Part of what Susedik, a retired fire fighter and mechanic, wants to prove is that heredity has nothing to do with superior intelligence. Joe admits that his own IQ is only "average" and cracks, "I don't see the sperm bank beating a path to my door." The Susediks are convinced that their daughters' remarkable achievements are the result of the way they have been taught at home—a system they hope will someday form the basis of a chain of franchised private schools.
All four girls had the benefit of home-womb teachers. "The child is a prisoner in there and would otherwise be very bored," Joe maintains. He and Jitsuko routinely talked to each fetus as if it were a child in the room. As a result, he says, "The child can recognize things as soon as it's born." He claims the girls said "Mama" and "Papa" at 3 weeks—not clearly, "but you could tell what they were saying." By 9 months, he reports, all four girls were reading homemade pastel flash cards and personalized primers with Jitsuko, who taught English in college in her native Japan. "My teaching method is based on love," she says. "I teach whenever my children would like to learn." Some educational observers of the family believe, in fact, that Jitsuko's patient approach has far more to do with the children's success than all the prenatal conversation. The girls have also been the object of their parents' total devotion. "We've never had a baby-sitter," Joe says. "People say we spoil our kids rotten, but it isn't spoiling them. We wrap our lives right around our children."
Psychological tests have confirmed that the four girls are extraordinarily intelligent, however they got that way. Larry Miller, school superintendent of East Muskingum, Ohio, says the girls went "clear off the top" of tests they were given, though he doubts Joe's prenatal programming "had a damn thing to do with it. I feel the growth of these children is because the mother is academically oriented, and she applies that Oriental discipline and concentration to help them grow."
Birgitta Nelson, who works with gifted children in East Muskingum, worries about the results of such acceleration: Stacey skipped whole nations in her social studies, while Stephanie has never developed the motor coordination necessary to write quickly. A deeper concern of Nelson's is that Stephanie "couldn't relate to the other kids socially at all. I don't think friends matter to these girls, they're so directed into achieving." Still, at Muskingum College, Susan (12, remember) is earning B's as a premed and adjusting well, according to Dr. Steve Kokovich of the education department. He says the little 1,000-student campus is "an idyllic, secure atmosphere" and Susan is "not really that different from the other students." When he saw her playing Pac-Man, for instance, "I thought, well, that's typical."
The Susediks moved from Anaheim, Calif. 19 months ago because the schools there wouldn't let the girls advance fast enough, and now the family lives in a storybook setting, a slightly dilapidated 200-year-old farmhouse on 50 acres with a pond, a pony and chickens. There are few children nearby, but the girls apparently do not greatly miss having playmates: They are all sweet-natured but almost painfully shy, and they tend to let their parents speak for them. "I never really was around people my own age," Susan says, almost inaudibly. "I guess older people were just easier to be with." Though well on her way to a career in medicine, Susan betrays a telling, and relieving, bit of normalcy when she says, "I sew clothes for Stephanie's dolls, too. I made a dress for her. I bake a lot of stuff, cakes and cookies."
Joe is a classic case of a father who wanted to give his kids the things he never had. Raised during the Depression in South Milwaukee, his parents divorced when he was 1 and for years he didn't get along with his stepfather. "I grew up with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "It made me think I'd never force my child to do anything. I wanted to help my children." Joe never completed high school but did pass an equivalency exam and graduated from junior college. At 22, he married and had a son, whom he began to talk to in his wife's womb. "By a year and a half he was reading," Joe says, but the child died of leukemia at age 3 and "then the wind kind of went out of my sails." He had a daughter, remarried and had another; the girls were "bright but not superior" and were not specially taught. He divorced again, labored at a total of 33 jobs and was working uranium claims in the Mojave Desert when he saw a magazine lonelyhearts ad that said "JAPANESE WOMEN MAKE GOOD WIVES." He wrote in, and Jitsuko sent "the most wonderful letter I ever saw." They courted by correspondence for four months before she came to America for their marriage in 1970.
Jitsuko credits much of the children's progress to her heritage. "In America, I feel, the family center is the parents," she says. "In Japan, always the children are in the center. We think of children more than anything else." But doesn't she worry that in speeding ahead so fast her daughters may be passing the pleasures of childhood too? "They enjoy their life more because they know more about this world," she says softly and confidently. "So actually I found out they have a lot more fun in life than other, ordinary children."
At age 12, Susan Susedik is in her sophomore year as a college premed student. Sister Stacey, 9, enters eighth grade this fall, sister Stephanie, 7, is going into seventh grade, and Johanna, the baby at 5, is reading at sixth-grade level. They are, needless to say, geniuses—four of them in one family, all sporting 150-plus IQs. To Joseph Susedik, 60, and his wife, Jitsuko, 37, of New Concord, Ohio, their children are living proof of what the parents immodestly call "the Susedik method," an intensive tutoring program that starts even before birth. "We talk right to the womb, teaching alphabet, phonics and social studies," Joe says. With that head start and the relentless regimen that begins at birth, claims Joe: "Any kid has a chance to be a genius, and we are here to prove it."