Okay, I love Ga-Ga’s music. And I have enormous respect for Hillary. But rock stars (no matter out outrageously self-promoting) and politicians (no matter how stalwart, savvy and dedicated) are not mysterious. They are the very antithesis of mystery. We know more about them than we ever wanted to know. Their stories, endlessly analyzed, rehashed, doctored, spun and publicized over and over, are drained of mystery, creating a lacuna. A great, silent chasm around which we cluster, yearning for something to think about. Yearning for a puzzle. Enter Joan Ginther.
Underdogs are a staple of American Story. We love underdogs, although only when they transcend firestorms of vicissitude to at last win something or other. Money is a popular thing for underdogs to win because then we can criticize them for not having enough sense to invest it wisely, or for squandering it on home movie theaters and fancy clothes when something or other so desperately needs financial support. A shame, we think. If only I had won.
Joan Ginther, a small-town girl, albeit with a Stanford Ph.D. in math, has won the Lottery four times, raking in a total of 20.4 million dollars. The statistical odds in favor of any individual randomly winning the Lottery four consecutive times are, essentially, beyond possibility. So, in the best card-counting, gangsta math-geek tradition, Joan has beat the system. She’s cracked the algorithm, tracked the distribution pattern and four times bought up the thousands of scratch cards among which only one would win. This is no accident. This is not luck.
After reading Nathaniel Rich’s great article about Joan (although mostly about the Lottery since nobody knows anything about Joan) in Harper’s (Aug. 2011), my first thought was – How could you scrape that gummy coating off 63,000 scratch cards? It would take weeks! But then I wanted to know Joan’s story. And there isn’t one.
When my attention is captured by the shadow of a story the substance of which is deliberately hidden, I am compelled to make up the forbidden story. Probably a writer thing, but doesn’t everybody do that? The inclination to manufacture stories we are not allowed to hear is innate, giving rise to both tabloid journalism and religions, I think.
This is the only publicly available photo of Joan Ginther, a native of Bishop, TX (pop, 3,300), who now lives in Las Vegas. In sixty-three years she has made only two recorded statements, both (arguably reasonable) complaints. One was recorded in a USA Today interview conducted, apparently, just after a flight. Joan was unhappy over the abrupt removal by a flight attendant of her unfinished cheese-and-crackers and ice cream sundae. In the other statement she told a reporter from the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she purchased her Las Vegas luxury condo for its view of mountains, not of a monorail later constructed across her view. And that’s it.
Moreover, decades of her life remain to be accounted for. She finished her doctorate in 1976 and then is said to have taught math at various unnamed universities in California for ten years. After that, nothing. Nobody, or at least nobody anybody found to interview, has the slightest idea where she was for over twenty years of her adult life after those ten years. She’s an enigma, an unknown quantity, a (very wealthy) mystery.
But before engaging in wild conjecture, I have to wonder why it is that nobody seems to have done the obvious research. She has a Ph.D. From Stanford. She will have had a doctoral committee, an academic advisor, fellow candidates, none of whom has been interviewed. And what about her dissertation? Did anybody go to Stanford’s library and read it? What if it’s about analyzing algorithms? And what about all these unnamed California universities where she taught for ten years? There are personnel records, students, colleagues to talk to. Yet nobody has.
Joan is no Lady Ga-Ga, no Hillary. She doesn’t photograph well and clearly loathes publicity. But so did Whitey Bulger and that didn’t stop anybody. So I’m left chewing on the idea that unless one is either male or a female icon of seething sexuality and/or political ambition, one isn’t worthy of attention. Even if one has managed to break the Lottery code to the tune of twenty mil. Dumpiness as protective shield. Nobody wants to know about the fat lady. I think this is weird.
Meanwhile, all sorts of commissions are madly investigating her. I imagine men in black with ear-cords following her everywhere except the ladies room, where she’s followed by women in black. Armanied mavens of organized crime send her gigantic floral arrangements daily with invitations to private meetings. If one of them succeeds, the others will watch him sink to the bottom of Lake Mead by sundown of the same day. I imagine that in her mail she receives countless death threats and supplications from people whose dying children long to see Disney World. Among these is a single letter that’s heartbreakingly real, but she doesn’t know which one it is, and the fact keeps her awake nights. That and the fear that somewhere, right now, a highly-paid chemist is mixing the tasteless substance that will wreck her brain and leave her unable to understand basic algebra. The substance will be dusted on airline crackers or hidden in chocolate syrup. In my mind, brilliant, bulky Joan isn’t safe, anywhere.
Or a worst-case scenario, and one that might account for the significant disinterest in her, would have her a gambler. Addicted to those flashing lights and maddening casino sound effects, she loses thousands a day at Blackjack, Red Dog, Pai gow. She’s as obvious as a tractor on the casino floor amid the amphetamine-thin denizens of that world, but they form an ever-shifting and heavily armed wall of protection around her. They’re paid to protect her by the casino owners, not one among whom would fail to cherish a multi-millionaire compulsive gambler. They know if she loses big, all she has to do is win another Lottery. I hope that’s not the right story.
So far, there’s no evidence that Joan’s a criminal. Gaming and lottery laws are murky legal territory, the law scrambling to keep up with a technology that becomes more impenetrable every day. It may turn out that, arguably, she stepped over a legal line somewhere, but her last win was a year ago and nobody’s found that line yet. I prefer to think she’s just smart, a small-town girl with a high IQ, an eccentric who got tired of explaining moot hypotheses and contingency tables to bored adolescents. I prefer to imagine her holed up somewhere for years in the baking Texas heat, painstakingly scribbling mathematical formulae on the wall a la William Faulkner’s storyboard for A Fable until at last she saw how to do it. I want her to revel in the fact that she broke a system thousands have failed to break. I want her to use her winnings well and grow with the opportunities they bring her. And I want to read her story, if anybody ever bothers to write it!