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  • John Woolf

Freedom and Freaktopia: re-reading the past to re-imagine the future

The cover of John Woolf's recent book, 'The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age'. A stylised proscenium arch theatre on a red background, with the title of the book and an endorsement from Stephen Fry written on it.
The cover of John Woolf's recent book, 'The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age'

Joseph Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, is the archetypal Victorian ‘freak’: a hideous, piteous creature emerging from the smog of nineteenth-century London to haunt our collective imagination while paradoxically pulling at our heartstrings. He is loathsome yet lovable; a being presented as part-human, part-animal who was cruelly exploited in the Victorian freak show before he was rescued by a benevolent surgeon. His story was propelled into popular consciousness by the postmodernist filmmaker David Lynch and since then a litany of documentaries, studies and shows have explored Merrick and his condition.

Born into a working-class Leicestershire family in 1862, Merrick’s extreme deformities led to his incarceration in a workhouse, exploitation in a freak show then finally ‘rescue’ by a surgeon, Frederick Treves, and ‘sanctuary’ in the London Hospital until his death in 1890. In Treves’ memoir The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923), which became the basic text for Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980), the morality tale ran as follows: in the debased freak show Merrick was cruelly exploited, ‘he was shunned like a leper, housed like a wild beast, and got his only view of the world from a peephole in a showman’s cart,’ but Treves and the London Hospital offered salvation and refuge: ‘he began to change, little by little, from a hunted thing into a man’.[1] Science and respectability triumphed as the disabled body moved from the stage to the hospital.

The ethics of the situation, though, are perhaps not as straightforward as they first appear. The much-maligned Victorian showman Tom Norman, who displayed Merrick in London’s East End in 1884, wrote his own account of Merrick’s life. According to Norman, Merrick longed for work and independence, which was ultimately realized when Merrick was employed in the freak show: here, at least, Merrick had some economic agency, earning his own income outside of the oppressive workhouse. According to Norman, Merrick’s incarceration at the London Hospital amounted to the deprivation of his liberty, the denial of income and another form of scientific exploitation:

‘The question is – who really “exploited” poor Joseph? I, the Showman, got the abuse. Dr Treves, the eminent surgeon (who you must admit was also a Showman, but on a rather higher social scale) received the publicity and praise.’[2]

It is worth elevating Merrick’s own voice too, for he wrote an autobiography (c.1880-1885) where he thanked his freak show audiences ‘who have treated me well’, while praising the freak show in which he was working: ‘I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before’ – a reference to his time in the Dickensian workhouse.[3] In fact, it was Merrick who decided to leave the workhouse to seek employment in the freak show, further complicating the representation of the freak show as a malign space ripe for exploiting people deemed different.

In my own research into the Victorian freak show, I found numerous instances where freak performers found a degree of freedom, economic agency and celebrity in a world instinctively hostile to the extraordinary body.[4] Furthermore, despite the troubling stories of exploitation and prurience associated with freakery, there were moments when a liberating reading of the freak show was possible.

The monstrous body was (and remains) a site of ambiguity— whether that monster mutters some universal, Freudian ‘primordial fears’ to the inner recess of our ‘secret selves’ (as some have argued) or, from a cultural-historical perspective, whether that monster challenges prominent structural dualisms such as male-female (think bearded ladies) or animal-human (think Elephant Man) or self-other (think conjoined twins).[5] The monstrous body was a site of disruption which represented the Other – but not quite.

In the nineteenth century that ‘monster’ moved on the boards of the freak show: a popular form of entertainment wowing everyone from Queen Victoria to your average man, woman and child. This realm of entertainment was itself an ambiguous space peddling wonder and horror, truth and fiction: people stood in awe of the freak as a chill ran up their spines; they stared at constructed freak personas based on exaggerated narratives and outright trickery (a ‘giant’ surreptitiously standing on stilts, for example).

Thus, to contemporary scholars engaged in an emerging field known as Freak Studies, itself an offshoot of Disability Studies, the freak show represents a tense relationship between exploitation and empowerment, coercion and choice.[6]

The ethical terrain is highly controversial. Indeed, the disability-rights activist Eli Claire struggled with the very term ‘freak’, while some (including the ableist, countercultural middle classes of the 1960s) appropriated or reclaimed the term.[7] The best example of the latter occurred in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love (1989) where one of the protagonists, Arturo the Aqua Boy, asserted: ‘I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.’.[8] Arturo’s sister Lil the geek concurs: ‘I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.’[9] In this moment the term freak, so often used as an insult, was being reclaimed; a badge of pride and liberation.

In Rabelais and His World (1965), the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who was himself disabled, saw the ‘grotesque’ body as transformative – socially, politically and personally.[10] The ‘grotesque body’ as an ambiguous body was unifying: ‘an ecstatic union of separate selves’, as one theorist described it, ‘a single grotesque communal entity of multiple bodies represented, perhaps, by conjoined twins: a single body housing two complete people’.[11] The ‘normal’ body is closed; the grotesque body is open, wonderful, revolutionary, dismantling the dualisms, the categories and the hierarchies that mistakenly contain humankind when, as Bakhtin wrote, ‘man, properly speaking, is not something completed and finished, but open, uncompleted.’[12]

Michael Chemers senses in this reading the potential for a ‘freaktopia’: ‘a vision of the future in which difference itself is considered a cause for celebration’; a site where normality is both undesirable but also recognised as unrealistic; a utopia where humanity recognises and affirms its variation.[13] This would be a new realm in which impairment was seen as normal and, as such, where the stigma of disability would diminish.

At this moment, such a freaktopia is a distant possibility: socialising disability in affirmative, utopian ways could only be realised with a wholescale societal shift in attitudes and discourse. For starters, we might recognise that disability is not an absolute or total category. It is often acquired by living in the world – aging, accidents, pollution, malnutrition, etc. – and the limitations are primarily political; as Claire H Liachowitz writes:

…much of the inability to function that characterizes physically impaired people is an outcome of political and social decisions rather than medical limitations… an increasing number of sociological and psychological theorists regard disability as a complex of constraints that the able-bodied population imposes on the behaviour of psychically impaired people.[14]

Overcoming these political constraints has been exceptionally slow and limited, but there are material examples where change can (and sometimes has) been realised: subtitles for TV shows; accessible buildings and transportation; hand controls in cars; visual interpreters for operas, plays and TV—change has been slow, and there is much further to go.[15]

Chemers’ vision of freaktopia is part of a much wider theoretical and historical enterprise which seeks to reconfigure Victorian freak performances into spaces of reclamation, activism and transgression.[16] Chemers reads the freak show as a place of theatre; the freak performer as an actor; and their stage as a site where identity and societal norms are challenged.

This historical re-evaluation fuels a new imagining; a ‘dismodern’ future, wrote the theorist Lennard J Davis, in which the ‘grotesque’ is normalised and disability is de-stigmatised. As Riva Lehrer writes in Golem Girl: A Memoir (2020): ‘Might I describe spina bifida as a poetic occurrence? Can I say that my spine is awe-inspiring?.’[17] A freaktopia would answer in the affirmative, recognising, as Lehrer continued, that ‘nature is wayward and perverse: there is wild inside what we call normal.’[18]

[1] Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (London: W. H. Allen, 1980 [1923]), pp. 11, 19-20. [2] Tom Norman and George Barnum Norman, The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman “Silver King” (London: Privately Published, 1985), p. 110 [3] J.C. Merrick, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick (Leicester: H. & A. Cockshaw, 1880 [1885 (?)]), n. p. [4] John Woolf, The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age (London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2019). [5] See, for example, Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981) and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, ‘Introduction: From Wonder to Error – A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity’, in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. by Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 1–22 [6] David A. Gerber, ‘The “Careers” of People Exhibited in Freak Shows: The Problem of Volition and Valorization’, in Freakery, ed. by Thomson, pp. 38–54 and Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). [7] Eli Claire, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation (Cambridge, MA: South End, 1999), pp. 70, 93 and Fiedler, Freaks, p. 13. [8] Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 251. [9] Ibid., p. 23. [10] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 27. [11] Michael M. Chemers, Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 135. [12] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 364. [13] Chemers, Staging Stigma, p. 5. [14] Cited in Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London: Verso, 1995), p. 10. [15] Ibid., pp. 1- 22. [16] See, for example, Michael M. Chemers, ‘Introduction Staging Stigma: A Freak Studies Manifesto’, Disability Quarterly Studies, 25:3 (2005, online) and ‘Le Freak, C’est Chic: The Twenty-First Century Freak Show as Theatre of Transgression’, Modern Drama, 46:2 (2003), pp. 285–304. [17] Riva Lehrer, Golem Girl: A Memoir (London: Virago, 2020), p. 347. [18] Ibid.

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