To Tolerate or not to Tolerate

I have been working on my novel, current working title Freak Show Summer, and should finish it by the end of the summer (my God, will it ever be finished!) Afterwards, it is the long job of editing, revising, and trimming (a never-ending task it seems).  I have to say that I have really enjoyed the process of creating these characters.  With this being based on a Depression Era sideshow with “human oddities,” I have been able to explore what it might have been like for the people who had physical deformities during a time of freak shows.  I have included a beard woman, an alligator man, a family of little people, a “pinhead” (a person who has microcephaly), a “dog-faced” boy, conjoined twins, and several others.  I hope you get a chance to read about them someday.

As I’ve researched these freak shows through both the written word and documentaries, the one big thing I keep coming away with is the idea that these people considered their “freak show” a large family.  A famous chant from the cult classic movie Freaks (1932) and a mantra from the Ramones song “Pinhead” is “Gabba gabba hey, we accept you, we accept you, one of us, one of us!”  Quite a motto for tolerance and, even more importantly, acceptance.

The thing I most wanted to push in my novel about a young boy growing up with carnival performers is the fact that these “freaks” were human beings with love in their hearts, sadness in their lives, and anger toward their mistreatment.  Though in this day and age most of us find it abhorrent to make fun of those with physical deformities, many have no compunction in making judgments and criticisms about those who may have a different outlook on life or love someone of whom we may disapprove.  We would call out anyone who dares to mock a child with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy.  But would we stand up for the transgendered? What about the heavily tattooed or pierced?  Would we defend a gay couple being harassed?  Or how about the homeless schizophrenic man? How many would defend an atheist being ridiculed for her lack of belief?  It is easy to defend those that have been socially accepted,  but I believe it is quite another thing when society hasn’t yet deemed certain individuals with acceptance or even tolerance.  Notwithstanding, we are getting better on certain fronts, and more awareness is happening.  For that, I am grateful.

One of the great ironies that has come from our progressive, politically-correct world, especially with regards to those with debilitating physical deformities is the fact that back in the day many were able to join these freak shows and make quite a living and earn some national fame.  Sure, they had to be subjugated to stares and sometimes to jeers, but they faced that reality whether or not they were going to be paid for it or not.  Now, it is un-pc to have an audience pay to gaze upon “the amazing, the incredible, the fantastic, the horrifying human oddities!” Although a few modern freak shows have made it to the mainstream due to media exposure–such as AMC’s Freakshow set in Venice Beach, the Jim Rose Circus, and Coney Island Circus Sideshow–most have been banned and are considered to be in poor taste.  Perhaps, a new found tolerance is slowly re-emerging and will allow the legless and armless wonders to display their talents.  Maybe, leopard boys and girls will be able to embrace their spots and exhibit them to an eager audience.  How about a geek act that truly terrifies and yet fun to behold?  Hell, TLC and Discovery Channel have all kinds of shows about physical “abnormalities,” not to mention the train wreck that is “reality television.”

Certainly, there are those who do not want to be gawked at or put on display.  That is their right and privilege, and they should have their privacy honored.  But what about those who, like the human oddities of yesteryear, figure if people are going to stare, why not capitalize on the fact?  Isn’t it also their right to make an honest living on a talent with which they were born?

Society should, of course, protect those with a diminished mental capacity, but also remember that Schlitzie the Pinhead had a fruitful career and was taken care of by his fellow carnies.  It is also important to note that Schlitzie was sold by his parents to a carnival proprietor, who in turn became his guardian.  He was traded to several different shows, but by most accounts he was well treated by all.  He was even featured in the aforementioned film Freaks.  Was this the best life for one like Schlitzie?  Perhaps not, but also consider the fact that most like him were placed in asylums where conditions were horrendous.  Schlitzie had a long and prosperous life as a sideshow performer.  When in later years he was turned over to a county hospital, Schlitzie became depressed and missed his public life.  If it weren’t for a carnival performer who worked at the hospital during his off season, Schlitzie would have likely died in that hospital in a miserable state.  Instead, this carnie told his boss, who then took Schlitzie into his care.  At the age of 70 years, Schlitzie passed away.

I don’t want to give a romanticized version of Schlitzie’s life.  Eventhough he is one of the most famous historical sideshow performers, he was also often viewed as a money-maker for the carny bosses.  He was cared for but by no means was he pampered.  In fact, after his death, Schlitzie was buried in an unmarked grave and it wasn’t until over thirty years later that fans found his grave and gave it a headstone.  He most assuredly, however, had a better life as a performer than he ever would have had as a patient.  By all accounts, he loved performing and showing off.  He loved making people smile and loved smiling himself.  In nearly every scene he has in Freaks, he is smiling or laughing.  No, Schlitzie didn’t have an ideal life and was put on display, but he was happy, made a decent living, and has some unknown blogger remembering his life forty-two years after his death.

We are far from being an accepting or even tolerant society, but we are making strides.  I hope that if my book is ever published, it will help kids understand the humanity in those we view as different.  I hope the book can be used as a tool to teach tolerance and empathy.  I know it is a lot to ask and rather grandiose, but it is what I hope.

Thanks for reading.

Want more?  Check out below:

The first season of AMC’s Freakshow is now available on Netflix or visit their site:

Check out the great Coney Island Circus Sideshow:

Or the great Jim Rose Circus and Sideshow:

The wonderful Schlizie (Schlitzy, Schlitze or Shlitze):


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