13 April, 2010

I don't feel sorry for Schlitzie Surtees

I mean: I feel sorry for him because his only options in life were to be a sideshow performer or live in an institution. Even though he liked performing, it should have been a choice. But I don't feel sorry for him because he had microcephaly.

A few weeks ago, Mike D'Angelo at the Onion AV Club wrote a piece on Freaks that makes me think he didn't get much out of the movie. Basically, he says it could never be made today (why not?) and that the presence of Schlitzie and other people with disabilities "gives the film an unavoidable skeeviness." Before a clip of the "one of us" sequence, D'Angelo announces, "If you can watch this sequence without experiencing conflicting emotions, you worry me."

That's right. I have something wrong with me because I think Schlitzie, Johnny Eck, et al. are really fantastic, and don't have a problem with Tod Browning including them in a movie.

This is a placeholder for a longer post about Freaks and the general idea that it's inappropriate to be interested in and/or pleased by disabled people, especially intellectually disabled people. Apparently D'Angelo thinks that the appropriate way to treat someone like Schlitzie is to avert your eyes as fast as possible. Except, he can't do that, because Schlitzie is awesome--but he takes care to emphasize that the way he feels, and the way Browning apparently felt, is REALLY FUCKED UP AND MYSTERIOUS. It's just one of those weird fucked-up things that people feel.

But it's not fucked up at all! What's wrong with liking Schlitzie?

I'm going to quit and come back to this later, but for the time being, this is a really brilliant and beautiful post by Shiva, another ASD person who likes Freaks: Freaks, Hercules, and the Hydra.

And another thing: it's a privilege to know Joe and Zach. They are interesting kids and I feel fond of them. If I hadn't, in movies and in real life, been exposed to people with microcephaly and other different-looking disabilities, I wouldn't be able to get to know Joe and Zach the way I am; the way they look would have been a distraction, instead of just a part of who they are.

At age twelve I became terrified when I was sitting near a very different-looking, very loud disabled kid in church. My reaction to her was horror and sadness. I started crying. I don't think this says anything about unusual-looking people. I think it says something about the idea that it's inappropriate for unusual-looking people to be in public or to be portrayed in art, and how dangerous that idea is.


  1. I'm about to start writing a dissertation chapter on the exhibition of "freaks," the medicalization of difference, and the intersection of sexuality and physical difference. (A mouthful!) I open with that to indicate why I'm rereading Robert Bogdan's "Freak Show" lately. Your post resonates with his book, actually. He talks about the way that "freak" is actually a way of naming a set of social practices, rather than the individual who is different.

    I'm excited for your later post!

  2. Interesting post. i'm looking forward to your next one.

    I don't feel sorry for schlitzie. I can't feel sorry him. When I watch freaks (which is often) I see he's happy.

    I don't think we should feel sorry because these people were in freakshows. but sorry that was their only choice

  3. My favorite part is during the "one of us" scene, I think at one of the parts that's supposed to be sad, Schlitzie just randomly leans over to the woman next to him and kisses her on the head. Best. Person. Ever.

    In Shiva's post, he identifies the clown who is joking around with Schlitzie in the big hat with a long feather on it scene as being a person with an invisible disability--I'd forgotten this, but apparently the clown stutters. Which maybe explains why he has more of a rapport with Schlitzie than other non-disabled characters. As an invisibly disabled person, I know I'd rather hang out with Schlitzie if I worked at the circus.

  4. speaking of freaks, the title of a forthcoming book by dawn prince-hughes is:

    Passing As Human/Freak Nation: How I Discovered That No One Is Normal.

    its publication seems to have been postponed a couple of times; it's now due out April 26, 2011.

  5. Interesting comments.

    I turned 18 in the summer of 1965. I had a job at the time working for Conklin and Garrett Shows at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where I was living with my family and attending high school. It was there that I first came to know Schlitzie, who was billed as "The Missing Link" on the midway sideshow. It would break my heart and piss me off to see him abused by so-called "normal people" in the audience. They not only taunted him mercilessly, but they also threw bottles and even lit cigarettes at him while he was on stage.
    When the show moved on to London and the Western Ontario Fair, I went along. You might say that I was dissatisfied with life at home and at school. I figured life with the carnival would beat the hell out of Grade 13; let me assure you, it did. After setting up in London, I was given the job of foreman of the bumper cars. The carnies stayed at the Clarendon Hotel on the tenderloin. I had a room next to Schlitzie's and that of his guardian, Frenchy, a former sword-swallower and, he claimed a "Gypsy prince." He sported an impressive ring to support this claim; I had no reason to disbelieve him. After a long day on the fairgrounds, we would all hang out together; maybe play some cards and just relax.
    Frenchy would drive us all to work, stopping off first at one of the government-run liquor stores to pick up a bottle for the night. They would be closed when our workday was over.
    One day, Frenchy stopped the car in front of a pawn shop that had a display of knives and swords in the window. He wanted to go inside to swallow a sword. "To keep in practice," he said. Schlitzie and lingered in the car a few extra moments, waiting for the song playing on the radio to come to an end.
    When we walked into the shop, hand-in-hand, I observed Frenchy disinfecting a sword and proceed to swallow it. The two elderly women running the place gasped in horror and disbelief. When they turned to see me, sporting rather long hair for 1965, and Schlitzie, the blood just drained from their faces. Frenchy thanked them for the use of the sword and we continued on our way. I would later see Frenchy practice his art using a straightened coat-hanger from the hotel closet. He always disinfected it first, of course.
    Schlitzie, like all children, craved tenderness and affection. He would snuggle up to me and I would put my arms around him. This simple contact and plain human warmth caused him to moan and weep. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to full grasp what he must have been feeling. One time, Frenchy saw me giving him a hug and told me not to do so in the future. He explained that Schlitzie would come to want these expressions from me all the time and just never let me go. Reluctantly, I did as he asked.
    I'm 63 now. Over all the years and across the many miles, I've never forgotten Schlitzie and Frenchy and the days when I "ran away with the circus."

    Wolf Krakowski
    Kame'a Media
    http:// www.kamea.com

  6. Wow, thank you for your comment, I'm excited to get one from someone who actually knew him! It's sad to know that someone as cool as Schlitzie was so lonely but I've known a lot of adults with disabilities who are really isolated and don't get that kind of close contact/warmth from anyone. And really puts the lie to claims that people with severe disabilities are just inherently happy and don't know what's going on.

  7. All of us get a lifetime, for some of us it is short, for some of us it is long.

    When I was 5, my mother worked all the time at the local hospital, in those days School for five year olds finished very early once or twice a week so my mother made arrangements for me to go into care at the hospital with all the children who had downs syndrome, and various forms of brain damage and other assorted birth defects.

    For a long time I thought that I also had a birth defect, or downs syndrome or some such and that they hafd neglected to tell me (such is the thinking of a 5 year old in this instance).

    What the time in that care did for me tho (and this is the point of my writing) is it taught me that children with brain damage and downs syndrome and other "disabilities" are as happy and as sad as children who are "normal", they have their own way of communing, they are cabable of the most awesome love and happiness (and also ferocious anger) and in every sense of the word, the only thing that is abnormal about them is that people not infrequently see them and react to them in very weird and sometimes horrible ways.

    Those children that I was privildged to spend that time with, have no idea (mostly) that their lives might be short or long, that they have limits that others do not but when I think about it, I don't know if my life will be short or long and if I get past my massive ego and self absorbtion I would have to admit to a lot of limits that others do not have.

    We all get a lifetime and that photo of Schlitzie above makes me happy, because he is happy with his whole heart and it makes me sad because as I became an adult I seem to have forgotten how to be as happy as completely as him...

    1. I'm pretty sure Schlitzie led a pretty happy life. In most every picture you see of him, he looks like he's thourouly enjoying life. I also think the touring life of a circus/carnival performers allowed Schlitzie a life that could've been fun and exciting. Anyway, I hope he lived as happily as possible.

  8. I have recently been working on creating a 3D virtual carnival. What Carnival is complete without the sideshows and the "freaks" right? I did not want to put these out there to be a treated as a joke. I wanted to add links so that people could read about the real lives behind these amazing individuals.
    I saw a sign and grabbed this to use as a model. It says that all these people were not just "freaks'", they were human beings and that they endured all... even the judgement of men. I have these placed all around my virtual carnival.
    When setting up the links so that people can read about each of them, I got caught up in Schlitzie's world. I do not know why his story touched me like it did.
    I read a lot of stories and a lot of publicity announcements. Some asked why these types of people were born or allowed to live. The more I read, the sadder I became, not for Schlitzie..but for those who could not understand that these souls had so much to offer of themselves.
    I have to admit, I fell in love with Schlitzie, and my affection for him seems amazing since he died long before I was born. I cannot explain it.
    I have been thinking of what I would have liked to say to him if I had of gotten the opportunity, and even knowing he may not have understood it all, still, I would just want him to know that I do not know why he was born, or why he was allowed to live..but I am grateful that it was so. Even after his death, he still charms those who learn of him, and steals their hearts.
    I just learned about him in the past couple of weeks, and tonight, he is so deeply in my heart and on my mind. I came looking for others who truly saw him.
    He was a innocent spirit, and it grieves me when I read that some were so cruel to him. I think although he was sometimes lonely, I think he was mostly happy to be doing what he was doing. I am so glad the people in his life took care of him. That he was not just placed in some asylum to be neglected until he died.
    I would have loved to hear his giggles in person and see his face light up like it did when he smiled. I would love to kiss his cute cheeks and, yes, I would hug him all he wanted..no matter what any one said. :)
    I am glad I found this site, I am glad I am not the only one who loves this completely awesome person. :)

  9. Freaks they are not. I am starting to think these so called freaks should feel sorry for us.
    They are so free. Like God intended with Adam and Eve before she sinned. Now we notice differences, have to hide our flaws, abort our babies if we so-called "normal people" think we might have a baby with a disability. If you're one of those women please think twice. My daughter was 14 year old runaway. She came home pregnant at 15 and said the doctor said baby was not normal and had fluid on brain. My daughter is deaf also. She and the father of baby were contemplating abortion and scared. I told them not to- I had no idea what this baby was going to have but I knew that we were not going to abort-I told them if they didn't want the baby I would him or her. Baby was born with spina bifida and will be 19 this year! I'm not saying that having disabled children is not a challenge and that there are not difficulties but they are human just like us. I also have a grandson with autism.
    No I'm not a religious person, but do believe it's wrong to kill babies. Was a teen in the seventies and also a Teen Mom. Abortions are very common and you wouldn't think twice about it at the time. Then one day in college, I was in a lab standing against the wall when I looked behind and saw jars with aborted fetuses at different ages. Their skulls had been crushed like an egg it changed my view on abortion. I will never forget the sight. So very sad.