Freak Show:
A revelation of the psyche's shadows

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Nov. 8, 1997)

Last week, the musical "Side Show" opened on Broadway. It's an account of the life of Daisy and Violet Hilton, so-called Siamese twins who earlier this century captivated the public imagination -- first as sideshow freaks, then as Vaudeville performers and actors in Todd Browning's dark film, "Freaks."

Public fascination with freaks is as old as humanity. Cave walls are scrawled with drawings of prehistoric freaks. Ancient writings detail rituals of sacrifice of malformed children and divination with aborted fetuses that exhibited anomalies. Our own region's "Southern gothic writers," particularly Carson McCullers, made freaks a virtual literary obsession that has never entirely disappeared. (However, to my own mind, Canadian Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy remains the preeminent literary work on freaks.)

Nowadays it isn't even possible to visit a bona fide carnival freak show. Medical science has eliminated or found treatment for some of the disorders that produced freaks, and those who cannot be treated are hospitalized, institutionalized or otherwise given shelter.

Although the frame of their regard has shifted to empathy, freaks nevertheless remain on display. I'm referring to television talk shows, of course. One suspects the real motivations of the millions of people who watch these shows, which often do exhibit literal anomalies, have less to do with empathy than the classic experience of awe they inspire.

Why do we feel such awe in the face of a freak?

I'd argue that the very beholding of a freak's image is deeply moving to the psyche, even healing, in Aristotle's sense that watching tragic drama was considered therapeutic. (Recall that the Greeks required the entire population, including slaves, to attend theater, even paying people to go. It was explicitly understood -- in the way we mysteriously seek out sad music when our hearts are broken -- that participation in an aesthetic tragedy informs and heals suffering. Therapists who say their own suffering is healed by their clients' stories know this well.)

I'm old enough that my own imagination is still haunted by images of Thalidomide babies I saw in Life magazine as a kid. Those bizarre pictures of mothers and children with flipper-like arms smiling happily at the camera sent a chill through me -- the chill of awe, fear, disgust, often rapidly dispelled with jokes or a rush to pitying language. But who can look away? In the freak, certainly, we see the darkest images of our own psyches.

To behold a pair of Siamese twins is to entertain the usually unthinkable: the horror of being chained forever to the other (whoever the other is), to be other ourselves and always naked in our vulnerability before the world. The necessary abdication of monogamy -- the erotic possibilities our own normalcy denies us! -- flood the mind. Every freak, dwarf or giant, upsets "normal" perspective by lighting up the psyche's shadow world. In that psychic "place," much like the distorted set of one of the early German horror films, our own suffering is directly faced in its monstrous particularity as a symptom of the normal human condition.

I count myself lucky that I developed a complete fascination with freak shows in the late '70s. It was almost an obsession of mine to visit county and state fairs in the rural South, seeking out sideshows, befriending a famous "two-faced man" for a few years. By 1980, I had begun making regular annual visits to Gibsonton, Fla., just outside Tampa. That town was winter headquarters for carnival people, and I loved to visit during their annual convention. The last of the great freaks -- their impresario was a man named Ward Silver -- were still around then, many of them retired and refusing to give interviews. (I once staked out a beauty parlor in Tampa for an entire day, waiting to catch Priscilla the Ape Lady, whose weekly visit there someone had told me about.)

Mainly, it was the bizarre ambience of the town that captivated me. Following (and continuing next week) is a (edited) story I wrote in 1980 or '81 about my first visit to Gibsonton. It is a section from a book I never finished and it was written during the last year of my own descent into alcoholism. I've never published it before and, reading it now, I am surprised by what a potent statement it is about my own freakishness of the time.

* * * * *

Alice, the tattooed lady, seated at the bar on my left, thrust her bony head in front of my face and glowered at Harry the dwarf, who was on my right. It was a Wednesday night, about 10 o'clock. We had been drinking nearly two hours and Alice was not about to abide Harry's interference.

"You tell this boy anything about my pictures," she hissed, jerking her right thumb in my direction, "and I'll bust them little legs of yours so bad you'll have to throw away your crutches and buy one of those electric wheelchairs."

Harry, who was not the least bit drunk, stared at Alice, confounded. I felt myself grow hot with embarrassment and was about to excuse myself for the rest room when Little John the ride jock, seated at Harry's right, broke into gentle laughter. A smile appeared on Harry's pudgy lips. "Aw, Alice," he whined, "you know I wouldn't do anything you didn't want me to. It's just that one picture is so unusual. I thought he might like to hear about it."

Alice sat back and crossed her arms, pouting. "It's nobody's business," she mumbled.

Harry slapped the bar and ordered Alice a beer. Her anger began to fade and she struggled not to laugh.

We were drinking at Showtown USA, a bar in Gibsonton, Fla., about 10 miles south of Tampa on U.S. 41. Gibsonton is home to the nation's largest concentration of carnival people. About 3,000 of them live there, mainly in the town's ubiquitous trailer parks, between November and March, when they hit the road to work the fair circuit for six or seven months.

I arrived in town in early April, after the majority had left town, but I'd had no difficulty meeting people. Showtown is the carnies' main gathering place, and those who were still in town inevitably drifted through to drink and gossip. I had spent the previous two nights there drinking and the bartender had become friendly with me, introducing me to people by the second night.

I had been so distracted by the bar's decor my first night that I'd been unable to carry on a conversation. Showtown's outside sign identifies it as a "circus carnival memorabilia lounge." Its paneled walls are plastered with hundreds of gaudy carnival posters. The shellacked tables are covered with photographs of sideshow freaks, carnival operators and scenes from carney social gatherings.

On a big screened porch adjoining the bar hang enormous canvas signs -- perhaps 50 years old -- proclaiming the powers of a palm reader and a phrenologist. A bulletin board is cluttered with help-wanted notices. The "Flying Wallendas," whose headquarters are in nearby Sarasota, had posted an ad for high-wire performers. Showtown's juke box plays a bizarre medley of circus organ music, nasal country, Barbra Streisand and a smattering of disco. Those who can dance to this hodgepodge use a small dance floor.

On those nights when the bar is crowded, the atmosphere is charged with the tension of men and women heavily on the make. It is a curious phenomenon of carnival society that while it is racist and caste oriented (according to the kind of work one does), it suffers no prejudice concerning sexual orientation.

At Showtown, I had seen men cruising men, women cruising women, the two sexes cruising one another and frequent changing from male to female partners. When I asked the bartender if I were imagining this, he said: "Carnies don't care how you get." He pointed at a sign behind a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. Illustrated with a smiling face, it said: "You'd smile too if you'd just been laid." [A year later, I'd learn that the same bartender had worked, in drag, as a hootchie kootchie girl.]

On this Wednesday night, Showtown was empty except for a sprinkling of people at tables and the four of us at the bar. I had stopped on the way home from dinner, and Harry, whom I'd met the night before, had greeted me like a long-lost friend, telling Alice to move down a seat so I could sit beside him.

A black-haired dwarf on metal crutches, he had retired from the carnival circuit after 15 years when his legs went bad. He had not worked sideshows, as I'd presumed, but had operated cookhouses. A gregarious nonstop talker, he had introduced me to Little John as soon as I sat down.

Little John, short and stocky with a mop of uncombed blond hair and a baby face, looked no older than 17. This was to be his first season on the road with the carnival. He'd hitchhiked to "Gibtown" from his home in Indiana and gotten himself a job as a ride jock -- carnival slang for someone who erects and tears down rides. It is the worst job a carney can have.

Harry also introduced me to Alice. I was startled by her name because, until looking at her face closely, I thought she was a man. Short and wiry, about 45, she wore her brown hair in a virtual crewcut. Her clothes were a yellow T-shirt, black baggy men's pants and tennis shoes. Tattoos covered her arms, and I could see that they continued under her shirt.

The largest visible tattoo was on her right upper arm. It was the profile of a stylish, wavy-haired woman of the '50s. Under the head were the words "ONLY MAKING BELIEVE." Alice had not found work with a carnival this year, although she had a line on a job. To make money, she had spent the last few weeks picking strawberries for one of the area's large commercial growers. Her fingers were stained red by the labor.

I turned to Alice now and apologized for my earlier impertinent question. We had been discussing the carnival business for nearly two hours when -- the beer finally making my head light and my tongue even bolder than usual -- I'd abruptly asked her if she exhibited herself naked in sideshows.

The question had caused Little John, who must have been wondering the same thing, to look up suddenly. Harry had broken into an evil laugh and, before Alice could reply, began describing her "front picture."

"No need to apologize," Alice said to me. She took a swig from the beer, a peace offering, Harry had just bought her. "Thank you for this Harry, but I still say you have the biggest mouth on a dwarf I've ever seen."

"I know it, Alice. My mouth will be my death," Harry said.

"Well," said Alice to me, "the answer is 'yes.' I usually do take all my clothes off. It don't matter about your body because people just look at the pictures. I've got this one picture like you've never seen before. Nobody else in the world has got a picture like this. It makes it necessary for me to take all my clothes off."

I asked her what it was. "It ain't no use in describing it," she said. When I'm working, I always show my back first and then I turn around and when people see this picture I'm talking about, you can hear them draw in their breath. Ain't that right, Harry?" Harry nodded his head.

We were silent a moment and ordered another round. Little John got off his stool and walked over to stand between Alice and me. "Would you show us that picture?" he asked.

"Of course not!" Alice said. "I'm not taking my clothes off here, and anyway, I charge good money to see my pictures."

"How much would it cost?" Little John asked.

"More than any ride jock's got," Alice snapped. "I'm just not in the mood."

Little John, who was beginning to look quite drunk, lowered his gaze to Alice's forearms. "My mama said she'd kill me if I came home with any tattoo," he said.

"Some mothers are like that," Alice said. "My mama was different."

She told us her story:

"I was raised on a little farm in South Carolina. My daddy died when I was a little girl but I had four brothers and the oldest one, Bobby, joined the Navy after daddy died. Mama was furious, because she needed his help on the farm. But the first time Bobby comes home, he takes Mama in the kitchen and says, 'Look here, Mama, what I got.' He rolled up his sleeve and there was two hearts joined together. One of them said 'Mama' and the other said 'Daddy.'

"Naturally, Mama cried her eyes out, she was so honored. Every time after that, Bobby would come home with a new picture and my other three brothers were always talking about how they were gonna have pictures too. They'd tell me girls couldn't have pictures and I'd cry. I remember a couple of times Bobby drew pictures on me with an inkpen. I wouldn't wash them for weeks."

Harry, who was obviously bored with any sound but his own voice, announced he was leaving. He seemed to shimmy down the stool to his crutches and soon disappeared into the night, after inviting us all to a fish fry. ...

"Sure would like to see that mysterious tattoo," Little John said, dragging his stool close to Alice. "You sure you won't change your mind? I can pay you a little something."

"Maybe after a few more beers," Alice said.

I asked her how she'd gotten her first tattoo.

"I was 16 and fed up with living on the farm," she said. "I had no interest in school. My cousin Richard was living over in Columbia and he had a job at a mill. He said he could get me one there, so I just bought a bus ticket one day and moved over. Mama didn't mind because one of my brothers was running the farm and it was doing pretty good.

"I used to go out with Richard and some of his friends every payday and get drunk. I always preferred the company of men," she said. "Two of Richard's friends had pictures and one night I told them about Bobby's and how I used to cry because, being a girl, I couldn't have any. Well, the next thing I know, I'm at this place getting a picture while Cousin Richard and his friends stand around watching, drunk and laughing."

Alice displayed her left forearm. "Here's my first picture." It was a faded blue anchor with a banner. "BOBBY IN LOVING MEMORY ALICE," it said. "Bobby was killed in the war," she said softly.

She continued getting tattoos whenever she could afford them. "They made me feel special," she said. "Everyone looked at me when I walked by. Some of the girls at the mill thought I was a freak, but I knew how to deal with them." She held up her clenched fist in front of our faces. Little John grinned drunkenly.

Every one of my pictures is about the way I feel," Alice said. "You can look at my pictures and study my life."

I asked her the meaning of the woman's head on her right arm.

"That's real important to me," she said. "There was this boy at the mill who got a crush on me. Cousin Richard kept making me go out with him, pressuring me to act more ladylike and all. I tried to go along with it. I even put on dresses and grew my hair long. Well that boy drove me crazy -- wouldn't let me drink, wanted me to get my pictures erased, wanted me to do a million things.

"I got fed up," Alice said, her voice growing agitated. "One night we had this big argument and I went home and looked at myself in the mirror. 'Alice,' I said, 'you are only making believe.' I went and had this picture done to remind me never to make believe again. You should have seen the look on that boy's face."

She dropped her jaw into a dumbfounded expression and the three of us laughed hysterically. By this time the bartender was pouring us free shots. We were very drunk.

Little John asked Alice how she had come to join the carnival.

"About the same as most people," she replied. "There was a fair over in Columbia, not long after I got this tattoo I been telling you about. This man who had him a show spotted me and asked if I had any pictures under my clothes. I told him I had a few and he said if I got a few more, he'd pay me $90 a week and feed me to join his show. In those days -- 25 years ago -- that sounded like a good bit of money. I been doin' it ever since."

Alice got off her stool to go to the rest room and Little John bent his head close to mine. "You got a flashlight in your car?" he whispered. "I was just thinking maybe we could convince her to go out behind the bar and show us that tattoo on her chest. What do you guess it is? You guess it's a big gorilla or something?"

"I am sure," I replied, perfectly seriously, "that it's the head of Jesus Christ." The beer had gone completely to my head.

Alice returned. She was staggering slightly. She took the stool Little John had been sitting on.

"Say Alice," he said, "could that tattoo on your chest be Jesus Christ?"

Alice looked at him like he'd said the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard. "Are you crazy?" she asked. "My mama was real religious, always claiming she seen Jesus in her bedroom or walking in the fields. She'd have dropped dead if she'd seen him between my tits."

Little John looked at me and rolled his eyes. "My fault," I slurred. "Probly some ... gorilla."

"You two really wanna see it bad, don't you," Alice said.

We nodded our heads solemnly.

"I tell you what," she said. "Let's play us a game of pool. If I win, you pay me five dollars. If I lose, you git to see it."

"I don't play pool," I said. "But I'll put up the money if Little John can play."

We got off our stools and walked into the center of the bar, stopped, and turned in a circle all at once. "My God, we are drunk!" Alice cried. "They ain't no pool table in here." We laughed. "Tell you what. They got a table down the road. Let's go."

Outside, it was decided that Alice should drive. We got into her old pickup truck and roared up the road, doing at least 65.

The bar was a dingy, dirty place under the management of a short blonde woman wearing enough makeup on her pinched face to supply a 1960s secretarial pool. It was about one in the morning and there was only one other customer. He had his head down on the bar, near a gallon jar with a label that said "25 cents per cuss word." We each bought a beer and Little John, holding his change over the jar's slit, looked directly at the barmaid and said, "Hot damn!" as he let the change drop.

"It says twenny-five cent, not 15, big spender," she snapped at him.

We walked to the pool table and Alice set the game up. What followed was a travesty. Little John could barely strike the cue ball, usually only moving a few balls a few inches. My impatience with his charade was compounded by his demeanor. He dragged the game out needlessly by staggering around the table, studying the balls and consulting me on elaborate shots that made no sense.

Alice, on the other hand, was a study in sudden sobriety. Sitting halfway on the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she made shot after shot, never looking at either of us. When the game was over, I grabbed Little John by his T-shirt. "You never played a game of pool in your life," I said.

"I have so played ... once," he slurred. "I seen it played a lot."

"Did it occur to you that once is not enough to risk my five dollars?" I asked.

"Five hell," Alice said, holding her palm up. "It's five apiece and five plus five makes 10."

I paid her the money, glaring at Little John.

"I guess I blew it bad ... cost us five dollars ... an' we don't get to see Alice's famous tattoo."

We sat on the edge of the table, finishing our beer. "I tell you what," Alice said. "I made more money in 10 minutes than I made all day picking strawberries. Just to show my gratitude, I'm gonna let you see it after all. Problem is, where'm I gonna take my clothes off?"

I suggested we go to my motel room. ... I had left all the lights on and Alice began turning them off as soon as we arrived, leaving only the little light on my nightstand lit. "Sit right there on the bed," she ordered. She went into the bathroom, turning that light off too. Little John started to giggle. "Come on, Alice, we ain't got all night!" he shouted. Alice made no reply and the atmosphere seemed to get heavier. Little John, nevertheless, began beating a drum roll on the nightstand.

The door to the bathroom opened and Alice, fully naked, stepped out backwards. She stretched her arms out in the dim light. Her head was thrown back so that she looked at the ceiling. Blue ivy and red flowers climbed up her arms. Her back was a mass of serpents, flags, hearts, more flowers and geometric patterns. Little John was breathing heavily. Alice began speaking. It was not her natural voice. It seemed to come from somewhere else. It was low and melodious and the words were obviously a speech.

"Behold my body," she said. "All that I have seen, felt, was and ever am are pictured here." She swayed back and forth, the arms still revolving, the fingers of her hands opened wide and grasping the air. She began slowly to turn to face us. "Picture here too is all that I should have been, could have been. ..."

She faced us with her hands lightly covering her breasts, her head still back so that our eyes did not meet. Her mouth was drawn into a trancelike smile. When my eyes grasped what was before me, I felt the blood rush suddenly to my head. I looked away quickly, at Little John. His head was thrust forward and his eyes and mouth seemed frozen in horror.

Alice's torso and half her legs were dominated by the full figure of a naked man. His head was between her breasts, his shoulders beneath them. His arms hung by hers. His legs extended to her knees. His genitalia, barely covered by a fig leaf, sat above her own. Rendered in blue with ghostly eyes and a serene smile, the figure looked like a corpse. The morbid effect was compounded by the many roses that bordered the body. Alice continued swaying a few moments and then turned and went back to the bathroom.

Little John and I said nothing to one another. Alice came out of the bathroom and left the room silently. Perhaps she was often used to shocking people so thoroughly. I heard her truck leave the lot. Little John stood up and whispered, as if in church or a library, "I guess I'll be going."

I never saw Little John again. Harry the Dwarf guessed he'd changed his mind about joining the carnival and gone home. We did learn he never left with the outfit that hired him. I saw Alice once more. Driving a back road a week later, I saw her seated on the porch of a trailer. A young woman had her head against Alice's shoulder. I honked and they stood up and waved. The next afternoon, I found a pint of strawberry preserves at my motel room door. A note under the jar said: "Thanks for studying me."

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Nov. 8, 1997

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