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Unsettling new findings from out of left field


The earliest memories are what have caused the most pain.

"I remember it like it was this morning. I was in the first grade. We were drawing, and old Mrs. Gangwer comes up behind me, grabs the crayon out of my hand and slams it down on my desk. Hard. Hard enough to break it in two places. Then she glares at me, and all the other kids are staring, too. I start crying, and she says, 'I'm sorry, Nicky. But I'm not going to let you get away with that in my class. I've told you.'"

The place was Pershing Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisc. The time was 1951, and the offense that brought the wrath of his teacher down on young Nick Records was that he had made the mistake of drawing a picture of his family's home with his left hand.

"I can't remember any other lefties in my class, but there were two of them in the second grade. During recess they hung out together. I always figured it was because no one else wanted to play with them. When one of them got to be 'it' in one of those tag games, the little girls would run away screaming like he was a monster or something."

The distress that Records, now 69, endured as a left-handed child may seem like a distant and forgotten cruelty to us today, but we should remember that as recently as the late 1960s, there was still an effort in many education circles to convert "lefties" to "righties." The relaxing of those standards came slowly, and more so in some sections of the country than others.

In "The Tragedy of Left-Handed Orientation," an article submitted to the now defunct psychology journal Midwest Minds, Mores and Morality, Dr. Benjamin Voss-Kagen wrote, "It would be an enormous mistake to submit to the current fad among these radical behaviorists that left-handedness is an acceptable condition. ... For the sake of the individual child so afflicted and the society at large, we must resist this misguided attempt to upset what has long been known, that left-handed orientation is an abnormality, not an alternative." (1963)

Even more stunning are the words of Sister Caroline McMoore, the principal of St. Madeline's Academy in Baton Rouge, La., writing in The Louisiana Parochial Quarterly (Oct. 1968): "We must stand firm against this subversive wind that insists we 'let lefties be lefties.' Have we not seen the results of this sort of permissiveness on the streets of San Francisco and the campuses of our great universities? What could be next? 'Let sodomites be sodomites'?"

These attitudes reflect what had been, almost since the dawn of organized societies, a history of regarding left-handed people as an "otherly" presence, to say the least, and in most cultures, something to be either feared or reviled. It has taken more than 100 years, much research and an intensive re-education campaign to undo the damage that was being inflicted on children such as Nick Records and millions more. We can credit the work of behavioral psychologists and enlightened educators around the world for their endeavors to "right"--pun intended--the wrongs of ages.

With that said, however, recent investigations are finding there are aspects to left-handed people that have never before been examined, and the preliminary data suggests many of the questions that have arisen point to disturbing answers--that there is indeed something curious about this "otherly" presence among us.

Left Behind

Lefties have encountered prejudicial treatment for as long as history has been recorded, but it was by no means all negative treatment.

In the Middle Kingdom of the Egyptian Empire, circa 1850 BCE, the otherwise unremarkable pharaoh Anklitolat decreed that left-handers were the favorites of the goddess Hathor. For nearly two centuries following his reign, the hierarchy of the Egyptian priesthood would allow no one to belong who wasn't left-handed, and woe be it to any right-handed acolyte who tried to pass himself off as a lefty.

(Anklitolat's tomb was looted long before any reputable archeologists had an opportunity to study it. As the pharaoh's mummy was not available for examination, it will never be determined what Egyptologists had long suspected, that Anklitolat was himself left-handed.)

In an even more unusual example of left-handed favoritism, the Chinese, from the earliest dynasties to the 13th century CE, thought of lefties as harbingers of good luck and fortune. They were often invited into the households of emperors and treated like family. Rare was the Chinese aristocrat who didn't have a left-hander near, whether it be at a formal dinner or simply while walking in the gardens, as a balancing factor to his own right-handed twichi.

Unfortunately, the Mongol invaders under Jenghiz Khan had a different view, considering lefties to be bad luck and even carriers of evil. Until well after the rule of Kublai Khan, Chinese parents would hack off the offending arms of their left-handed children in order to spare them a more gruesome fate if discovered by the occupying Mongols.

More often than not, being left-handed was associated with negative aspects of the human condition. The Latin sinistra/sinistrum originally meant simply "left." But over time, the definition came to include everything from "unlucky" to "nefarious"--sinister.

No one can tell us whether the French gauche began as the word for "left" or the word for "boorish." We only know that it now serves as both. In Scandinavia and Northern Europe, the concept of left took on associations ranging from "ill fortuned" to "back-stabbing" and "scoundrel." The Spanish tener dos pies izquierdos is where we get "two left feet," an expression to convey clumsiness, ineptitude and, in some of the more provincial areas, deviancy.

At various times in various places, disease, incompetence, homosexuality, criminal behavior, witchcraft and even Satanism were attributed to the left-handed among the population. Whenever the Spanish Inquisition descended upon a community, one of the first tests the judges would administer to a suspected individual would be to unexpectedly throw him (or her) a small stone--perhaps an egg--just to see which hand he used to catch it. As you can imagine, if the subject used his left hand out of natural reflex, he was in for some considerably harsher prosecution.

Among the Slavic peoples in Poland, Russia and even parts of what is now Eastern Germany, the left-handers were often exiled from rural towns and villages, forced either to flee to larger cities in hopes their "curse" would not be noticed, or to wander the countryside and scrounge what they might to survive. In regions around the Baltic coast, these rückwarts menchen ("backwards people") would band together in their own makeshift communities, built on salt marshes, unarable lands, barren wind-swept hilltops--any place no one else wanted. These squatters' settlements came to be known as lewy-tuwens, lewy being the Polish word for "left" and tuwens meaning "villages."

Across most of the Middle East, the left hand came to represent filth and corruption, as the right hand was used for eating and making physical contact with others, while the left has traditionally been reserved for those unpleasant duties of toilet hygiene. Even the Bible carried a message of disparagement for left-handers: "And He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left." (Matthew 25:33)

Long into the 19th century, in Protestant countries of Europe, Roman Catholics were called "left-footers," a slur that one suspects Sister Caroline McMoore in Baton Rouge was not aware of.

Left Foot Forward

One would think that the enlightenment toward lefties might have begun in the New World, along with the religious tolerance and respect for the commonalty of mankind that arose there. But such is not the case. Immigrants to these shores usually brought their bigotry with them, and the bigotry against left-handers was no exception.

The first cracks in the shell of fear, hatred and ridicule that encompassed lefties actually began in Vienna when Helmut Schlosstein, an Austrian Jew, began to study the physiological relationships between functions of the brain and accompanying motor activity. The young Sigmund Freud was a protege of Schlosstein (1801-1879), and it is thought the older man was a possible inspiration for that great psychoanalyst's choice in career.

Schlosstein never achieved the title of "doctor," his education being mediocre at best. He was left-handed, himself, and throughout his schooling had to endure the taunts of schoolmates and teachers at Vienna's Österreicher Hebraik Institut, where he was considered a linkishziffern duncenkömpf, or "left-fingered idiot."

But Schlosstein was far from being an idiot. His revelations on the left-hemisphere/right-hemisphere architecture of the human brain were groundbreaking, and his conclusion that being either right- or left-handed had nothing to do with superstitions or curses--that it was as innate a condition as skin pigmentation or gender--is now seen as the beginning of the end to centuries of ignorance, prejudice and persecution.

Schlosstein's discoveries were made long before such modern medical marvels as computed axial tomography (CAT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), innovations that would have made his research much easier. Instead, he made inventive use of an eclectic mix of equipment and procedures--e.g., rubber mallets, opium, what we now call "Chinese finger-cuffs," electro-stimulation and discreet, lightly anesthetized surgeries in different areas of condemned prisoners' brains--to conduct his researches.

As Freud's renown grew, he spoke little of his mentor Schlosstein, whom he referred to as "that old vivisektor schlingel" (vivisecting rascal). Freud also seemed to have little concern with whether left-handed orientation was natural or deviant. Still, in 1931, not long before his own death, he penned a monograph for Der Verrückten in which he observed that individuals he had studied for a variety of mental health issues, and who had been forced in childhood to convert from left hand to right, were always left-handed in their dreams, no matter how old they came to be. (Freud's only footnoted comment on that observation was, "Hmmmmm.")

Throughout the 1930s--until World War II interrupted scientific pursuits in most non-war-related subjects--there was, both in Europe and the United States, an intense concentration in both university medical research facilities and theory of education circles to demonstrate the natural condition of being born left-handed. As strange as it may now seem, until 1937, no one had ever performed a dependable survey on what percentage of humans are left-handed. In that year, Dr. Glenn Scofield of the Pittsburgh University Department of Psychology began an exhaustive study to determine that ratio. It took him four years and he visited more than 70 countries to learn that in virtually every culture and population on Earth, lefties number between 12 and 13 out of every 100 people.

(Sadly, Dr. Scofield was near to finishing up his report in Osaka, Japan, in December 1941. As soon as the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced, he handed the entire study--859 pages of notes, graphs, charts, interviews and commentary--over to the Brazilian skipper of an out-going tramp steamer with instructions to get it back to Pitt U., and then was never heard from again. What happened to Scofield and why he didn't board the steamer himself and escape Japan is a mystery. It's also likely that the study would never have found it's way home had not that ship's captain been a lefty who had gone to sea in his teens to escape the ridicule his kind was subjected to in most Latin American countries.)

By the 1950s, attitudes were changing--not quickly enough for the likes of Nicky Records in Kenosha or the left-handed students of Sister McMoore in Baton Rouge--but in less provincial areas of America, and in Western Europe, the shift away from left-to-right conversion was well under way. Even more important, the general population was slowly abandoning cultural prejudices against lefties. By 1980, except for isolated pockets of particularly superstitious people--the Arabian peninsula, for one, along with the more rural Philippine islands and remote herding societies of Central Asia--the "curse" of being left-handed had, at last, been lifted.

A Southpaw in the Soup?

In 2006, a survey conducted by a team of Toronto Polytechnique psychologists and socio-anthropologists (directed by Dr. Aaron Schlosstein, a great-grand nephew of Helmut Schlosstein) heralded a new round of research on lefties. The main thrust of that TP study was to investigate the relation between motor orientation and intelligence quotient, and their controversial conclusion was that left-handers have, on the whole, considerably higher IQs than their right-handed counterparts.

A flurry of similar studies followed, and the findings were, without exception, in concurrence with (what has become known as) "the Schlosstein Curve," which holds that the average IQ of lefties ranges between 10 points-30 points higher than right-handers, codependent on other factors such as education, nutrition and the ambient culture.

This was such a shock to orthodox behavioral scientists some began to suggest that in the long run, it might be advantageous to right-handed children to convert them to left-handers. Many young, upper-middle-class parents, always eager to give their children any advantage they might, were quick to act on that suggestion, and by 2010, in urban centers from Boston to San Francisco, charter schools opened that enrolled only "righties" whose parents wanted their youngsters raised in the ways of left-handedness. Gone are the knuckle-slapping yardsticks and the humiliating duncenkömpf caps of yesteryear, but in many of these "Turn Left" charters, there is the use of mild electroshock when the child makes the mistake of picking up his crayon or lunch-time spork with the wrong hand. Each student is equipped with a battery pack and conductor lead running down their right arm to their fingers. When that conductor makes a connection with a wired utensil, desk drawer handle, toilet paper dispenser, etc., the student receives a jolt, usually of no more than 24 volts.

Criticism of this practice--called "behavioral retro-engineering" by some--has grown in recent years, and reached a peak in 2012, when Samantha Beacons, a second-grader in the Wade Boggs Academy of Amherst, Mass., failed to remember which hand she should use with the doorknob on the entrance to the girls' restroom and was stunned with an unusually strong charge due to improper wiring on her battery pack.

(Samantha was not seriously hurt, but to this day, she wets her pants every time she sees a doorknob. Her parents have had to install knobless doors throughout their home.)

Upon hearing Samantha's story, Dr. Frank Burns of the Smiley Burnett Childrens' Foundation had had enough. In the fall of 2012, he began a survey to determine exactly how many of the other surveys, from the 1930s on, had been conducted by left-handed researchers. His findings have rocked the motor orientation community. Of the 1,684 studies on left-handed behavior that have been conducted in North America, Western Europe and the old Soviet Union during the past 80 years, all but 14 of them were led by, or commissioned by, lefties. Of the 14 that weren't, all but two were conducted by ambidextrous researchers.

As Dr. Burns was accumulating data for his study, he began to notice other patterns among left-handed populations that roused his curiosity.

"At first, I thought it was just an interesting coincidence that so many left-handers were congregated into the same small niche activities," explained Burns. "For instance, it's mathematically unlikely that both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello would be lefties, given the relative rarity of the condition. But they were, and it didn't bother me--not until I found out that both Oliver and Hardy were also lefties, and all three Stooges (sic). Then when I learned that Jerry Seinfeld and George... uh, what's his real name?... you know who I mean, that Costanza character... I thought to myself 'There's something else going on here.'"

The path that Burns trailblazed has been followed by others curious to see if there were other fields dominated by lefties. The conservative Trump Institute for Higher Excellence made the astonishing observation that Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Fidel Castro are all left-handed.

"Doesn't that tell you all you need to know?" commented Donald Trump. "I've hired a very, very excellent private investigator to go to Venezuela to find out if Hugo Chavez was a lefty, and I have a feeling that what he finds out will be very, very interesting."

Other studies have determined that, while there are always exceptions to the rule, southpaws have an unusually high concentration in the areas of banking, aerospace engineering and neuropathology.

Aaron Schlosstein is not surprised.

"Any time you are dealing with a demographic which is demonstrably brighter than the general population, it should come as no shock that there might be a heavier centralization of rocket scientists and brain surgeons within that group," he said.

Trump has a different take on such statistics: "What are they up to? That's the real question here. Why is it left-handers like Obama are always messing with people's brains or trying to build a rocket to go somewhere? Where do they want to go? That's the real question here."

Research continues on many fronts, and the data gathered so far continues to raise even more questions. For instance, why would left-handed people prefer pistachios over peanuts by an astonishing 86 percent, while right-handed people are almost the exact reverse?

Why do lefties--14 percent of the population, at most--consume 43 percent of all the soy milk produced in this country? Why is it that more than half of any given audience at any fine arts film festival is left-handed? Why is it that a lefty is 68 percent more likely to purchase a Mini Cooper than a righty? Why would a right-handed individual feel such visceral repulsion when watching a left-hander write something out by hand, as 94 percent of those questioned in a recent PEW poll admit?

The mystery of left-handedness and the people so oriented continues to grow. Why are they the way they are really? And, more importantly, what do they want from the rest of us?

Back in Kenosha, Nick Records is troubled by what has already been reported.

"People are starting to give me that look again. I call it that 'old biddy Gangwer look,' like there's something horribly wrong with me for signing my name or throwing a bowling ball with my left hand. You can't know what it is until you've been through it, and I'm starting to think it never really went away. That, you know, maybe those right supremacist bastards have just been biding their time, waiting for the proper atmosphere to let all that stored-up hate out."

Dr. Roberta T. Axidea is currently the director of Objectionable People Studies at the College of Western Idaho. Her previous investigative contributions to Boise Weekly include the report that early Basques were the first humans to make their way to the New World ("Were Basques the First?" March 28, 2007) and the exposé that Boise administrators had sold the city's oldest cemeteries to developers ("Dead Men Moving," March, 31 2010).