Title: Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
Author/Illustrator: Bill Griffith
Genre: Biographical Graphic Novel
Number of Pages: 256
I watched Tod Browning’s controversial classic Freaks several years ago, and I find that it’s not a film I’m crazy about on it’s own but that the stories about the actors and production never fail to fascinate me. It isn’t necessary to have watched the film to read this graphic novel but it might help as far as context. The story of Schlitzie, the developmentally disabled ‘pinhead’ and circus attraction who appeared in the film, is stranger than anything a team of screenwriters could come up with.
Bill Griffith has done something quite unexpected with this book; he’s made the story of a disabled person sold to the circus by their parents and put on display for monetary gain feel not only acutely human but occasionally beautiful. Using research where he could and leaving some of it up to his imagination, Bill Griffith made painfully human a historical figure who many people treated merely as grotesque distraction.
Nobody’s Fool is not a typical biography and I’m not even sure it can be fully characterized as non-fiction, because a lot of information about Schlitzie’s life disappeared and had to be reconstructed. The story focuses on Schlitzie but it also has portions that are more about the author and how the film Freaks haunted him and caused him to develop a fascination with the production and the actors, Schlitzie in particular.
Freaks is an extremely unusual film largely because all the disabled characters are played by disabled people, and the physical abnormalities displayed on screen are so extreme. The film includes conjoined twins, ‘the human torso,’ and several people (including Schlitzie) with Microcephaly. Many (if not all) of these people were not professional actors- in fact many of them were famous from being in ‘freak shows.’
Schlitzie was one of these people and the book shows how while the situation he and thousands of other people were in was exploitative, it was also in many cases crucial to their livelihood. ‘Freak shows’ allowed people who would normally have been locked up in an asylum for the majority of their lives to be on the outside, though they were often treated with horror and derision by ‘normal’ members of society. There are several able-bodied people in charge of Schlitzie’s welfare who actually do right by him, including a man who adopts him and becomes his full-time caretaker.
The disabled people who Schlitzie works with every day also tend to look after him, especially after he’s first sold by his parents and is feeling confused and scared. Some of them of average intelligence or above but because of their physical impairments, know what’s it’s like to be treated like a monster. It shows how cruel some people are to other human beings because of the less fortunate circumstances under which they were born but also how Schlitzie’s life didn’t turn out to be the tragedy you’d expect it to.
This book made me read with bated breath like a fictional thriller, it made me tear up, and it taught me a lot of things I had no idea about without a moment of boredom. Even if people haven’t seen Freaks or if they don’t want to see Freaks I highly recommend that they read this book, which is now one of my favorite graphic novels of all time.
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