Martha's Secret

Many of Martha's friends and teachers knew about her mental illness, but because mental illness still carries a stigma, she had a dilemma when the time came to apply to colleges,

She wanted to present herself as she was, but she also wanted to keep secret the full extent of her madness. She feared colleges would exclude her if they knew too much about her. So her college application essay, "In Praise of Knowledge," delicately balanced her dark view of the world with the cadences of rationality and a hint of hope--all in under 500 words.


The first two paragraphs present her vision of "a cruel and morally ambiguous universe," drawing on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Nietzsche, paleoanthropology, news accounts of political torture, and her own experience of her peers' malevolence toward each other. But in the third and final paragraph, she finds hope in the beauty found through academic and artistic pursuits. Her essay ends as a paean to knowledge.


When Martha applied to colleges, my wife and I offered all the usual aids that parents offer children at that stage--SAT courses, college visits, professional help with her application. She turned it all down. She wanted to do it herself. Her college application essay was written with no help from us. I don't even understand parts of it: her use of differentiable functions as an analogy was meaningful to her but not to me, because she knew what differentiable functions were and I didn't. So the essay is pure Martha, and it got her into Columbia. Even though it hides a secret, it was still true to who she was.

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