Barbara Walters is one of the most admired women in the World, and a trailblazer for women in television.

However for years Barbara carried a secret that haunted, overshadowed, and shaped her entire life: Her sister Jackie was mentally retarded. And no one could figure out why. In her autobiography Audition, Barbara explains that her sister was only mildly retarded: “Just enough to prevent her from attending regular school, from having friends, from getting a job, from marrying. Just enough to stop her from having a real life”.

Growing up, Barbara both loved and hated her sister. She had great compassion for her, but at the same time resented her for making her feel different, embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty for having so much while her sister had so little. And as her parents’ only non-retarded child, she felt burdened with the need to grow up and make a lot of money so that someone in the family could afford to take care of Jackie. Probably she felt burdened by the need to be a huge success, to prove she wasn’t retarded like Jackie. Perhaps that’s what drove Barbara to become the most successful woman in the history of TV news.

Once while growing up, the young Barbara through a huge party. Everyone was outside at the pool having fun, and then Barbara stepped inside for a minute and saw Jackie, sitting on the couch with their mother, staring at the TV. The mother knew young Barbara did not want to be embarrassed by the retarded Jackie, so Jackie was kept inside, hidden from all the fun and festivities taking place outside. That particularly memory would haunt Barbara for the rest of her life.

As an adult Barbara adopted a daughter and named her Jackie, so that her sister Jackie could feel like she had a child too.

Barbara writes on page 4-5 of her autobiography Audition:

My sister was a very pretty child. Her mental condition had nothing to do with her physical appearance…You wouldn’t have known looking at Jackie that there was anything different about her, until she opened her mouth to talk. Jackie was the worst stutterer I have ever known. She stuttered so badly that sometimes when she was trying to get a word out, her tongue protruded from her mouth.

On page 20 of the book, Barbara notes that a school nurse had diagnosed “Jackie’s condition as something usually caused by a birth injury.” This theory was boosted by their mother, who thought Jackie had been delivered by forceps.

The school nurse speculated that Jackie’s poor coordination, “unsteady gait” and stuttering were evidence of cerebral palsy, but when Jackie was later tested for this, it was considered unlikely.

On page 21 of her book, Barbara writes:

Now I wonder if it wasn’t genetic. Would Jackie today be diagnosed as “autistic”? Two of my cousin’s children had some form of “developmental disabilities,” but live relatively normal lives. They are considered to be autistic. The word “autism” didn’t exist when Jackie was young. Today there are special treatments, diagnosticians, workshops and support groups. Most of all there is understanding. But then there was no place for my sister or my parents to go. Seeking guidance, my mother was often told to “just send her away to an institution.” That was never a consideration.

For a short time Jackie was enrolled at another public school called Devotion, which also had a program for the “ungraded” but she didn’t last long there either. She then stayed at home and had tutors who taught her to read and write, although I’m not sure at what level, as I never remember her being tested. (I would guess third-or-fourth grade level.) Nor do I know her IQ. She was home, always.

If Jackie never progressed verbally beyond a third or fourth grader, that suggests a mental age of 8.5. On the WISC-R IQ test, if by late adolescence, you have the vocabulary of an 8.5 year old, your vocabulary is in the bottom 1% of your age group, equivalent to a deviation IQ of 65.

I estimate that elite television personalities, at least in certain genres, average IQs of 134, and the subset of top television personalities who are Ashkenazi Jewish, like Barbara, likely average even higher still; perhaps about 140. However other top Jewish TV personalities do not have mentally retarded siblings.

Assuming the 0.5 sibling IQ correlation holds among elite Jewish TV personalities, Barbara’s IQ should regress 50% to the mean from her sister’s IQ of perhaps 65, however instead of regressing to the white mean of 100, she would be regressing to the mean of top Jewish TV personalities: IQ 140.

Thus, based on her sister’s IQ and her own success, Barbara’s expected IQ would be:

140 – 0.5(140 – 65) = 103

One might predict with 95% confidence that Barbara’s IQ is anywhere from 77 to 129, with 103 as the single best guess; though still just a guess.

And of course all of this assumes that Jackie’s retardation was familial (i.e. caused by normal polygenetic variation). If instead it was organic (caused by a genetic mutation of large effect that override normal causes), it would have no relevance to Barbara’s IQ, since it would be a genetic fluke that could occur in anyone’s sibling.

Is it plausible that someone as accomplished, worshiped and powerful as Barbara Walter’s could have an IQ as average as 103? It’s hard to imagine.

On the other hand, even among the most successful people, there is a very wide range of IQs, and not all will be bright. Barbara has been criticized for dumbing down the field of journalism with celebrity interviews and softball questions like “if you were a tree, what type of tree would you be?” In addition, Barbara has a bit of a speech impediment, and comic Gilda Radner got famous for making fun of her:

It’s also possible that having a retarded sister was a sign of high IQ in Barbara’s case. It’s been suggested that heterozygotes for Tay Sachs enjoy IQ benefits, but do not develop the disease. There might be other conditions afflicting Ashkenazim where if you have two copies of certain genes, you’re mentally retarded, but if you have only one, you’re very bright, thus causing some retardates to have very bright siblings. But there’s no evidence in support of such a theory.

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