Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer

Us versus Them

I hate the word freak, hate it almost as much as I hate the N-word and the C-word - hate it so much that I would call it the F-word, but that is taken. When I say that I hate the word freak, I don't mean its use as a minced oath to replace the other F-word, as in, "My teenage daughter is driving me freaking crazy." And I obviously don't mean freak to denote an obsession with a particular activity, "My son is a skateboarding freak." No, when I say I hate the word freak, I am referring to an older, harsher usage, namely, a pejorative label for people born with unusual diseases and conditions - people who, between the 1840s and 1980s, were exhibited in this country's carnival sideshows under banners that advertised bearded ladies, Siamese twins, armless wonders, people with three legs, and more.

My Master's thesis was on the quality of life of human oddities. At the time, that label seemed a great improvement over freaks; however, these many years later it seems almost as offensive. Part of my research involved becoming what sociologists refer to as a "complete participant." I ran away from The Ohio State University and joined the circus. Well, actually a carnival. I got a job as a carnie, a low-skill gofer. Among other things, my job was to sell tickets to the sideshows.

By the time I began my research in the early 1980s, most carnivals had closed their sideshows. The maverick ones that continued to display seal boys, elephant girls, and other human oddities were small operations, pinching pennies as they toured small, rural communities. The pay was terrible, and we slept where we could. Situations are often tolerable if you know you can leave, so I stayed and collected information.

Once the shows began, I would slip into the tent or trailer and watch the customers interact with the "talent." You would not believe the questions and comments directed at the so-called freaks. "Who would marry you? You are so ugly. Don't you hate yourself? I can't look at you. Why didn't your mother drown you?" I am not particularly modest, but I won't repeat the questions about sexual relations

Not all of the questions and comments were coarse and vulgar, but many were - and there was this unspoken belief among the customers, which was, we paid our money so we can say anything we choose. The German word Schadenfreude comes to mind, meaning, pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. Everything about the customers' demeanor and tone said, matter-of-factly, "I might be poor. I might be ugly. I might be a failure by the standards of my peers. But I am normal. I am normal and you are not. You are a freak of nature, a monstrosity, and compared to you, my life is great."

I stayed with the carnival for four months, but then it started to mess with my dreams so I returned to Columbus, and studied human oddities in private homes, hospitals, and mental institutions. I finished my research and produced, Human Oddities: An Exploratory Story. I read the document about two years ago and found it so intellectually pedestrian that I had to fight the impulse to rewrite it.

I know what it is like to live as part-black, part-Indian in a society that is often confused about how to treat black people and Indians, but I do not know what it is like to have people in a grocery store stop what they are doing and stare at me, point at me. I take for granted the anonymity that my physical normalcy affords me. Most of us take that for granted.

In my research I found people that, from the time they were born, were treated as repulsive, flawed reflections of our "perfect" selves. Not surprisingly, they were - more often than others - victims of childhood violence. They were discriminated against in every way imaginable. And, at the time of my research, there was little activism on their behalf. The more I learned about the quality of their lives, the more my heart broke and the more helpless I felt.

Well, I could end here, but the story would only be half told and the truth is that life lived in this country, especially in our past, rarely has good guys who are always good and bad guys who are always bad. So, I will conclude with a short story - information learned during my research - that adds another dimension to the Us versus Them layering found in this country's history.

In the 1960s, a group of human oddities - again, I'm really having problems with that label - decided that they needed a home away from the stares, away from the unkind words, away from unsympathetic normals. They wanted a place where the weather was warm. Someplace down south. They decided on Hillsborough County, Florida, in part because a few human oddities already lived there and the "normals" left them alone.

They moved. In some cases, they cleared land and built homes that fit them. A family of little people built a home with five foot ceilings. A home with widened entrances was built for a large woman. More important than the homes was the serenity they found: no one staring, pointing, and judging. The pursuit of safe space is both necessary and noble. All people need spaces where they feel out of harm's way, spaces where they are welcome, included, even loved. No matter who we are or what challenges we face, we need safe places to rest.

The place they helped create is today called Gibsonton, and it became famous as a sideshow wintering town, where various sideshow performers spent the off season, and for years there were signs in the town that read, simply, Whites Only.

David Pilgrim
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
January 2011
Edited 2012