Thursday, July 12, 2012

Very Special People (I Mean It!)

Let's can it with the "everybody's special" bullshit. It's patronizing and nauseating. SPECIAL once signified something extraordinary that distinguished one thing from another. If you had one leg, but managed to hop your way around, you were special. If you ate glass instead of hamburgers, you were special. And if you were born looking totally hideous and eating through your ear, that made you special. Winning a race doesn't make you special. Neither does existing. If you figure out a way to exist forever, that'll make you special. Try it.

Frederick Drimmer, the author of Very Special People, knows a thing or two about special people, and wrote a very fine book about them. It's my kind of book, and perhaps your kind of book, too. I know a person or three who will dig it as much I did.

And as I am presently preparing a feature film, Circus of Dread, on this very subject starring Bill Oberst and Domiziano Arcangeli, my interest and fascination level is off the bloody meter.

What makes this book about human oddities unique is its straightforward focus on the day-to-day lives of over a hundred extraordinary human beings such as Kobelkoff: The Human Trunk, Carl Unthan: The Armless Fiddler, The Two-Headed Tocci Brothers, Swan and Bates: Two Giants in Love, Zip and Other Pinheads, General Tomb Thumb, Tommy Jacobsen: The Armlessd Pianist, and Robert Wadlow: The Alton Giant.

Writer Drimmer first saw folks of this persuasion in the circus, and sourced documents and letters from all over the world before beginning work on this love letter to being different and "special".

Today, extraordinary people like these do exist, but they are more likely to turn up on youtube or than your local midway. Unfortunate, really. The recent story of Indonesia's smoking baby provided some oldtime thrills, although a follow-up piece on the lad by the 'Vanguard' documentary program (highly recommended series, by the way) reported that he's quit smoking and has returned to childhood. He's still a weighty blighter, but his days of chain smoking are behind him.

Let's be under no illusion that, if the old freak show were still in operation, there'd be no freaks to fill it. On the contrary, human birth defects are alive and well, and if you factor in the damage that big business is doing to native environments (Chevron's polluting of Ecuadorian rain forests, for example), many generations of birth defects are assured.

Recently, my brother sent me a link to a gallery of photos of people suffering from "Treacher Collins", a syndrome that creates a distinct appearance. Notable characteristics are an underdeveloped jaw, missing cheekbones, eyes slanted downwards, and ears not properly formed or missing.

It is the Google image gallery that has replaced the circus and the sideshow as a showcase for exotic human beings who are but only a step away from those who are not so special.

In Very Special People - The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities, Frederick Dimmer opens with a terrific quote from William Lindsay Gresham:

"On their faces was a strangely luminous smile.
I know now what it indicates --
they had met tragedy and fought it to a standstill;
they had taken a handicap
and turned it inside out,
making it work for them;
with courage and patience
they had built themselves a life."


  1. I love this post and I love this book. I've had a copy for years, but I think it's been out of print forever. I refer to it often. And I always maintained the downfall of the sideshow was the Jerry Springer show, even tho the sideshow was on the decline by then anyway....

  2. This is a very interesting subject to me, although, for reasons I continue to struggle with, I can't focus on it with your tenacity. Seeing people like this makes me feel incredibly depressed, grateful, and demands my empathy. There was no deliberation behind the deformities these people have apart from the decision of their parents to have sex. I feel depressed because of what nature "dealt" them. I feel grateful for how lucky I am that I was simply BORN in such a way that enabled me to function normally (in the sense of a statistical average, because most people aren't born with these debilitating deformities of physique). I empathize because it occurs to me just how hard it must be to live with those deformities, but the fact that these people are alive and have lives is inspiring. One of my strongest fears is having a deformed or mentally handicapped child. A movie like Eraserhead frightens me because of this. It is "special people" like these that make me irritated by people who think they're entirely self-made, as if they had the choice to NOT have an under-developed jaw. It's this kind of luck that makes me think that all societies need better healthcare systems and more widespread social support for those who are "special." Being an atheist, I do think that this life is the only one anyone can experience and to think that the only chance at having an EXPERIENCE of any sort can be stifled by physical defects and a culture's treatment of those with them really upsets me.

  3. I'm curious. I've read the first title listed some 30 odd years ago, but I've never heard of the second. Is that still in print?

  4. Jenn -- Yes, it's been out of print for quite a while. Interesting theory you have about Jerry Springer. It has merit.


    Jesse W -- I understand that this would make you depressed. To suffer from such an affliction would be terrible; there's no other way to say it. Good healthcare is essential. Unfortunately, the US spends 52% of its annual budget on defence, so we know where priorities lie.