The essays in this collection address the issue of how bodily difference was represented in the textual and visual cultures of Continental Europe from the medieval period through the late twentieth century. They cover, among others, subjects as varied as medieval lepers, American Indians in early modern Jesuit books, narratives of feral children, the puppet-theatre of post-Soviet disabled youth, the scientific engagement with teratology, Nazi experiments, dystopian fiction, as well as freak shows. The editors have chosen to identify these disparate cultural engagements with the nonstandard body as examples of "enfreakment," a term that they use to argue for the ways in which the body of the Other has been consistently exploited and objectified across time and space.
Most of the chapters in this collection draw heavily upon the scholarship of Rosemarie Garland Thomson, one of the key figures in the academic rehabilitation of the freak show as a subject worthy of intellectual engagement. Garland Thomson was one of the first to rethink the freak show as a fruitful subject for scholars, particularly those invested in and identified with the field of Disability Studies. But for the most part, these essays tend to reinforce Garland Thomson's arguments about the self/other and normal/deviant binaries without moving the conversation forward in meaningful ways. While they do provide us with new examples, drawn largely from Central and Eastern European case studies, they do not in the end generate substantial theoretical insights. Some of the essays in this volume do raise important questions about nationalism and about trauma that gesture to the significance of the Continental European context, but I was disappointed that the authors did not engage more with the impact of the two world wars given that attitudes towards disability, and thus to non-normative bodies more broadly, changed profoundly in relationship to these conflicts.
It is not merely that this volume represents a missed opportunity to interrogate how Central and Eastern European contexts in particular might force us to rethink the cultural meanings of the nonstandard body. For those of us invested in the historical contingency of ways of dealing with physical difference, the use of the concept of "enfreakment" to analyze the disparate topics in this book is inherently problematic. Freakery is not merely an objectification of the nonstandard body. It is a phenomenon that involves particular modes of public performance and display and exists within the nexus of consumer culture. Using "freakery" as a catch-all interferes with our ability to understand either the freak show as a cultural institution, or what appear in fact to be quite different ways of recognizing and managing physical difference. For examples, these scholars consistently use the categories of "the freak," "the disabled," and "the Other" as interchangeable and apply them to a wide variety of historical actors and situations. Thus despite their best intentions, the authors often fail to hear the voices of their subjects of study who may be negotiating their identities in more complex ways. In Anna Kérchy's chapter on the Ovitz family of Hungarian dwarfs who were incarcerated in Auschwitz, she identifies them as "disabled artists" (215) who "attempted to resist their enfreakment" by "activating the representational strategies of show-business" in order to position themselves as "stars" instead of victims (225). But these "representational strategies of show-business"—such as passing out postcards of themselves on arrival in Auschwitz—were part and parcel of playing the role of freak. As Kérchy argues, Perla Ovitz never dreamed of being taller and never saw her height as a disadvantage or, it seems, as any sort of disability. It would be more fruitful to argue for the ways in which the Ovitzes actually participated in their own enfreakment as a strategic choice, and one that in the end proved essential to their survival. Conversely, the imprecise use of the term freak for those who did not adopt it themselves is equally unsettling. Lucie Storchová, labels one of her subjects, Frantisek Filip, a "freak autobiographer" (188) despite having previously asserted that in his autobiography he refused to perform at freak shows and "never referred to himself as a freak" (184).
By far the most satisfying essay in the collection is Ally Crockford's account of British "translations" of Central European teratological reports in late-nineteenth-century medical journals. Crockford very clearly defines what she means by enfreakment and demonstrates how this process played out in the British coverage of Continental medical case reports. Her careful attention to terminology and to the context for these reports reveals the importance of unpacking complex language and locating "deviance" in both time and space precisely in order to expose it as socially constructed. It is heartening to see that issues of physical difference and disability are being interrogated by scholars working in a variety of disciplines and from a range of geographical locations. But this volume's approach raises a troubling question for scholars who hope that their work has repercussions beyond the academy: if every engagement with physical difference is identified as "enfreakment," and this process is only ever coded as negative, how can we hope to understand the particular dynamics of diverse cultural strategies for coping with human variety?