Sometimes it’s difficult, living in my head.
Today I got an idea for a story (yes, another idea – I get story ideas all the time). It comes from two true stories, both of which affected me significantly when I first heard them.
The first story is about the man who was turning into a tree. (Do you remember? Everyone was talking about it, several years ago.) Of course he wasn’t really turning into a tree. He was a fisherman from Indonesia who had a rare immune disorder. Whenever he was cut or scraped, warts would grow in that place, and they would not stop growing. His immune system could not stop them. Eventually the growths were enormous, grotesque. (I won’t link to stories because the pictures are disturbing, but if you want to see for yourself, just google “man turning into tree.”) He joined a freak show – it was the only sort of work he could get. When pictures began circulating, doctors became involved and he was finally treated. I don’t know how he’s doing now, but I hope he’s doing well. There are plenty of news stories about his condition online, but there seems to be nothing about what happened to him after doctors began treating him. I suppose that wasn’t as exciting. (I, for one, would like to know if he’s OK.)
The second story is one I researched for my dissertation. It’s the story of Krao, a girl from what was then known as Indochina who was brought to England and displayed as a freak. Based on pictures of her, it’s obvious that she’s a fairly standard “bearded lady,” meaning that she has the sort of facial hair one would expect on a man. But at the time she was advertised as a Darwinian “missing link,” an atavistic throwback who demonstrated the validity of evolutionary theory. She was first displayed as a child. Eventually, she grew up and married the showman who had first discovered her. She continued to perform in freak shows for the rest of her life. (I’m using the scholarly terminology here – this is how scholars who study the history of freak shows speak about the participants, as performers. Their relationships with the people who displayed them could certainly be exploitative. But some of them also exercised agency and created lives for themselves.) I can’t find a photograph of Krao that isn’t exploitative, but you can see from this advertisement how she was presented to the public:
Of course the advertisement is exploitative as well. The story fascinates me because of all the ways Krao was understood and presented – when of course what she was, really and truly, was a little girl, and eventually a woman. I wonder how she perceived her life, how she would tell her own story.
So what was the story idea? It was an idea about a child who has an immune disorder like the Indonesian fisherman’s, in the 1860s. Like Krao, she is put in a freak show, and the man who displays her deliberately cuts and scratches her to create the effect of a tree. She is advertised as a Living Dryad. The story would be from her point of view. You see how fascinating and horrible the idea is? That’s why it’s worth writing about. Because the story would be about exploitation and love, about what it means to be human and perceived as monstrous.
(Why am I describing this idea rather than keeping it all to myself until I can write about it? Writers who are just starting out often worry that their ideas are going to be stolen. Well, you’re welcome to steal this idea, because no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t write the story that I would write about it, any more than Earnest Hemingway could write Mrs. Dalloway. Can you imagine his version of Virginia Woolf’s novel? I would of course make it as beautiful, as romantic, as possible. That’s what I always do with the horrible. Because it heightens the horror.)
But can you see what an uncomfortable place it is, my head? It comes up with ideas like this one. Sometimes even I want to leave it. Tell it, come up with ideas on your own. I’m out of here. Because the ideas never stop . . .