Sep 7 • 12M

Chapter 6, Part 8: F*cked up gifted kids

This is Chapter 6, Part 8 of SMIRK, a serialized memoir of my relationship with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli.

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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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Illustration of school books. (By Shannon Loys)

“I am a very determined person, Ms. Pierotti.” 

That was a line from a letter Martin Shkreli sent in January 2013 as part of a campaign of stalking and harassment he launched against a former employee, Tim Pierotti, and his family. In the letter, Martin claimed Pierotti “stole” about $1.5 million or $1.6 million worth of stock in drug startup Retrophin, and the young founder threatened to make the family “homeless” if the shares were not returned.

The first time I read the full letter in 2015, after it was made public as part of a lawsuit, I was horrified by its venom — especially because it was directed at Pierotti’s wife, who had nothing to do with the underlying dispute. But as I read it again more closely, in the context of Martin’s other disturbing tactics, such as bothering Pierotti’s children on social media, I had another thought: The whole episode struck me as a bit sad.

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In 2013, Martin desperately needed Retrophin to become valuable, and Pierotti walking off with the stock (whether or not he was legally entitled to do so) threw a potential wrench into the plan. Martin’s brash and nasty language camouflaged fundamental helplessness, from what I could tell. Pierotti wouldn’t talk to him, so all he could do was sue him (which he had done) and fire off snarling missives. He had no other moves up his sleeve. 

“I am going to inform the bank who holds your mortgage and local police department that you have committed fraud,” Martin declared the letter. “I hope to see you and your four children homeless and I will do whatever I can do assure this. Your husband’s arrogance is infuriating and making an enemy out of me is a huge mistake.”

None of that happened, of course. What happened is that Pieroitti eventually reported Martin to the police, and Martin hung up the phone like a sullen child when the officer told him to stop bothering the family. And Pierotti kept the stock.

As I dwelled on that one line, though — “I am a very determined person, Ms. Pierotti” — I also started to find aspects of the letter chillingly relatable. Although I did not ever threaten people or launch no-holds-barred harassment campaigns against spouses and children, as Martin had done, I had sent my own fair share of vividly angry letters in my life. What usually set me off into a tirade was observing some form of deep unfairness, hypocrisy, or someone trying to take advantage of me or others. 

If the person on the receiving end of my infuriated screed ignored me or underestimated my abilities, woe be to them. Just like Martin had emphatically stated about himself, I, too, was a very determined person. My efforts to argue a point, seek remedy for a grievance or fight for a particular cause weren’t always successful, but they usually left a lasting impression.

Reading back over Martin’s letter again, I could find traces of my own thought process and self-talk embedded in every sentence: “You do not understand me. You do not respect me. You do not know what I’m capable of. You are brushing me aside as though I mean nothing. I will disabuse you of this notion.” Those were the thoughts that I carried with me when I read Martin’s letter.

I was also able to sort of “warg” (OK, that’s a “Game of Thrones” reference) into Martin’s thought process sometimes — or at least to feel like I could — because we were almost exactly the same age. And we had undoubtedly had many similar early childhood experiences. Sort of like Martin, I was an awkward, gifted kid and a bit of a puzzle to my early-and mid-20-something parents. I spoke “in paragraphs,” as my mother likes to say, by the time I was two, and taught myself to read well before I entered kindergarten.

Some period of weeks before school officially began, my mother took me to an administrator’s office, and I sat there with him one-on-one looking at flashcards that had patterns of spoons on them (or at least, those are the specific cards I can remember). He was giving me an I.Q. test. I don’t remember how well I scored, but it was high enough to make me the school’s then-youngest-ever student accepted into its gifted and talented program.

Like Martin, I started out in life as a bit of a classroom freak, the undisputed “smart kid.” I was probably less naturally strong in math than Martin was, but I mastered what I needed to know easily enough. Every other subject, at least through grade school, was a breeze. 

The only challenge was forcing myself to do my homework. But even when I skipped almost every assignment, I found I could coast to a passing grade on test scores alone. Some teachers adored me; some found me frustrating — and some found me insufferable. When teachers made mistakes in class, I would contemptuously correct them, which did not win me any brownie points.

But also like Martin, I was sort of an island unto myself. I felt like a misfit in the middle-class Kansas City suburb where I grew up. Although I could push myself to be social, and I easily made a large number of acquaintances, I had very few close friends.

Part of the reason I kept my intimate circle small was that I did not like to show weakness. I learned from an early age to disguise any internal turmoil I might be going through, and I avoided thinking about my own emotional needs. Instead I read lots of books, I wrote poems and stories, and I fantasized about having a successful, exciting, adventurous career— somewhere way more interesting and glamorous than the Kansas City suburbs.

Sometimes my confidence ran absurdly high, and I bragged incessantly to classmates or adults about how smart I was. Sometimes I was afflicted with intense insecurities. I kept quiet, afraid of the sound of my own loud, clear voice, and marinated in my own dark thoughts. By the time I was in about the seventh grade, I was thoroughly miserable with myself — but I told this to no one. I did write lots of moody and terrible poetry, but I kept it all tucked away in notebooks in my desk, away from any potentially prying eyes.

Overcome with a sense that I was “fat” (I was a healthy 120-ish pounds at 5’3’’), “lazy” (well, maybe I was struggling with undiagnosed ADHD), and undisciplined, I took it upon myself over the course of a summer to change everything. I became religious about doing homework and obsessed with calorie counting and exercise. The end result was that I got straight A’s the following year (good) but I was also clinically anorexic (not so good). 

I went back to eating normally, though, after my parents finally started expressing concern about my weight, which I had whittled down to around 85 pounds. As much as I hated the possibility becoming “fat,” I hated the idea of needing help from my parents or being treated as a “victim” of a “disorder” even more. If you’re thinking all of this sounds like a big pile of unresolved sh*t, you’re probably right. But all’s well that ends well, I guess…

In my happier moments as a kid, though, I could be genuinely and healthily assertive, passionate and even gleefully combative. I started arguments with classmates, not to be a bully (I hated bullies), but because I thought arguing was fun. I chased boys around the playground. I sought out obscene and dirty jokes to trade, giggling, with friends (which was much harder to do back in the early ‘90s before most people had the internet). 

When I was annoyed at being relegated to the role of “defender” on my co-ed kindergarten soccer team, and I was made to stand in front of the goal during games, and never allowed to chase after the ball, I let my rage show to the coach’s son. I challenged him to a fight. He won in one punch, though, because I had no idea what I was doing.

That memory flooded back to me, clear as day, decades later after I got to know Martin Shkreli. When I sat down with him and his parents in 2017, and they told me about what a brilliant, spirited and wacky little boy he had been, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if the two of us had ended up in a kindergarten class together. 

We would have likely started the same year, in the fall of 1988. He was in a working/middle class-ish neighborhood in Brooklyn; I was in a working/middle class-ish subdivision near Kansas City International Airport in Missouri. Both of us would have showed up on Day 1 with sophisticated verbal skills that left adults speechless and classmates confused. 

Both of us would have probably made grandiose declarations about our hopes and dreams for ourselves. I told everyone when I was in kindergarten that I wanted to be a “biochemist” because I got many impressed looks when I said that word. I had learned it, and about the basics of genetic sciences, from watching a PBS documentary.

So what would have happened if two obnoxiously precocious, awkwardly wired, fiercely independent kids, battling complicated internal demons and displaying a silly desperation to “prove” that they were destined for bigger things, crossed paths in their formative years? I suspected that either we would have been fast friends, or maybe we would have gotten into a lot more fist fights. Or both.

Sure, eventually I evolved from my early childhood self. I stopped being quite such a firebrand and learned how to fit in with the crowd. I figured out how to get along with authority, even if I didn’t always like doing so. Martin had clearly not achieved a similar level of maturity— but I couldn’t see him as “evil” just for that.

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