When Spencer Reid was seven years old, his father took him to see a magic show.
The magician kept talking the whole time, and he did things that didn’t seem possible, and everyone was amazed.
Spencer was intrigued.
There were two possibilities: either the magician really was violating the laws of physics, or else there was a trick to it, something only the magician knew. Spencer had read, even then, about Occam’s Razor—that the explanation that requires the fewest new assumptions is most likely to be correct. A revision of the laws of the universe was a lot of new assumptions to make. So the magician had to be doing something secret, something only he knew, that let him fool other people into thinking the world wasn’t working the way it usually did.
Spencer could feel it tapping at the back of his mind the entire car ride home. What was the magician’s secret? How did he do everything he did? And how did he enrapture people so easily?
When he got home, he immediately asked to go to the library.
“Where are the books on magic?” he asked the librarian.
“Right this way, dear,” she replied.
Spencer sat down and started reading. As he read, he felt a flash of recognition every time he saw something the magician had done. Of course, it was all just sleight of hand and careful distraction at the right moments. So that was why the magician had kept up that chatter...
Once he’d read every book in the section, he stood up, went home, and started practicing.
When Spencer Reid was nine years old, he went to high school.
This was a problem for several reasons.
The dumbest reason, though—the one that wouldn’t have been a problem for anyone else—was the cafeteria.
When he’d been in middle school, he’d always made his own lunch, and ducked out of the cafeteria to eat wherever he could avoid anyone else. But lately his mom had sometimes been forgetting to buy groceries, and they didn’t live within easy walking distance of a store (they lived within really determined walking distance of a store, which he traversed on a semi-regular basis), so the cafeteria was a good place to get some food when food at home wasn’t guaranteed.
(He was trying. He was trying so hard. He knew his mom needed to eat, too. But sometimes, he just couldn’t.)
(He reminded her to get out of bed and go teach her classes so she wouldn’t lose her job. Sometimes. Usually, that was the one thing she remembered on her own.)
(Spencer knew why it was so hard for his mom.)
(Schizophrenia: noun. 1. Medical : a mental disorder that is characterized by disturbances in thought (such as delusions), perception (such as hallucinations), and behavior (such as disorganized speech or catatonic behavior), by a loss of emotional responsiveness and extreme apathy, and by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life—also called dementia praecox .)
So, he braved the cafeteria.
To do that, he did the one thing he could.
He went home, and then he went to the library.
He researched the history and workings of fluorescent lights (it took him a while to find the requisite diagrams—the librarian had to request them from another library—but he finally figured out why the stupid things hum. It was the ballast). He researched swarming behavior (the behavior of fish in a school and the behavior of his classmates in the lunch line could be modeled using the same simple rules). He researched the human auditory and olfactory systems (he already had a basic knowledge, but it helped to learn more).
Now, when he went into the cafeteria and smelled the grease from the pepperoni pizza, and the cleaning product from the floor, and the stench of hundreds of bodies with varying colognes and shampoos and body odors all pressed together, he could think, those are molecules bonding with the olfactory receptor neurons in the olfactory epithelium in my nose to create the sensation of an odor. The main components of body odor are hydroxylated branched fatty acids, sulfanylalkanols, androstenone, and androstenol. When the clamor of voices assaulted his ears, he could think, the change in air pressure from the sound waves is causing my tympanic membrane to move, which moves the ossicles—incus, malleus, and stapes—which then transfer the vibration to my cochlea, in which the bending of the stereocilia is converted to electrical signals for the hair cells, which signal the auditory nerve. The pitch I hear is different depending on which part of my cochlea received the signal. The intensity depends on how strong the signal was.
And, somehow, it worked. The smells and the sound and the light still hurt , but they didn’t scare him anymore. He could function. He could push the overwhelm into some distant corner of his brain, to be dealt with later.
(There never seemed to be a later .)
When Spencer Reid was twelve years old, he (finally, finally! ) got to go to college.
Sitting in his room at home, the instant the course catalog was published, Spencer looked through the courses and wondered what to sign up for.
He still didn’t know what he was majoring in.
He read through all the courses first, just to know what he was looking at. Then, he started to think.
The math and science courses appealed to him, of course. He’d always liked learning about the fundamental underpinnings of the universe. The more he knew about the world, the less overwhelming it felt.
(He knew why the world felt so much more overwhelming for him than for everyone else.)
(Autism: noun. A variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by repetitive behavior patterns—also called autistic disorder. )
(No one gave him the word. He figured it out on his own, when he found some books that rang a little too true.)
(He hung on to that word variable .)
As he thought, Spencer wondered whether college would be any different from high school, or whether he would still feel like everyone else was in on some big secret he didn’t know.
(Which often they were, literally. But not always, and he still felt that way.)
The way they talked, saying things they didn’t mean. The way they looked at each other and understood things they hadn’t said. Spencer could see it all, but he couldn’t understand it.
He needed to understand it.
He needed to understand people .
Why they acted the way they did. How they communicated with and related to each other. All the facets of the secret they seemed to be in on that he didn’t know.
He needed to be in on the secret.
He needed to understand.
The intro courses for psychology and sociology didn’t conflict.
He was doing this.
When he was twenty-one years old, Spencer Reid got a job at the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After learning everything he could about his new workplace, after reading every report the United States Government had ever put out about anything ever (for once, a reading assignment that actually took him a while), after mentally reviewing his knowledge of every kind of violent behavior he could think of, from both theory and past cases, and supplementing his knowledge with more research wherever it was patchy, he’d thought he was ready.
Some things, nothing can prepare you for.
His first time getting shot at, Spencer went home and typed “How do guns work?” into Google.
(As a child, Spencer had hated the sound of toilets flushing. He’d looked up the schematics of a toilet and worked out how it flushed to fix that problem.)
(This didn’t help nearly as much, which was probably a good thing.)
Then, he typed in “death”.
(That was a strange experience. Most of it was unhelpful. Lots of definitions at first, lots of news articles. Some of it was interesting. He read about people’s near-death experiences for a while—probably a consequence of oxygen deprivation, he decided. He read about people’s interpretations of what happened after death—there were as many interpretations as there were interpreters, and little to no hard evidence.)
(While digging, he discovered some very interesting information on Renaissance art as a psychological reaction to the Black Death, which led him to read several ballads and look at numerous paintings, which led him to look at the clock and realize it had been two hours.)
(Well, that was profoundly unhelpful.)
(Could anything help?)
When he was twenty-four years old, Spencer Reid had a crush on his team’s media liaison.
JJ was kind, and beautiful, and ridiculously competent, and she called him “Spence.” When she was around, he felt like he was glowing just from her attention. This woman had so many things to pay attention to, and she still chose to spend some of her time on him . He found it frankly amazing.
When he’d first joined the BAU, he’d found JJ slightly intimidating. That had quickly turned to admiration, which had evolved into his current feelings over the course of a few years. But he hadn’t been planning to do anything about it. What would he even do?
(Gideon gave him the answer to that, and the football tickets with which to do it. It was probably unconventional for a supervising agent to directly encourage his subordinates to fraternize, but then, Jason Gideon had never been a particularly conventional man.)
Before their date(!), Spencer had some studying up to do.
Not on football. For once, he decided to let someone else be the expert—it would be more fun to hear JJ explain it than to read about it from an unknown and disinterested source, and he knew how much he loved explaining things and the feeling of being the expert, so he wanted to give JJ the chance.
No, Spencer was feeling optimistic. So when he got home after asking JJ out, he typed “How do you kiss a girl?” into Google.
(He’d never gotten the chance before. He’d always been too young relative to the people around him, or too busy, or too awkward.)
(The little he got that wasn’t creepy or useless seemed straightforward enough.)
The game was loud, and a lot of people packed into one place, but it was okay. He concentrated on JJ, on following the explanations she was giving him of all the plays, of the strategy, of the players, of the history and cultural significance of the game (she mostly explained that because he asked). Whenever she seemed to be slowing down, he’d ask a question calculated to produce a long response. She didn’t seem to mind.
After the game, they went to a nearby park and sat down on a bench.
When the conversation hit a lull, JJ slowly leaned in, and Spencer did the same.
After a moment, they broke apart.
They stared at each other for a moment.
A smile quirked at JJ’s mouth.
Then, they both burst out laughing.
It had just felt so weird . Not at all what he imagined kissing was supposed to feel like.
(Later, in a pool in Hollywood, he would find out what kissing is supposed to feel like. It was very different.)
But if his first kiss had to be that way, he was very glad it was JJ.
When he was twenty-five years old, Spencer Reid was kidnapped by a serial killer.
By a few weeks after that, if anyone saw his search history, he was screwed.
(He never did any of this research at work, of course. He wasn’t stupid.)
“Dilaudid”. “Narcotic analgesics”. “United States drug schedules”. “Neurobiology of addiction”. “Dissociative Identity Disorder” (he had to laugh a little at everyone who hypothesized that it didn’t really exist. He wished he didn’t know better). “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (as if he hadn’t already learned that one like the back of his hand after Boston). He went to the library, checked out textbooks on psychopharmacology, and read them cover to cover.
When he missed the plane from New Orleans to Texas, Gideon found him, of course.
After their conversation, a new term popped up in Spencer’s search history. “Narcotics Anonymous.”
He did three weeks of research before he decided to do it.
Stopping, he knew, was going to suck .
(By some miracle, he didn’t get called in during the worst of the withdrawal phase. When he did show up to work, still achy and nauseated, and having to run to the bathroom really more than ought to have been necessary, he noticed his team standing a little closer to him than they normally did. On the jet, Morgan didn’t put his headphones on—he sat across from Spencer and asked him for his opinion on a movie that had recently come out. When it turned out Spencer hadn’t seen it, Morgan asked him what his favorite movie was. Spencer smiled somewhat wickedly and regaled Morgan with detailed plot summaries of all the (Original Trilogy) Star Wars and (even-numbered) Star Trek movies, and Morgan, while alternating between staring out the window and glaring pointedly, didn’t actually complain once.)
Standing in the doorway before his first meeting, afraid to walk in, he thought about losing his job, about never seeing those people again, and that made it easy.
When he was twenty-six years old, Spencer Reid started another Bachelor’s degree.
After Gideon left the BAU, Spencer was reeling from the shock. The loss. Gideon had been his mentor, almost a father. Now he was gone.
He needed to learn. (Never ceasing to learn was Spencer Reid’s version of work-life balance.) He needed some certainty in his world.
(Or maybe he didn’t.)
Maybe what he needed was to embrace the fact that the world wasn’t always black and white, that sometimes there could be no clear answers, no closure.
He signed up for an online degree in philosophy.
The more he studied, the more interesting and challenging it was. He wasn’t the expert—because no one could be the expert in a field of no right and wrong answers. There were no statistics, no calculations. True, he could race through his reading assignments, but then he needed to take time to mull them over and think about what they meant. It was terrifying—and exhilarating.
(It was time. Time to grow beyond needing to be the expert. Time to grow beyond needing to know the answer all the time.)
(He was ready.)
(And he would never be ready.)
(That was okay.)