Which do you remember, the first time you saw an X-ray, or the first time you felt a kiss? Both? For me, it’s both.
The X-ray was one of several forming part of my semi-perpetual wider education. I am the daughter of a schoolteacher and a university lecturer – education was never far away. And often I loved it. In this case, certainly I did. I can recall the stiff, mostly blue transparencies, one showing a hand. My hand was holding the secrets of another, lifting them to catch the light: bone details, flesh ghosts, the hidden construction that made for dexterity and a primate’s cleverness. My own hands tended to fail the playground tests of little-girl accomplishments: catching, cat’s cradle, clapping games. But now I could be sure that inside I glowed with wonders. I was some strange balance of thought and meat. I had a sense of being more transparent, permeable, increasingly at risk and yet increasingly alive.
The kiss? I had decided that kissing would eventually commence and practice would be necessary and here I was at someone’s birthday party and here was a boy with lips, so why not begin? The sensations involved weren’t wonderful, but did have promise: if this boy were some other boy and I were to care, then a kiss might somehow be a good thing. And I had a sense of being more transparent, permeable, increasingly at risk and yet increasingly alive.
The bewildering and lovely fact that I am both cerebral and animal pursues me. My body can let my intellect down like a drunk aunt at a party, my thinking can unleash cascades of physical unrest. My stresses produce illnesses, my illnesses produce stress. My fabric can sustain me, but will then betray me and in the end I will end – it’s a truth too large to grasp. And yet it seems I have always tried to. And that’s why, when I viewed sample pictures from Brad Feuerhelm’s collection, I felt exhilarated, fascinated, ashamed and at home. Here were humanity’s wilder beauties and our horrors, the physical record of hatreds, lusts and quiet obsessions – recurring Edwardian pictures of women standing with their backs to the photographer and showing their long, long hair. I was looking at medical curiosities, professional freaks, wounds, infections, war crimes and war criminals, victims and perpetrators and multiple opportunities to reinhabit the gaze of more and less strange, more and less emotional, observers.
Why do we look? Why do I look? Why have I always looked? Because I have. Brad’s pictures explore all the refuges my mind has scrambled to in hopes of understanding my body and my nature. I’ve never escaped the delusion that if I know my flesh I can defend it and defend myself from it, that if I study hard enough I will unfailingly see the predator or the protector among my fellows and so be safe. Somewhere, I feel, is the secret to fox my waiting death.
I know I’m wrong, but my pursuit of body knowledge has often been, nonetheless, wonderful. My grandfather began it. He introduced me to sideshow wisdom from the strong men, the endurers, Houdini’s extreme physical feats. Supernaturally strong and huge and tender, Grandpop bombarded me with medical information – he was a St John Ambulance man – and self-defence techniques – he had been a boxer, only once defeated. He saw the body in terms of vulnerabilities and strengths and wanted me to be impregnably safe. He told me, in a blushing flurry, how to avoid ungallant attentions – Don’t let them put their hand on your leg. I still see that touch as something of a Rubicon, the point where the mind will give way to the body, and why not be better informed about hands and legs as a preparation?
My life has made all kinds of preparation. When I look at Brad’s portrait of Freddie the Armless Wonder, or Jo Jo the Dog Boy, I smile and grow nostalgic because they were my childhood’s companions. I thought of them as courageous and precious people. I pored over articles about Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins, or the perils of Spontaneous Human Combustion, or the torments that others endured in fact and fiction. I was trying to ready myself for my future. I knew it was dangerous out there and I knew I was an undisclosed freak, not least because I had to look. Some of us do. Some seek the unusual to mock, to reassure ourselves we’re snugly tucked inside the bland, fat heart of the bell curve. Some of us – myself among them – assume everyone is unusual, that our frailties unite us for good and ill. Some of us succeed in never really seeing and, I suppose, believe that brings a kind of safety.