We didn’t have many books in my house when I was growing up, so I memorized every one of them. My favorite was the small, hardcover text my mother kept wedged between her bible and the Farmer’s Almanac on her nightstand. I was merely nine the first time I gawked at this oddity. With my mouth agape, I stared hypnotically into the eyes of the bearded lady adorning the cover, but my mother quickly snatched it out of my hands and told me that I didn’t need to read a “weird” book like that.
Well, telling me not to do something has always been a surefire way to get me to do something, and it became my secret mission to sneak into my mother’s room and ogle over the grotesque images found between the pages of that mysterious book whenever I could. The minute my parents were at work, or occupied with some other task, I’d seize the opportunity to entertain my curiosities. Under tempting text like “Chained for Life,” “Armless and Legless Wonders,” “The Hairy People,” “The Little People,” “Fatty and Skinny,” and “There Were Giants in the Earth,” I got my first glimpse of human deformities and rare genetic conditions. Most of the pictures had the name P.T. Barnum stamped across the bottom, and it quickly became apparent to me that this was a book of FREAKS! I was captivated.
I could only look at the pages for a few minutes at a time at first, because a sick feeling would always sweep across my body. It was like I knew I shouldn’t be looking, and I knew I shouldn’t be so entertained by something my mother deemed as weird. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted more! As time went on, I found that I could tolerate looking at the pictures for longer increments of time without becoming completely overtaken with nauseating guilt. This is when I discovered that beyond the introduction, there were actual stories about the people in the photographs. The very first story I remember reading was about the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. I recall how it said they were good at swimming, and that they eventually became American citizens, married local women, and ended up having somewhere around eleven children between the two of them. There was also Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar who could roll cigarettes with his lips, spoke four languages, and lived a relatively normal life with his wife and four children. There were similar narratives for The Elastic Skinned Man, The World’s Ugliest Woman, and countless others displayed on the pages of this book.
As I read about each and every one of these “human oddities,” I suddenly started feeling less and less ill. I no longer felt that same sense of shame, and in a way I felt like they were becoming familiar like friends. I eventually read the entire book, and I stopped sneaking off into my parent’s room to indulge in this guilty pleasure. As a matter of fact, I didn’t feel guilty anymore at all. I had a sudden realization that the people on these pages weren’t all that strange. They were almost freakishly ordinary, and in fact, probably more “normal” than a lot of my family and friends.
Looking back on it now, I can see that this book, and experience, impacted me greatly. I developed kind of a secret obsession for the odd balls and weirdoes of the world. To this day, I am a bit of what one might call a freak magnet. Out of the ordinary appearances and behaviors do not to faze me like they do some people. You take me out, and I guarantee you that at the end of the night you’ll find me sitting quietly in the corner sincerely listening to the tale of some outcast. Most likely I’ll be learning all about his first track meet, or hearing about how she loved singing by the campfire with her grandmother when she was five. Using stories to make the freakish seemingly ordinary and the ordinary seemingly freakish still remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures. I love all people, and I love all stories.
[Sidenote…I couldn’t remember the title of this book, so I did a little research. It was written in 1973 by Frederick Drimmer and published under the title Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities. It can still be purchased used on Amazon for less than $10. Definitely worth a gander, if you are into that sort of thing.]