acid logicpresents...

An Interview with John H Richardson

Author of "In the Little World - A True Story of Dwarfs, Love, and Trouble"



By Wil Forbis

March 16, 2002
I'd been thinking about the subject of dwarfs this past Christmas, as men are wont to do, when I happened to see a copy of John H Richardson's new book, In the Little World. I'd be lying if I didn't concede that part of me was thinking, "This should be good for a laugh." I started reading the book half expecting to be thrown into a world circus performers and three foot actors, with stories of flaming hoops and Austin Powers jokes.

In the Little World has none of that. Instead, it is a Grade A, 100% mindfuck of a book. Richardson develops relationships with several dwarfs, and their experiences, combined with the travails of little people throughout history, hammer away at very concepts of good and bad, of fairness and bigotry. John certainly doesn't stay away from pointing a finger at the dwarf-o-phobe that lies within most of us, but neither does he lay out a simplistic, politically correct song and dance about how we should all love one another. Instead, John ask questions... of the reader, of society, or dwarfs and of himself. The result is not just a tome on the world of little people, but a heady look at beauty, sexuality, spirituality, politics, evil and the every other element of the complex glue that both unites us and keeps us apart. It's impossible to read this and not seriously question the tenets of the moral framework you apply to your life.

Via the following phone interview, John shared his thoughts on the little world, the religion of the Internet and the politics of beauty.

Wil: 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 me out!

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 woman.

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.

John: Yeah....

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 evil activities.

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 are different.

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 selves.

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 own race.

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 to it.

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 women. Proportionality

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 wrong there?

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 interested in.

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...

 


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