Bearded Women by Teresa Milbrodt (A Review by David Atkinson)

ChiZine Publications

250 pages/$21

I do not think anyone would argue that most people are not overly attracted to the unusual, the bizarre.  Freak shows would never have been so prevalent if this was not the case.  Certainly, modern views discourage this sort of curiosity.  For example, freak shows would never fly today.  People are not supposed to stare, not supposed to whisper about differences.  However, as much as people try to pretend they are politically correct, publications such as the Weekly World News are still popular.  People may not want others to know, but they are still attracted to the unusual.

Someone who just picked up Bearded Women by Teresa Milbrodt, only looking at the cover and knowing nothing of what was inside, might think he or she was in for that sort of freak show.  After all, some of the characters in the stories are actually bearded women.  Some are conjoined twins.  Some have lizard skin and some burst into flames without apparent physical cause.  For example, the narrator in “Bianca’s Body” has a:

second lower torso [that] grows out two inches to the left of [the narrator's] navel.  [The narrator] calls [the second lower torso] Bianca.  [Bianca] is at a forty-five-degree angle to [the narrator's] body and an eighty-degree angle to the ground.  When [the narrator] sits down, part of [Bianca's] back rests on [the narrator's] left knee and [Bianca's] legs dangle off the ground.  Bianca has her own navel, a crotch, the necessary reproductive organs, and a nice pair of legs.  [The narrator] can move them.

And yet, anyone who picks up this book looking for a simple freak show is going to get something different than what he or she expects.

Strangely, though these characters all have elements of the freak show about them, this is not what stands out about them.  Instead, despite how unique they are, many of their problems are the same ones that most people face.  Facing unfulfilled dreams, trouble connecting with parents or children, the burdens of family, and all the such, these unusual characters are more striking for how much they are like most people than for how they are different.

For instance, returning to “Bianca’s Body,” the narrator is told that she must have Bianca “removed if [she wants] to have a child.”  However, the narrator’s husband is against this idea, at least partially because he “prefers to have sex with Bianca.”  Though this sounds like only a problem that a conjoined twin could possibly have, this is only true in the circumstances by which the problem comes about.

It is true that only a conjoined twin would have to weigh the ability to have children versus the losing his or her twin.  Also, no one but a conjoined twin would have the issue that his or her spouse wanted to have sex with the twin instead of him or her.  Still, the desire to have children is certainly not unique to conjoined twins.  Nor is weighing risks of pregnancy versus such a drive for children or experiencing sexual disassociation from a loved one.  Though the narrator’s circumstances in “Bianca’s Body” may be highly unusual, her problems, at their cores, are not all that different from what other people face.

And yet, these stories are not merely tales of ordinary lives dressed up as oddities.  Perhaps one of the reasons people are obsessed with oddities is the fact that we ignore what is familiar and pick up on what is not.  After all, we at least think we know how to deal with what we already know.  It is what we do not already know that we must carefully analyze and figure out how to deal with.

This human tendency would suggest that the bizarre aspects of the characters in the stories of Bearded Women serve a particular function, to help us to look closely.  Because the narrator in “Bianca’s Body” has a lower torso with sexual organs sticking out of her abdomen, we pay closer attention to the dilemma she faces.  Consciously or not, we analyze much more deeply than we would if the narrator had nothing odd about her.  In this way, Milbrodt is able to present us universal problems in a way that seems absolutely fresh and new.

Of course, do not think I am suggesting that these stories need to resort to tricks in order to function.  The stories are wonderful either way, but the imagination and creativity that Milbrodt brings to these characters makes their underlying stories just that much more captivating and interesting.  After all, it is the shiny object in the middle of the field that catches our eye.  In just the same way, it is the character with another person’s lower half sticking out of him or her that can really get us to think deeper about problems we might otherwise gloss over too quickly.

In any event, whether Milbrodt intends to use the unique as a glass to focus our attention on the universal, these oddities and their stories are delightful.  Far from relying on the bizarre as a crutch, the stories are compelling and well written.  Both those obsessed with the unusual as well as those who claim not to be should check out this book.  Neither will be disappointed.

*

David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.  He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.

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