Kirkus Reviews QR Code
FREAKS: Myths and Images of the Secret Self by Leslie Fiedler Kirkus Star

FREAKS: Myths and Images of the Secret Self


Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

With blacks and homosexuals and the insane now commonly made into culture heroes, who's left for trendy Leslie Fiedler? ""Giants, Dwarfs, Siamese Twins, Hermaphrodites, Fat Ladies, and Living Skeletons."" Also bearded ladies, wild men, feral children (Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy), the Ugliest Woman in the World, and Elephant Man. Fascinated by freaks, turned on by the side-show ""frisson"" of ""quasi-religious awe,"" Fiedler roams through history, sociology, anthropology, Freudian psychology, biology, literature, and pop culture, hot for that moment when the ""distinction between audience and exhibition, we and them, normal and Freak, is revealed as an illusion."" There may be some glimmer of a touchstone in viewing the Freak as a ""nightmare projection of the savage self,"" but this unfocused study is usually too busy reveling in its Fiedler's-Believe-It-Or-Not to develop the idea for anyone who doesn't already share the side-show hangup: Fiedler recounts, apparently for their own sake, the grisly life histories (especially sex-life histories) of all the real-life freaks he can unearth, even little-knowns like women with giant clitorises. In the process, he discovers discrimination, ""centuries of indignity"" at the hands of artists, cruelty from doctors and scientists, and (horrors!) the fact that those now born as ""intersexes"" seek medical aid in becoming either male or female--""a whole category of show Freaks has been. . . remanded to the medical journals."" This repulsively cold and wistful romanticization of freakdom (a future without dwarfs is ""a future deprived of just so much wonder and wit"") slops over into the familiar romanticization of androgyny and youth culture--rock bands, etc.--with the word ""freak"" as the tenuous link. And Mark Twain, Diane Arbus, Fellini, Lenny Bruce, sci-fi writers, and, inevitably, Todd Browning's films are thrown in as well. Anyone who looks at Siamese twins and thinks, as Fiedler does, where ""does my 'I' begin and end?"" will probably accept all this as real cool criticism--and will no doubt groove on the plentiful photographs as well. Others will be embarrassed--for Fiedler (""Jew and Dwarf! How often that conjunction has occurred to me as I, a Jewish non-Dwarf, have pursued their history"") and for those whose misfortunes have been zapped into fashionability by a modern-day Barnum.