16 February, 2010

catching signals that sound in the dark

Like most people, I love the Hensel twins, and have since I was little. I remember my dad bringing home the Life magazine cover for me. I just spent a lot of time looking at videos and pictures of them online. It's awesome to watch the way they move around. But it's also awesome to watch them asking questions in class and joking around with their friends, because this isn't a life that would have been available for them a hundred years ago.

One of the most obtuse passages I've ever read comes from the Wikipedia page for Schlitzie, my favorite circus freak:

Under the care of Surtees, Schlitzie continued performing the sideshow circuit until Surtees' death in the early 1960s, after which Surtees' daughter, who was not in show business, committed Schlitzie to a Los Angeles county hospital.

Schlitzie remained hospitalized for some time until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill Unks, who happened to be working at the hospital during the off-season. According to Unks, Schlitzie seemed to miss the carnival dearly, and being away from the public eye had made him very sad and depressed. Hospital authorities determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks' employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return him to the sideshow.

Okay, dude--I really like Schlitzie and would like to think that he lived a happy life. And from the way he comes across in Freaks, he seems like a sweet person who liked attention, so I'll totally buy that he was into being a sideshow performer, and that he felt sad when he stopped doing it.

BUT DON'T YOU THINK HE WAS ALSO SAD BECAUSE HE WAS LIVING IN A HOSPITAL? I mean, if I was living in a hospital for no reason, and someone encountered me there, I'd think it was really fucking weird if they were like, "Amanda seems really sad, she must want to be a sideshow performer." Maybe he just didn't like living in an institutional setting. You know, like almost every person who ever lived.

I am really into the show Carnivale, and one of my favorite things is a very minor aspect of the show. Ben's crush, Ruthie, is a middle-aged woman with an adult son, Gabriel, who is a pretty minor character. But we know that Gabe is intellectually disabled and performs in the carnival as a strongman, as well as helping set up rides and tents with the other young guys in the carnival. Ruthie used to be a snake charmer when she was younger, but now she's mostly the "barker" for Gabe's act. Since I am interested in the history of disabled people (especially intellectually disabled people) who worked as a sideshow performers, Ruthie and Gabe's story seems especially moving to me. I imagine Ruthie realizing that her child was intellectually disabled, and that he didn't have a disability that affected his appearance and could therefore be the basis of his act. I imagine her thinking about Gabe's options outside of the hospital--probably being locked away somewhere. But in the carnival, he could travel and be part of a community. As he got older, he turned out to be really big, and that turned into an act, which was great. And Ruthie doesn't have to worry about what will happen to Gabe when she dies, because he has things he's good at, and he's surrounded by people who have known him his whole life.

But obviously not every carnival was as friendly as the one portrayed in Carnivale. The only good thing that happened in the class I dropped was that we read a piece by Eli Clare, who is a queer trans guy with cerebral palsy. Part of the piece was about his interest in particular historical figures--disabled sideshow performers, and XX people who lived as men. But he admits that he doesn't know exactly why certain XX people lived as men, and that it isn't necessarily accurate for him to claim them as trans. And he admits that some of the sideshow performers may have been manipulated and abused, and felt that they had no choice but to be "freaks." I am interested in the same two groups of people, although I'm a lesbian instead of a trans guy, which proves how hard it is to identify who inverts "belong" to. The Well of Loneliness seems to me to be a story about deviant sexuality, but in the 1940s Michael Dillon, a trans man, identified Stephen Gordon as someone like him.

But I'm getting off topic. I was thinking about Amanda Palmer, who has been criticized at FWD/Forward for starting a band with her friend where they pretend to be a pair of conjoined twins. I don't think Amanda Palmer is coming from a typical ableist perspective, even though she is being ableist. I think she thinks of the idea of conjoined twins as just another part of the whole circus/carnival genre that she's always drawn from. I'm not super offended by Evelyn Evelyn, I don't think, but it does make me kind of uncomfortable. It just seems stupid (although I generally love AFP, don't freak out). However, I feel like if I think that this is really bad, then I have to think Neutral Milk Hotel is really bad, too. Although Jeff Mangum didn't pretend to be conjoined twins, he just wrote a song about them.

I mean, is it ever okay to view people with certain physical conditions as part of a genre? I don't think it's okay to go as far as Palmer has gone but is it okay to be into conjoined twins and make art about them when you aren't actually conjoined and don't know any people who are?

eta: I just deleted a little bit about whether ASD people are circus freaks in modern society, and whether Jeff Mangum can be considered a circus freak because of his mental illness and nonstandard body language--I need more time to write that than I have, because I was too brief and it came off like I was saying "Jeff Mangum and I can have circus freaks but Amanda Palmer can't" or something equally oversimplified and self-serving.

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