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A friend of mine told me the following story: At a rock club a while back, he found himself at the fringes of one of those desultory mosh pits that still form occasionally even in this day and age. He was doing his best to avoid flying elbows when he found himself the target of a remarkably painful hip check. Confused—no human pinballs blipped on his visual radar—he turned his eyes back to the stage, only to have it happen again. And again. He finally looked down to see a dwarf darting back into the crowd. Then he saw another dwarf. And another. He was in a crowd of enthusiastically slam-dancing dwarfs.

Having just finished reading John H. Richardson’s In the Little World: A True Story of Dwarfs, Love, and Trouble, I can tell you that the amazing thing about this story is not that the dwarfs were slam-dancing, but that the members of this crew had somehow found each other in a world where it’s hard enough finding even one other dwarf, much less one with punk-rock leanings. Because dwarfism is a genetic rarity—one dwarf is born for every 10,000 to 15,000 “tall” people—the dwarf’s life is usually isolated. So isolated, Richardson tells us, that many of the dwarfs attending the Little People of America (LPA) annual convention for the first time are stunned at discovering not that there are so many people just like them, but that there is anyone just like them. Some are so unsettled that they walk out, never to come back.

I originally picked up In the Little World thinking that it might be a true-crime novel. But Richardson’s book is no crime story. Nor is it a sociological treatise or a history of famous dwarfs—don’t say “midget”; dwarfs loathe the term—although Richardson offers some fascinating background information. He delves, for example, into the historical origins of society’s erotic fascination with dwarfs, which “persists to this day in the surprisingly popular dwarf porn genre”—and in the troupe of English male dwarf strippers who bill themselves as the Half Monty.

In the Little World is an expansion of an article Richardson wrote about an LPA convention for Esquire magazine. At the gathering, Richardson met a group of people—both dwarf and tall—whom he got to know better over the next two years. There’s Michael, the good-looking actor/stockbroker who is engaged in the search for the perfect woman. Whom he thinks he’s finally found in Meredith, a dark-eyed Long Island beauty. The trouble? She’s dated only big people in the past. Then there’s Kay, who considers Michael her “best little person friend” and has some unusual romantic troubles of her own. There’s the bright and sarcastic Andrea, whom Richardson spends the bulk of the book either fighting or making up with. There’s Jocelyn, the wheelchair-bound Australian teen whose medical ordeals—a seemingly unending succession of painful surgeries on her spine, back, legs, and feet—have left her self-contained to the point of uncommunicativeness. And then there’s Evelyn, Jocelyn’s nondwarf mother, who’s not about to let anything prevent her daughter’s getting the treatment she needs—not even her friends, husband, and other children.

Richardson’s book is by turns heartbreaking, discomfiting, funny, and exasperating. Many of the approximately 200 defined forms of dwarfism are accompanied by an array of serious health problems that can result in disability or early death. Tack on isolation and societal prejudice—dwarfs don’t have to worry about being kept as royal pets anymore, but they face an array of everyday disadvantages, ranging from the inability to reach water fountains, hotel desks, and light switches, to out-and-out discrimination—and it’s no wonder your average dwarf views the LPA convention the way a poor kid looks forward to a trip to Disney World. Only to find—and this is one of the ironies Richardson explores—that the pressures of that single week can be overwhelming. For many dwarfs, those few days may constitute their only real chance of finding a mate. No wonder the convention sees its share of whirlwind courtships, sudden weddings, and just as sudden divorces, not to mention—Richardson is mum on this point—lord knows how many extramarital affairs and one-night stands.

One of Richardson’s more poignant, though hardly startling, observations is that dwarfs can be every bit as callow to the opposite sex as tall people. The little world, says Richardson, is rife with dwarfs who don’t get asked to dance, either because they’re insufficiently tall or attractive or because their form of dwarfism has left them disabled or disfigured. It is a common misconception to think that the different, having suffered as a result of their difference, must have evolved to some higher spiritual plane where they can look beyond appearances. Unfortunately, hardship is not necessarily ennobling, and dwarfs are slaves to looks just like the rest of us. The same goes for other types of physical attributes, as demonstrated by a disturbing scene at the LPA convention wherein a dwarf, convinced that a bartender is ignoring him because of his size, calls the man a nigger. (He is subsequently asked to leave the gathering.)

That moving beyond the superficialities of difference may be not only difficult but impossible is one of the major themes of In the Little World. Common decency tells us that beauty is only skin-deep—that it’s what’s on the inside that matters. Science, however, tells a different story, as Richardson shows through a sampling of studies that demonstrate that we all—even babies—seem to abide by a kind of Platonic template that dictates what we will find beautiful. In the end, Richardson is left to wrestle with two contrary notions. Is the idea that dwarfs are wrong somehow, imperfect versions of their taller brethren, simply an invidious societal construct that can be thrown off like any other prejudice? Or is it scientifically predetermined, hard-wired into the human brain? To attempt to address these questions is to play with moral dynamite, and Richardson—who seems to lean toward the latter belief, but hesitantly, ashamedly even—is to be applauded for his courage in raising them.

Another of the book’s themes is that dwarfs are subject to all the moral frailties that bedevil the rest of us. Richardson was certainly right to refuse to write yet another patronizing variation of the “big hearts in little bodies” story that one sees so often in the popular press. That said, the further I delved into In the Little World, the more I found myself annoyed by the dwarfs in Richardson’s life. As my wife, who also read the book, said, “Richardson’s problem is he picked a whole bunch of unlikable dwarfs.” Indeed, they sometimes seem like the cast of some particularly odious soap opera.

Michael, the actor/stockbroker, comes off as an insecure, controlling, and manipulative womanizer, who continues to correspond with a potential romantic interest on the Internet even after he has found the “woman of his dreams.” Andrea gives new meaning to the phrase “high-maintenance relationship.” As for Kay—well, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say she invents a beguiling Internet persona as part of a sad and confused scheme to keep the man she’s secretly mad about coming back to her. This Shakespearean ruse would be funny if its unraveling didn’t wreak so much havoc.

But the richest melodrama surrounds Evelyn, Jocelyn’s mother. As her efforts to control all aspects of her daughter’s medical care alienate the people around her—#at one point she questions whether a highly qualified surgeon who also happens to be a dwarf possesses the “stamina” needed to perform a long surgery—she too retreats to the Internet, where she spends long hours in virtual communication with people she doesn’t really know, who are only too happy to tell her exactly what she wants to hear. Her human interactions reduced to brief exchanges of psychobabble, she leaves her husband and children in Australia to come to the United States, only to find herself unhappy here, too. She’s brave, sure, but she’s also totally self-absorbed; she’s easy to admire but virtually impossible to like.

That’s not to say you won’t be uplifted by parts of Richardson’s book. Jocelyn’s stoic toughness is the stuff that the “big hearts in little bodies” stories are made of. Similarly, Richardson’s descriptions of the unflagging efforts of Dr. Steven E. Kopits, the Baltimore-based orthopedic surgeon who has made helping dwarfs his life’s work, are enough to reaffirm your faith in human compassion and selflessness. Between the one, who is fighting pain for a chance at a more normal life, and the other, who is fighting to shed more light on an area of medicine that has been relegated to the shadows for far too long, you’ll get all the heartwarming you’ll want.

In the end, Richardson captures that uncomfortable mix of emotions—fear, compassion, and curiosity on the part of tall people; anger, frustration, and defiance among little people—that arises whenever the lives of “normal” and “different”—whatever those terms might mean—converge. There are tall parents who say they would abort a dwarf fetus, and dwarf parents who say they would abort a normal fetus. And there’s the great majority: uncomfortable with our discomfort, disquieted by our disquietude, who look but pretend not to, or stand, torn, between a desire to stare and a desire to turn away. CP