“The cyclops woman squints at them, those who deem themselves unlovely, and knows that no one would look at them twice in a crowd.” – “The Cyclops” by Teresa Milbrodt…
We live in an age of integration. We mainstream, accommodate, and in other ways try to make up for the cruelty of much of human history toward humans whose physical, mental, and emotional characteristics fall outside the range of that which we in our blissful ignorance have long called “normal.”
Teresa Milbrodt’s new book, Bearded Women, is the writer’s attempt to make “otherness” part of “normal” human experience. This group of stories takes human characteristics which we would normally associate with “freak shows” and weds them to narratives about “normal” human problems. It’s a brilliant conceit – and Milbrodt executes it so well that the reader finds him/herself following each story not with the voyeur’s eye to the main character’s “otherness” but with the sympathy/empathy that we would show to anyone we encountered who was struggling with problems that we’ve either faced and solved ourselves or helped friends or family members face and solve.
A few examples from the book will serve to make my point here clear:
* In “Bianca’s Body” the main character is a woman with two lower torsos – surely freak show stuff. But the problem she faces is one many women in their thirties have struggled with – the call of motherhood vs. the call of career. Complicating all this is her position as a public figure (a successful news anchor) as well as the strain on her marriage.
* In “Mr. Chicken” the main character, manager of a successful hibachi restaurant, must find a way to handle a creepy customer who is damaging her business – even as she struggles with “coming out” as her true self – a bearded woman.
* In “Cyclops” the main character, whose “otherness” is explained by the story’s title, struggles to find ways to help her family’s failing business. She considers that most self-damaging of options, selling herself – even as she tries to trust in a relic from a saint to bring her a miracle….
There are other fascinating and yet ordinary characters – a woman with snakes for hair like Medusa who works as a bartender with the attendant problems those in that profession face; another with two sets of ears who must cope with a stalker – all face problems that we all face and all either find or don’t find solutions. But there is another theme that pervades this wonderful book of tales and I am undecided as to whether to call it meta-textual or sub-textual.
The story that best illustrates this, “The Shell,” is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the main character, a wood carver/sculptor who discovers that he has a talent for carving “designer coffins” in shapes ranging from an ice cream cone to a tool box, is male. Second, in this story more than any other, that theme I mentioned above comes closest to being an overt element of the text.
The talented coffin maker, Martin Wyss, meets the story’s other main character, a woman named Odessa, whose body is being reduced to twisted freakishness by the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis and who requests of him a casket shaped like Aphrodite’s scallop shell in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The struggle that ensues between artist and audience for control of the work he creates illustrates that theme I’ve mentioned that pervades all these wonderful stories – how does one exist as an artist in a world where one’s bared soul (i.e., artistic talent) must be sold as a commodity? And further, is it worth the personal cost, both emotional and psychological, to display one’s talent – no matter how rich/famous/notorious it might make one?
Or is it better, as in the other stories from this collection that I’ve cited above, to keep one’s “talent” hidden – behind a news anchor’s desk, behind a shaded visor, behind a razor’s sharp edge.
Bearded Women explores these questions in disarmingly clean and enjoyable prose that draws one in – then shakes one’s tree quite vigorously.
I recommend it highly – and I look forward to whatever this gifted writer brings us next.
(This review originally appeared at Scholars and Rogues)