Grief can unhinge us, disconnect us from our daily lives, make us do things we’ve never done. Grief made Tessa Fontaine run away and join the circus.
To be more exact, the sideshow: World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the country, based in Gibsonton. That journey is the subject of Fontaine’s fascinating new book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts.
Standing on an outdoor stage in sequined shorts and fishnet stockings with a boa constrictor draped around her neck for 14 or 16 hours a day as a "bally girl," wooing spectators inside the tent for a look at the headless woman and the man who pierces his own flesh with 3-inch pins, might not seem a likely career path for a 29-year-old creative writing graduate student raised in the San Francisco area.
But that’s what Fontaine signed up for in 2013: five months of grueling labor, lousy living conditions and exhilarating danger on the road with World of Wonders.
What led her there was catastrophic illness, not her own but her mother’s. In 2010, her mother — an adventurous, charismatic woman — had "as big and bad a stroke as you can have and still be alive."
After 2?½ years of harrowing medical emergencies, continued brain bleeding and tough rehab, her mother is still paralyzed on one side of her body and unable to speak except for nonsense syllables, and Fontaine is emotionally drained.
But Fontaine’s stepfather, Davy, insists her mother wants to take a long-dreamed-of trip to Italy, and he’s making plans. The logistics of such a trip for a woman in a wheelchair are challenging, and Fontaine, whose relationship with her mother has always been intense and complicated, obsesses over everything that might go wrong, sure she’ll never see her mom alive again.
It’s in that frazzled state that, on a whim, she travels to Gibsonton to interview Chris Christ, co-owner of World of Wonders.
"I ended up with a snake around my neck because of a conversation with a Giant," she writes. After they talk for hours one night in Christ’s shabby mobile home, he invites her to "come play with us." She shocks herself by agreeing.
She knows absolutely nothing about performing sideshow acts. When she signs up for a fire-eating workshop in California to prepare, she expects to learn tricks of the trade, methods of illusion. Instead, she learns, "There is no trick.
"You eat fire by eating fire."
She’ll learn how to do that, and a lot more. The Electric Woman is, among other things, an intimate portrait of a subculture that might be dying but still is vividly enthralling — and sometimes frightening.
Fontaine introduces us to the structure of that self-contained little society and its rigid pecking order: bosses, showpeople (the sideshow performers), then carnies. As her boss, Sunshine, explains, "And the big carnie rivalry is between game and ride jocks. Ride jocks have more power, because they can let pretty girls go to the front of the line and they gather bigger crowds, but game jocks make more money. Easier to swindle the marks. Foodies are at the bottom, obviously, though some of them make a killing. Don’t call a performer a carnie, okay? ... Like, ever."
Most of the sideshow employees live in plywood bunks stacked inside a semitrailer truck, each bunk with a couple of tiny drawers to stash their underwear and protein bars. They don’t just perform multiple acts; they put up the huge tents and props, then take them all down and pack them back in the truck. Their work days stretch to as much as 18 hours. "As a greenhorn, I make $275 a week, minus taxes," Fontaine writes, and the pay scale does not rise much. A big outing is a middle-of-the-night visit to Walmart.
What they can make from their audience, dollar bill by wrinkled dollar bill, is what keeps the show afloat, quite directly. She learns the meaning of all the "GTFM" tattoos she spots on her co-workers’ arms: "Get the f------ money."
Fontaine also gives us individual portraits of some of the performers, like patient, level-headed Tommy, the show’s boss; Red, the sword-swallower and "blockhead" with a tragic past; and the relentlessly flirtatious Short E, whose legs were amputated when he was a baby and who’s billed as "the world’s shortest daredevil."
The Electric Woman is also a meditation upon the body, how we and others perceive our bodies, what we do with and to them. "Sideshows," Fontaine writes, "are where people come to see public displays of their private fears: of deformity, of a disruption in the perceived gender binary, of mutation, of disfigurement, of a crossover with the animal world, of being out of proportion."
Those public displays have fallen out of fashion, however. "Traveling sideshows are a cultural fragment stomped out by science and social progress. Public perception began shifting at the end of the nineteenth century, as more information about the medical conditions freak shows displayed became known, then even further with disability-rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s."
The coup de grace, as Christ explains, was reality TV. "People are mostly chickens now. ... Want to sit on their fat asses and see freaks on TV and not have to actually be face-to-face with them. Too scared to see them as people. Easier only to consider them from afar. Chickens---."
Fontaine’s memoir wraps her adventure around the love story between her mother and Davy. They first met as children, but married others. "As soon as he’d heard that my mom was splitting up with her husband," she writes, "Davy had left his job as chief audio engineer at NPR without another job, packed all his things into his car, and driven across the country from D.C. to San Francisco. For her. For the possibility of her." Despite her stroke and all the cruel limits it imposes, they are as much in love as ever.
Trying to understand what has happened to her mother’s body and mind, Fontaine challenges her own. She comes to appreciate Red’s Dr. Frankenstein act, talking spectators through it as he pounds those pins through his arm and cheeks.
"Some barf. Some faint. Falling ovations, everyone calls them. At least one in each town. Compliments, all of them."
And she tries, over and over, to teach herself to swallow a sword, to conquer the gag reflex and let the steel enter her — because again, there’s no trick, just swallowing the sword.
"I feel some relief as I stop imagining the pain of others, and instead, live inside my own potential for catastrophe. As I look for the divine."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.