When I was typing up the questions for this interview,
I put on Randy Newman's "Little Criminals" and realized
that in some ways, it tied in to your book.
John: Yeah? How do you figure?
Wil: Well, it's got the song "Short People." And I think
the gist of what that song is saying is that short people
are just like regular people. They're as evil or as
good, or no more or less holy than the rest of humanity.
John: (Laughs) Oh yeah? All I remember is the line,
"Short people got no reason to live." But Randy Newman
has always been a guy into saying some harsh things
in a subtle way.
Wil: And he's got that kind of dichotomy: Musically
he's pretty easy to swallow...
John: ...But lyrically he's tough. Well, I'll take that
as a compliment. He's a great, great songwriter. And
a really nice guy. He was really good to a friend of
mine who was an aspiring songwriter. Randy picked his
tape out of a box and called him up on the phone and
talked to him. You can imagine what it'd be like if
Randy Newman called you on the phone and spent an hour
talking about your song for no reason. It wasn't like
he was doing it because a friend said to. My friend
just handed him the tape and then he put it on a couple
months later and then spent an hour encouraging him.
It was a great thing to do.
Wil: I wanted to give you a little history on how I
came up with the idea of interviewing you. When I was
a kid, I saw Todd Browning's "Freaks," which you mention
in the book. And, no pun intended, it really freaked
John: Absolutely. How old were you?
Wil: I was probably... five?
John: Damn, that's really unusual. How'd that happen?
Wil: My mom was big on taking me to a lot of foreign
films and a lot of older films. I definitely remember
the whole ending where they turn her into the chicken
John: Yeah. Pretty intense movie!
Wil: So I had this fascination on the subject of human
abnormality and I was kind of musing on that when I
saw your book in a bookstore. And I have to confess
that when I was in the early stages of reading it, I
thought I could interview you and spin it in a humorous
way. But having read the book, I don't think I can make
a dwarf joke.
Wil: Because it really kind of challenges us, or me,
or whoever, in terms of how we look at other people,
specifically people who are noticeably different. And
one thing you talk about in the book is the literary
tradition in fiction, where a character who is a dwarf
has an outward appearance that is said to denote something
that's wrong with them morally or spiritually....
John: Yeah, there's something so basic in our
human psychology that's wired to think that way. You
very rarely see the ugly, misshapen person as the noble
hero of the Hollywood movie. The idea that the inner
and outer correspond in some way is this ancient superstition.
On one level it seems so obviously wrong. The book talks
about the notions that question whether we are created
in the image of God literally. And if so, the
ones who look deformed are not just unfortunate, but
a representation of human sin or something like that.
Wil: They're being punished in some way?
John: Yeah. And in the Bible there's all this
association of illness and disease with sin. When Jesus
raises Lazarus from the grave he says, "Go forth and
sin no more." The implication being that there's some
association between the two. Also, I think on a level
of common sense there is a feeling in which you suspect
that people who are really hideous in some way - and
I'm not saying that dwarfs are - have been affectedd
by the way the world received them and thus become embittered
or deformed inwards.
Wil: What I found interesting is that while I
was reading your book, I was reading Syd Field's book
on screenwriting, at and one point he almost advocates
the idea of representing moral shortcomings physically,
because film is such a visual medium. As you say, it's
something we've all seen, where the villain is really
ugly or is missing a hand - and has replaced it with
a steel claw or something - but we're less aware of
the psychological damage that does to people who may
be in those situations.
John: Yeah, visual culture definitely has certain
problems and that is one of them. If you want to make
an argument for books, it's that the surface does not
necessarily represent what's inside; it's all interior.
Wil: You can't judge a book by its cover?
John: That, and you can't always judge a character by
his looks. The whole point of a book is to get inside
somebody's mind. Sometimes you think the Taliban weren't
so wrong in banning people's faces.
Wil: That's an interesting spin on it.
John: But, I do think there's a danger in the other
side. We know there's something questionable
about lookism. But the flip side is to say that we shouldn't
care about the physical world and that beauty is only
skin deep. And on one level that might be true, but
on another, it quickly becomes an act of denying the
physical universe that we live in. We start going for
a sort of religious transcendentalism. And I think that's
a dangerous road to go down. It's just as dangerous
as the one that says the body fully represents us.
Wil: Certainly you can't deny that a person's physical
appearance is going to have some impact on their personality
and their life, if only due to the fact that they'll
be treated differently by others.
John: Well, it's more than that. Once you start
arguing that we should overlook the body, then you start
saying, well, maybe the body's not a good thing. Maybe
the fact that I'm a healthy, strong person is something
that I should feel guilty about. Or ignore and immerse
myself in things of the spirit. And then you get a different
type of deformation, which is to be cut of from the
pleasures and pains of your own body. In my book, that's
one of the things that happens to the mother, Evelyn.
In some ways she is physically betrayed by her daughter's
deformity, and she gets into this Internet obsession
because she's found a way to be disembodied. She's found
a way to leave her body at her daughter's bedside, by
going through the Internet. It's like God. It's like
this universal recognition that's not located in a single
body. It comes from all around you. It's a very religious
kind of activity. Partly it was a necessary routine
of mental gymnastic she needed to do to survive. But
it was also a desperate and dangerous thing she was
doing, because she was meeting these guys on the Internet,
and investing herself in a kind of emotionality with
people who had no responsibility to her. They weren't
paying the bills; they weren't waking up next to her
in the morning. They we're people taking a really easy
road to nobility.
That's one of the problems I have with religion a lot
of the time. When you get down in the trenches and are
working to save souls, then I have a lot more respect
than if you're just talking about how we should be nobler
than we are.
Wil: And that's kind of what Dr. Kopits was doing...
John: Oh, Kopits was in the trenches. Kopits
gave his life. He could say anything as far as I'm concerned.
And he was a sensible guy. He understood the problems.
He had his take on them, which was different than mine,
but he wasn't in denial about the way things were.
But that's kind of an essential human dilemma, and one
that dwarfs bring to the forefront. How disembodied
do we really want to be in this life? Is it healthy?
Is it good? Is it necessary? Is it... desperate and
pathetic? Is it a way of putting up a wall against the
world that's wounded you? Is there a better way to wrestle
with these things?
Wil: At another point you talk about the treatment of
dwarfs during the holocaust, which involved some pretty
John: Well, Joseph Mengele was the "Angel of
Death" and he was fascinated with human deformity. So
he collected dwarfs, and his experiments sort of went
from science to sadism in three easy steps. The relationship
between science and cruelty was curiously compressed
there. On one level you can kind of take the p.c., right-thinking
viewpoint and say, "That's bad." and stop thinking about
it. But while I was researching, I did find this one
account by this woman, Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk who's a
great writer, and she shows how even the other prisoners
were prejudiced against the dwarfs. And she comes to
this terrible conclusion that this is what Auschwitz
did to a lot of the prisoners. It brought out the inner
Nazi within them.
Wil: So even though the prisoners were grouped together,
they segregated off within that group...
John: Right, you know the anecdote. (A section on the
book in which the prisoners in Auschwitz dupe a dwarf
into attempting escape and he is killed in the process.)
To me, that's a great story because it brings it home.
It's easy to say, "Oh, the right thing is not to be
Joseph Mengele!" But for Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk to talk
about sitting around in the infirmary and hear her fellow
prisoners joke about the dwarf who was killed because
other prisoners told him he could get under the wire...
That just makes it all so much more difficult. You can't
just blame it on the Nazis. You have to look within.
People always want to blame it on the Nazis or the Republicans
or the Democrats - they want to put it outside. I felt
the important thing with the book was to bring it inside.
Everyone knows it's not nice to be cruel to people who
Wil: This kind of relates to the things we were
talking about earlier, because the Nazis had this pursuit
for physical perfection, and that's easy to condemn...
but at the same time, we kind of do that right now on
our own culture.
John: Absolutely. A lot of people would sit and
sneer at the pursuit of physical perfection and the
Aryan ideal... but they certainly wouldn't date a dwarf.
Wil: On some small level we find ourselves sharing something
with the Nazis.
John: And the thing is not to look away from
it. We have this human urge to put our sins on the sacrificial
calf and then slaughter the calf. It might make you
feel better, but the sins don't go away. However, I
don't think it's just sin. I think it's natural and
healthy to want to romp with another healthy animal.
That's where we get back to what we were talking about
in the beginning. The thinking is that beauty is only
skin deep and dwarfs have been screwed in this regard.
Therefore it's better to think of each other as spirits.
But then what happens to the animal joy of romping with
another person you find attractive? Do you have to walk
around feeling guilty all the time? I know people who
are so anti-money and "down with the poor folk" that
they can't enjoy a nice restaurant. The body is not
bad just because it does sometimes contradict our inner
Wil: I think one point you make is that our idea of
beauty is based on the concept of finding a good reproductive
mate. Beauty equals health. And I suppose you could
argue that the religious beliefs that fall on top of
that - beliefs that push away from those who are deformed
- are really just subconscious representation of our
desire to carry on our genes.
John: You could definitely make a case for that. There's
also the Freudian point of view that our notion of beauty
is formed in childhood and our notion of the erotic
is based on our mother, or some boy we saw when we were
two. I think there's truth to both sides.
Wil: A lot of your book is not just about dwarfism
but beauty in general. And one thing it made clear to
me is that everyone carries these sexual politics with
him or her, where they say, "This person is out of my
league." or "This person is beneath me." And we have
this attitude where we assume all dwarfs are just attracted
to other dwarfs. And they just take the sexual politic
we have and translate them to everyone who's four feet
tall or under.
John: Yeah, at one point Michael (a dwarf in
the book) talked about being a teenager and looking
at dwarf girls for the first time and saying, That's
not right. I want Christy Turlington!
Wil: Before reading the book, I think I assumed that
all dwarfs hung out with each other. But that's really
not true and you talk about some who go their whole
lives never seeing another dwarf.
John: Yeah, I was really surprised that Meredith,
who ended up marrying Michael, said to me that she'd
never seen one. It was shocking to me, but they're not
that common. You don't see them that often. It very
analogous to the feeling amongst Blacks that American
culture throws out these Christy Turlington types as
the ideal, so black guys have mixed feelings about their
Wil: It seems we very openly talk about the power of
race, or the power of gender, or the power of not being
disabled. And we try to legislate laws on the idea of
leveling the playing field based on those things. But
we really never talk about the power of beauty. I might
argue that a drop dead gorgeous black woman has a better
chance of getting a job than a less attractive white
women... or even white man.
John: I think it was Lenny Bruce who said, "Let's take
racism down to the basics. Would you rather sleep with
Lena Horn or Phyllis Diller?" There aren't any racists
who say "Phyllis!" I mean, everybody thinks about that
stuff though we can't obviously legislate it.
Wil: Well, everyone thinks about it and to some
degree we talk about it but... I dunno... It seems like
there are some forces in society that say "Once we get
the racism out of the way, and the genderism, and a
few other 'isms,' then everyone will be happy and we'll
be singing songs and dancing with puppy dogs." But you're
still going to have that beauty factor in there....
John: Right, that's why I have that line that says,
"Dwarfs are the difference that stay different." I don't
know about you, but to me, blacks don't look all that
different. It's interesting to note the how discomfort
people have with people of different races is not so
much about skin color, but with the accoutrements that
people add to that. If you're next to a black guy who's
dressed in a jeans and a t-shirt and you're dressed
in jeans and a t-shirt, who cares? But you add some
dreadlocks and one of those big hats, and it starts
to feel alien to you. That's more different.
Wil: It really more of a culturalism that a racism.
John: Well, I'm not going to say that. But it's the
difference that is really the most important factor.
When Europeans first encountered Black folks, they were
encountering them in this radically different context
of Africa. If you encounter them at the university as
fellow students, it's a whole different thing. It's
similar to women. If you've got a woman in a bikini,
it's different - and to some guys a whole lot more threatening
- than a woman in a business suit. Or a burka. So the
difference is accentuated by all these different things.
And beauty and good looks add a whole different level
Wil: Isn't one of the points you make that what we call
beautiful is somewhat universal? Across all cultures?
John: That's what the psychobiologists say and it seems
to be pretty incontrovertible. We like things like well
spaced eyes, a square chin for men or smaller chin for
Wil: I grew up in Hawaii, and that seems like the one
exception I can think of. There they say "Fat is beautiful."
John: I keep hearing that, but I spent a couple years
in Hawaii too, and I never really felt that people saw
fat as sexy. Maybe it was a hundred years ago.
Wil: I guess it's also relative to that culture. I mean,
if everyone is three hundred pounds...
John: Well, that's a culture where they were
growing up for thousands of years on an island and had
the ability to come up with something that was really
different. I don't think the height difference meant
a whole lot to the pygmies in Africa. You can find other
exceptions to the rule, but I think in general, the
rule holds up. I was talking to a guy who doing studies
of the Masai tribe in Africa and he found that anyone
who wore the Masai costume was good looking. You could
be fat or have a big nose, but as long as you wore the
Masai headdress and were a Masai, then you were handsome.
The unfortunate part was that they thought anyone who
wasn't a Masai was ugly. So their neighbors didn't really
like them much.
Wil: I was thinking that idea that beauty is universal
contradicts the idea that the cosmetics industry is
pushing this concept of beauty upon us. Am I right or
John: Well, I don't know too much about that. My general
impression is that cosmetics enhance the look of health
with pink cheeks and red lips and all that. But whether
the cosmetics industry is making money but making women
more decorative is really another issue than what I'm
Wil: It certainly seems that cosmetics have been around
longer that capitalism has been in effect.
John: From what I've seen in primitive art, it seems
like there was a lot of earrings and self-decoration
going on. I have daughters and I don't want them to
get into baubling themselves and turning themselves
into objects of admiration, but on the other hand, I
like tight, pretty dresses. I'm not going reject what
I know is something I find attractive. It's one thing
to criticize the cosmetics industry, but it's another
to say to women, "You can't shave your legs and you
can't wear lipstick." If I were one of them I'd say,
"To hell with you! I want to have fun and, you know,
meet lots of guys." It's the way life is. (Laughs) I
don't think you can really reinvent the way people are.
And again, ultimately, it's religious. You're getting
back that argument that we shouldn't care about this
body. This body is a lie. The spirit is the true thing.
But then you get into the problem of how does the body
affect the spirit. The spirit is not separate from the
body. I think that whole argument is a form of denial.
I think it's a form of idealistic politics, and haven't
we had enough of that in this century? You can imagine
a Soviet style revolution that tries to eliminate beauty.
That would make a great science fiction story...