Monday, May 11, 2009

Margie Profet's Unfinished Symphony -- 4

To be a young, pretty, rising star with a genius grant, two bestsellers, and a reputation for shaking things up in the staid, distinguished world of science would give a lot of people an inflated sense of self worth.

But not Margie Profet,
remembers Maureen Atwell, who got to know Profet at picnics and other events as a program administrator for the MacArthur Foundation. “Margie was unusual in a lot of good ways. None of her success went to her head. She was not a prima donna at all. She was a sweet, innocent person who was easy to like.”

The idea that anything might have happened to her stunned Atwell and her co-workers when they heard from a worried Karen Profet in 2005.

“Karen called to ask if we knew where Margie was living and if we had any recent dental records,” Atwell told me. But the Foundation hadn’t stayed in touch those many years later, and it only kept limited information about grant awardees. “It sounded like Margie’s family was looking everywhere for her, all over the country. They didn’t know if she was alive or dead.”

Atwell paused to gather herself, and asked me to send a message. “If you write about Margie, tell her from all of us that wherever she is, we hope she's safe and okay.”

The last person to speak with Profet may have been Deirdre Barrett, who says that while Profet was safe, she was not okay.

Living back in Cambridge on Memorial Drive, Profet reconnected with Barrett (right) in “2004, maybe early 2005-ish,” she says. “We spoke on the phone about a math problem she was trying to solve, how it was so difficult, and how she was having a lot of trouble concentrating.”

Then Profet started calling Barrett—a lot. Subsequent conversations
always at night—found her drifting between organized thought, “and rambling—about how badly her work was going or how she needed to be left alone. Some nights she sounded really suspicious,” Barrett says. “She’d tell stories about people she was working with that didn’t make sense at all.”

When Barrett suggested to Profet that she was deliberately isolating herself from those who cared and were trying to help, she relented. “Margie told me she was being treated for something—she didn't say what, but it sounded like bipolar disorder. She was sure she would get better soon.”

Characterizing their last contact as “unremarkable,” Barrett says Profet was worried about money. Twelve years later, she was still stretching MacArthur. “She said she had to find someplace cheaper,” Barrett told me, and subsequent public records show another Cambridge address on Agassiz Street. “It was ironic that we planned to meet and never did, when it turned out that she lived just around the corner from me.”

When Barrett asked if I had spoken with the Cambridge authorities, I told her they had no record of any missing persons reports with the name Profet, Margaret Profet, Margie Profet, or Margaret J. Profet.

She stopped short of calling it another irony, deciding instead that it made sense in a strange way.
“Margie had deliberately stopped communicating for so long, everybody who knew her, including her family I think, knew she had pretty much checked out,” Barrett says. “If a person doesn’t want to be found, are they really missing?"

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