The dark side of being a child prodigy

Updated

Eugenie de Silva has a master’s degree and braces. When working on her Ph.D., she often sits on a bed decorated with stuffed animals. She’s preparing to teach a college course in terrorism and listens to Nicki Minaj. She has a modest collection of colorful purses and world records, including being the youngest person to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in intelligence analysis.

At home in East Tennessee, she’s preparing to become the Secretary of Defense. The job is about to be vacant but she’s not quite ready for the nomination. First, she needs to turn 18.

At 16, Eugenie is a child prodigy by any standard. She obtained her master’s degree from Harvard University this year, is in the process of completing her Ph.D. at the University of Leicester, taught herself to play piano, and helps her father, a physics and chemistry professor, with his course work. In her spare time, she writes and edits books on cyber espionage and Edward Snowden, among other topics. This all comes naturally to her.

“Before I could write, I could type,” Eugenie told msnbc in a recent interview at her home.

Her brainpower may be off the charts, but Eugenie considers her life to be normal. She never had a chance to go to prom, having graduated high school at age 11. But she has friends who she texts and sees in her spare time. They hang out at the mall or wander around Wal-Mart. And she has an eccentric streak that comes out when she dyes her straight black hair platinum blonde, blue and even red. A good time is going to a movie. Recently, it was “Dumb and Dumber To.”

“I think that people think if you grow up as a child prodigy then life is really easy for you.”
Eugenie de Silva
Eugenie was born in England and at the age of five, moved with her father to Virginia, just two hours from the Pentagon she hopes to lead one day. But at nine, she convinced her father to move to Harrogate, Tennessee because of her obsession with “Hannah Montana,” the musical comedy series starring Miley Cyrus, whose hometown is in the Volunteer State.

It’s these glimpses of typical adolescent behavior that have sometimes made Eugenie a target. Female, and of Sri Lankan heritage, she has been haunted by jealousy and racial and sex discrimination. During her graduate studies, she has had to defend herself and her position on certain arguments – sometimes as the only woman in the classroom.

“More and more men started attacking me even when they were putting forth those same ideas and if I would put forth that idea they would come and belittle my comments,” she says.

Media attention over the years made it worse. Racist online comments came pouring in. “One individual said that I would be married off and live with an ethnic husband,” she recalls.

“She’ll have three kids by the time she lives three years with her ethnic husband, he 34 and she 18 by then, and she’ll set her sights on being a nurse just to get out of the house,” another comment read.

After her parents separated when she was roughly five (they have since divorced), her father was the sole figure in his daughter’s life. He warned her of the racism and discrimination she would likely face, but never deterred her from going after her goals. Even so, watching his only daughter face such a harsh reality at a young age took a toll.

“As a dad, it makes me feel sad. If they say something to the parent, it’s okay, the parent can take it. But when they tell about the daughter and then you read that you feel upset about it,” Eugene de Silva said.

Eugenie is poised – even bubbly – but underneath the perfect scores, is a teenager who often feels misunderstood.

“I think that people think if you grow up as a child prodigy then life is really easy for you,” Eugenie says. “You know how to do everything and maybe you just get things handed to you and you know, you’re in the news from time to time … they must think everything must be really great.”

Watch the above video for more on Eugenie from her home in Harrogate, TN

Women in Politics

The dark side of being a child prodigy

Updated