Let­ters from

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Neil Selkirk New York City

To the Ed­i­tors:

In an other­wise char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sen­si­tive piece on Diane Arbus [“The Art of Dif­fer­ence,” NYR, June 8], Hil­ton Als re­peats with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion and as a tru­ism that Diane Arbus “used the word ‘freaks’ to de­scribe [her] sub­jects. . . .” While of­ten re­peated, and in this case pos­si­bly un­in­ten­tional in the im­plicit breadth of its mean­ing, noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, and the pro­mul­ga­tion of the idea harms the rep­u­ta­tions of both the pho­tog­ra­pher and the writer.

Als makes it clear that he ob­jects to the use of the word “freaks,” which he finds dis­parag­ing, but he seems to have missed the precision of Arbus’s lan­guage.

Al­though Arbus did say that she “adored freaks,” and that they made her feel “a mix­ture of shame and awe,” she was us­ing the term in a highly spe­cific and tightly limited sense. As she her­self was at pains to point out, she used the term “freak” solely to de­scribe per­sons with bizarre phys­i­cal ab­nor­mal­i­ties who made a liv­ing by means of the com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion of those ab­nor­mal­i­ties, namely peo­ple who worked in Freak Shows. This group did in­clude the giant Ed­die Carmel, the dwarf Lauro Mo­rales, and the midget friends at home, but it did not in­clude all giants, all dwarfs, or all midgets, or all the thou­sands of other peo­ple she pho­tographed. What a bless­ing for her that she is dead. Imag­ine know­ing that one’s life’s work, which had been de­voted to ex­plor­ing the myr­iad per­mu­ta­tions of what it is to be hu­man, was fre­quently summed up with a sim­ple, slang, di­vi­sive in­sult for which one was then er­ro­neously given credit.

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