- Conjoined Twins in Black and White: The Lives of Millie-Christine McKoy and Daisy and Violet Hilton
Beginning with Leslie Fiedler's Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1977) and Robert Bogdan's Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1988), "freak studies" has attempted to understand how narratives of race, gender, nation, and disability are given physical form through the exhibition of various bodies for public view. A recent book in this field, Conjoined Twins in Black and White, a collection of primary sources, looks to be a useful resource for future analyses of the intersections of race, disability, and gender in the freak show. Since Fiedler and Bogdan, scholars such as Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997) and Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (1996), and Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (2001), have contributed to what might be deemed a "second wave" of freak studies. In this second wave, authors have made judicious use of critical perspectives produced by the newer field of Disability Studies, with which they have analyzed freakshow performers not merely as objects of speculation for viewers, but as subjects in their own right. Through this new focus on subjectivity, second wave scholars were able to move past Fiedler's abstracted notions of otherness and Bogdan's explication of the material circumstances of "freaks" in order to confront the marginalization of people as "freaks" not as a natural occurrence, but a socially constructed one. Further, this marginalization is produced by exclusionary cultural norms. With this realization, second wave scholars also began to focus on the specific historical instances of exclusion that produced "freaks" in different ways at different cultural moments.
Conjoined Twins in Black and White contributes to an even more recent third wave of freak studies. In works such as Nadja Durbach's Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture (2010) and Cynthia Wu's Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Orginal Siamese Twins and Literature and Culture (2012), we are presented with a third wave of "freak studies" in which the focus has become the intersection of multiple cultural narratives (of race, gender, nation, dis/ability, etc.) on the performer's body. Thus, rather than merely examining certain acts as exemplifying current narratives of race or gender, or of dis/ability or sexuality, these analyses seek to interrogate how specific acts reveal cultural narratives of both race and gender, or of dis/ability and sexuality, forcing us to understand the inherent intersection and mutual constitution of those categories in the first place. For example, in Wu's work on Chang and Eng Bunker (the conjoined twins whose legacy caused all other conjoined twins in Anglo-American popular culture to be deemed "Siamese") she investigates how they became the subject of both narratives about the conjoinment of disparate entities (such as the North and South of the United States) as well as narratives about the influx of immigration to America, and ultimately how those two narratives of race/ethnicity and nationalism were themselves connected to each other.
Conjoined Twins in Black and White valuably introduces two more figures ripe for the kind of critical readings that characterize third-wave freak studies—Millie-Christine McKoy and Violet and Daisy Hilton. But, as a collection of representative texts about these figures, Frost's volume has its limitations. Frost herself establishes in her introduction that she hopes [End Page 836]
to bring together some of those culturally determining voices [around Millie-Christine McKoy and Violet and Daisy Hilton], like those of nineteenth-century physician William Pancoast and twentieth-century showman Myer Myers, with the voices we most need and want to hear—those of the conjoined twins themselves(xi-xii).
According to that criterion, this book might be deemed a success, though only a modest one. While it does indeed bring together some voices, I believe that there are too few included in this...