During Merrick's lifetime (1862 to 1890), society cultivated a rather perverse interest in the physically bizarre and in "interesting" novel forms of human malformation. This seems so degrading, but are we so very different today?
Thanks to Jamie for reminding us just how often our loved ones can surprise us!
I agree with everyone that from the 1800s to today, freaks are common topic of the public's curiosity. I would argue that we have gotten exceptionally good at exploring psychological freaks just as much as physical ones. Today's cop shows and many of the reality tv programs seek to highlight the "weird" in behavior ... just think of Jerry Springer, who is still on the air after all this time!
Like Linda's example, mine isn't exactly Merrick-worthy, but I am 6 ft tall, unusual for a woman. I don't think too much about it, but I still get asked quite often how tall I am. Sometimes I reply, "Six feet. How much do you weigh?" That shuts them up.
My daughter is eleven and (as many of you know) has autism. A while back we were in Target and she saw a little person. As she usually says exactly what she thinks, loudly, I was terrified she'd say something about the woman's height. All was well...we were almost out, and Austen asked, "Mom, why is that lady's butt so big?" I could have died. The woman ignored me. Thank goodness. I felt badly but it seemed worse to explain and prolong it.
The different will always provoke curiosity. I don't know that the late 1800s was much different. Carson McCullers had a fascination with freaks. Director John Waters does today.
If you are a writer, take heart. As Flannery O'Connor says, "The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention."
Freaks are also in the eye of the beholder. A little girl born last year in India with multiple arms and legs is revered as an reincarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. A recent museum exhibit I attended about freaks had testimony from many who said how pleased they were to be in "entertainment."
Society is still very much obsessed with the abnormal, the absurd, the different. Another example of this is with circuses and traveling shows that were very popular. Often, these included "freakish" people, like "The Bearded Lady," etc., that attracted lots of attention. These displays were degrading, yes. I don't think the fascination with this type of thing will ever wane.
I agree. My sister has a cluster of freckles that cover half of her forehead. That's nothing at all like what John Merrick or people with the same disease have to deal with. But people have stared at it so long and asked so many questions about it that she is extremely self-conscious. For years she used a special makeup that covers "imperfections." Now she always covers it with her bangs.
I agree with you, Linda. My students always say as we read Frankenstein that they would befriend him and the novel wouldn't have ended so violently, but I don't agree. I think we would be just a scared of him and react just as brutally toward him...think of SHREK..."Grab your pitchforks!"...or Edward Scissorhands. It hasn't changed much, has it? We fear what we don't understand, but we have a morbid curiosity about it.
No, we're not any different. Just last month the National Geographic Channel (of all places!) had a show called "The Girl with 8 Limbs." I think it is curiosity more than sympathy that makes us want to see people who are different.