Science

Famed Physicist Richard Feynman Was Known as an Odd Genius. Was He Also an Abuser?

He was my hero when I was an undergrad studying science. But allegations found in his FBI file suggest he physically assaulted his ex-wife.

A black-and-white photo of Richard Feynman.
Richard Feynman in 1984 in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Tamiko Thiel/Wikipedia

When famed physicist Richard Feynman and his second wife split in 1956, it made for a quirky newspaper item that was syndicated around the country. “Mrs. Feynman won a divorce on cruelty grounds after testifying that her husband worked calculus problems all day,” the copy read. He did math “as soon as he arose, while he drove his car,” even “while lying in bed at night.” When he wasn’t doing that, he was playing drums, which “made a terrific noise.” If she tried to talk to him, he said she was interrupting his work. She got alimony; he got the bongos.

Even a couple decades after his death, Feynman is still largely regarded as this sort of playful genius, the second most famous physicist of his century (behind Albert Einstein), and as someone who has more time and patience for math and music than for silly social norms like speaking to the human he agreed to live with. And yet, in that past few years, and particularly in this post-Weinstein era, so many things have changed that if that nationwide newspaper item were to run now, I’d wager that more attention would probably be paid to that small part about a divorce on what’s described as cruelty grounds. Feynman’s FBI files, released in 2012, cite a longer version of the divorce story (see Page 64 here): Reportedly, Feynman’s ex alleged that he didn’t just ignore her when he felt she interrupted him—he “flew into a violent rage,” and “choked her, threw pieces of bric-a-brac about and smashed the furniture.”

It is too late for careful reporting on these incidents, for interviewing both sides to understand more about what may have happened. But as we work toward understanding that women and “genius” men alike are humans, with flaws and feelings and fallibilities, we must start to recognize that often, the same heroes who shaped their fields and worlds intellectually and socially had darker personal stories and attributes that were frequently ignored. Understanding the ramifications of this, as Leila McNeill calls for in recent essay in the Baffler titled, “Surely You’re a Creep, Mr. Feynman,” a play on the title of his memoir, is important for moving toward a more nuanced and accurate picture of the world.

The broader picture suggests that Feynman had problems with women. Beyond the FBI files, even taking Feynman at his own word for his own behavior reveals a gnarly and flawed person. In a chapter in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, he discusses figuring out how to talk to girls: “I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on,” he writes. Though he says he scales back from this pickup artist method, as McNeill and others have noted, he never fully reckons with it. And at the time, he did what he could to make treating women like that part of him, like doing math and picking locks: “I learned it till it was automatic.”

For many, this book—which spends a lot of time describing science problems and lock picking and bongo drum playing—served as a blueprint for how to exist in the world, particularly as a scientist. I know because I took it as one. As a teen, I loved this book, and I loved Feynman, and I loved fun science problems, and I loved advanced physics class and kinematics problems and stargazing. I enrolled in a physics program in college, and I heard lots of sexist jokes.

You know what? I also spent a bunch of time in the years that followed feeling like a worthless bitch. Is this Feynman’s fault? Obviously there was way more to my complicated self-esteem than this one dude, just as there was more to my love of physics than that one book. But when I think about some of the issues I struggled with, particularly as a woman in physics, they’re notably intertwined. I never raised my hand in class because I was mortally afraid of looking stupid. It took years for me to speak up against the sexist jokes in the physics lounge that made me feel uncomfortable. It’s clear to me, looking at how we’ve treated Feynman even very recently—as a genius with a shiny legacy, despite public attitudes that were openly degrading to women—that the broader world shares this hesitation of speaking up against sexism.

And then there’s the alleged physical abuse. Even as an already-complicated-Feynman-feeling-haver, I was floored to learn about his ex-wife’s accusations. How had I missed that? I went back to look at some of the original reporting from when those FBI files were unlocked, and I was surprised to see that the Gizmodo piece McNeill cites, published in 2012, ran under the headline “Richard Feynman’s FBI Files Make Fascinating Reading.” It’s true that the files are interesting—being involved in top-secret government projects, Feynman went through extensive background checks, and much of his file is just letters of professional support noting how brilliant if quirky he is. I was surprised that the instance of choking was misquoted as “attacked,” a reframing that I think makes it more amorphous and easier to ignore. Jamie Condliffe, who wrote that original Gizmodo piece and is now at the New York Times, told me this was an “unintentional editing error,” adding, “from what I recall the piece was simply intended to be a short pointer to the files so readers could take a look at them.” (Coverage from Live Science in 2012 does fully quote the reported allegations of Feynman’s physically abusive behavior, but it’s also just a short quoted section at the end of a story about the files, and again provides a jarring back-and-forth between “quirky guy” and “choked his wife.” There are also several references in the FBI files themselves to a longer version of the divorce story that ran in the L.A. Times in 1956 and reported on his ex-wife’s testimony, including her allegations of physical abuse.)

In 1956—and to some extent in 2012—slotting cruelty and choking under gee-whiz headlines was par for the course. We hadn’t reached the point where a famous person’s possible abuse was an understandable center of a story. We have now, which brings up new questions about what we do with this sort of information, particularly when it implicates people we previously considered our heroes. To me, that Feynman might have choked his wife matters deeply, because it underscores that his asides about women being less than weren’t harmless riff. They affected the real, material lives of the women around him, just like they affected me and probably other women in science, too. Surely that’s pretty serious.