PEOPLE WHO ARE visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings. Those of us who have been known since antiquity as “monsters” and more recently as “freaks” defy the ordinary and mock the predictable, exciting both anxiety and speculation among our more banal brethren. History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or predictable. Such troubled fascination with the different body has occasioned enduring cultural icons that range from the cyclopic Polyphemus and the gigantic Goliath to werewolves and the seven adorable little dwarfs. Perhaps even the founding Judeo-Christian myth that Adam's body contained Eve, drenched as it is by millennia of interpretation, derives from reports of the rare condition fetus in fetu, in which tumors encasing fetuses are embedded in the bodies of their living siblings. The presence of the anomalous human body, at once familiar and alien, has unfolded as well within the collective cultural consciousness into fanciful hybrids such as centaurs, griffins, satyrs, minotaurs, sphinxes, mermaids, and cyclopses—all figures that are perhaps the mythical explanations for the startling bodies whose curious lineaments gesture toward other modes of being and confuse comforting distinctions between what is human and what is not. What seems clearest in all this, however, is that the extraordinary body is fundamental to the narratives by which we make sense of ourselves and our world.
By its very presence, the exceptional body seems to compel explanation, inspire representation, and incite regulation. The unexpected body fires rich, if anxious, narratives and practices that probe the contours and boundaries of what we take to be human. Stone Age cave drawings, for example, record monstrous births, while prehistoric gravesites evince elaborate ritual sacrifices of such bodies. Clay tablets at the Assyrian city of Nineveh describe in detail sixty-two of what we would now call congenital abnormalities, along with their prophetic meanings. Aristotle, Cicero, Pliny, Augustine, Bacon, and Montaigne account for such disruptions of the seemingly natural order in their interpretative schemata. For these fathers of Western thought, the differently formed body is most often evidence of God's design, divine wrath, or nature's abundance, but it is always an interpretive occasion.