Julia Pastrana, by Christopher Hals Glyseth and Lars O. Toverud

Julia Pastrana

Julia Pastrana (her real name is unknown; this was a name given to her in an orphanage) was a Mexican Indian born in 1834. She was very short, though not quite a midget, she had a misshapen head with a protruding muzzle, and most of her body, including her face, was covered with thick hair (“hypertrichosis” being the technical term for that condition). She was mentally normal if not higher than average functioning, and she seemingly had no emotional deficits, beyond what could be expected as a result of living a traumatic life and having people respond to her as a freak her whole life.

She indeed worked as a freak—a circus sideshow freak—becoming one of the most famous “bearded ladies” of her time. Her relationship with her “managers” or whatever you want to call them was basically that of an animal and its trainer. Not necessarily crudely, physically abused—any more than all pets are beaten by their owners—but trained to perform on command for the financial benefit of her handlers.

She married the last of her managers. It was mostly as a sort of legal ruse, as a way to invalidate her being sold to another man after the money had already changed hands. The marriage was consummated however, as evidenced by her giving birth to a son shortly thereafter, so it wasn’t a complete sham.

Her baby, who also had hypertrichosis, died after only two days, and the mother died two days after that, at the age of 24. She was embalmed, as was the baby, to preserve her appearance so that she could still be exhibited for money, which she was for another several decades (much less successfully, as live freaks are decidedly more interesting to audiences). Her remains eventually ended up in a museum of forensic medicine in Norway.

The main problem with this book is that there’s apparently not much information available about Pastrana. She’s already dead only sixty pages in. A decent number of sources are cited, and the authors mention enough about their research to indicate that they probably did find out just about everything there is to find out, so I think it is indeed a problem of a lack of available information rather than some failure of theirs to be more thorough.

In order to fill out the book even to a modest one hundred and fifty pages, the authors go off on many tangents. (That’s true not only of the final ninety pages, but also of those first sixty pages that tell the story of her life.)

These tangents really do feel like filler, and mostly aren’t very satisfying. That’s not inevitable; one could imagine all the extras being handled in a smooth and fascinating way that successfully widens the scope of the book. And in fact, the tangents do tend to relate clearly to Pastrana—they aren’t just tossed in from left field—and some of them are interesting.

So I’m really not sure why they didn’t work better for me. For whatever reason I was always conscious of their function as padding for a very short book. There are tangents on embalming, on Tod Browning’s Freaks, on her manager’s finding another bearded lady to exhibit after she died, and on and on.

There is also a disproportionate amount of time spent on the fate of Pastrana’s remains in Norway, possibly the least interesting part of the book. This reflects another somewhat unsatisfying aspect of this work, namely that at times it has a parochial feel. (The authors are Norwegian journalists.) Or maybe I’m just reacting to a lack of the kind of American parochialism I’m used to.

Another sort of filler that goes beyond the available data on Pastrana are the occasional speculations by the authors as to her inner life. Really they’re just educated guesses, and I was always conscious of that reading them. Nor even as speculations do they ever stand out as particularly insightful.

I wouldn’t say the book is poorly written. It’s a straightforward, competent biography stating what little is known about this figure, with considerable additional material which at times is interesting. But perhaps to overcome the handicap of having a subject about which so little is known, in order to succeed the writing needs not to be just competent, but to be special, to have some kind of an edge to it, to stand out more. And, in my opinion, it just doesn’t rise to that level.

It’s a mildly enjoyable read. And it combines in one place all the information about an odd subject that’s somewhat interesting to think about. So it’s worthwhile to that extent, just no more.


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