Thursday, April 21

freak show

Thanks to a new follower of this blog, I've been made aware of an important Facebook page called Armless Wonder, dedicated to the men and, probably, mostly women who were exhibited in freak shows, demonstrating various mundane tasks such as smoking a cigarette or using a writing utensil with their feet. Apparently, for the Victorians, this was not only freakish, but also provocative, as women rarely showed any part of their legs above the ankle, much less made dinner with their toes.

And, as I hadn't a clue as of yesterday what I was going to write about today, this find provided a perfect opportunity to share something I wrote several years ago for Confessions of a One-Armed Girl: 


It used to be that people with disabilities joined freak shows. That was how they made it in this world. When I was a kid, my mom read us a true story about conjoined twins from Siam (now Thailand), who, through various stints in show business, popularized the term 'Siamese Twins.' Not only did they make a living from being joined at the stomach, they both got married and fathered 21 children all together. Yeah, try to get your head around that one.

I watch freak show documentaries with interest. “Why’d they do it?” I find myself asking. Why would people with some sort of physical deformity subject themselves to public display and possibly scorn, even contributing to the stereotype of being less than human? They were labeled freaks by their own employers. You’d hardly get away with that in today’s society of political correctness. I’m sure there must be endless hypotheses as to why the bearded woman and the half lizard man joined the freak show. Maybe it was for the money. Maybe they got attention they’d been denied all their life. Maybe they had no other option. I don’t know. But sometimes I wonder if they actually chose to be a 'freak' because the title fit. Like there was maybe nowhere else in the world like the freak show, where being a freak was a good thing, something lauded and praised. Is it possible that these people joined the freak show because they actually felt like they belonged there? This is just a theory I’m working on.

It doesn’t take much for me to feel like a walking freak show. Just going to Target or the food court at the mall can feel like stepping on stage in front of hundreds of eyes. “And now, the amazing one-armed girl! Yes, folks, she’s got just one arm and she still goes shopping just like any other person. Amazing, isn’t it? Watch closely, you might get to see her tie her own shoe!” Sometimes I have to giggle because people can hardly conceal their amazement at most anything I do.

But sometimes, mostly when I’m tired and introverted, I don’t like feeling like a float at the Macy’s Day Parade. So I’ve become an expert at concealing my handicap. If I walk fast, wear a coat, or smile a lot, I may get by even the most observant onlooker without being found out. When I first met my best friend Audra, she didn’t notice that my coat sleeve was empty. In fact it took a few weeks before she thought, ‘Hey, why is Tasha wearing her watch on her right wrist?'

Considering my innate aversion to stares, one may find it a bit counter-intuitive that I became very actively involved in drama in high school. But something drew me to the stage, every aspect of production, but I loved acting. I loved standing there at the end of a musical number with the cameras flashing and the crowd applauding. It felt like all eyes were on me and I loved it. I hated auditioning, but I did anyway, just to have that chance to stand on stage again. The thing is, I knew I had talent, I knew I had something to say and to do, I just needed my big break.

But my big break never came, unless you consider singing “Beauty School Dropout” dressed in a pink leotard and a shower cap, a big break. I never had a starring role, never. And to this day, I’m a little bitter. That’s when I felt my disability was really working against me. Maybe I didn’t have the talent, but truthfully, I believe my greatest talent, taking on the world with only one full arm, turned out to be too much of a distraction for the stage. I imagine waltzing on for my crucial opening scene, where I leave my lover standing at the alter, and all the while the audience is thinking, “Hey, what happened to her arm?” And then, in the next scene, they’ll be like, “Hey, did they break up? And seriously, what happened to her arm? This play sucks.” At least that’s how it goes in my mind.

Later in college, I got some callbacks for leading roles. But it never really panned out there either. Eventually I just got tired of being one of many in the ever underestimated ‘chorus’ or ‘villagers’ or ‘townspeople.’ They go by many names but are often told the same thing by directors all over the country: “There’s no small roles, just small actors,” which is partially true and partially meant to stop the grumbling that accompanies late nights and long rehearsals. So I guess I just got tired of small roles or long rehearsals or maybe I’m just a small actor, but nonetheless I began to put less stock in the stage.

I think it was in college that I realized why acting came so naturally to me. Shakespeare said that all of life is a stage, and in my case, nothing could be more true. Not unlike a movie star, I feel noticed everywhere I go. I am, in essence, living my own personal freak show. So somewhere along the way, I decided it might be worth taking advantage of my high profile. I never chose to be noticeable, but since I was, I figured there had to be an upside. For instance, I often have the complete attention of the world around me, if only for a few seconds. It’s kind of like those movies where everything is suddenly frozen except one character who is still moving. I also realized there was little I can do to make people stare more, they were already looking, and there was freedom in that.

Suddenly, my liability as an actor became an asset in my regular life. I decided to give myself permission to do pretty much anything. I could dye my hair purple or dance to the music in the elevator and it wouldn’t matter because people were already staring. I had gotten used to being in the spotlight and, over the years, I actually started to enjoy it. Carrying cafeteria food trays with one arm, a sometimes daunting task, became an opportunity to show off my ability. Not only would I carry it from the salad bar to my table, I
Most likely to be a freak?
would stand at the edge of the table while the waitress finished clearing it, then set it down, just for show. I get a small high when fellow gas station patrons peer through the filling stations to get a glimpse of me pumping my own gas. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll squeegy my windows as an encore.

And while I was coming to my quiet conclusions, Hollywood had the same idea. Lately, certain prominent celebrities with handicaps are appearing on the reality television circuit. Heather Mills, former wife of Paul McCartney, appeared with a prosthetic leg on ABC’s ballroom dancing competition Dancing with the Stars. Next came actress Marlee Matlin who found her inner sense of rhythm despite not being able to hear the music. I don’t think I’m the only one who watched with interest. The judges were consistently blown away by the commitment and level of competition these ladies brought to the show.

Just a few nights ago I happened to catch the latest episode of something I consider to be the closest thing to a freak show since Wild Bill Hickock. Celebrity Circus enlists the Hollywood B-list to attempt various big top endeavors like the Wheel of Death as they vie for the top spot. Oh my goodness, can you imagine my reaction to a show that would put Burt Reynolds on the high wire? Of course Burt Reynolds has too much good sense for that, but still, can you imagine? This week, I watched Wee Man of Jackass stunts fame, born with a form of dwarfism, attempt and succeed at balancing a gigantic weight-lifter on his back. Impressive. And this was after he’d beat out other competitors with acts like the wheel of fire.

Wee Man is a modern day freak. He’s making a living doing things that we love to watch because it's strange, and it might be impossible. There’s just something extra interesting about watching a deaf actress do the Mambo. People want to see the underdog get ahead. It’s as primal as eating and buying something on sale. It makes us feel good inside.


So I’ve realized that maybe the freaks were onto something. They knew something that it’s taken me years to learn. They looked at disability and saw opportunity; they made a living at just being who they were. Several years ago I began to ask myself a question: “Are you ready to be a career freak?” And simultaneously it occurred to me that I may not even have a choice. I’m interested in people like Heather and Marlee and Wee Man because they are helping me to understand my place in the world. When I decided to join the freak show, I started to feel much less like a freak and more like a person. I found identity and purpose like I’d never known before. I started to find me.