It was in 2010 that Jennifer Latson first heard of “cocktail party syndrome,” a disorder that makes people unabashedly friendly, socially fearless and incapable of distrust. A self-described introvert, she wondered: “Why was this diagnosed as an illness?”
The mystifying disorder, officially called Williams syndrome, so fascinated Latson—a local journalist who’s written for The Houston Chronicle, The Boston Globe and Time—that she wrote her first book, The Boy Who Loved Too Much, about it. She’ll discuss the work of narrative nonfiction, just out from Simon & Schuster, this month at Brazos Bookstore.
To research the book, which was also her MFA thesis at the University of New Hampshire, she spent three years following the lives of 12-year-old Eli D’Angelo, who has Williams—and, she says, “speaks with exclamation points!”—and his mother Gayle in Connecticut.
“Meeting me truly was as exciting as opening the biggest present,” writes Latson of their first encounter, in 2011, when the boy immediately hugs her. Twice. But she isn’t special; at that point in his development, he does this when greeting everyone, every single time.
Eli doesn’t look or act like a 12-year-old; he’s shorter, with chubby baby cheeks, a toothy smile and a cheerful, young-for-his-age disposition. “Hi, Jennie!” he shouts, “Nice to see you! I like your shirt!” and, when she leaves, “I miss you!”
“He was pretty amazing to be around—very outgoing and friendly,” Latson says. “But people with Williams don’t read social cues. They assume everyone is their friend, and it’s okay to hug strangers. Nothing is ever ‘too much.’”
Williams syndrome is much more complex than an absence of social inhibition. Cardiologist J.C.P. Williams discovered the still relatively obscure condition in 1961. “He noticed that people with similar heart problems were also very friendly and had distinctive facial features,” says Latson. “It was originally called Elfin Face syndrome, which was not the best name.”
In 1993, geneticists made a breakthrough in understanding the syndrome. Those who have it—1 in 10,000—are missing one copy of the elastin gene. From there, scientists discovered that 26 to 28 neighboring genes from one strand of chromosome 7 are missing, a microdeletion the size of a paper cut.
People with Williams have mild to moderate developmental delays and intellectual disabilities; distinctive facial features including upturned noses, protruding ears, short heights and pointy chins; and, often, cardiovascular problems. Eli has all of these characteristics, in addition to a classic Williams personality. And as Latson follows his life, right up until he enters high school, she finds herself wondering: How do you become an adult when you’re so vulnerable?
“People with Williams are oversocial, but without social judgment. They initiate and seek interaction, but have difficulty making friends,” geneticist Julie Korenberg explains in the book. “They can’t sustain a conversation. They’re engaging and gregarious, but they have a very limited, repetitive social repertoire.”
Eli, Latson writes, is unequivocally happy, outgoing and empathetic, but lacking the social savviness to make lasting connections or perceive social rejection and negativity. As he enters his teenage years, basic social norms, like “stranger danger” and “It’s not okay for grown men to hug women they don’t know”—have a higher learning curve for him. But today, Latson, who’s kept up with Eli and his mom since completing the project, says the young man, now 18, has made great strides toward acclimating socially.
In the book, Latson concludes that the world has much to learn from Eli and others like him. “He highlights some of humanity’s best features, normally obscured by suspicion and selfishness we have acquired over eons of evolution in competition with each other,” she writes. “People with Williams don’t have to learn the Golden Rule or be taught equality or inclusion.” And that’s a gift.
Latson reads from and discusses The Boy Who Loved Too Much at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St., on June 20 at 7. Free.