Hello, dear readers, it’s Jamie Loftus, the slut who is in Mensa. My column on the subject has been gone for many months, but the journey has (with deepest regrets) continued. I’ve finally gotten my whole experience into a four-part podcast series that comes out on New Year’s Day called “My Year in Mensa” that tracks my time there, and the sinister backstory of IQ stories in general. To round things out, I’m sharing a sliver of what’s covered, from my first day at the Mensa Annual Gathering in Phoenix on the fourth of July. I’m…sorry.
For those who aren’t caught up, here is the story so far, from taking the test to being a slut that got in to getting blacklisted by a secret Facebook group to getting called into a secret hotel meeting about getting blacklisted by a secret Facebook group. I’m exhausted, too.
Note: All names in this piece, and the podcast, have been changed.
July 4, 2019
People at the Annual Gathering came here to do one of two things—go to boring talks about nothing during the day, or get blackout drunk at night. I decide I’ll attempt to do both.
Trying to find a lunch table to sit at on the first day of the AG is as terrible as freshman year in high school, and I play it equally safe by choosing a table labeled “Pet Lovers.” I meet a number of nice women over the advertised corn chowder and Caesar salad—a grandmother in a celestial silk shirt who speaks about her granddaughter’s interest in science, a single woman with a cat, and a mother who is deeply invested in what she can’t repeat enough are extremely gifted sons. The food, as Mensans repeat in hushed tones throughout the weekend, is terrible.
“It’s funny,” I say to the mother whose extremely gifted son is glowering at her from across the room, “because ‘mensa’ means ‘stupid’ in Spanish.”
She looks at me like I’ve just thrown the Caesar salad up in my own hand and baby birded it back to myself. “No it doesn’t,” she says.
The woman in the celestial silk giggles into her lemonade. “It means table in Latin.”
I look across the cafeteria, affectionately called ‘Hospitality’—this same room eventually sports an open bar well into the night—and I try to see who I’m dealing with. While the vast majority of the Gathering and the organization is old and white, there’s more diversity in gender, race and political thought in the younger section of Mensa than I expected. It’s by no means majority diverse, but I found myself to be initially hated and reviled by a fairly wide array of people, with a wide variety of hug dots.
The Mensan ‘hug dot’ system is one of the only truly ingenious concepts I came across at the Annual Gathering. Using a colored dot stuck to one’s nametag, a Mensan is asked upon registration to select a color based on what they’d like to wordlessly indicate is their level of physical comfort with strangers—green means all hugs are welcome, yellow means ask before hugging, red means no hugs at all, and blue means ‘I’m single.’ Aside from the fact that it’s open season on single people under this system, my social anxiety has to hand it to them. It’s a damn good system, and I gamely choose a yellow dot.
What’s more important to navigating this weekend are the ribbons that attending Mensans hang beneath their nametags, some extending over a foot long. My only ribbon reads a bright yellow “New Member” beside my matching hug dot, but most of the people who approach me over the weekend wear a red ribbon labeled “Hoser”—this indicates that they’re an active member of Firehouse. Some additions to the ribbon include others that say “Firehouse,” “Boobs and Bacon,” “and the occasional “Pervert.” There is a designated Firehouse table in the cafeteria, marked with a cartoon of an owl with its head on fire. Some use their ribbons to announce where they’re from or their preferred pronouns, but most have the comedic limitations of a clearance rack at Spencer’s Gifts in the mid-2000s.
I find myself growing increasingly paranoid about my interactions with those in the red ribbons as the day wears on. As a lecturer wearing a Bazinga! shirt discusses the future of artificial intelligence, I scan the audience for ribbons. While I sit through a discussion about various ways to use your cute children at business meetings to persuade sales, I look for ribbons. As I sit in the ‘debate room’ watching civil if occasionally alarming discussions about hot-button issues where the winner is voted on by having the best speakers face the wall as if against a firing squad, I look for ribbons. I hear a wide variety of arguments about race, climate change and religion, some of which I agree with and others that give me a migraine. I attend “Television Humor: Evolution or Devolution?” in which college professors regale a packed room with some of the following misinformation that it would be criminal not to share:
-“The edginess of vulgarity of South Park is all the more shocking because the lines are spoken by ‘children.’”
- “Seth Macfarlane is known for playing Cartman and many others.”
- “We have to ask ourselves, is NCIS a comedy as well?” and later, “That lab technician…she’s goth, and that’s a leitmotif. She’s very, very goth.”
- “With Shakespearean comedies, the women can only be uppity in the first act, and by the last act they’ve been tamed.”
- A long, meandering argument that Charlie Sheen was removed from Two and a Half Men for ‘sexual problems,’ “but his character on the show also had sexual problems so…the show wasn’t as funny after he left.”
- A slide reading only www.everybodylovesray.com, which I recommend you visit.
- “Animated sit-coms automatically create distance. This is why Family Guy (1999-2012) is allowed to be so vulgar, as the stories are told about the dysfunctional Griffins.”
This is followed by the equally punishing “Mensa Joke-Off,” whose moderator explains that humor is to ‘disarm others’ as well as reflect ‘shared experience,’ ‘where we are in our development,’ and ‘sexual selection [women select men that show wit].’ Functioning as an open mic, Mensans are welcomed to the front of the room to perform ‘Old People Jokes,’ ‘Lightbulb Jokes,’ “Jokes About Professions’ and ‘Political Jokes,’ a topic that the room agrees is best to not attempt. There are a number of speakers who, throughout the week, are noticeably jarred by the political division within the group. The joke-off moderator looks genuinely surprised when his Trump University joke elicits a few groans.
“Really?” he says.
“Don’t spoil the mood,” one member says, and others mutter in agreement.
The moderator shrugs, still confused. “Okay, we’ll move on.”
By the time the final debate room closes (reproductive rights, featuring an intense spar between a woman named Sarah and a pro-life teenager), it’s past 11 at night. Two and I have run into each other again and gone to the last debate together, and he knows exactly where the parties are on the fourth and fifth floors.
These are all parties advertised within the large “Mensa Rising” Annual Gathering pamphlet we’re given on our way into the Sheraton on our first day, and are mostly divided by SIGs, or Special Interest groups. There’s the boomer suite, which is next to the Gay SIG suite, which is across from the Gen X suite, which is across from the Gen Y suite, the one I’ll spend most of my time at. (Why Mensa doesn’t recognize the term ‘millennials’ is unclear.) The Firehouse suite is the only party I hear of happening on the fifth floor, and that makes sense—there’s two thousand members of the Firehouse group, and their members comprise a large swath of those in attendance.
The Gen Y suite, incidentally, is pretty fun. A woman I met in a hotel room under confusing circumstances that I cannot possibly explain to you at this exact moment recognizes me right away, and gives me a big hug. She and her husband appear to be the organizers of the suite and are from my area in Los Angeles, so she’s quick to introduce me to other young-ish Mensans. They’re all welcoming and curious as I nervously refill my cup with cheap keg beer, feeling like I’m retroactively attending every party I didn’t get invited to as a teenager. Maybe I’m not the only one.
It’s at this party that I realize just how many people associate controversy with the name on the badge we’re not allowed to take off. I’m approached by multiple people who cautiously ask me: “So…how’s your AG going? Is it different than you expected?,” how I’m enjoying myself, what made me decide to come, if I’d be writing about the experience. I get good at answering this question the first night, fortunate given I’ll have to answer it several hundred times in the days to come. It’s here that I develop the reflexive reply I take with me through the remainder of the conference, a variation of: “People told me I wasn’t giving Mensa a chance in my pieces, so I took so-and-so up on the invitation to come.”
“How’s it going?” the organizer’s husband asks gamely before mentioning a mutual friend. I’m later informed he’s had me blocked online for months.
“Shit, Loftus?” one says, who I don’t know now but will really dominate the toga party tomorrow night. “Takes balls.”
One man in particular who holds a high position in American Mensa named Joey corners me near the cooler-keg, where I keep nervously drinking. This is Joey, and he’s intense—like many other people I meet, he asks me the standard line of cautious questioning, and I give the standard answers. He repeats that regurgitative defense of the Firehouse group: “They’re the nicest people in real life, nothing like they are online.”
After a solid twenty minutes of intense eye contact with Joey, Two finds me in the dark shuffle of the Gen Y suite. “Dude, what was Joey talking to you about for so long? I was getting worried.”
I shrug and have to yell in his ear to be heard. “I don’t know, about why I’m here and how nice the Firehouse people are in real life. I have no idea who he is.”
Two laughs. “Joey was one of the guys leading the charge against you in Firehouse. He works for Mensa. He knows you don’t know who he is. You okay?” I’m starting to feel dizzy, and lose track of Two as he leaves to flirt with someone on the other side of the suite.
It’s around now I decide to leave. I’m not going up to the Firehouse suite this late, and a combination of only picking at my noxious cafeteria food and four anxiety beers in rapid succession are making my head buzz. I go to the bathroom, take some notes, text my boyfriend to let him know I’m okay. He wanted to be here, too, but it’s not a couple’s retreat. It’s the Mensa Annual Gathering, and I’m positive that going any less than alone would result in backlash from the group.
A few “How’s your AG going?”s later, I emerge from the Gen Y suite into the hallway, where people are oscillating between board games and drunken conversation. I don’t make it to the elevator.
“Jamie Loftus?” A guy in his 40s approaches with a smile, and my exit is blocked.
“Yeah.” It’s past midnight and still 90 degrees out.
“I’m familiar with your work,” he says, and I prepare myself for a direct confrontation until I look down at his nametag—no red ribbon. He frowns, then laughs a little. “No, no, I mean, I like it!”
It isn’t until I hear myself exhale that I realize I probably look scared, a fact that several members of Firehouse will comment in the group after the event is over. “Really?”
“Yeah, there’s a—hold on,” he says, and I realize that I’m not getting to leave any time soon. He beckons over a few people close to my age. “This is Jamie, she came.” The others laugh and drink their beer, and one gives me a high five.
“Oh, we’ve been waiting for something like that to happen,” one guy says. “It’s been years of them doing all that. Are you going up to Firehouse?”
My stomach turns another time. There’s a few guys with red ribbons near the elevators, and a few head upstairs. “I don’t think tonight,” I say.
“We’ll come up with you!” the guy my age says. “It’ll be fine, you’ll be safe.”
Yeah, sure, I’ve seen a horror movie before. Still, the moment he says that, I know I’ll go—I promised myself I’d give the Mensans a chance. My best friend would more likely tell you I am addicted to putting myself in danger for reasons she wishes I would get a new therapist to talk to about, but the point is that I close the Uber app and opt in.
I tell them I need another beer, but what I really need is to go to the Gen Y bathroom to cry for a second and drink water out of my the palm of my hand like that scene in The Lion King. It feels silly to be this nervous—what, besides being alone and walking into a room full of agitated people who know who I am and have prevented me from knowing who they are in a boiling hot city I’ve never been to, is there to be afraid of? Nothing at all.
There’s still one lingering Hoser near the elevator when the four or so people and I finally get to the elevator to go the opposite way I’d planned. This is Patrick, and he stops me gently.
“Hey, are you—”
The guy my age cuts him off. “We’re going up to Firehouse,” he says. Patrick is visibly uncomfortable, and I stumble over my words trying to assure him that I’m not going to cause a scene. He raises his eyebrows and thinks about it for a second.
“It’s a lion’s den,” he says. “Proceed with caution.” People in horror movies don’t usually get this many warnings before being thrown under a buzzsaw, and I should be grateful.
“Okay,” I say, and the few people I’m with brustle with annoyance.
Patrick shrugs. “I don’t think you’ve been barred from it, but you know. I’m just saying. It’s the lion’s den.”
“I feel like the way I entered the organization was in such a bizarre way,” I reply, launching again into what feels like prepared statements after only 12 out of my planned 64 stay is completed.
“The screenshots is what got people,” he cuts me off. “But it’s upstairs.”
So we go, slightly drunk and disorganized. I sincerely hope that you never know the feeling of walking into a living, breathing hostile comments section.
That’s all I can give you here, fellow geniuses — the rest of the story is in My Year in Mensa, so give it a damn listen starting Jan. 1, 2020.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer, and star of the show Boss Whom is Girl. She’s also written for Robot Chicken.