Jailbait

How does a 65-year-old behavioral biologist explain being exposed as an Internet masher hot for 15-year-old girls?

Of the 65 years Welles has lived, his favorite was his sophomore year of high school, when he was 15 years old. "Everything clicked; everything worked," he says. He batted .500 on his Babe Ruth baseball team. He discovered biology, the first class he could really get into, and with the help of his mother, a physician, he glided through it with aplomb. Music, always a diversion, was becoming a love. His father, a New York textiles merchant who had paid his own way through Princeton in the 1920s with his jazz trumpet, got him hooked early on a cornet player named Bix Beiderbecke, an early jazz giant. Welles dabbled in violin and trumpet before sticking to piano, playing in the same stride style as luminary Art Tatum, a niche that today makes him feel as though he belongs in a museum, outdated.

Welles never fit in cleanly. People would tell him that he was a jerk, that he wouldn't amount to much, and perhaps as a result, he harbored a temper that has manifested itself variously over the years. There was the time as a young man he slammed a guy against a brick wall for shoving him on the way out a door. Another time, in a short stint teaching high school, Welles grabbed the last of a line of boys racing down a stairway and held him in a chokehold all the way to the principal's office.

"I'm much more mellow now," he says.

Welles received a bachelor's degree in biology from Princeton in 1963, then a master's in education from Harvard and another master's, in biology, from the University of the Pacific before earning a PhD in biology from Tulane in 1973.

Welles' field is self-deception. Other biologists were happy to reduce a human quality to DNA and turn it over to the chemists, but ever since age 5, when he pondered the oxymoronic curiosity of a teacher screaming at his class to be quiet, he says, he has held a fascination with why people do the things they do.

For a time, he taught high school, which he says was like playing warden. Despite two years in the Peace Corps teaching college-level biology in Malaysia and loving it, he never got a real bite at teaching college stateside, which he rues deeply. By his admission, he did a great job choosing his parents, who left him enough money that he hasn't needed to work. The odd piano-playing gig has been merely for fun; the books and journal articles he has written have been purely intellectual exercises.

In Understanding Stupidity, Welles describes the history of stupidity, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Renaissance to Communism and Watergate. One of his basic propositions holds that people act stupidly because they cling to accepted patterns of behavior and scorn the unusual or new.

But publishing scholarly examinations of Western civilization doesn't naturally lead to a full social life. He's never been good at small talk or wooing women, he says. Welles calls himself a terrible pickup artist.

There was only one person he wanted to marry, he explains: his high school sweetheart. They began dating when he was a senior and she a couple of years behind. It closed when she was a senior in college. He wanted to marry. She didn't. And he let it break him for 30 years.

"There was no bitterness, no fight or anything," he says. "I was just so emotionally devastated, I don't think I let myself get that close to anybody again, which was a terrible mistake. It was, you know, dumb. But that's what I did. I never married.

"The first time you fall in love," he continues, "it's so total, you're sort of innocent. Then when that doesn't work, the next time you fall in love, you don't go 100 percent. You fall in love 90 percent. But there's something back there going, 'Gee, I don't know. I'm going to reach out to this person, and I hope it works, but I might get kicked in the teeth again. '"

Turning to the Internet, he says, seemed like a decent alternative to hitting the bars. It was there he might find "Ms. Wonderful." And he found that he liked chatting with younger girls.

"I set the bar too low" at age 15, he says. "Eighteen is low enough. It was just a turn-on. Make me think that I was still young. Nobody wants to get old."

Chatting up underaged girls, Welles says, was merely a moment of stupid self-indulgence that he wishes he could take back, the way he wishes he could undo a mistake that led him down a path of solitary loneliness.

"It's too bad. It's sort of a wasted life. I feel bad about my life. I'm not very happy with myself. God, if I could live my life over again — I never understood these people who say, 'I have no regrets.' I've got nothing but regrets.

"I wish I could rewind my life and do it over again, but I can't. All I can do is go on from here."


So if Jim Welles made only a rather trivial error by "setting the bar too low," which resulted in becoming, however briefly, a national laughingstock, why on Earth does he want to become the subject of yet another news story?

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