognize that Jasmine was unusual. At six months she started speaking; at around nine she was reading. As a full-time student and single parent, Georgia didn’t have time to homeschool Jasmine, so she checked out piles of books, including illustrated novels and science texts, from the MSU library. By the time Jasmine was two, she could write. Even the way she carried herself—head up and back arched, like an adult with good posture—was uncanny.
Georgia, whose maiden name was Kotsaki, had grown up in Greece hearing cultural myths steeped in prophecy: futures handed down from the gods, people tormented by fates only they could see. She’d often wondered about her own fortunes. Most of her youth had been spent in an all-female orphanage, or paedopoli, Greek for “child town.” It was housed in converted military barracks surrounded by stone walls and barbed wire, situated near the sandy cliffs and sapphire lagoons of the Ionian Sea. Each orphan was identified by a number inscribed on her bed frame; Georgia’s was 788. The girls ate slices of bread with tea for breakfast and watery soup with rice for dinner, after which they prayed next to their bunks dressed in matching white nightgowns. Sometimes they would sneak into the garden and steal vegetables, and they weren’t the only scavengers. Hulking mastiffs, local sheepherding dogs, ransacked the orphanage’s garbage for food. The girls were terrified of the slobbering beasts, preferring the frogs and turtles they caught and kept as pets in shoe-polish cans they poked with holes.
At 16, Georgia moved to New Jersey to live with an aunt. A few years later, she married and had Vanessa. When her marriage turned abusive, she left her husband and moved across the country while pregnant with Apollo, winding up in Bozeman. It hadn’t been easy raising two kids alone, being a foreigner in a remote place, or returning to school in her thirties, but Georgia felt liberated. Montana was her third act in life, and the one most firmly in her control.
Now, as her third child began to flourish, her speculations turned to Jasmine’s future. She wondered if she had something truly rare on her hands and felt guilty for not being able to give her daughter more. She was also worried. Apollo had shown similar acumen in his first year, picking up English and Greek at marvelous speed. Then he went dark, becoming nonverbal and irretrievably drawn into himself because of a developmental disability. When Jasmine’s intelligence continued accelerating past the point where Apollo’s had faltered, Georgia was still scared. She agonized over the notion that her daughter might be singled out or persecuted for her uniqueness, or that she might “attract attention that wasn’t healthy.” With time that dread would morph into a harrowing question: Was Jasmine’s remarkable mind a blessing or a curse?
In Far from the Tree, a book about parents with exceptional children, writer Andrew Solomon punctures the beguiling myth that raising a prodigy is like winning the lottery or finding a golden ticket in a candy wrapper. While the odds might be comparable, the lived reality is more complicated. Solomon refers to the “mainstreaming dilemma,” the question of whether to enroll brilliant children in age-level classes or to find ones that suit their intellectual abilities. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.”
Monumental decisions like these come fast and furious for parents of geniuses, a taxing amplification of the stress all mothers and fathers feel about the potential long-term consequences of the choices they make for their kids. Pressure on time and finances can also be unyielding. There are musical instruments, private lessons, and gifted programs to pay for, and parents often relinquish careers to support a child’s abilities and aspirations. Families discover that a genius’s talents are prodigious in more than one sense of the word, as there seems to be little room for much else.
Solomon posits that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.” The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t cover prodigies, and the rationale seems obvious: These children are overequipped for normal achievement. Yet their unique requirements for learning and the extraordinary burdens placed on their families make prodigies resplendent doppelgängers to developmentally challenged children. They can be just as ill-suited to systems meticulously constructed for normalcy, misfits forced to invent their own vermiculate paths to accommodate the demands of brilliance.
Jasmine proved no exception, and Georgia’s circumstances only magnified the challenges of raising her. In 1993, Montana’s Department of Child and Family Services wanted to take Apollo away because it didn’t think Georgia, a single mom on welfare, could provide the attention and resources he required. Rather than be forced to give him up, Georgia rented a U-Haul, packed her belongings, and left for California, just five credits shy of her degree. Vanessa, 18 and recently married, stayed behind.
Georgia, Jasmine, and Apollo settled in San Francisco, in a cramped basement apartment with a warped ceiling. The only entrance was through the landlord’s garage. Georgia and Jasmine slept in one room, while Apollo stayed in another, tucked inside a sleeping bag on the floor. The apartment was dingy, with mice and a septic tank that overflowed, causing brown wastewater to gush from a drain in the floor.
Georgia got a job working 12-hour graveyard shifts at a post office for seven dollars an hour, seven days a week. She’d leave in the late afternoon and return around 6 a.m. Unable to afford child care, she left Jasmine and Apollo, 16 and still unable to communicate fully, home alone. Jasmine, a toddler, had trouble sleeping with her mother away, so she often stayed up reading books. On Georgia’s lunch break, around midnight, she would call to find out what her daughter was studying.
Jasmine’s mind was voracious, but she particularly loved math. Georgia had introduced her to the subject by way of a set of counting beads picked up at a Montessori school. Sitting in their living room one day, she demonstrated subtraction by removing a few beads from the set. “Simple,” two-year-old Jasmine replied. Georgia asked her to subtract four-, five-, and six-digit numbers from others just as big, and Jasmine solved each problem easily. Before long she shed her training wheels and started solving large problems using a pen and paper. By the time she turned three, she had mastered fractions, decimals, and multiplication.
Next came geography, history, and literature, including Greek epic poems and plays such as Antigone and Orestes, the works of Romantic poets, and Charles Dickens’s novels, whose waifs led hard-luck lives not so different from Jasmine’s. She devoured them all before she was old enough to enter kindergarten. She also showed exceptional ability on the piano. Her blossoming aptitude for math, though, is what kept inspiring nerve-jangling awe in her mother. By age four, Jasmine was doing algebra.
When Jasmine turned five, in March 1996, Georgia scrambled to fit her into the public education system. Elementary, middle, and even high schools told Georgia that they couldn’t accommodate her daughter. Then she heard about the Nueva School, a private academy for gifted children. The tuition was beyond her means, but she hoped that, by demonstrating Jasmine’s intelligence, she could secure her daughter a scholarship.
Georgia paid around $200 for Jasmine to take an IQ test. The building where it was administered was buzzing with activity; a construction project was under way, and workers shuffled in and out constantly. Georgia feared that the clamor might distract Jasmine. Nervous, she waited outside the testing room. The exam took less than an hour.
When the results arrived in the mail, Georgia was stunned: Jasmine had scored in the 99.9th percentile. Although IQ tests are now seen as flawed, measuring only certain variables of a person’s intelligence, Jasmine’s score left little doubt that the girl living in a fleabag apartment was a prodigy.
Plans to jump-start Jasmine’s academic career halted, however, when tragedy struck that summer. Back in Bozeman, Vanessa was on her way to Big Timber Waterslide Park with her husband, two-year-old daughter, and brother-in-law when their car overturned on a highway. Her husband suffered a heavy blow to the head and was pronounced brain-dead by the time he reached the hospital; he was pulled off life support soon after. Vanessa was paralyzed from the chest down, leaving her to face the prospect of single motherhood—her daughter and brother-in-law had emerged relatively unscathed—as a disabled widow. Georgia explained the situation to her landlord and, with Jasmine and Apollo in tow, drove to Montana.
They stayed at the Lutheran Center in Billings, a residence for the families of medical patients. Georgia did laundry, cooked, and cleaned for Vanessa and helped her acclimate to her wheelchair. Jasmine played with her little niece, Cassy, and planted acorns in Dixie cups to watch seedlings sprout. When Vanessa was assigned a health aide by the state, Georgia took Jasmine and Apollo back to San Francisco. She expected to find her apartment and job waiting for her. But her landlord, who had told her not worry about rent in the midst of family tragedy, had evicted them. The post office wouldn’t let her work because she didn’t have a permanent address, and other potential employers made the same stipulation. In a vicious cycle, Georgia’s lack of employment kept her from finding a new place to rent.
So the era of living in the Voyager began. Given his circumstances, Apollo was sent back to Montana to stay with Vanessa, and then on to New Jersey to be cared for by extended family members. For Jasmine, who didn’t have much social interaction with other kids, her brother’s departure was hard. Georgia, the minivan, and books became her whole world.
When I first heard the story of the SLAC tour, I assumed that Georgia’s plan was to get Jasmine discovered, so to speak. If Stanford faculty saw her kindergarten-age child grasping the nuances of particle physics, they might be willing to support her beleaguered quest to find Jasmine a suitable education. Her goal, however, was much simpler than that: Georgia wanted to make Jasmine happy, to see the gleeful look on her face when she laid eyes on the linear accelerator.
Jasmine was discovered on the tour, though. Professor Yearian’s conversation with her impressed him enough that he suggested Georgia enroll her in Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, a series of distance-learning classes developed for children with exceptional academic ability. Around the same time, Georgia won a settlement from her old landlord—not only was the 1996 eviction deemed unlawful, but the court also found the sewage-plagued basement to be uninhabitable. With the money, she and Jasmine finally had options. Georgia asked her daughter where she wanted to live, and Jasmine said, “I want to go where I was born.” The pair relocated permanently to Montana, where Jasmine began taking EPGY classes on a clunky desktop computer in their Bozeman apartment.
In successive three-month semesters, Jasmine completed courses in algebra and calculus, all before her eighth birthday. Even in a program for brilliant kids, her performance raised eyebrows. “When Jasmine Lysistrata first came to the attention of the experts on gifted children at Stanford University, they wondered if she might be a hoax,” read an article published at the time in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Never had the calculus course on the Internet been taken by a child as young.” EPGY officials were so skeptical that they had Jasmine’s math teacher, Janet Glosup, travel to Montana to confirm that the little girl was doing her own coursework. Glosup and Jasmine already had an online rapport about various subjects; in one email exchange about GMOs, Glosup had signed off, “Yuck, Janet.” In Bozeman, Glosup gave Jasmine math problems to solve and took her to Hyalite Canyon, a popular hiking destination. She later told a reporter that the girl was “at least ten times brighter than the brightest student I’ve had.”
In 1998, the CBS documentary series 48 Hours was looking for subjects for an episode entitled “Whiz Kids!” The producers heard about Jasmine through the Stanford faculty and sent a crew to Montana in the late fall. To capture a day in the life, the team, led by a young auburn-haired reporter named Maggie Cooper, arrived at Georgia and Jasmine’s apartment, the bottom level of a fourplex, at 6:30 a.m. They filmed mother and daughter as they ate hard-boiled eggs and cereal and reviewed a calculus lesson plan. Cooper then joined Jasmine in her study, a small room where a long desk and white bookcases sat atop maroon carpeting. A fake Christmas tree adorned with lights blinked in the corner. After Jasmine solved a calculus problem on a whiteboard, Cooper suggested, “You look like you’re having a good time.” Leaning against the desk, Jasmine replied shyly, “Yes, that’s very true.”
While still photographs from that time show a serious child, her thick eyebrows slightly furrowed at the center of a face defined by wide, flat planes, Jasmine was effervescent on camera. Her full cheeks were red, her inflection lively. She delivered a hammy reading of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Later in the day, the show’s producers started a snowball fight while filming Jasmine and Georgia walking home from a pond near their apartment. Slipping and sliding in slushy snow, Jasmine squealed wildly. The walk was the happiest Georgia had ever seen her daughter, “laughing her little heart out.”
Not everything that 48 Hours captured was so rosy. The crew sat in on a calculus course Jasmine was auditing at MSU, part of a trial period before the school would allow her to enroll as an official student. In an awkward scenario no doubt staged for the show, she volunteered to solve a problem in front of the class. As she filled multiple blackboards, the other students, all much older than she was, looked on with a mixture of languor and annoyance. When the class let out, Jasmine waved goodbye to one student, who quickly acknowledged her before rushing out. The chasm between Jasmine and her classmates was wide.
Before the taping ended, Cooper sat down with Georgia in her living room, decorated with white lace, small Greek busts, and framed pictures. A portrait of Jasmine wearing a yellow dress, which Georgia had painted, hung on the wall. Georgia sat atop a stack of books in sneakers and sweatpants. Still living off the San Francisco settlement, she’d dedicated herself full-time to helping Jasmine study.
“She should graduate with her bachelor’s at about the age of 11,” Georgia told the reporter.
“She could have her master’s degree and then Ph.D. by, what, 15?” Cooper asked.
“Sixteen at the latest,” Georgia said.
After the “Whiz Kids!” episode aired in December 1998, people stopped Georgia in public to say that they recognized her from the show, including during a trip to New Jersey to visit family. There was also media coverage from Montana outlets that previously had no idea a child genius sat under their noses. MSU president Mike Malone decided to let Jasmine take courses for credit. At age eight, she became a college student.
When she was allowed to declare a major, she chose math. Because Jasmine was a minor, Georgia went to class with her every day. “It was the greatest time of our lives,” Georgia would say later. “All she cared about was learning. And as long as she learned, she was a thriving child.”
Circumstances outside the classroom continued to bedevil mother and daughter, though. A wealthy Bozeman family had offered to cover Jasmine’s tuition, but the cost of textbooks, supplies, and transportation strained Georgia’s limited finances. Going to school with her daughter made steady employment impossible. She eked out a living as best she could by cleaning faculty houses and student dormitories, sometimes in exchange for used textbooks. When the Voyager broke down, Georgia couldn’t afford to replace it, so she and Jasmine walked the 16 blocks to MSU each day.
Jasmine struggled socially. Local kids ganged up on her in the Bozeman trailer park where Vanessa lived with her daughter. One day, Jasmine made the mistake of trying to explain a math problem to one of them. From then on when she visited her sister, kids would chase her and try to bait her into answering questions so that they could ridicule the way she talked—with big words and sober mannerisms. “They would start pretty viciously mocking me,” she recalled. “It was profoundly unrewarding, every single time.”
Students at MSU could also be malicious. One told her to go home and play with Barbie dolls. Others complained about having to partner with “a baby” in labs. In the brief moments when she and her mother were separated—a bathroom break, a dash to retrieve a misplaced textbook—Jasmine was sometimes pushed around in the halls. She took to using her arms as a shield, keeping them crossed loosely in front of her chest with her elbows sticking out.
Despite having to knuckle through social crucibles, in December 2004, at age 13, Jasmine completed the coursework for her degree. She graduated the following May, becoming the youngest person in MSU history ever to do so. Her GPA was 3.81. “It isn’t perfect,” she admitted to a local reporter.
Wearing a black graduation gown and a cap with a gold tassel, the symbol of highest honors, Jasmine told the journalist that she wanted to get another four or five bachelor’s degrees. A doctorate could wait. In her mind, there was a lucid pathway between academic fields, a way to connect solutions to disease, pollution, and other global problems, so she wanted to study as many subjects as she could. “I can’t feel well accomplished, because I have so much to learn,” Jasmine said.
Except she was no longer Jasmine, legally speaking. In anticipation of her graduation, she had decided to change her name. She spent a lot of time thinking about the one she wanted, how it could offer a window into her bracing idealism and ethical vision. She settled on a four-part Greek moniker: Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha.
Promethea is a feminization of Prometheus, the Greek titan who gave fire to humankind. It also comes from the Greek word for forethought. Olympia is the region on the Peloponnesian peninsula where the Olympic games originated. (“One of the ancient Greeks’ big contributions to the world,” in the teenager’s opinion, was “the idea of putting aside people’s petty conflicts to compete for betterment, peacefully, without it being about politics and gaining power.”) Kyrene was a daughter of the god Hermes and a feminist prototype, participating in men’s sporting competitions and founding her own colony.
Finally, the inspiration behind Pythaitha was twofold: It was the name of the mother of Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, and it sounded a lot like Pythia, the name of the high priestess at Delphi who foretold the future. The girl who was now Promethea believed her life, and its work, would have meaning.
Psychologist Martha J. Morelock, who has studied prodigies for much of her career, has observed what she calls their “rage to learn.” Promethea had it. At 15, she returned to MSU for her next bachelor’s degree, this one in physics. Ever since watching Carl Sagan’s documentaries as a little girl in San Francisco, she’d been spellbound by the field. She loved how consequential physics was, how its laws governed everything in the universe. To a mind hardwired to see the intricate ways one subject might unlock the secrets of another, physics was a skeleton key.
In a jarring sequence of events, Georgia’s sister passed away and left her some money that, under the terms of the estate, had to be spent on a home within 30 days of receipt. Georgia quickly bought a shabby house on 20 acres of land near Livingston, a rural, mountainous town about 24 miles from MSU. She got a car, too, so that she could drive Promethea to classes. “The worst decision we ever made,” Georgia said later, “was to move out of Bozeman.”
The ranch was located in the Wineglass, an area whose name comes from the shape of a path carved by the timber industry in the 1890s to haul timber down from higher elevations. The area was made up of rambling homesteads scattered over a network of hills and valleys, connected by unpaved roads covered in loose rocks and prairie bunchgrass as high as a car’s hood. As soon as they moved there, Georgia and Promethea felt isolated. They butted heads with their neighbors, whom they found to be cold and surly. Georgia became embroiled in several legal disputes regarding property boundaries and other land matters. Already eccentric outsiders by nature, mother and daughter suddenly found themselves deeper than ever in the social margins.
Promethea’s schedule didn’t help. On a typical weekday, she would get up around 5 a.m. to have breakfast and prepare for the one-hour commute to MSU. Georgia still accompanied her everywhere and passed the time reading newspapers and how-to manuals for home repairs. After her classes finished in the afternoon, Promethea went to a lounge in the engineering and physical sciences building to review her notes, which she considered “chicken scratch.” She rewrote them more legibly and with generous annotations, often flashes of insight she’d had connecting one discipline to another. If she was riveted by the way a professor had described a sophisticated concept, she jotted it down. Only when she finished transcribing did she start on her homework. It wasn’t uncommon for her to go from astrophysics to circuit design to code writing in one sitting. Her meticulous approach could keep her on campus past midnight, after which Georgia drove her home and the pair slept two or three hours before waking up and starting all over again.
The days were long at MSU for another reason. Their home in Livingston had plumbing and heating problems, and Georgia struggled to pay contractors to fix them. She and Promethea shivered through frigid winter nights, when temperatures could plummet to minus 30 degrees. To bathe they boiled water. If she had to do homework, Promethea sat at her desk bundled in a heavy jacket and gloves. On campus, at least, there was heat and working bathrooms.
In the physics department, Promethea grew close with two professors, Carla Riedel and Bennett Link, who were married. Riedel taught her in five classes. “She was just a ferocious intellect,” the professor recently told me. “She devoured and sucked the information out of everything that she encountered.” Riedel compared teaching Promethea to trying to throw luggage onto a freight train passing by at full speed. “She was by far the smartest person I’ve ever known in my life,” Riedel said, and also “the most generous, sweetest, most respectful.” Promethea would bring Riedel fresh eggs from chickens she raised on the ranch.
Link, who taught Promethea in graduate-level classes on quantum mechanics and general relativity between 2009 and 2010, was similarly awed. “In terms of raw mental horsepower, she was by far the best I’ve ever seen in 25 years of teaching,” Link said. “Her ability to quickly grasp something and understand it completely was just off-scale.” Promethea would turn in 30 or 40 pages for homework assignments, “tomes” in which she solved a sophisticated physics problem—the transition rates of hydrogen atoms, say—three different ways. “That’s what the absolute best people do to check their work,” Link said, “the finest scientists I know of, especially in theoretical fields.” Promethea emblazoned each solution with a smiley face.
As Link spent more time with Promethea, though, he grew concerned about her future. He felt that one of her most impressive attributes—her appetite for a range of fields—was becoming a hindrance. During one meeting in his office, Link brought up specialization. “It’s great that you’re so inquisitive,” he said, “but at some point you need to decide what you want to do. You need to focus if you want to make an impact.” He asked Promethea what sort of career she wanted, and she couldn’t articulate an answer beyond “research-level science.” When Link encouraged her to apply to graduate programs, Promethea told him that she didn’t want to go anywhere but MSU. “She was worried about finances. She clearly didn’t want to leave the area,” Link recalled. “And she didn’t know what to do with her mother if she went to a big graduate school.”
The professors found Georgia “outrageously protective,” as Riedel put it. Even after Promethea turned 18, her mother insisted on shadowing her everywhere. Instead of diminishing over time, their fears of bullying and physical danger had hardened, and the way mother and daughter operated as a unit had become ritualistic. They were always scanning for threats and vulnerabilities, planning ahead to avoid worst-case scenarios. “There was a real secrecy over their movements around campus,” Riedel said. “Promethea would tell me she wanted to meet with me at a specific time, and then tell me why it had to be at that time, so that she could manage her environment.”
To observers, Promethea and Georgia appeared to be battening the hatches for a storm that existed only in their imaginations. “They struck me as colossally paranoid about the world,” Riedel said. “They went on and on about the awful things that might happen.
“And then,” she added, “the awful things started really happening here in Bozeman.”
Unbeknownst to Riedel, Link, or anyone else at MSU, Promethea and Georgia’s lives had grown increasingly fraught, and not with delusion. It all started at a seemingly benign event. The donor family that had supported Promethea had agreed to cover tuition only for her math degree. For her physics education, she had to look elsewhere for funding. In 2006, she entered and won an essay contest sponsored by the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit that helps pay for Greek-American students’ college educations. She was awarded $10,000 and later invited to speak at the Festival of the Three Hierarchs, a banquet held every January in Chicago to commemorate the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church.
In researching the subject of her speech—the relationship between education and the church—Promethea was shocked to learn that the hierarchs, three bishops who lived in the fourth century A.D., were complicit in the vicious tyranny of early Christianity. Or in her own words, “There’s really no way to describe the history of the early Orthodox Church other than religious fascism.” The hierarchs supported leaders who persecuted philosophers, astronomers, and poets; at least one of them participated directly in this oppression. People who spread knowledge that didn’t have to do with the church were charged with heresy or witchcraft, then tortured and killed. The hierarchs also helped expunge any trace of pre-Christian religion and history, burning books and razing temples, libraries, and other landmarks that harked back to ancient Greece. Infuriated by what she’d learned, Promethea wrote a 150-page speech rebuking the church’s history. Delivering it would take several hours, but she didn’t care.
In January 2007, she and Georgia flew to Chicago, all expenses paid, to attend the festival. A car was waiting for them at the airport, along with a representative from the Greek church who was eager to meet the child prodigy her colleagues had been raving about. The woman peppered them with questions on the ride to the hotel. “How could you tell Promethea was so smart?” she asked Georgia. “When did you first discover she was gifted?” When they arrived, the representative showed them around. “We got a very nice room for you,” she said. “Look at the wonderful view.” Peering out the window, Georgia saw only a concrete plaza, which paled in comparison to Montana’s striking vistas.
For her speech, Promethea chose to wear an authentic Greek outfit: a heavily embroidered cotton dress with an ornate flap that hung down like an apron and a black vest with gold stitching. She wanted to celebrate her sartorial heritage, but the handler from the church tried to dissuade her. “You don’t want to dress like that,” the woman said. “You want to dress like a regular kid your age.” She suggested a more contemporary top with a black skirt—what Georgia described as a “bimbo” look. “No, thank you,” Promethea replied.
The festival was held in a large banquet hall. The chair of the event delivered a lofty speech introducing the brilliant teenager, and on her way up to the podium, Promethea received a standing ovation. Flanked by two men in black cassocks, both powerful priests, she began to speak in Greek.
The more she talked, the tenser the room got. Georgia realized that “no one expected to hear the truths that were coming out of her mouth.” About 20 minutes into the speech, a man working the event’s film equipment began yelling, accusing Promethea of blasphemy. When she paused, a cacophony of voices rose from the hall’s tables. Some sounded livid, but not all. “Let her finish!” a burly man roared.
The priests seated on either side of Promethea wore inscrutable expressions. At one point, she was handed a card that read, “You’re finished.” She continued delivering the speech, making her voice louder and louder so as not to be drowned out. When the din finally became too much, she walked off the stage. She’d gotten through only a fraction of what she’d written.
The people running the event were irate, but several guests gathered at Promethea’s table to congratulate her on her display of courage. Women approached her in the bathroom asking for her contact information and sharing theirs. The video of the speech was posted online, where it garnered more notoriety and admiration throughout the Greek diaspora. Promethea received death threats in the mail, but also fan letters.
A few months later, Promethea and Georgia were in a car accident on a mountain pass in Montana. Georgia was rushed to the emergency room, where she pleaded with the triage nurse, “You can’t admit me, I’ve got to take my kid to school tomorrow.” Promethea insisted otherwise, and Georgia was diagnosed with broken ribs and facial bones, and a broken sternum. When news of the accident spread through the Greek community, supporters helped cover Georgia’s medical expenses and chipped in to buy her a new car. One man, 77-year-old Thomas Kyros, who claimed to be a retired physicist, made a peculiar gesture: He offered to pay for the mother and daughter, whose speech had greatly impressed him, to take a vacation to Italy once Georgia was better. They accepted, but decided to go to Greece instead.
When they returned from the vacation, their relationship with Kyros, who lived in New Port Richey, Florida, and whom they’d never met in person, quickly soured. Over email, he asked that Promethea check in with him regularly. He made it clear that he couldn’t stand her being at MSU, which he considered a middling public university in an off-the-radar state compared with the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, or Columbia, where he said he’d once worked. As Promethea put it, “I had to go to an Ivy League college so that I could became famous and well-known, so that I could in part reflect that fame on him.” If finances were an issue, she could live with him, Kyros said—never mind that his home was nowhere near any of the universities he found worthy of her. He referred to himself as pappoulis, “little grandfather” in Greek, and Promethea as eggonoula, which means “granddaughter.”
From 2007 to 2009, Kyros sent Promethea thousands of dollars intended for her education. Troubled by his overtures, she and Georgia refused them. Promethea also rejected packages he sent in the mail bearing books and other gifts, and she eventually stopped responding to his emails. This only seemed to make Kyros more obsessed, and he grew convinced that Georgia was responsible for the teenager’s disavowal of him. “He kept writing, writing, harassing,” Promethea later told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “He said, ‘You’re brainwashed, your mother’s this, your mother’s that.’”
Kyros called and wrote to officials at MSU to voice conspiracy theories: There was something scandalous, maybe depraved, going on in the dilapidated brown ranch house in the Wineglass. He also contacted the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Promethea is a slave,” he told the newspaper in a 2009 interview, published a few years after. “She’s in bondage.” He provided what he claimed was evidence, including canceled checks that he’d tried to send to Promethea and a copy of the “Whiz Kids!” segment. He’d watched the episode over and over, parsing it for clues that Promethea was afraid of Georgia, a cruel, domineering mother who bent her daughter to her will. “He had created for himself a version of events that he liked, where he could be the hero and my mother could be the villain,” Promethea recalled, “which would give him an excuse to step in and take over my life.”
When neither MSU nor the Bozeman Daily Chronicle found his claims credible—the newspaper looked into the accusations but turned up nothing—Kyros hired a private investigator. He asked her to look into Georgia’s finances, the 2007 car accident, and the mother and daughter’s living situation in Livingston. One day in 2009, the investigator visited the ranch disguised as a special courier carrying a package from Kyros. He wanted to know who, exactly, was rejecting his mail. If Georgia sent the package back on her daughter’s behalf, Kyros would have a slender but precious shard of proof to feed his theories. It was Promethea, however, who met the incognito investigator at the ranch’s gate and turned her away.
For a while, there was radio silence from Kyros. Then, in January 2011, he called the Bozeman Daily Chronicle for the first time in a year. He left a message saying that Promethea and Georgia would be in a Livingston court in the coming days to testify as witnesses in a civil trial pertaining to road use near their home. He’d found out about the case through the private investigator, and he thought the newspaper should cover it. As usual, no one took him seriously.
What the paper didn’t know was that Kyros was no longer in Florida. He was in Bozeman, and he’d been there for months.
At the end of October 2010, Kyros had left the house where he lived alone on Putnam Circle in New Port Richey, a suburb of Tampa. He’d given his neighbor a key and money for lawn care and newspaper delivery. He told her that he was going to visit friends in Montana, which was also where his favorite grandchild, a brilliant young woman, had attended college. “He thought she was the cat’s meow,” the neighbor, Rosalie Maxey, told a reporter at the time. Then Kyros had flown to Bozeman, where he checked in to a Days Inn.
Kyros, by then 81, was pint-size, walked in a slow shuffle, and wore plaid dress shirts and khakis. Some of the hotel’s employees grew fond of him. Marsha Wardrop, who worked at the front desk, told me that he had a made-to-order breakfast every day because of dietary restrictions. He didn’t hide his reason for being in Bozeman. “He talked about her all the time,” Wardrop recalled. Kyros told the staff that Promethea was in danger. He was certain her mother was exploiting her, and he’d come to save the young prodigy.
Room 238, where Kyros lived, often reeked of vinegar, which he used to clean his urinary catheter. According to court documents, his possessions revealed someone who had whittled his life down to a single purpose. Under his mattress was a zipped-up bag containing his passport, a checkbook, credit cards, and checks made out to his son, Kostas. Attached to the bag was a note with instructions for sending it to his son’s New Jersey address, without further explanation. (I contacted Kostas Kyros several times for an interview, but he didn’t reply.) Next to the bed were records from the Sunshine Travel Agency showing information for a one-way plane ticket to Montana, dated October 28, 2010. Several sets of directions to 50 Outlaw Hill, the address of the ranch, were scattered around the room. The nightstand held a box for a Kel-Tec P-32 semi-automatic pistol, with a sales receipt and a business card from a gun shop in Hudson, Florida.
In a suitcase were copies of the paperwork for an education trust that Kyros had set up for Promethea. The document stipulated, “In no event shall the trustee [a lawyer] provide for any educational costs relating to Promethea’s attending any university, college, program, or other schooling in the state of Montana while her mother, Georgia A. Smith, is living.” A stack of documents contained a copy of a fax written to Kyros’s Florida attorney in shaky scrawl: “This fax is to notify you that Promethea’s address, mailing, as 50 Outlaw Hill must be considered null and void for all purposes. The USPS PO Box No. 388, as well as all telephone numbers, email etc. for as long as Georgia is alive must also [be] considered null and void. For as long as Georgia is alive all communications are blocked.” (The attorney, David Gilmore, declined an interview.) Taped to the bedroom mirror was a scrap of paper with one word written on it: pappoulis.
On January 12, 2011, Kyros finally made his presence known to Promethea. By then the 19-year-old had finished her second degree and was planning to start a third bachelor’s in computer science while also pursuing a PhD in physics, both at MSU. At the Livingston courthouse, she was perched on a bench in a hallway waiting to testify in the road-use trial when an old man took a seat next to her.
“I’ve got the flu,” she fibbed, hoping to get him to go away. “You probably want to keep your distance.” Instead, he slid closer.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
He handed her a small card that, like the paper stuck on his hotel mirror, read pappoulis. Although she had never seen Kyros in person, the shock of recognition at the Greek word twisted Promethea’s stomach into a knot. “I don’t want to see you ever again,” she said before getting up and hurrying away.
Unnerved, she went straight to the Park County Sheriff’s Office, which had a dispatch window in the courthouse. Kyros followed her. Promethea told Park County sergeant Clay Herbst that she was being harassed. She pointed to Kyros, and Herbst asked him to leave. Kyros refused, arguing that it was a public building and he was entitled to stay.
“You’re upsetting Promethea, giving her unwanted contact, and you need to leave,” Herbst said.
“She’s keeping Promethea in a concentration camp,” Kyros replied, referring to Georgia, who was elsewhere in the courthouse at the time. Promethea asked for a no-stalking order, which Herbst and his supervisor, Tom Totland, issued and had Kyros sign before escorting him from the building.
Over the next few days, Promethea was jumpy. If he hadn’t gone back to Florida, Kyros was likely just a short drive away. It was hard to get to the ranch, at least, to navigate the Wineglass’s steep, winding roads, particularly if someone wasn’t familiar with the area. Between that and the no-stalking order, Promethea hoped she’d be safe.
The following Monday, January 17, was Martin Luther King Day. Daytime temperatures can get down to single digits during a Montana winter, but that day was in the high forties. Promethea and her mother slept in, had their morning coffee, and talked at the kitchen table. Just before noon, Georgia decided to go for a walk. She’d slept fitfully, with terrible nightmares, and she wanted to meditate with a view of the soaring mountains that wreathed the Wineglass like grassy parapets.
No sooner had she left the house than Georgia heard a loud clattering near the front of the property. She went to investigate and saw that someone was ramming the front of a pickup truck into the tall, locked green gate at the head of the driveway. She ran back inside to tell Promethea. “Get the camera,” Georgia yelled, planning to snap photos of the intruder. Instead, feeling a queasy dread rising in her body, Promethea went outside to see who it was.
Behind the wheel of a black Dodge Ram sat Kyros.
“If you don’t leave immediately,” Promethea yelled, “I’m calling the police.” From the driver’s-side window, Kyros told her that if she was so afraid to talk to him, there must be something wrong with her. She went back inside to get the phone and camera.
When Georgia learned who the driver was, she wondered if she could put an end to the whole ordeal by meeting face-to-face with the man who’d viciously disparaged her. She and Kyros were both Greek, with ties to the old country. If they talked, she reasoned, and he saw that she wasn’t evil, perhaps it would be enough to hang a truce on.
Georgia stepped out of the house and walked toward Kyros, who had emerged from the truck and was standing on the far side of the gate. When she was within a few feet of him, she realized he had something in his hand. It was the Kel-Tec. At the sight of it, she screamed and reeled back. Kyros raised the pistol and fired, hitting Georgia in the neck.
When Promethea, who was still inside the house, heard the shot, she dialed 911. Once she was on the phone with the dispatcher, she dashed into the yard. Georgia had collapsed and was curled up on her side in the reedy grass. Kyros had shot her another time, and another, and he was still firing. Promethea sprinted toward the gate and threw herself on top of her mother. Maybe—probably—he wants me alive, she thought.
“Stop!” Promethea screamed. “Stop, you bastard!”
“Why are you weeping?” Kyros asked. “You should be happy she’s going to die.”
Sprawled over her mother, Promethea remained on the phone with 911. She tried to keep an eye on Kyros, who was pacing back and forth on the far side of the gate, looking for another clean shot. Then he stopped. Perhaps he decided that he’d already done what he came to do, and now he had only to wait for Georgia’s heart to stop beating.
Kyros reached into his truck and pulled out a blue bag, which he tossed on the ground near the two women. It contained $720 in cash and a copy of the education trust. Then he got behind the wheel of the Dodge Ram, turned the ignition, and reversed for a few yards before swinging around and backing the truck’s bed up to the green gate. Through the windshield he now faced the gravel driveway, about 100 yards long, leading away from the house. It was the only way in and the only way out. To save Georgia, law enforcement would have to get past him.
“Keep fighting,” Promethea told her mother between heaving sobs. Georgia was slipping into unconsciousness, and her lips were turning blue.
Herbst and Totland, the same officers who’d encountered Kyros at the courthouse, were notified that there’d been shots fired on Outlaw Hill. A victim had been hit, Promethea was on the line, and the suspect was still armed. The officers knew who the shooter had to be.
It took them ten minutes to arrive at the ranch, with an ambulance close behind. When they caught sight of Kyros, they used a squad car’s PA system to order him out of the truck with his hands up. He didn’t respond. The officers couldn’t see Promethea and Georgia, because Kyros had blocked their view of where the women lay crumpled on the ground. Herbst radioed headquarters for a victim status update. Emergency dispatch, still on the phone with Promethea, said that Georgia was losing a lot of blood.
The officers debated their options. They decided that Totland would drive slowly toward Kyros while Herbst approached on foot along the passenger’s side of the vehicle, using it as a shield. It had begun to drizzle. Herbst put on a coat and loaded his rifle. Totland started rolling his car toward the Dodge Ram.
When they got close enough, they could see that Kyros was in the driver’s seat with his right arm resting on the center console. The gun was in that hand, its barrel pointing toward the front of the truck. His finger was on the trigger.
“Drop your gun, sir!” Herbst shouted.
“You put your guns down!” Kyros replied.
Herbst sensed that Kyros was trying to keep the ambulance at bay for as long as possible. “I saw Georgia lying on the ground. I didn’t see Georgia moving, I saw blood on Promethea’s hands,” Herbst said later in an official interview with the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation. “At that point I didn’t know if he had maybe shot Promethea as well.”
Kyros told the officers they would have to shoot him. But however unhinged he was, Kyros hadn’t tried to attack them. In fact, he didn’t budge as they got within a few feet of his truck. Herbst saw the old man fiddling with the buttons on his door, the ones controlling the truck’s windows and locks. The officer decided to make a move.
With the butt of his rifle, Herbst attempted to shatter the driver’s-side window, which was halfway down. The glass only cracked. That was when Kyros finally reacted, swinging his gun up and pointing it directly at Herbst. Both officers opened fire. Each got off nine shots. Kyros was dead in a matter of seconds.
Promethea picked herself up from her mother’s body and unlocked the gate, hands trembling. Herbst radioed the ambulance to drive in. When he got to Georgia, her eyes were open, but she was nonresponsive. Kyros had shot her five times. As paramedics rushed in, Promethea seemed stricken by the scene, at a loss after the furious adrenaline rush of protecting Georgia. “She wasn’t sure what to do,” Herbst recalled. “I told her to get in the ambulance with her mom and go.” He gave her a hug before she went.
Georgia’s wounds ranged from her neck to her torso to her legs. One shot had been devastating, severing her brachial plexus and puncturing a lung before the bullet became embedded near her spine. Another bullet had struck her small intestine, and a third had fractured her hip before putting a hole in her bladder. At Livingston Memorial Hospital, Georgia underwent emergency surgery to remove the slugs. She was then put on life support and airlifted by helicopter to the Billings Clinic, Montana’s largest hospital. She went directly to the ICU, where doctors performed an endoscopy and later removed a portion of her small intestine. She dipped in and out of consciousness as medical staff inserted chest tubes to drain blood collecting in her lungs, checked her wounds, and monitored her internal organs for signs of failure.
Promethea stayed with her mother. She couldn’t sleep, but she wasn’t distraught, exactly—her nerves were so frayed that she could only feel numb. She’d done all she could to save Georgia, but what if it wasn’t enough? Promethea didn’t know her extended family well. There were no aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents visiting the hospital, no one offering her support. Her older siblings’ needs far surpassed her own and created emotional distance; Vanessa remained paralyzed, and Apollo, back in Montana and living in Section 8 housing, couldn’t hold a job. She didn’t have close friends. Math and physics were her passions, but they weren’t flesh and blood.
Without Georgia, Promethea would be utterly alone.
I set out to find Promethea six years after the shooting. She hadn’t given a media interview since the immediate aftermath, and she was no longer enrolled at MSU. As far as I knew, she was still on the ranch in Livingston. I could find neither an email address nor a working phone number for her, and she had zero social-media presence. I reached out to a Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporter named Gail Schontzler who’d written several stories about the prodigy. She told me she hadn’t heard from Promethea in years. “I’m not sure Promethea wants national exposure,” Schontzler cautioned me in an email. “That’s what got her mom shot.”
Eventually, I made contact with Promethea’s lawyer, Jason Armstrong, who said that he’d forward my request to his client. When I asked to email her directly, he declined to share her address, citing Promethea’s past experience with unwanted attention. After a month of back and forth with Armstrong, I finally got the message I’d been hoping for. “Dear Mr. Mariani,” it read. “Good evening, and thank you for your correspondence and the interest you have shown in our story. This is Promethea.”
She said she was open to having a conversation. What was she like at 26? I wondered. How did her mind work? And how would she talk about her turbulent life, as riddled with tragedy as it had been rich with gifts?
It took another month of email exchanges to get her to agree to speak with me on the phone. After that, our dialogue toggled between calls and email. We discussed her unconventional education and her upbringing by her mother. “I got a lot more sleep, and a lot more food, and a lot more everything than she did because she had to provide for us both, and all I had to do was worry about studying,” Promethea said. When we talked science, her mind was kaleidoscopic, shifting fluidly from one subject to another and making seemingly disparate ideas fit together. In one email, she elaborated on why she found interdisciplinary study so vital. She compared quantum entanglement—the spookiest of physics phenomena, according to Einstein, in which manipulating one object affects another one’s state, even from a great distance—to coding and biology:
Quantum Entanglement is one of those things predicted by the math, and verified experimentally. It’s also a bizarre paradox that’s too weird for words, and yet there’s nothing strange about it from an Information theory/Computing perspective. Same goes for Biochemistry and genetics. Whether we’re looking at enzyme design or gene transcription, within the field it is a baffling triumph of nature in building chemical machines, and yet to a programmer it is a triumph of coding design…. Amino acids are literally like program objects (or functions depending on the coder’s specialty). Inserted in a sequence their effect is predictable, but only at the most base level. What makes the field hard is that it’s far too frequently approached from effects down instead of the approach a programmer would take, working through coding from the bottom up to determine the function for each larger structure, then what structures and processes are built on those and so on up and up.
After two months of correspondence, Promethea agreed to let me visit her in Montana. We could talk more about physics. I could see the driveway where a disturbed man on a violent mission had derailed her life. And I could meet her mother.
Georgia had survived. After nearly a month of surgeries and other procedures, in February 2011, she’d been released and had returned to Livingston under Promethea’s care. She was left with a litany of physical issues, including partial paralysis of her left arm, nerve damage to her neck and shoulder, and extensive abdominal problems. She’d been almost entirely housebound ever since. As Georgia once did for her, Promethea put her life on hold to help her mother recover. She was recuperating, too: A clinical psychologist had diagnosed Promethea with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder as a direct result of Kyros’s attack.
I flew to Montana in July 2017, rented a car, and drove toward the Wineglass. Past Bozeman’s downtown of warehouse-size coffee shops, independent bookstores, and Yellowstone-themed restaurants were pawn shops, hardware stores, and strip malls. Highways were choked with mammoth pickup trucks—Sierras and Rams and F-150’s—driven by men wearing scruffy beards and weathered overalls. Dirt roads that stretched into the mountains were covered with rocks and thick dust, carving through otherwise uninterrupted miles of sage and bluebunch.
When I’d started researching this story, I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around how Promethea and Georgia fit into the wider picture of the place they called home, but where they’d also been treated as oddities and outcasts. When people who aren’t from there think of Montana, they conjure images of wide-open spaces and taciturn cowboys, or maybe celebrities like Ted Turner and Jeff Bridges living on sprawling, thousand-acre ranches. Like so many representations of seldom-visited places, however, these portrayals are both partially true and wildly misleading—simulacra that throw you off the scent of the real thing.
Montana is the fourth-largest state in America, but it has a population of just over one million. There are around seven people for every square mile; only Wyoming and Alaska have lower population density. The state’s entire northern border runs along Canada at the 49th parallel, a desolate stretch of prairie and badlands. Its southern reaches, including Bozeman, are enveloped by vast mountain ranges. The sweeping, untrammeled terrain cultivates a lifestyle of roughshod, harum-scarum virility and a cultural ethos etched in a very different language—one of grit and self-reliance—than Promethea’s beloved calculus, physics, and computer code. Some people move to Montana looking for anonymity. Infamously, it’s where the Unabomber lived off the grid in a one-room cabin for almost two decades before the FBI caught him. Other people go there for quiet inspiration. Prolific authors like Jim Harrison, who wrote Legends of the Fall, and Thomas McGuane have ensconced themselves in Montana’s lonely hills and valleys, and set their novels among them, too.
Montana is also a place of guns, construction projects, and belligerent bumper stickers, of skipping work when the fishing is good and patrolling one’s land with righteous territorialism. Its don’t-tread-on-me self-rule is fiercely protected. Even MSU, an intellectual bastion, betrays a cryptic antagonism. Near its entrance is a marble plaque with an inscription from the politician William Jennings Bryan: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
I found Montana to be like a deep canyon you can’t see until you’re just a few feet in front of it. If you’re not careful, it can swallow you up.
Georgia’s property had a breathtaking but desolate view, with beauty of the cold, unforgiving kind. Ragged prairie, its hue faded gold, ran to the lush green peaks of the Bridger Mountains. The closest neighbors were so far away that their homes looked like dollhouses. Georgia’s house, one of the highest in the area, was situated like a windblown bird’s nest on Outlaw Hill.
Promethea greeted me at the green gate. It was secured with multiple locks. On either side were tattered American flags mounted on wooden posts, blowing hectically in the mountain wind like air dancers at a car dealership. Promethea’s black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a loose long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and a pair of Merrell sneakers. “It’s great to finally meet you,” she said, opening the gate. Some of her features were recognizable from photos of her younger self—the rounded cheekbones, the Mediterranean complexion—but her large hands and boxy figure had a working-class cast I hadn’t expected.
Promethea no longer lived at the ranch. She had a small place in Bozeman, thanks to a work-for-rent arrangement with a local business where she repaired and upgraded computers. She also tutored students for the GRE. She didn’t have a car, so she got up to Livingston by relying on public transportation. I offered to give her rides during my visit.
Initially, when we were one-on-one, Promethea’s disposition disarmed me. Her mood was cheerful but her affect flat, as though something had been stripped from it. I struggled to find my footing in conversation, because the usual notches and grooves weren’t there. At one point she quoted Star Trek’s Spock, and I wondered if she drew inspiration from a character who balanced near perfect intellect with extreme stoicism. I also thought about how socially isolated she’d been all her life: homeless and homeschooled as a young child, taking college classes by age seven, earning two bachelor’s degrees with her mother by her side every day.
Carla Riedel had told me that Promethea “never knew how to end conversations or begin conversations or ratchet herself back.” I experienced this while ferrying her through the Montana landscape. After small talk, which came in fits and starts, Promethea would shift into a high gear I wasn’t ready for. She would talk about her family, then Greek austerity politics, then science, with nary a breath in between. There was no conversational ebb and flow. I didn’t so much participate as try to steer her thoughts now and then with questions.
But while it was clear that I was in the presence of the smartest person I’d ever met, Promethea’s intellect wasn’t the most striking thing about her. She didn’t have the sarcasm, cynicism, or irony many young people use to construct their personalities and establish repartee. She wasn’t quotable in the droll or pithy way that makes a journalist’s job easy; she was earnest and expansive. Our conversations were airless because Promethea had no airs—no hint of attitude, vanity, or ego. Perhaps in missing out on opportunities to develop her social self, she’d eluded artifice altogether.
One day we made plans to drive to Yellowstone National Park. I hoped to use it as an opportunity to broach some of the more sensitive topics in her life. After a week of thunderstorms swooping in and out of Bozeman, the skies were clear and the temperatures were in the low eighties. Promethea wore her hair in a bun under an old green beret and carried an earth-toned knapsack over one shoulder. On the hourlong ride from Livingston through flatlands streaked with yellow and mauve wildflowers, I asked Promethea about her father. She told me that Georgia had loved him, but that his family, which was also Greek, had selected someone else for him to marry. Promethea had never met him—even after she was featured on 48 Hours and profiled in Montana newspapers, and even after the shooting. “It’s kind of hard to be mad at someone you never knew,” she said.
We went hiking in the Lamar Valley, a stretch of wilderness often called the Serengeti of North America because of its dazzling array of big mammals: wolves, grizzlies, and elk, to name a few. Over several hours, picking our way through hilly backcountry past herds of pronghorn and mud-bathing bison, we eased into an idiosyncratic rapport. Promethea spoke less haltingly, but still with bottomless erudition. I began firing whatever questions came to mind, no matter how ludicrous they sounded. Promethea, what genus of flower is this? Promethea, how does the process of decomposition work? Promethea, how did wolves become dogs? It took no time for her to locate an answer in her encyclopedic brain. A few miles in, we stumbled onto a sulfur deposit, an ashy yellow swatch hidden behind a cluster of fir trees. “It must be thousands of years old,” I mused. “Probably much older,” Promethea corrected me. She explained that the sulfur’s likely provenance was volcanic ash spewed half a million years ago.
Joanne Ruthsatz, an expert on virtuosic children, has said that prodigies are exceedingly rare, perhaps only one in five million people. When most of us imagine such an individual, we visualize a gifted specialist who crawls up to a piano as a toddler and plays Beethoven or who outsmarts chess grandmasters while still in junior high school. Promethea, by contrast, seemed like an astounding generalist. She never once struck a false note.
The hardest question of all, lodged inside me like a Zen koan, was one that I wasn’t sure Promethea could answer, at least not easily. Beyond facts and figures, it would require accessing the depths of her emotional intelligence: How had a genius slipped through society’s cracks, and could she ever find her way back aboveground?
One night, Promethea invited me over for dinner at the ranch. We walked up the driveway, past several streetlights installed on the property, and onto a plywood platform leading into the one-story brown house. Georgia was in the living room, waiting to greet me for the first time. “You look just like you do in your picture!” she said, embracing me. She was small, with fierce hazel eyes and silver hair shaved close to her skull. On her face, scars intermingled with smile lines.
Inside, Georgia’s home was like a treasure chest from a bygone era. Miniature Christmas houses crowded wooden shelves, their Victorian roofs flecked with sugary fake snow. Orchids, cactus, and pothos vines spilled from the corners of the living room. Porcelain angels peered out of various nooks and crannies, each one engaged in an act of ethereal grace: holding an infant child, feeding a swan, pirouetting with a silk ribbon in hand. Georgia said that she’d bought the angels to commemorate accomplishments in Promethea’s academic career. Underneath each one was a handwritten congratulatory note to her daughter. One read, “My beloved daughter Jasmine, for acing Linear Algebra 333 at MSU, Bozeman, MT. I love you, Mommy Georgia.”
I sat in the living room talking to Georgia while Promethea flitted to and from the kitchen, where she was preparing dinner. When Georgia told a story Promethea had probably heard a hundred times, she flashed a wry smile. When her mother made a bawdy joke, which she did more than once, Promethea let out a half-stifled laugh. Alongside Georgia, pieces of her personality emerged. Yet she was deferential, happy to let her mother have the spotlight.
Listening to Georgia talk about life in Greece and the star-crossed arc of her time in America, I thought about how, in the mountains of Montana, she had managed to re-create her youth at the orphanage: an existence devoid of comforts but surrounded by natural beauty. Her excruciating history had sharpened Georgia’s edges; her opinions were forward, her tone defiant. When I mentioned that Promethea getting a steady computer-programming job might give them both some financial stability, Georgia gave me a long stare, her head tipped forward and eyebrows raised. “C’mon,” she said. “Life isn’t about having food on the table. It’s about fulfilling your destiny.”
Later, the three of us sat in the kitchen drinking strong, bitter Greek coffee. Animated by the caffeine spike, Promethea began waxing poetic about quantum entanglement. She described the theory as being like “twin souls, bound across time.” She stood and paced around the table, gesturing elaborately with her hands. She looked like a rigorous, romantic professor.
I asked if the transition from intellectual life at MSU, where she had teachers to spar with, to the isolated one she led now had been difficult. She and Bennett Link had discussed the possibility of her attending graduate school in 2011, and again in 2012. But she never applied anywhere, and the two eventually lost touch.
“You need money to go to school,” she told me.
For all her misfortune, indigence had been the most consistent affliction in Promethea’s life, and in many ways her story lays bare the inexorability of class distinctions. In a morbid twist, Kyros had left her two-thirds of his estate. After lawyer fees, a payoff to Kyros’s son (who might otherwise have fought for the inheritance in court), and Georgia’s extensive medical expenses, very little was left. Promethea spent the remainder on an in-home art studio for Georgia, who loves to paint and still sometimes uses her daughter as a subject. Promethea hopes that Georgia might one day show her work in galleries.
I pointed out that graduate programs have fellowships, stipends, and other sources of support, and that many schools would jump at the chance to welcome someone of her caliber. “If you’re doing that, and you’re trying to also, say, pursue computers or the premed program at the same time, you can’t,” she said. In other words, the demands of being a student in one discipline wouldn’t allow her enough time for other pursuits. It was the same impediment Link had observed when she was his student.
Exasperated, Georgia rolled her eyes. “You’ve been six years on a detour,” she said to her daughter. “When the best is being held back, sure, they will get somewhere, but not where the world needs them to be.”
There was another reason Promethea was on a detour. It became clear when she talked about the shooting, the pain of the memory heavy in her voice. Trauma is always complex, but in her case it is especially insidious. Because Kyros was obsessed with her intelligence, his violence tainted Promethea’s passions and ambitions, sullying the things she wanted most in the world with her own mother’s blood.
“In all the years I went to MSU and all the times I was faced with misogyny and age bias, no matter how bad things were and how isolated sometimes I felt because of the way other students treated me, especially when I was younger, I never regretted being born with the abilities I had,” she told me in the winding way she often speaks. “And then, when I was sitting there in the hospital, with my mother in the ICU, and afterwards knowing that her life would never be normal again, and that she’d be suffering what he caused for the rest of her life, I didn’t wish for anything more than that I had been born perfectly normal.”
The Romantic poets, whom Promethea read as a child, described the sublime as learning to exchange easier for more difficult pleasures. The stunning aberration of prodigies is that they are born with a taste for the latter. Promethea’s fascination with complex mathematics, astrophysics, waves, stars, cells, and the invisible strings that might loop them all together is, and always has been, her natural state. It is also what set her on an unimaginably lonely trajectory, shaped by poverty and pockmarked by violence.
As Gail Schontzler pointed out, Promethea has a rightful claim to a quiet, low-key existence. But those who know her crave more for her future. “She could enter graduate school anywhere, right now, and be top of the class,” Link said. Georgia, who convinced Promethea to participate in this story by suggesting that talented young girls facing difficult odds need to see more positive role models, confided in me that she also hoped the exposure would remind people of her daughter’s dazzling intellect. “I want her to move forward,” Georgia said, “but she needs help.”
After spending several months learning about Promethea’s life and speaking with her dozens of times, I too felt compelled to nudge her toward reclaiming her innate promise and once titanic drive. In the end, though, other people’s wishes and entreaties didn’t matter. They still don’t. The only question is this: What sort of life does the young woman who fell in love with Stanford’s particle accelerator at an age when most children are enamored with The Cat in the Hat imagine for herself? When asked, Promethea will answer ambiguously, as if afraid to name her aspirations lest they be dashed once again. Yet in her rapturous ruminations on esoteric subjects and her cautious agreement to let a reporter into her private domain, perhaps there are glimmers of clarity.
When she got her first bachelor’s degree, Promethea told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “I kind of think I’ve got something important to do, like fulfilling an oracle.” If such an oracle had existed, like Pythia presiding at Delphi, its prophecy for the young prodigy would have been one of unfathomable brilliance and torment. But there was no high priestess at work in Promethea’s life, only powerful forces of chance and circumstance. They have quieted now, leaving Promethea’s words hanging in the air. She hasn’t finished speaking.