That said, I was only four when I discovered my father’s battered, dog-chewed (!) copy of Ashley Montagu‘s The Elephant Man in his study. I was able to read at that time, but not always able to make sense of what I read, so I skipped it. However, the pictures were enough. I didn’t even get as far as any portraits of his living visage: the yellowed photos of his bones alone were sufficient to convince me that a “boogie man” could be real. I was bound to live in constant fear of nighttime attacks from the good Mr. Merrick then, and the fact (well known to myself even then) that he had been a consummate gentleman, and that he was long-dead anyways, was no deterrent. My imagination found a way: his preserved skeleton could easily be reanimated by some evil ghost, make its way from … wherever it was … to my San Francisco home, break in, and finally creep up to my bedroom door just as I was dropping off to slumber. Go ahead, laugh! LAUGH!!! The paranoid brain of a child doesn’t consider such things as how a skeleton would ever manage to board a westbound airplane, not to mention the process of asking directions if it got lost. Good God, y’all! Didn’t you ever demand to be safely tucked away on the top bunk rather than the treacherous bottom?
From there, it was a slippery slope. My father also supplied me with the food-for-thought that a person of but one eye was a “cyclops” (which concept rivaled that of Merrick on my top ten list of horrific imagery), and his Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Human Oddities paperback (not to mention the subsequent visit to the San Antonio Believe It Or Not Museum!) of course fed my cautious interest like mad, MAD, MAD I TELL YOU! At 5 or 6, every time I tried to draw a cyclopic face, I ended up spooking myself so mightily that I had to employ someone else to even destroy the picture for me. By the time I was 10, though I was somewhat more resilient to my own one-eyes, I found myself drawing up a page of melting, wrinkled faces with beady, misplaced eyes, which I labeled “DEFORMOMANIA” and promptly folded up and hid from my own vision. The vagaries of grade school, what?
Things came to a head at the start of 1992. The January issue of Discover Magazine somehow made its way into our home and the first thing I noticed about it was a little piece called “The Mütter of All Museums.” Seems the T. D. Mütter collection at the Philadelphia College of Physicians was right up my alley. Giant skeletons, conjoined livers, wax models of horrible malformations and … glory be! Real little malformations; the bodies of mortally abnormal infants born in the last century and preserved for posterity in massy jars. The pilgrimage instinct hooked itself to my heart and would not be assuaged until what day I could actually stand in the midst of that shrine to medical anomalies, &c.
Certes, there were other fascinating teratalogic tidbits in my life after that life-altering article. A plethora of books about deformity from both the view of medicine as well as the carnival, a handful of high school discussions and one very chilling video (footage of a harlequin fetus). I learnt of the mythical “Monster of Ravenna” and — though strictly speaking this is no more related to my present topic of deformity than, say, the monsters in Revelation — I fell for it as well. And then, of course, the cornucopia that the World Wide Internet (inevitably a boon for all pursuits) brought straight to my own home. But Mütter, Morbid Mecca, loomed yet.
Allah be praised. In the Summer of 1999, my family acquiesced to my suggestion that PA would be a dandy vacation spot (mainly because, coincidentally, there were actually points of interest there for them too) and we miraculously ended up in The City of Brotherly Love Among Other Things. The wait was over six years long, and I had to endure a day of interminable windings through Amish country in search of a single ancestral tombstone (sheesh) but it was a bargain nonetheless. I was free to pay homage to the Soap Lady (you may have seen her on the TLC television special on mummies “Unwrapped!“), the shelves full of ugly babies (beauteous all the same), and all the other awesome medical specimens.
As you might have guessed, such a downright … religious … experience was bound to stir up my artistic urges, and I managed to squiggle out a couple of verse compositions on the subject of ‘wrong’ foeti I have known and loved. But by far, the greatest part of my autistic, er, artistic output was far more practical. As photography at the TDM was prohibited to the masses (for whatever the hell reason), I had to make do. Fortunately I had the foresight to tote along a sketchbook and pencil, with which I captured (albeit hurriedly) a few of the more interesting misshapen lumps; et voilà mes trophées!
- TB Spine
- Cornu cutaneum
- Elephantiasis arabum
- Eye polypus
- Hernia cerebri
- Acephalus acardius
Reprinted from Les paGes fainéants