Thursday, January 28, 2016

Zika and the bad days of yore

Recent NY Times image of a Brazilian boy holding
his microcephaly-afflicted baby brother
All those recent Zika virus headlines (some background) reminded me that microcephaly, the major Zika danger, is one of C.'s symptoms. With a laundry list of them plaguing her, that specific one had slipped under my radar. 

Here is a description of the defect:

Microcephaly bestows upon the person an abnormally small head (often only half the size of a normal head) and sloping forehead. Known as “chaus”, “rat people” or “pinheads”, the condition almost always results in mental retardation and diminished brain capacity. The cause of the condition varies. Sometimes it can be caused when a child’s mother consumes excessive alcohol*. There is no cure. [Source]
*Just to clarify: I don't touch alcohol, never did. That is definitively not at the root of C.'s problems. (I am a chocoholic so if chocolate were linked to microcephaly, we'd be on to something.)

The facts about C.'s microcephaly are that her brain stopped growing normally from the age of a few months leaving her with a technically microcephalic head circumference. Fortunately, it's only small enough for an expert to notice.

Schlitize (Wikpedia)
But the severe cases can be very disfiguring. My son, who often sends me reading material I wouldn't otherwise see, forwarded me this. It's the horrific story of somebody with microcephaly, dwarfism and cognitive impairment, born in the late 1800's. While we (at least I) tend to gripe endlessly about discrimination against people with disabilities, the biography of Schlitzie illustrates the utter cruelty they endured in the not-so-distant past.

Here is an excerpt from an article about him:
As one of the greatest circus sideshow performers in history, it is odd that many details of Schlitzie’s early life are unclear. Stories passed down from his circus owners indicate that Schlitzie was born in Sante Fe, New Mexico (some say he was bon in Yucatan, Mexico) to a very wealthy family. He had a sister named Atheila who also suffered from microcephaly. The parents were ashamed of the children and kept them hidden away. As was common in the early 1900’s, when the opportunity presented itself, the family sold Schlitize and his sister to the travelling circus where he began his life as a sideshow freak.
A circus sideshow owner named Pete Kortes kept Athteila to himself and passed Schlitzie to his brother George Kortes. In the course of his career Schlitzie was employed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, Foley & Burke Carnival, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus (circus freaks were often traded around and “lent” to other circuses). Schlitzie was billed as “What is it?”, “pinhead”, and “the last of the Aztecs”. He was often billed as a female only because his caretakers found it easier to change his diaper when he was dressed in a lady’s gown. Schlitzie has the mental capacity of a 3-4 year old.
Schlitzie’s mental capacity offered one advantage – it made him a favorite with the fans and his caretakers. Like a 3-year-old frozen in time, each day brought new wonders to Schlitzie. His childlike exuberance, boyish innocence, and unconditional love for everyone he met, endeared him to everyone he came into contact with.
In addition to sideshow work, Schlitzie made appearances in several movies. In 1932, Schlitzie was given a part in the cult classic movie, Freaks. He also made an appearance later in the year in the Island of Lost Souls (as a “manimal”) opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. He also appeared in the 1928 movie, The Sideshow (bit role), the 1934 Tomorrow’s Children (as a vasectomy patient), and the 1941 Meet Boston Blackie).
In 1936, while travelling with the Tom Mix Circus Sideshow, a chimpanzee trainer named George Surtees became Schlitzie’s legal guardian (his California Certificate of Death even lists his name as Shilze Surtees). When George passed away in the 1960’s, ownership of Schlitzie went to George’s daughter who declined to care for him. He was institutionalized in the Los Angeles County Hospital. Schlitzie spent many years in the hospital.
By an odd stroke of luck, a circus sword swallower, Bill Unks, was working part time in the hospital during the off season when he recognized a sad, depressed Schlitzie. Convincing the hospital that allowing Schlitzie to be a part of the circuses sideshow world would do Schlitzie a world of good, the hospital agreed and consigned Schlitzie to Sam Kortes, Unks’ employer.
Schlitzie spent his finals days living with performer friends near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. He passed away at the age of 81 at Fountain View Convalescent Home in Los Angeles from bronchial pneumonia. Schlitzie was interred at Queen Of Heaven Cemetery, Rowland Heights, California, Plot: Grave 69 – Tier 21 – Section E. The grave went unmarked for several years until members of the internet message board community at Find a Death raised funds to have the grave appropriately marked.
A circus performer who worked with him in the 1960's relates that:
It would break my heart – and piss me off – to see him abused by so-called “normal people” in the audience. They taunted him mercilessly and threw bottles and lit cigarettes at him...
Wikipedia adds:
When [the movie] Freaks premiered in 1932, cinema audiences were scandalized by the appearance of sideshow performers. The United Kingdom banned the film for thirty years. The film was a financial failure, and Browning, although he went on to make several more films for MGM, retired in 1940.
Which is rather puzzling in light of this:
In the 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered and enjoyed a long run as one of the first midnight movies, becoming a cult classic, and in 1994, it was selected by the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"...
Apparently a documentary entitled Schlitzie: One of Us is in the works and scheduled for release this year. I'll be watching out for it.

On a personal note...

I learned this week that I must have a hysterectomy due to a severely prolapsed uterus. After reading up on what that entails, it's clear I won't be able to care for C. - at least not the way I do now - for several weeks. And then there is the hospital stay itself to ponder. Best case scenario is three days. Who will care for C. all that time?! Well, they didn't arbitrarily name it a hysterectomy - I'm having plenty of hysterical melt-downs these days.

And on a more upbeat note... Here is a group of students that watched C. go through her hydro moves yesterday. While were oblivious to my camera, they gave me a perfect pose. I hope C. performed well. 


Elizabeth said...

I couldn't bear to read it. And I am sorry to hear about your impending surgery -- that sounds like an impossible situation, and I sure hope you have loved ones to step in for you. I wish that I lived closer, and I'd organize some kind of chain of helping hands.

The Sound of the Silent said...

Thanks so much Elizabeth and I'm sure you would help out if you could. I wish we lived closer for all sorts of other reasons too - top of the list is that I'd love to meet you. And how is your tweaking of Sophie's cannabis dosing progressing?

Anonymous said...

While I can certainly understand your reaction to the text you cite in your post, it might make you feel better for Schlitzie to learn that at least some of it is almost certainly untrue. The story about his birth in New Mexico or Yucatan probably stems from the circus showmen's description of performers with microcephaly as "Aztec children", which in turn was based on then-recent discoveries of pottery and carvings in Central America depicting people with elongated skulls (something that was considered a status symbol in a number of early American and European cultures). His fellow Pinhead, Athelia, is unlikely to have been his sister, although they appeared in the same shows: Athelia was adopted by the Kortes family and lived with them into old age. Schlitzie was cared for by several families throughout his own long life (he died at around 70), but his observable behaviour suggests that he was not unhappy or mistreated.

The photo accompanying the text does show him looking rather dubious and suspicious, but it seems to have been taken on the set of Meet Boston Blackie, where he really was treated as a "freak" during his short appearance in the film. Photos from the set of Freaks, on the other hand, show him hugging director Tod Browning (who'd worked in a circus as a young man). In the film itself he not only teases and laughs with the actor Wallace Ford, but gently pats Ford when he thinks that he (Schlitzie) has upset him. During the famous wedding dinner scene, he spontaneously kisses the charming Rose Dione. (He and Madame Dione clearly took a liking to each other; there are photos in which they're obviously sharing private jokes). Adults who have been abused as children often say that they can neither give nor accept affection - they've never learned to. If a thirtyish Schlitzie hugged, kissed and soothed other people, it was because he was used to receiving this treatment himself - and apparently did for the rest of his life, too.

Other photos depict him in a variety of clothes and costumes, but all clearly made to fit him and be comfortable. He usually appears relaxed, smiling and interested in what or whoever is in the neighbourhood.

The comment about his treatment by ignorant spectators *is* distressing, but it's worth noting that this was at the end of his time with the circus, when freak shows were in decline and not well supported. It seems, from memories left by those who knew him in earlier years when such shows were a major attraction, that two or three of the tougher circus hands were usually posted near Schlitzie's stand to "discourage" any such behaviour. (Though he seems to have been quite capable of looking after himself: he once bit Tod Browning - no doubt over creative differences - and was known to kick and hit out at people or behaviour he disliked).

In short, while freak shows are now regarded with distaste, for most of his life the circus provided Schlitzie with a supportive environment which met both his emotional and physical needs. The only alternative during his lifetime - one of the institutions for the "subnormal" which were usually hell-holes of neglect, brutality, miserable lives and early, sometimes violent, death - would certainly not have done so.

I'll be looking out for One Of Us too - I hope it will offer as full a picture of Schlitzie's life as is now possible.

The Sound of the Silent said...

Thank you so much for shedding more light on the life of Schlitzie and others in circus freak shows. Everything you noted does seem to indicate that compared to the alternative living solutions of his time, Schlitizie's may very well have been superior.

Many actually contend that freak shows offered people with disabilities an exemplary existence with all their physical and emotional needs taken care of and even world travel and excitement thrown in for good measure. But I'm still glad they are extinct. People with disabilities deserve all that without the denigration.