5 Questions With the Author of “The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell”

By Julie Rawe

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a science writer. His nonfiction book, The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell (November 2016), is a fast-paced thriller that features a code maker with and a codebreaker with .

One of the book’s themes is underestimating children who don’t do well in school. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell explores how learning and thinking differences can affect self-esteem. It also explores how important it is to develop a support network and the different paths struggling kids can take.

1. How did you come across this true-crime story?

It actually began as an interview with the codebreaker, Dan Olson. He went over some of the cases he’d worked on. And at the end of the list was this espionage case. When I discovered that the spy, Brian Regan, had dyslexia, that was an interesting twist to the tale.

As I talked more with Dan Olson, he started to tell me about all his troubles with math. He had experienced all these problems in his childhood. He could understand Brian Regan’s difficulties in a very special way because of the difficulties he had had himself.

2. Your book describes how Olson struggled in school because of his difficulty with math. From fourth grade on, he got D’s or worse in math. How did he become one of the FBI’s rising stars?

From our first conversation he kept making the point that you don’t have to be good at math in a conventional way in order to be a good cryptanalyst. He sees himself as a puzzle solver. Solving puzzles is something that requires out-of-the-box thinking.

He never got formally diagnosed. He saw his problems with math as simply an obstacle to getting an A or a B or even a C in math. He didn’t see math as something that would keep him from doing what he was really good at, which was solving problems.

He was able to compensate in school because his reasoning skills were so good. But he had real trouble getting a bachelor’s degree. He had to switch colleges and hire a tutor to finally get a passing grade in math.

Olson is now the head of his unit. Everyone regards him as a super-talented codebreaker. But he might never have made it as a codebreaker if he hadn’t found a way to clear that math hurdle in college.

3. Olson almost didn't get hired at the FBI because it required him to have a bachelor’s degree. What does that say about conventional thinking about intelligence?

I think there are kids in every classroom today who are not considered bright simply because they’re not good at doing certain exercises their peers can do. Like reading fast or doing math quickly. The kind of feedback they get from their teachers and peers can have big implications for how they feel about themselves.

Regan’s confidence was completely squashed at an early age. This was back in the ’70s. People were even less aware of dyslexia then than they are today. If he had received encouragement in middle school or high school, his life might have taken a completely different trajectory.

Regan’s problem with making friends is partly a result of the way he was treated as a kid. If he’d had some really good friends, he could have talked to them about his problems.

Someone can be on a path heading toward failure. But if they get nudged five degrees to the left or five degrees to the right, they would end up in a much happier place.

4. What was the most surprising thing your book taught you about learning and thinking differences?

I was struck by how differently Regan and Olson dealt with their issues. Regan felt insecure about himself because of his dyslexia. It kept him from accepting that he was smart in other ways.

Olson didn’t see his math problems as in any way constraining him. He knew he could jump through a few hoops in college and get that math hurdle cleared. He knew he had the talent and the skills to be a good codebreaker.

The other thing that struck me was that Regan was very good at his job. (After scraping through high school, he enlisted in the military where he became a signals analyst.) He was very good at pattern recognition. I think he had talents that he didn’t fully comprehend.

If you step back and look at what the conventional system of schooling did to him, it prevented him from recognizing his strengths. And it prevented him from rising to his potential by using those strengths.

5. Your book talks about how brilliant Regan was. But he also made some bad decisions and was reluctant to ask people for help. What you want people with dyslexia to take away from your book?

I would encourage them to look upon their dyslexia in the way that Olson saw his problems with math. He knew those challenges didn’t have to define his experiences in school or in life.

The second thing is if you have a lot of social support, if you can reach out for help—which Regan did not—you have more of an opportunity to recognize your strengths. That’s because people will point them out to you. And they’ll encourage you to take advantage of those strengths.

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    About the author

    Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.