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A New Look at Dwarfs

Review of The Lives of Dwarfs and Dwarfism, by Betty M. Adelson

The Lives of Dwarfs, by Betty M. Adelson

There are various rough aspects of dwarfism: It’s hard not being able to reach things; most dwarfs have some complicating orthopedic issues; and many dwarfing conditions are accompanied by secondary disabilities. Perhaps the most acute difficulty, however, is the fact that dwarfs are seen as inherently comical. Woody Allen maintained that the word “dwarf” was one of the four words in the English language most apt to make people laugh.

Since I began writing about dwarfs, I have been astonished by how people seeped in political correctness revert to joke-making when the topic comes up. Virtually no one can hear the sentence, “I am attending a dwarf convention,” without bursting into peals of laughter or making some remark about Snow White. The hardest part of being a dwarf is the lack of dignity afforded to dwarfs by most of mainstream society.

The great accomplishment of Betty Adelson’s two extraordinary books is that they reflect the authentic dignity of many individual dwarfs, and so confer dignity on the larger dwarf community. These books will surely be a part of the history that they document; they represent a great leap forward for the social and cultural condition of dwarfism.

Adelson is the mother of an adult dwarf daughter, and her personal odyssey has inspired twenty well-spent years of academic research, allowing her to speak with authority of science, history, art and social principles. Her writing is fluid, her synthesis thorough and insightful, her voice humane and generous, and her politics nuanced and evolved.

The Lives of Dwarfs, the more accessible of the two volumes, is a wide-ranging history. It stretches back to the Egyptian dwarf Seneb, who sits contentedly beside his average-sized wife in a famous tomb carving; speaks of dwarfs in the classical world; lingers in early modern Europe, where dwarfs were curiosities collected by the royal courts and, later, circus freaks; describes the horrors of the Nazi era, when dwarfs were placed in concentration camps and experimented on; and expounds on the work of the first dwarf activists in the middle of the last century.

It wraps up with biographies of the most distinguished living dwarfs – Michael Ain, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins; Paul Miller, who was commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee in the Clinton administration; the actor Peter Dinklage, who rose to fame for his role in the film The Station Agent and then played Richard III at the Public Theater in New York. The common thread of dwarfism informs but does not dominate these biographical sketches. The Lives of Dwarfs is a story of the slow progress of civil rights.

Dwarfism, by Betty M. Adelson

Some parts of Dwarfism are rather technical and could have used better explication for a general reader. The elucidation of the many types of dwarfism and their individual characteristics, however, is superbly well-organized. The book is especially profound when it addresses issues such as the eugenic tendencies enabled by prenatal genetic screening. The Lives of Dwarfs has given us an understanding of what enormous contributions dwarfs have made to our society and history, and so the idea in Dwarfism that we might eventually eliminate this population is profoundly disturbing.

Most dwarfs are born to parents of average height. The description in Dwarfism of those who reject dwarf offspring or who bring them up with feelings of profound inadequacy is deeply affecting. The terrific sections on successful parenting and the appendices of resources and support groups will be invaluable to people determined to do better.

Both books are lavishly illustrated, with images of dwarfs in every conceivable context. Particularly touching is the cover illustration for The Lives of Dwarfs, which Adelson chose because it shows a dwarf in 19th century Italy painted not as a curiosity, but as a human being, playing the lute to a boy who is probably his young son, “absorbed in his own life” as the author observes. These books have an unusual combination of qualities: They are at once historical, technical and activist; intimate and rigorous; generous in their essential positions; and written in a tone of respect that may set a new standard for how we speak of dwarfs.

Little people are fortunate to have this history and knowledge available to them, and the rest of us are fortunate to have this window into a world that was for so long dark to us. These books will make a world of difference to the public’s perception of dwarfs, fascinating those who have never looked into this set of experiences – and leading them to discover, as they retrace the author’s path, much that is beautiful and impressive.