I show up to “Teratology: The Science and History of Human Monstrosity” on a rainy afternoon, having done little research but expecting some sort of blown-up, fully-realized version of all those creepy Wikipedia pages I sometimes find myself reading at 3 a.m. Instead, I am greeted by a selection of prints, book illustrations and photographs — each object small enough to hold in one hand. At first, this is kind of a letdown: The exhibit seems to domesticate monsters, reducing them to two dimensions. But then I recognize that teratology itself has a similar goal — the classification of the abnormal and the monstrous.
Meant as an accompaniment to the “Side Show” exhibit at the Yale School of Art, “Teratology” is a small affair, currently located in the rotunda of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. The exhibit dives into the methodology by which scientists, doctors and explorers categorized and sought to understand these so-called monsters. Each glass case houses about a century or so of the science’s history, with an accompanying dense text label.
The boundaries of “nature” are a little nebulous for 15th century Western naturalists, or so the dense text label tells me. These collectors threw the monsters and the marvels together, along with plants and rocks and whatever else made the cut. Sometimes, your own limited experience blurs the distinctions: Sure, you are trying to keep your real animals and your fake animals separate, but if you are Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner, you might not know if that mermaid report is a lie or if those human-fish hybrids really do exist several thousand miles away! So you take the chance and include it in your book anyway.
As I walk around the rotunda, I realize I was expecting a sense of discovery. I want to leaf through pages, squint at the obscure and the unrecognizable. But all the books are already open. An anatomical drawing of a rhinoceros, pulled from a Dürer woodcut, fits neatly in a box no bigger than a sheet of printer paper. (The dense text label tells me the rhino belongs to a larger “discourse” on unicorns, none of which I see.) The visual stunners are few: perhaps an illustration of a floating fetus, its limbs stick-straight? Or the engrossing representations of conjoined twins?
Teratology — both the exhibit and the science itself — is sparing in its sympathy for the so-called monsters it depicts, opting for objectivity instead. I read about a 19th century woman named Julia Pastrana, a.k.a. “Baboon Lady” or “Bear Woman” (think excessive hair growth, face and body). Pastrana was purchased from her mother by a man named Theodore Lent, who became both her manager and her husband. When she and her young child died, Lent had them taxidermied and exhibited. (Something no good husband would do, you might think. But then again, Juan Perón had Evita embalmed, too.) Pastrana’s plight speaks to a common perception of abnormal bodies “as objects rather than subjects,” according to the curators. This is a succinct value judgment, breaking away from the science’s clinical remove.
The last few display cases ease into modernity: I see neatly arranged lineups of human chromosomes, scientific studies in scientific journals, all in all the suggestion that we are finally dispelling the myths. That everything can be broken down into numbers and birth defects and drugs you shouldn’t take while pregnant. So I know all of this, but I still don’t know the name of the girl (photographed, 1960s) who is missing a couple of limbs due to a sleep aid her mother took while she was still in the womb. This bothers me.
“Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power,” writes Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In naming the monsters, mapping out their origins in linear and categorical fashions, we’re looking for the power of knowing, an explanation for the unfamiliar. What I want, though, is really the comfort of knowing things turn out to be okay, even if you’re touring the country on view for sharing a hip or a skull with your brother, or for being a Living Skeleton. I want to know the girl’s name.
In thirty minutes at the exhibit, I’ve drawn the stares of a few med students and a hasty conclusion on teratology itself. I understand the need to understand, but I’m looking for a little more compassion. The display can’t give me that, and maybe that’s the point.