Like a lot of kids, I was a huge fan of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” Today it is easy to see just how much Ripley’s searches for curiosities around the world were actually exercises in exploiting and exhibiting the disabled, the stigmatized, and the exotic savage. In fact, I have often thought about the time Ripley’s column (and, many years later, in Ripley’s museum in midtown Manhattan) featured the allegedly tallest person in the world. We would happily marvel and gawk, all while remaining clueless that what we were really seeing was a man dealing with the serious and rare hormonal disorder Acromegaly, in which the pituitary gland produces an excess of growth hormone leading to increased bone size, substantial and abnormal increases in height, and excruciating joint, muscle and bone pain.
But this awareness came later, and I can’t wiggle out of the fact that I once found Ripley’s peculiarities to be entertaining.
Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” was also especially exciting for me because my grandfather, sometime in the 1920s, had worked as an office boy for Ripley, a fact he recounted with enormous pride and a big smile. Many years later, when working as a summer camp counselor, I created and told a series of campfire and bedtime stories recounting my grandfather’s adventures traveling the world searching out the unusual for Ripley’s column. I probably told somewhere between 80 and 100 stories, which might, for example, have been an account of Papa swimming to the bottom of a crocodile infested lake near Tegucigalpa, dodging Piranhas, and grabbing the largest uncut diamond in the world from the mouth of a giant catfish.
Poor Papa. A guy who in those days probably had trouble coming up with the change to take the subway to Midtown Manhattan. No chance he was ever going to Tegucigalpa.
I share this because the PBS series American Experience is now streaming a documentary about the life of Robert Ripley. There was nothing particularly noble about Ripley. He was shy and awkward and very much a loner. He also, for all the acclaim that came his way and his considerable talent as a cartoonist, was completely reliant on a staff member behind-the-scenes, Mr. Pearlroth, who was never publicly acknowledged as the person who planned and researched almost all of what Ripley “discovered.”
But there is another reason that I recommend the documentary: It seems that every generation has its version of the circus freak show — books, shows, museums, newspapers, broadcasts, and other sites where people can stare at the unusual, at human bodies of shapes and sizes outside the boundaries of what is considered normal. Nothing hits the spot quite as well as something or someone who — virtually tattooed with the label “peculiar,” someone consigned to loneliness on society’s margins — provides us with the opportunity to say out loud what we already know but can never hear ourselves say enough:
“Yes, I’m normal! I really am normal.”
The film reminded me just how much this gawking that can seem at one moment so hilarious and entertaining is often revealed, years after the fact, for just what it was, an exercise in ridicule in which self-proclaimed normal people label abnormal people and put them on display for profit, as if the exhibited person was not actually a living, breathing, fragile human being. The most recent generation of Ripley’s discoveries may not be quite so insensitive, but it’s not unfair to note that the whole enterprise essentially rests on gawking.
I may wish that people didn’t find pleasure by stigmatizing those labeled “peculiar,” but I’m afraid that every generation seems to have had its version of the sideshow, and – if you doubt it – check out any of the tabloid television talk shows that cynically transform the suffering of poor and stigmatized people into popular entertainment.
Who knew that those trashy talk-show shouting matches had such cultural significance and were actually doing so much more than simply staging fights between the two possible fathers of a child. In fact, they were contributing to what has been a timeless and historic tradition of ridiculing fragile human beings for substantial profit.
At least there’s one thing we won’t have to worry about: we won’t be the guy who some time in the future shows up at the pearly gates and, when asked what he did during his life to show compassion for his fellow human beings, mumbles while trying to quickly sneak through the gate unnoticed:
“It’s really too hard to explain. Besides, Gabriel, there’s no way you’ve ever heard of something called the Jerry Springer Show, is there? Is there? Wait. Wait. You have seen it? Oh no, not the “Uncles who never shower before coming scantily clad to Thanksgiving dinner” episode? You did?
Wait. Where are you taking me? No. Please. No. Hot weather gives me rashes.”