Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

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Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

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It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

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Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

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The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 
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Amsterdam
  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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On readers: quote of the day

I know a handful of adult humans who, without a whiff of shame or embarrassment, blithely admit they don’t read. This is not only startling to me, it’s seismically appalling.

They (our president included) don’t get the appeal, they have no use for words or language or a particular type of storytelling that is expressly non-passive, that’s indeed near-immersive. I’m trying hard not to sound snobbish about this. It’s like the sports fan whose passion eludes the non-sports fan or the punker who has no interest in Bach or Bartok. We are who we are.

This bibliophile will never understand, and trying to understand the bookless simply exhausts me.

What I am — and here I quote one of the most apt descriptions I’ve seen — is “a person who considers reading an emotionally instructive and intellectually legitimate form of lived experience.”

That’s Alice Gregory reviewing Lisa Halliday’s new fiction “Asymmetry,” which I plan to grab once I finish Evan S. Connell’s smashing 1959 novel “Mrs. Bridge.” Gregory’s account of the serious reader made me even gladder to be one and sadder for those who are not.

What they are missing is incalculable.

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Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)

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(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.

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Getting critical about critics

Good essay at Slate today titled “The Reviewer’s Fallacy,” which includes the subhead: “When critics aren’t critical enough.” When I read that line I let out a resounding if whispered Hallelujah!

The article, by the terrific Ben Yagoda (see his knockout book “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”), discusses the rankling discrepancy between the opinions of professional critics and regular consumers of books, movies and music, and wonders why so many critics exalt so much art that just plain bites.

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“Critics,” Yagoda writes, “have been charged with being offenders of a few specific types:

  • Over-intellectual nitpickers who blame works for not being what they were never intended to be: the ‘Daddy’s-Home-2’-isn’t-Molière syndrome.
  • Soft touches who’re in the pockets of studios and record labels. Most egregiously, ‘quote sluts’ supposedly craft money notices for the express purpose of being featured in display ads.
  • Chummy logrollers — a perception heightened in the social media age. In a 2012 Slate piece called ‘Against Enthusiasm,’ Jacob Silverman wrote, ‘if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.’ ”

I know the types. I reviewed films at a major daily newspaper for 12 years, and, despite some very kind accolades, I wasn’t the most popular guy in town. To many readers, I was a naysayer, a contrarian, a hard-ass (and, yes, an asshole). To me, I was simply honest, discerning, discriminating. When you saw as many movies as I saw — about 10 a week — it gets easy to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Your crap-detectors become sharper, more attuned, and your patience for mediocrity and flat-out bilge shrivels and dies. You get tough. Compromise is the critic’s kryptonite.

“It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap,” Yagoda quotes sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon as saying, promptly agreeing with him: “It’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.”

As a persnickety reader, finicky TV watcher and choosey filmgoer I emphatically concur with Sturgeon and Yagoda’s furrowed-brow attitude, which is one of frequent disappointment, confusion (people actually like this rot?) and exasperation. Being a Negative Nelly can be a lonely spot. For instance, I’m not crazy about the acclaimed series “Stranger Things.” The stance has made me few friends. I think even the dog is angry at me.

Critics, Yagoda argues, are often suckers. They “fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films.”

Love that Coen brothers dig. Yagoda’s article is well worth a look — the link is in the opening graf of this entry — and includes trenchant quotes about softball criticism from George Orwell and Elizabeth Hardwick, who says — and  “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”

Still searching for a really good book

It pains me to stop reading a book I’m not fully enjoying, not wholly invested in, but I do it so often it’s hard to make a case for any actual suffering. So, OK then: it doesn’t really pain me to put down a book I’ve already read 100 pages of. What pains me is the time I wasted on mediocrity, which — mediocrity, that is — is about the worst thing ever.

So onto books I recently sealed shut far before they reached the final page — all of which are highly acclaimed novels, and some are even scorching hot titles of fall 2017. My credo: Never trust the bestseller list, and feel no guilt spurning award winners.

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I waited long and pantingly for Jennifer Egan’s new historical epic “Manhattan Beach,” because: 1) I’m a fan of her earlier novels “Look at Me” and the Pulitzer-winning, unfortunately titled “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” and: 2) the new book marched in on a drumbeat of salivating hype.

Fail. “Manhattan Beach” isn’t bad, it’s just not great. This is Egan’s first foray into a more stately, time-tested form — the historical novel — and it’s a bit of a trudge. She’s usually more the bouncy stylist, a lot more fun, orange zest. She’s a maestro, sure, but I had to put down this eye-glazer about a third of the way in. Want a synopsis, raves, an excerpt? Go here. I can’t deal.

Two other much-exalted novels I couldn’t cozy up to due to their overarching tepidness were Celeste Ng’s family drama “Little Fires Everywhere” and Elif Batuman’s girl-goes-to-college dramedy “The Idiot.” The stories are undercut by soft, cooing voices, a bourgeois middle-brow blah, despite daintily turned phrases and surgical control. Fatally, they are short on wisdom, philosophy and epiphany. There’s no crunch.

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Slightly better is Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a tough, Faulknerian, mixed-race odyssey through rural Mississippi that’s very much of this racially attuned American moment and all that. Yet I found the drama ordinary and obvious. “Sing” didn’t sing.

So I picked up — and soon put down — “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 novel about a bevy of privileged young white women making their way in a gilded New York City (it was a huge influence on Candace Bushnell, creator of “Sex and the City”). It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s, and it feels dusty. Cluttered and clammy, the fine stylist McCarthy’s tale is a dense compendium of social mores, money, neuroses and debutante gleam. It’s claustrophobic with cattiness.

Looking for another book, I considered reading Murakami’s “Kafka On the Shore.” And then I remembered how precious and irritating his “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” was in its forced, flatulent fancifulness.

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I soon stumbled upon a suggestion, the high-flying 1990 British satire “The Buddha of Suburbia” by Hanif Kureishi, which has been called “raunchily, scabrously brilliant.” I’ve cracked it and I am happy to report I’m enjoying its comic kineticism just fine.

Yet I don’t think it will outclass the last book I finished, about a week ago, the short novel “LA. Woman” by Eve Babitz, my go-to gal last year for swooning fiction (I polished five of her books in 2017 with swooshing alacrity).

Soaked in sunsets and squalor, glamor and grit, “LA. Woman” traces the squiggly trajectory of a young Jim Morrison groupie through the titular city with a constant stream of poetics and epiphany. It’s funny and mean. It’s about Los Angeles. And life.

I gobbled it up in a gulp, like a gumdrop.