Terri Shiavo, Pope John Paul II and Tod Browning's FREAKS


Written on 1:12 PM by Jack B.

When I first started this blog it was as an excuse to write. Even if it was something inconsequential. Then came the court-mandated murder (for I believe it to be such) of Terri Shiavo and any of my own carefree thoughts seem so meaningless in comparison.

Here I am, past the age of Terri when she collapsed, currently in good physical health and in a workplace I enjoy. I have a couple of college degrees and am working on getting another. I have a roof over my head, food in the cupboards, and while I'm not rich or even close to it, I'm not drowning in debt either. Right now, in other words, my life is pretty good. Which makes me feel ashamed in a way especially compared to the Terri's of the world...and also scared that I may one day find myself in the same condition. Terri Shiavo's life, after all, was pretty good once too - and in a moment that was all over.

This case really has occupied my thoughts like no other. Not only because I fear for the rest of us if we ever get into Terri's position and cannot speak for myself but because people are literally just milling about not only in the courts but in the legislatures and in the media outside the hospice and everywhere else in America while a woman, a fellow citizen, a fellow human being , is being starved to death worse than an animal. Of course they don't like to call it starvation, bring it up on the media and they'll change the subject or correct you and call it "dehydration" which is a euphemism like "choice" is a euphemism for abortion and "assisted suicide" is for "euthanasia". We know what's going on. People aren't that stupid. But the scary part is that people don't care. Most Americans want her to die, the media is eager for her to die, newspapers and columns are written are editorializing (as the so-called "conservative" newspaper in my city, the NY POST did just today on its cover no less) that she should be allowed to "die with dignity" as if starving without water for 2 weeks is in any way dignified. It is all so horrifying to me. Insane even.

I knew about the Shiavo case for awhile thanks to the blogsophere but I never concentrated too much on it because I assumed they would never actually pull the feeding tube...and even if they did something would make them put it back. Even as late as when Congress stepped in I wasn't worried but then...nothing happened. And Terri continued to starve and the American public and the media and much of the medical world seemed to side with her less-then-loving husband and banged the drumbeat of "kill her already!". Why? Why this rush to kill an innocent woman? What harm is their in her continued existence in the world, taken care of by people who loved her? What crime had she committed?

I couldn't figure it out. Michael Shiavo probably wants her dead for his own personal reasons. Judge Greer wants her dead as an exercise in power (what greater power is there than that over life and death?). Many on the political left (though not all thankfully) want her dead as another on-going battle in the culture wars of abortion and euthanasia - something in which they will never give ground. The so-called medical "ethicists" who have been popping up on all the cable talk shows want her dead so they can continue their redefinition of what life is. I'm appalled at how many people are saying with a straight face that Terri is a "non-person", a "non-life" and does not even meet the criteria of a human being. On Joe Scarborough show last night he asked one of these "doctors" if Terri was even a human being anymore and the doctor emotionlessly said she wasn't. Wasn't even human! Unbelievable. Still I know why the want her dead. But why is the media (mostly) cheering her death on? Why do they want this woman dead so badly? And why would the majority of the American public (even so-called "religious" people) believe she should be left to die and side with pulling the tube? How can I explain the inhumanity?

The answer I think lies in something else I saw. On Easter Sunday I tuned into the TV early in the morning (EWTN, so less talking heads) and saw Pope John Paul II valiantly try to speak. Try to get out the simple words I know he so badly wanted to (the Easter blessing) and fail. I saw the pain and frustration on his face. I also saw him listen attentively minutes earlier to Cardinal Sodano's speech, turning pages along with the words. His mind is obviously up to speed even if his body no longer obey his brain's dictates. For me, seeing that and knowing how much he's been through - orphaned and family-less at an early age, survived the Nazis and the Communists, survived an assassin's bullet, survived numerous operations and health problems, survived the slings and arrows of critics who hold his "archaic" views in disdain, survived bishops and priests who abuse the trust placed in them and who don't teach orthodox doctrine. Pope John Paul has survived it all - including several of his own biographers and potential successors and a media that have been on a deathwatch for 10 years or more. For me what I saw on Easter Sunday was just another example of a Man of Steel. A true Superman.

But apparently others saw it differently. I tuned to CNN just moments later and they were encouraging viewers to call into a phone poll they were running. The question? Should the Pope retire? Now never mind that it would hardly be a scientific poll, done with only CNN viewers and in a country that's 75% non-Catholic and of the Catholics there many who call themselves that but who really no longer are. And never mind that the US only accounts for 6% of the worldwide Catholic population anyway. So obviously the outcome would be pointless. The real question is: Why run that kind of poll at all? The pope has said time and time again he's NEVER going to retire. Nobody can force him out. He's not a politician who can be unelected by the Catholic laity or deposed by his own bishops. The opinion of anybody else is beside the point. Especially after such a show of courage it was in bad taste. But CNN weren't the only ones - the same day I read a newspaper poll that said Catholics "don't think the pope should retire" - which meant that someone else too asked the question. Why? Why do they want to push the man out and kick him when he's down? Sure they've been egging him on to resign for years - largely because they can't stand his positions on abortion, homosexuality, birth control, celibacy and the like. But why after being told time and time again that it's NOT GOING TO HAPPEN do they persist?

That's when it hit me. The media want Terri to die and the Pope to disappear into some monastery some place because they just don't want to look at them. Terri is sick, her body is helpless, she is an infant in an adult body. The pope is old, his body is crooked, he is a shell with only the unseen brain still in working order. They are both unnatural and unseemly by modern standards. They are both ugly, grotesque, much like that of The Elephant Man, Joseph Merick, a beautiful soul in a misshapen body. So too are the Pope and Terri. Beautiful souls but awful to look at. So people would rather not. They'd rather not be reminded of age and sickness - that's why nursing homes are filled with otherwise healthy senior citizens. They'd rather not go near people so near death and infirmity - that's why literally thousands of citizens of so-called "civilized" France died of neglect during a heat wave. People just didn't care. They didn't want to care. Terri and the Pope and those like them are the Other. They are the not-us. They are the freaks of the modern world.

Tod Browning's 1932 film FREAKS takes place in another time and in another world but it really wasn't that long ago. The plot is fairly simple - a "normal" circus acrobat in love with an equally "normal" strongman plot together to defraud a dwarf about to be married to another "little person" by getting him to marry the acrobat instead. They then plan to kill the dwarf and collect his money. The other circus "freaks" who find out about the plot and take the ultimate revenge. They turn the strongman and the acrobat into "freaks" themselves. The movie stars actual "freaks" from circuses and side shows at the time - Siamese twins, dwarves, a hermaphrodite, a boy without legs, a "Human Torso", and two "Pinheads" (two girls who actually suffered from a condition that made the heads seem pointed). The film isn't great, the staging is clunky, the budget is low especially considering Browning's stature at the time and MGM's usual upscale touch, there are no big stars (only B-Listers if even that) as the "normal" people in the film since most of the studio's top stars recoiled from acting with the "freaks". The sideshow stars themselves were for the most part stiff and horrible actors, this being their first (and for most only) film. As a matter of fact, the two Pinhead girls were retarded, something apparent if one watches the film closely enough. A total bomb that was dismissed as "exploitation" of the disabled by social reformers at the time, the film was cut by almost 30 minutes after disastrous preview audiences (the cut scenes have never been found) and eventually shelved by MGM all together. It totally destroyed the career of Tod Browning (director of the original Dracula)and then became a full-fledged exploitation film by cheap roadshow showings during the 50s and 60s where it ran under names like "Nature's Mistakes". In more recent times it has developed a cult following largely on the basis of actually seeing actual "Mistakes" in action in a time when they have almost entirely disappeared from the world. There is more of a taste of macabre voyeurism in the renaissance of the film since in actuality the film itself is not that great. It's definitely not something you would want to watch several times. Yet there is something else in the modern interest that stands out - an admiration of Browning and what he was trying to achieve. For in "Freaks" the good guys are those who are most ugly in the eyes of man, it is the physically beautiful acrobat and the strongman who are truly ugly, but it's inside where no one can see until it's too late. The "freaks" feel at ease with each other, made outsiders by the "normal" world, they have developed their own subsociety, their own family of one another. If one hurts one, one hurts them all. If one is accepted by one, one is accepted by all. When the acrobat marries the dwarf they go through a sort of initiation ceremony chanting "One of us! One of us!". The acrobat is privately disgusted but in the end she does indeed become "one of" them - as the "freaks" get their revenge. Browning was trying to bring humanity to a group of people whom Society had dehumanized and turned literally into curiosities to perform into for their amusement. Perhaps that was the true reason FREAKS failed when it first premiered. Not because audiences were suddenly disgusted by the sight of the same people who they had been paying to view at carnivals since before P.T. Barnum. Not because social reformers were trying to outlaw and shame the carnies into closing and the public spectacle of the performers to cease (in actuality, the carnivals provided most of the only well-paying steady jobs these people were able to get in addition to welcoming communities of people like themselves - on the abolition of the side shows many of the performers had a hard time finding work). No, perhaps it failed in 1932 because Tod Browning had dared proclaim not only the humaneness of those looked upon as "mistakes of nature", but showed they had better communities than so-called "normal" society, more loving closer bonds than "normal" society, a better sense of morality and a better sense of justice. It was the "normalcy" of the world who were the truly corrupt inhumane ones. The "freaks" not only had built a better society, they were better people as well. That is one thing many of the elite who make world opinion can't stand. The idea that they might not be the best, the smartest, the ones with the answers. The ones who should, by right, run the rules of civilization. Those who think otherwise whether it be the Pope with his denouncing of their cherished values of materialism and hedonism or Terri Shiavo, whose very existence is an affront to what they hold a worthwhile "life" to be must be gotten rid of.

The problems of the "freaks" were one of the things that influenced the eugenics movement and the social reformers of the early part of the 20th century. Medical science has largely solved the problem of biological deformities - often by terminating the deformed child before it is born or as in the case of the modern Netherlands, by killing it even after it's born, all in the name of living a "worthwhile life". Freak Shows have almost totally disappeared. The communities developed in them have dissipated. But of course there are still those who want a perfect race of people, the Social Darwinists of the world who believe in the "survival of the fittest". The modern freaks of our time are of course those who are blatantly unfit. Terri Shiavo, Pope John Paul and disabled and elderly people across the world.

Teri McPhail made a comment over at Fr. Rob Johansen's Thrownback. She wrote:

I keep hearing "Would you want to live that way?" To which I reply, would YOU want to live that way? Given a choice, who would. However, I have got to ask, would you want to DIE that way?

My answer to that of course people - "normal" people - would not want to die that way. You wouldn't even starve a dog or cat to death. But then, dogs and cats are "normal" in their way as well. There are millions of them - all alike. It is only when one becomes "damaged", like Terri is damaged, that we put them down. But we do not starve them. Because they are not "freaks", they are not something contrary to nature, contrary to the way everyone else looks, contrary to how "humans" are supposed to be. They are a "life", unlike Terri and unlike the Pope is becoming. And who determines what "life" is? The mob, of course and the mob will think whatever the media wants them to think - and the politicians will think whatever the mob thinks. The media of course can't stand "freaks" like Terri or the Pope - people who have outlived their usefulness, ugly people, different people, broken people. The only acceptable people are people like themselves - this is one of the cornerstones of eugenics and this is partly what we're seeing now in the world today.

When I was younger my mother showed me a book called "Very Special People" which featured many people who were once called "freaks", some of whom were even in the Browning movie. It celebrated their lives and accomplishments despite the odds. I still have that book and there is no doubt in my mind if a version of "Very Special People" were written today, Pope John Paul and Terri Shiavo and everyone like them - the "Freaks" of our time - would be in it. Because the title truly fits them; if only we all were so worthy of it.

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  1. The Anchoress |

    This is a very fine post, and I'm glad I found it. When a few hours go by, I will link to it and post excerpts.

  2. Christina Dunigan |

    For all the empty talk about "celebrating diversity," our society shows a lethal lack of tolerance for anybody who is superficially "different." The baby with a cleft palate has to be aborted. The newborn with Down Syndrome needs to be euthanized. The brain damaged adult has to be "allowed to die with dignity." The trembling, aging Pope has to be wished into obscurity.

    Yeah, we like diversity. As long as all the diverse folks are just like us -- look like us, think like us, see and hear like us, eat like us, walk like us. Otherwise, well.... we saw what they did to Terri.

  3. Christina Dunigan |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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