Of Drunks and Divas
Using any measure you like, Anthony Soares is a success. By day he’s the art director at a Manhattan advertising agency whose clients include AT&T and Phillip Morris. In the evenings and on weekends he’s the president of the city council in Hoboken, New Jersey, the suburban city where he’s lived since buying a condo there in 1991.
On a record-hot April evening, he pulled up in front of City Hall, where I’d been waiting, and waved for me to get in. The night before, I’d watched him preside over the council, attempting to reason with such characters as an elderly woman whose hobby is to show up at meetings and blurt out non sequiturs disguised as questions and a fellow councilor who was so enraged by Soares’s unwillingness to derail a housing development that he bellowed, “You’re a jerk! You’re a jerk!” as soon as the closing gavel had sounded. Soares, an achondroplastic dwarf who was some two feet shorter than his adversary, smiled and walked away. Indeed, on that particular evening he was a picture of tranquility. But it’s not always thus. Tom Jennemann, who writes for the weekly Hoboken Reporter, told me, “He’s very outspoken. He’s very, very outspoken.” Another observer, who refused to identify himself, added, “I’ve known Tony for a long time. I’m not going to talk about him. My diplomatic instincts intervene here.”
I’d seen the two sides of Tony Soares on the Dwarfism List, where he’d made a reputation as an intelligent, articulate, persistent, and angry — very, very angry, to paraphrase Jennemann — critic of dwarf entertainers who conduct themselves in what he sees as demeaning, degrading ways. In the mid-1990s he served a stint as Little People of America’s vice president of public relations. Among other things, he used his post to speak out against Steve Vento, a dwarf who worked at a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee by serving chips and salsa from a sombrero on his head. Soares’s stand was controversial within LPA — supported by some, but criticized by those with careers in the entertainment business, some of whom have occasionally had to make the same sort of unpalatable choice that Vento made. So when I got into Soares’s car that evening, I wanted a chance to talk with him, face to face, about why a person with dwarfism who had achieved such mainstream success would be so exercised over what other dwarfs choose to do with their lives.
We drove up and down Washington Street, Hoboken’s main drag, Soares’s feet working the pedal extenders as he searched for a parking place. Finally he found a spot near an outdoor bistro, where he ordered a beef dish that looked rare enough to get up and walk away. He had a lot on his mind — not only work and city politics, but his health, too. His back was aching, and he’d just returned from Johns Hopkins, where Dr. Michael Ain had examined him. But he was polite and friendly and, yes, outspoken during our conversation, a conversation that was interrupted repeatedly by constituents who approached him to exchange pleasantries and shoot the breeze.
I asked him about something Bill Cosby once said in an interview. I’ve long since misplaced Cosby’s exact words, but, essentially, he complained that excessive concerns about dignity and respect had shut African-American actors out from certain comic roles — that they couldn’t be clowns, for instance, without being criticized for embracing negative racial stereotypes. Why, Cosby asked, shouldn’t black entertainers have the same opportunity as whites to engage in goofy, physical humor? I asked Soares if he didn’t see a parallel between Cosby’s critique and the right of dwarf entertainers to make fools of themselves.
“There’s a big difference between him acting silly and stupid, and him acting like Stepin Fetchit,” Soares replied. “I think there’s a big difference between the guy who plays J.J. on Good Times and the woman who played one of the space crew in the sixties on Star Trek.” Then again, Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, was cast in a dead-serious role, exactly the sort of politically correct part to which Cosby had argued blacks should not be restricted. But I let it go. I was more interested in learning why Soares believed dwarfs such as Nacho Man could harm someone like him, an accomplished thirty-eight-year-old professional who hopes someday to be elected the mayor of his adopted city.
Soares told me a story. One morning he was walking his dog when he ran into another dwarf man who lives in Hoboken. While they were talking, a white limousine pulled up, and out jumped a beefy guy who looked like a bouncer, followed by a dwarf. The bouncer — a talent manager, actually — approached Soares and his friend. It turned out that the other dwarf was there for some sort of alleged entertainment event at a Hoboken bar that night, and his manager wanted to know if Soares and his friend would like to make a few extra bucks.
“I think it’s horrific what you do to this man,” Soares told him by way of reply. “I think this is in poor taste.”
“Aw, come on, what else is he going to do?” the manager asked.
“What else is he going to do? Do you assume that I’m some sort of freak?” They were standing outside of Soares’s condo. Soares pointed to it and continued, “I live in this building. I own an apartment here.” He gestured to his friend. “This man is married, he’s planning a family. We’re real people.”
The manager’s response: “Oh, come on. You’re a rare case.”
“Rare?” retorted Soares. “Get the hell out of this town, buddy.” The manager began cursing, and Soares told him, “In another second, I’ll have the police here. I’m the president of the city council. You can’t come into this town and do this kind of exploitative crap. It’s barbaric.”
Soares told me there was a lesson in that encounter. “Why do people laugh at little people?” he asked. “The entertainment business. People do not laugh at people going by in wheelchairs, or burn victims. They laugh at dwarfs because it’s been made to be okay. They were court jesters, freak-show performers, circus acts, and cute little munchkins with funny voices. It’s an automatic response. I can walk down the street and know, based on who I am approaching, that I’m going to get some shit. I can almost sense it.”
He added of his happenstance encounter with the dwarf entertainer and his obnoxious manager: “I made a call to the mayor right away, because this guy was harassing me, just as a regular citizen. But they did not stop me because they thought I was just like anybody else. I could have been in a three-piece suit and had on a $10,000 Rolex watch and they still would have done that. Because all they saw was dwarf. They didn’t see anything other than that.”
Tony Soares is arguing for group responsibility, for each member of the LP community to carry himself or herself with a certain degree of dignity so as not to contribute to negative stereotypes. “It’s almost like empirical data. If you act like a jerk, some other dwarf is going to be hurt by it,” he said. It was hard to disagree. He put forth a strong case for why a dwarf who makes a living by making a fool of himself can have a harmful effect on other dwarfs. Yet, personally, I have a hard time accepting the notion that person X shouldn’t do Y because it might make a few yahoos laugh at person Z.
Partly this is because of my belief in individual freedom. I’m against rules that ban what another person chooses to do as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else — whether it be smoking pot, engaging in exotic but consensual sexual activities, or serving chips and salsa from the top of one’s head. But partly — maybe mostly — it’s because I’ve never seen my daughter as being limited in any way by the culture into which she was born. I’ve always believed that Becky can do anything she wants, as long as she’s not looking for a career as a professional basketball player. I can’t imagine that what another person chooses to do will have a negative effect on her. Yet Soares’s experience suggests that it’s not that simple.
Take what happened to Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former district director of Little People of America. Nearly twenty years ago, he and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,’” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”
Danny Black, the guy who sells the “Midget Petting Zoo” T-shirts and “magic wands,” also works as an entertainment agent and has helped some folks find work at dwarf-tossing events. When I asked him to defend the practice, he told me, “The person who’s putting himself most at risk is the same person who’s agreeing to be the tossee. It’s their equipment, it’s their rules and limitations, typically, that set the parameters for how that’s run. Who am I to deny you the opportunity to be a news reporter? Who are you to deny the lady at the front desk the chance to be a front-desk clerk? Who are you to deny the lady down the street from being a stripper?”
Black’s comments sounded logical enough, and ordinarily I would agree. But Doyle Harris was humiliated — and could have been seriously injured — because of what other dwarfs chose to do. Some states, including Florida and New York, have actually banned dwarf-tossing. A dwarf’s quest to overturn the Florida law in the spring of 2002 became the subject of a characteristically simplistic commentary by libertarian extremist John Stossel on ABC News’s 20/20. Defending the ban were veteran Little People of America activists Robert and Angela Van Etten, whom Stossel portrayed as a couple of uptight moralists. And yes, I’m uncomfortable with the notion of an out-and-out ban. But I’m even more uncomfortable with what happened to Harris.
Here’s another example of how difficult it can be to find the right balance between group responsibility and individual freedom. Feminists and religious conservatives have argued for years that hardcore pornography should be banned on the grounds that it exploits and demeans women. It’s an argument I reject on free-speech grounds. Recently, though, I rented a movie starring Bridget Powerz — a.k.a. Bridget the Midget — called Midget in a Suitcase. Powerz, a dwarf woman, is literally dragged around in a suitcase — and dropped downstairs, and plopped roughly on beds and couches — only to pop out with a smile on her face, ready for action, whenever the average-size man who possesses the suitcase opens it up. As soon as he’s done, it’s back in the suitcase and on to the next customer.
Dwarf porn stars are invariably described as “midgets,” even though every one whose photo I’ve found on the Internet, male and female, is in fact a disproportionate dwarf. In other words, even if midget were an acceptable word, these performers don’t fit the definition. Bridget Powerz is apparently pseudoachondroplastic. Gidget the Midget, another porn star, appears to be achondroplastic. But why describe them accurately when a hateful, dismissive word can be used instead?
And what, precisely, is the appeal of midget porn? Bridget Powerz is a reasonably attractive woman. But it’s interesting — and disturbing — to note that even with her tongue stud, her pierced nipple, and her tattoos, she easily could pass for sixteen. Bridget is more popular than Gidget. Maybe it’s because she’s prettier. Maybe it’s because Bridget has been on Howard Stern’s show and Gidget hasn’t. But maybe — and I suspect this is the real reason — it’s because Gidget, with her older face and voluptuous figure, appears to be exactly what she is: an adult woman who happens to be a dwarf. Bridget, by contrast, feeds some sick and dangerous fantasies about sex and children.
I guess it all depends on your personal perspective. To me, Tony Soares’s and Doyle Harris’s scenarios are abstract, theoretical, not a real threat to my daughter. I can listen to them, process what they have to say, even change my mind about the proper balance between group responsibility and individual freedom. Still, I don’t feel it viscerally. With Bridget, I do. And I’m leery of a culture whose attitudes about girls and young women with dwarfism have been shaped — no matter how slightly — by the movies of Bridget Powerz.
These days Bridget is said to be retired from the pornography business, and is trying to launch a new career as a singer. Good for her. Unfortunately for me, unfortunately for my daughter, you can still rent Midget in a Suitcase at your friendly neighborhood porno shop. No, I wouldn’t ban it. But I wouldn’t want Becky anywhere near someone who had rented it and who liked it for all the wrong reasons.
It was only with some difficulty that I was able to arrange an interview with Meredith Eaton. She and her husband, Michael Gilden, a stockbroker and actor, had been burned by a journalist a few years earlier, and that was before she’d become a television star. It took the intervention of a mutual acquaintance, a stream of e-mails, and some importuning in the hotel lobby at the 2002 Little People of America conference in Salt Lake City to get her to spend an hour with me. Michael was not with her; she said it was because he was playing boccie — Italian bowling, a staple at LPA gatherings. No doubt he was. But I also suspect he’d made sure he’d found something else to do rather than put his trust in another writer. (Note: Their marriage came to a heartbreaking end in December 2006, when Michael Gilden committed suicide.)
Normally I am not particularly flustered by the idea of being in the presence of a celebrity, but there was something about Eaton, looking casually glamorous in a black-and-white ensemble, that threw me. Just as we were about to begin, I realized I’d misplaced my notebook, which left me sputtering incoherently for a moment or two. She reminded me that I’d left it downstairs and waited patiently while I retrieved it.
From The Wizard of Oz to the Austin Powers movies, dwarf entertainers have been cast as lesser beings, as clowns, as antic window dressing. It can be a pretty discouraging way to make a living. Armistead Maupin’s 1992 novel, Maybe the Moon, was about a dwarf actress who was the unacknowledged, down-on-her-luck star of an E.T.-like movie whose dream was to attain mainstream recognition and success. Maybe the Moon was, in fact, loosely based on the life of the late Tamara De Treaux, who really was one of the dwarf performers who donned the E.T. costume and who spent the rest of her career appearing in rubber suits or popping out of refrigerators in forgettable comedies such as Ghoulies and Earth Girls Are Easy. Of course, E.T., The Wizard of Oz, and Goldmember aren’t Midget in a Suitcase, and there’s nothing really wrong with dwarf entertainers’ making a living by taking advantage of their difference. But Meredith Eaton represents a significant step forward, one that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago: a dwarf actress who plays mainstream characters.
Twenty-seven years old when we met, Eaton told me that she had been accepted into the Ph.D. program in psychology at Adelphi University when, on a whim, she tried out for a role in a movie called Unconditional Love, which at this writing was scheduled to be released in the summer of 2003. She got the part, which she describes as that of a strong woman whose dwarfism is incidental. She liked the experience so much that she decided to pursue an acting career and dropped out of school. Which did not, she admitted, make her parents happy.
But Eaton stuck with it and has managed to find work in one non-stereotypical role after another. She played a prostitute in an episode of NYPD Blue — a part she accepted, she said, only after the show’s creator, Steven Bochco, agreed to tone down the use of the word midget. “In the script, the cop says to me — he’s referring to one of my prostitute friends — and he says, ‘Is Brenda a midget too?’ And my famous line that I created is, ‘It’s little person, asshole,’” Eaton told me, laughing in delight. She also played an oral surgeon on an episode of Dharma & Greg and was a murder suspect on the CSI episode that I referred to in an earlier chapter. (Michael Gilden, by the way, played the victim. At least it wasn’t his real-life wife who killed him.)
Eaton may be best known for playing the lawyer Emily Resnick on the now-canceled CBS dramatic series Family Law, a role that featured, among other things, a romance between her and a dwarf man, also played by her husband. And her fan mail has convinced her that she’s been able to make a difference in people’s lives. “I’ve gotten, ‘Thank God, finally, you’ve played a lawyer, my daughter’s being taken more seriously,’” Eaton said. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘You know what? I’m respected more in my workplace now. Thank you, thank you for giving me confidence.’ So I know I’ve made an impact in a positive way.”
Eaton, who is four-foot-two, has pseudoachondroplasia, like her mother, a psychoanalyst. Her father, who is average-size, is a judge. As a teenager, Eaton said, she went out with average-size boys exclusively; her husband, whom she met at an LPA conference following months of get-acquainted e-mails, is the first little person she had ever dated. Yet her dwarfism has hardly been incidental to her life. Pseudoachondroplasia often carries with it significant orthopedic complications. Eaton told me she’d had sixteen surgeries, mainly to straighten her severely bowed legs. One particularly painful procedure involved drilling holes in her legs and putting on Ilizarov fixators, the same devices that are used for limb-lengthening but which are sometimes used for straightening instead. It didn’t work. The fixators had to be removed, and she then underwent another series of operations to straighten her legs by more conventional means.
But despite the impact that her dwarfism has had on her, she suspects that she’s been able to act as such a positive role model because her parents told her that it was the least important aspect of her identity.
“My parents always taught me, ‘Meredith, you are a person of short stature, you’re not a short-statured person,’” she said. “‘You are a person first. You are a woman, you are a brunette, you are a daughter, you are Jewish, you are intelligent, you are compassionate. You are this, you are this, you are this, you are this, and guess what? You’re short.’ That is so important. Now I realize it. At eight, nine, and ten I never understood why that verbiage meant so much. And now I understand why.”
The last time I was in touch with her, she sent me an e-mail telling me that she was now trying her hand at screenwriting. “I figure if I want positive, well-developed roles,” she said, “I might as well create some!”
A more non-mainstream type of mainstreaming, if you will, can be seen in the 2002 movie Cherish, whose stars include Ricardo Gil, a photographer and artist who lives in San Francisco. Gil plays the gay, Jewish, wheelchair-using downstairs neighbor of a woman who has been falsely accused in the death of a cop, and who is confined by an electronic ankle bracelet to a police-issued apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. (In real life Gil, who has a type of dwarfism called cartilage-hair hypoplasia, is ambulatory and married to an achondroplastic woman named Meg. They are the parents of an average-size daughter, Lily.) What’s unusual about the part is that there was really no need for it to be filled by a dwarf. The director and writer, Finn Taylor, had created the role for a friend of his, a new-media innovator named Gary Brickman, who was indeed a gay, Jewish, wheelchair-using dwarf. But Brickman died before filming could begin.
Gil had retired from the film business after breaking his neck in a stunt in the mid-1980s, an accident that nearly left him paralyzed and that required two operations to repair. He was forty-five years old at the time that I interviewed him, bearded, and getting around with the help of a cane. I asked him how he got his role in Cherish. He explained that he was making his daily visit to the coffee shop at the French Hotel, in Berkeley, when Finn Taylor walked in, noticed him, and invited him to read for the part. Taylor told Gil that a dwarf actor who’d tried out in LA had done fine but for some reason wasn’t quite right. Later, Gil learned that he was competing with his brother, Arturo Gil, a full-time actor who has appeared on Ally McBeal and who these days is a regular on The Man Show. Ricardo said he felt some trepidation after beating his brother out, but added that Arturo remained supportive.
Gil appreciates what a step forward his part was, but he refuses to criticize dwarf actors who have been forced to take stereotyped roles. “I guess we see so many roles that aren’t real — fantasy-type characters — and not enough of the character roles that Meredith Eaton did, or that Art did on Ally McBeal,” Gil told me. “Those are the kinds of roles that I want to see more of. But it’s hard for me to say anything against people who are earning a living at being a clown or taking demeaning roles. I’ve actually taken on some demeaning roles. And the only thing I can do now is possibly take on a role like Cherish and show people what a wonderful role this is, and what an interesting role, and promote it, talk about it. I can’t be judgmental.”
Cherish disappeared almost as soon as it was released, which is a shame. Gil is terrific, a vibrant, foul-mouthed revelation. He told me that he’d written to several reviewers who’d sneered that the only reason Taylor included such an off-the-wall character was to get Cherish onto the art-house circuit, not realizing that the part had been intended for Taylor’s friend Brickman.
“I didn’t blast them,” Gil said, “but I told them that the part had been written for his best friend, and his best friend happened to be this, which is fine. And I think I did a damn good job, and you should’ve mentioned my name in your goddamn review.”
The movie may have been something of a commercial flop, but it revived Gil’s acting career. For several months afterward he performed eight times a week in the Puccini opera La Bohème, which had an extended run in San Francisco before moving to Broadway. Under the direction of Baz Luhrmann — best known for the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge! — La Bohème was re-imagined as a 1950s-era greaser epic, with Gil as a pimp (a non-singing role) who’s protected by a seven-foot-tall bodyguard.
Gil’s real passion, though, is his photography, which can be seen on his Web site, http://www.ricardogil.com. Much of his work consists of seeing the world from a dwarf’s-eye perspective — holding his camera at what is, for average-size people, waist-high, and making the viewer see what he sees. His pictures, he told me, are intended primarily for his daughter. A few years ago, a Discovery Channel documentary portrayed his photography as a work of anger, his chance to get even with a world that didn’t accept him as he was. “That was a misperception,” he said. “I don’t know how they slanted it that way.” He added: “The resulting piece is good in that it’s doing some social activism. The problem with it is that they distorted my story. I wasn’t angry. I was in love with my daughter, I was in love with my family. And I thought it was significant and important to document my family, not just for myself, but for my daughter, as a legacy to her, so that when we’re old and she’s a grown woman, she can look back at these photographs and come to a different understanding than when she was a child.”
Even so, Gil must relish the chance to show the average-size majority how he sees them, given their refusal to look honestly at him. “I’ve had people practically jump out of their shoes when I come around the corner and they see me,” he said. “We’re perceived as not being human, like the gnome or the troll under the bridge. We’re not treated as regular people, with the same human faults and dilemmas as everyone else. People freak out. There’s a frightened look, and uncomfortable laughing. As a little person I just want to shake that person and say, ‘What the hell is going on for you? What have you learned? Why do you treat me like this?’”
The answer, I suppose, is that they’ve been conditioned to treat him like that. That will change when more of us come to realize that a lawyer can look like Meredith Eaton. Or that the neighbor downstairs can look like Ricardo Gil. For decades, the entertainment media have taken away. Now, maybe, they’re starting to give back.
On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, precisely one week before the world as we knew it came to an end, a thirty-nine-year-old man named Henry J. Nasiff Jr. died in his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. The causes of death were reportedly advanced alcoholism and a seizure disorder, complicated by a genetic condition.
If you’d ever heard of Nasiff, it was, no doubt, by his stage moniker: Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf. Nasiff was one of a parade of weirdoes, misfits, and pathetic losers who regularly make their way through the New York studios of The Howard Stern Show. Known collectively as the Wack Pack, they go by such charming appellations as Gary the Retard, Crackhead Bob, and Beetlejuice, an African-American dwarf who, as a comedic bonus, portrays himself as being mentally deficient.
Nasiff’s genetic condition was achondroplasia. His shtick was to show up on the set drunk or pretending to be drunk (most likely the former, since his alcoholism was apparently real enough) and make an obnoxious fool of himself, mouthing such pleasantries as “Go have sex with Jesus Christ, you faggot!” and “I’m not a midget, I’m a dwarf, you asshole!” His objection to the M-word might be construed as Nasiff’s sole attempt at self-respect. Needless to say, such a lesson coming from Nasiff was painfully ironic. He had already turned himself into such a freak that P. T. Barnum would have looked away.
When I learned that Nasiff had died, I can’t say I was particularly upset. I didn’t know him, after all, and his death was not imbued with the sort of sad, tragic circumstances that impels one’s heart to go out to strangers. But I learned that Nasiff’s life was more complicated, and more closely intertwined with ours, than I would have believed.
The positive image of dwarfism that we want for Becky is about as far removed from the repulsive antics of Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf as one can imagine. Yet it seems that, at least on some level, Henry Nasiff desperately wanted to be part of the same community as our daughter. His death notice in the Fall River Herald News, to my surprise, asked that donations in his name be made either to Little People of America or the Billy Barty Foundation. And that’s not all. I learned from LPA’s executive office that, the previous year, Nasiff had paid three hundred dollars for a life membership. Even more surprising, I learned that Ruth Ricker actually knew Nasiff.
“He adored Billy Barty,” she wrote in a message to the Dwarfism List. “He called Billy occasionally on the phone …as he did me. Billy talked to him and seemed to be encouraging him in a positive, mentoring way. I heard from Hank less and less, which I didn’t regret honestly, as he got involved in the Howard Stern stuff and his alcohol abuse got even worse. It’s sad that his life turned out this way and ended so young. I feel for his parents and his siblings.”
Finding all this out didn’t exactly make me feel guilty. After all, I hadn’t been pleased to learn of his death. Like Bridget Powerz or Steve “Nacho Man” Vento, Nasiff certainly had a right to make a living any way he wanted, just as I had a right to pay no attention to him. But among the dwarf community, his behavior was like a dull toothache: always there to be railed against on the Dwarfism List, along with limb-lengthening and the M-word. He was an embarrassment. Toward the end of his life, he may well have been the most famous little person in the country, more famous than Michael Ain, more famous than Meredith Eaton. And no one — no dwarf, no parent of a dwarf — wanted to be thought of as having anything even remotely to do with Hank the Dwarf.
So I suppose I was satisfied, in a small sense, that Nasiff would no longer be able to humiliate himself and, by extension, the community of dwarfs and their families to which we belong. But I did feel a little foolish — foolish to realize that what I had thought I understood was more complex, and more tied up in human pain and weakness and yearning, than it appeared on the surface. Who was I to dismiss Henry Nasiff so coldly? I didn’t even know him.
Following Nasiff’s death, his Web site, http://www.hankthedwarf. com, was turned into something of a shrine. Yes, you could still watch streaming videos of a drunken Nasiff spewing invective at the camera, or buy a keychain emblazoned with hank says: don’t drink & drive. But it also included messages from his so-called fans and an unctuous tribute from his manager.
What drew my eye, though, was a photo of Nasiff at the age of perhaps five or six, holding a phone to his right ear and looking as happy and carefree and full of life and promise as any child. Nasiff may have died a drunken wretch, an object of ridicule. But once he was a little boy who was loved and fussed over, dressed in crisp new clothes, and photographed so his parents could admire him and show him off to family and friends.
It makes me sick, and more than a little scared, to realize that his parents wanted the same things for him that we want for Becky — indeed, for both our children. I don’t assume for a moment that Nasiff became an alcoholic because he was a dwarf. Rather, I imagine that he allowed his dwarfism to be exploited because he was an alcoholic, which is a very different thing. We all try to do what is best for our kids, to teach them right from wrong and guide them as well as we can. Ultimately, though, the choices they make, and the demons they fall prey to, are beyond our control. Nasiff’s life and death are a testament to what a heartbreaking endeavor parenthood can be.
In a sense, Henry Nasiff was Tony Soares’s opposite. Soares has succeeded in mainstream society; Nasiff was a success only to the extent that he could make money by getting people to laugh at him in disgust. Soares takes for granted his status in the dwarf community as well as in the broader culture; Nasiff was on the outside looking in. Soares believes passionately that dwarfs who act the way Nasiff did harm the image of other dwarfs. I have no idea what Nasiff believed, but if he could have stopped acting like — stopped being — a foul-mouthed, drunken lout, he might have agreed with Soares. Like Charles Stratton, Nasiff exploited himself; but because he lacked Stratton’s shrewdness and self-control, he was unable to build a life.
Role models are important, and Nasiff was the role model from hell. To the extent that he had a responsibility to other dwarfs, he walked away from that responsibility many times over. But he had individual freedom, too. His inability to use that freedom wisely makes it no less precious, or necessary.
Some people — be it Bridget Powerz, Henry Nasiff, or the human missiles in dwarf-tossing events — may make life more difficult for other people who happen to look like them. The examples set by others, such as Meredith Eaton and Ricardo Gil, may lead to greater acceptance. But I’m not going to lie awake at night thinking about how all this affects my daughter. She is who she is, and she will be who she will be. Helping her become the best person she’s capable of is hard enough work without worrying about how other people have chosen to live their lives.
Ultimately, we are responsible only for ourselves.