Sunday, March 2, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Devil Kid

So this month's Fortean Times, that neverfailing font of inspiration, contains a two-page article on "The Devil Kid of Newburg," which turns out to be a report of a newspaper hoax that went viral in 1888. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and what the internet does now merely duplicates what newspapers and word of mouth used to do. Basically, a joker at the Cleveland Plain Dealer made up a story about a woman who gave birth to a child with bright red skin, horns, and a tail, and caused a media sensation, as well as a host of people claiming that they (or their friend, or their friend's friend, or their friend's friend's brother's mother-in-law's doctor, or some equally unimpeachable source) had seen "it."

In all the quotations in the article, the supposed baby is referred to as "it," and spoken of as being necessarily evil and frightening; even though the commonly-accepted reason for the set of deformities was the belief that the mother had seen a play featuring a costumed devil character, been frightened by it, and imprinted her fear in tangible form on the baby - a theory of the causes of deformity of considerable antiquity. Which is hardly the baby's fault.

The description given in the paper by the imaginary nurse present at the imaginary birth is initially pathetic rather than frightening: "It was all coiled up in a sort of ball and looked red, like a big bunch of flesh...I supposed the child was dead - it seemed to be only a ball of flesh." At least, the impression on me was strong enough that I recoiled from the nurse, rather than the baby, when she said it made her sick, and the subsequent description of how it uncoiled itself in a flash of blue fire, smell of brimstone, etc. did not counterbalance my disgust at the nurse's response to the birth being disgust rather than compassion.

Of course it hardly matters how I feel about a fictional nurse in such an ephemeral story - except that it isn't an ephemeral story at all, as Jane Addams discovered some years later, when rumor had a similar baby being sheltered at Hull House, and people pestered the life out the staff trying to get in to see (again) "it." Addams being Addams, she profited from this, not monetarily, but intellectually and spiritually, trying to understand the appeal of the story for those who demanded to see the supposedly hidden Devil Baby, and drawing some interesting conclusions. The link is directly to an article by her that appeared in the Atlantic in 1916 and I recommend it to the thoughtful reader.

With no such wise student of humanity to engage with the story at the Plain Dealer, we are left with the unedifying spectacle of vicious, vulgar ableism in its presentation, and the reflection that at least it wasn't a true story; no child with red hair, horns, hooves, and the rest of it ever had to try to grow up with such nasty people staring at, judging, and objectifying him or her. No real person had to carry the moral and social weight of such a morally-charged deformity.

Did they?

What if someone had?

What if the Newburg baby - or the Hull House baby, who would at least have had Miss Addams in his or her corner - really had been born? No supernatural powers (no room for Hellboy in this notion); no brimstone; just little horns and a twitchety tail and red skin?

What happens to that child, in the real world?

Note that (unless we go with hooflike feet) none of the conditions marking this as a "devil baby" are in and of themselves disabling. Horns don't impede when walking up stairs; red skin doesn't affect how big a load you can carry or how fast you can learn a new skill; a tail may even improve one's balance and improve performance of some physical tasks. Yet I suspect she would have trouble, as an adult, finding employment; and would have had difficulty getting an education.

But then, a lot of conditions which are widely recognized as disabling are only so because they don't match assumptions about how the world is supposed to be configured. A few mechanical adjustments, ramps instead of steps or equipment that can easily be adjusted for height and so on, wipe out many disabilities quickly and easily and let's not get started on that rant.

Would someone recognizable as a "devil baby" have any choice but to grow up to behave either anti-socially (being treated as evil by everyone makes it nearly impossible, and not at all rewarding, to be good) or pathologically saintlike? What coping mechanisms could she develop? How would she spend her time? What would she want versus what she would be able to get?

Does it make a noticeable difference when and where she is born? A "devil baby" born in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it appears, would have been exhibited for cash. Would one born earlier or in a different context have been murdered at birth? Would not one born today be subjected to extensive and medically unnecessary plastic surgery?

This could be satire, with a devilish-looking baby insouciantly exposing the moral poverty of those around her. This could be tragedy in ways I hardly need to spell out to you. You would win my undying admiration if you could convincingly make a it a feel-good movie, without a bunch of Disney sentiment (oh, Lord, wouldn't the Disney character of this be cute as a button, once you got used to him?), because peculiar-looking people need happy endings, too.

Especially happy endings which don't remove the peculiar appearance. Ugly is in the heart of the beholder and recognizing and gaining power over that, rather than adapting one's own appearance to suit the standards of the ugly at heart, is part and parcel of a happy ending for such a person.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps "devil baby" is a recurring mutation, and they have been born at rare intervals through the ages (hence the diabolic legends), The protagonist doesn't get to meet any other devil people -- they are born at too great intervals -- but s/he pieces together a "history" of the other devil-born, and builds an identity from their lives. The child picks up the innocuous parts of diabolic lore (violin-playing, for instance).
    Rejecting cosmetic surgery is a good idea -- parents sticking up for their child (with some reluctance), the child standing up to well-meaning doctors, &c.
    Maybe it ends with the now-grown devil baby learning of the birth of another one on the other side of the world, and meeting the baby's parents, persuading them not to allow needless surgery just to make other people feel better.