Prior to Dwarf: A Memoir, the only book I ever bothered to read about “little people” was The Hobbit. Unlike The Hobbit, Dwarf is not epic medieval fantasy, nor is it about hobbits or “actual” dwarves, neither of which exist … I think. It’s rather a biography of a real“little person”: one in whom we observe more or less obvious signs of slowed, stunted, or otherwise abnormal growth that can result from any one of 200 to 300 or more distinct medical conditions.
To put politically incorrectly, I’ve read a book about a “midget.”
Dwarf is the autobiography of Tiffanie DiDonato, who at birth was diagnosed with diastrophic dysplasia, which DiDonato explains is “a very rare type of dwarfism that results in short stature, joint deformities, and very short arms and legs.”
“From birth to the age of 12,” she writes, “my arms were so short that I couldn’t reach my own ears, or other parts of my body for that matter.”
Starting at the age of 12, Tiffanie underwent a series of then-controversial bone-lengthening procedures, which essentially involved breaking/sawing the bones in her arms and legs into segments, using external metal pins and braces to align them, and regularly separating the bones a millimeter at a time (by turning a screw) so that the bones regenerate in the negative space between them and fill in the gaps—effectively lengthening the limbs.
According to Little People of America, one is considered a “little person” if they are four feet, 10 inches tall or shorter. Today, DiDonato is 4’10”; in childhood, however, prior to her life-changing surgeries (not to mention her decision to go well beyond the typical two to three inches people typically expected to gain from them), she stood at only 3’8”—and apparently “wasn’t expected to grow any more” at that point.
In other words, DiDonato wasn’t expected to live beyond a state of perpetual dependence. “Undergoing bone-lengthening surgery,” DiDonato insists, “was about becoming independent.”
“The body I was born with wouldn’t allow me that simple exercise in freedom.”
Had she not undergone the radical Ilizarov apparatus, suffered all the excruciating complications that came with it, and endured her brutal post-operation therapies (over several years), she wouldn’t be enjoying the freedom she has now. Were it not for abundant reservoirs of fortitude and tenacity (which she inherits from her strong, supportive, and above all loving military mother), she wouldn’t be much better than a poor victim of a rare handicap.
Instead, she’s Tiffanie DiDonato, a beautiful wife and mother, and an awesome human being.
Tiffanie DiDonato is not a “remarkable” person.
All too often it’s the case that we consider someone “remarkable” because he was once perceived to be somehow “unremarkable.” We prefer to lower our expectations of one another; more often than not, you’re inclined to charge someone insignificant until proven noteworthy—and for the same reason you’re inclined to charge someone guilty until proven innocent, or guilty until you’re out of either inclinations and charges (i.e. deceased).
It’s no different when it comes to the rubric of remarkability: one’s perceived social value is often a consequence of a sticky ignorance.
It’s usually impossible for one to stubbornly adhere to ideals that make sense to him without being stubbornly dismissive of ideals that don’t make sense to him. Truths can’t exist without their corresponding lies for the same reason you can’t believe in the devil without believing in the almighty nincompoop responsible for his existence. If you have a perspective on what ought to beor what is, you likely have a corresponding perspective on what ought not to be or what is not as well.
And since we’re all entitled to our beliefs and encouraged to hold onto them dearly, it’s fair to say that everyone is a stubborn and dismissive disbeliever at some point. We’re hardwired to be judgers, prone to overestimating ourselves in our underestimation of others—history doesn’t lie.
My first reaction to the story of DiDonato was that she’s “remarkable” … only because she’d been born with “third-degree dwarfism.” Would she still be “remarkable” if she weren’t born like that? Before even reading the book, I pitied her because I knew she was “disabled”—and aren’t we all taught by our parents to “feel bad” for “disabled” people? Aren’t we all taught to see “little people” as victims? True, there are parents who refuse to instruct us in that way at all; instead, they coat their prejudices with a thicker veil, encouraging their children to treat “them” with respect, or to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (a maxim which has proven to be about as useful in adulthood as training wheels and nursery rhymes).
What rouses within those parents the need to instruct their children as such in the first place? Assuming an 8-year-old doesn’t know what the word “midget” is yet, when he or she happens to spot a little person approaching, what it is it that motivates you to desperately rush to whisper into this child’s ear to do this or don’t think that at all? Why do we even bother? (We might as well just tell the kid, “Stop staring, leave him alone, he’s sub-par, he’s a midget.”) It’s pity.
We reduce people to the sum of their purported “disadvantages,” worse yet because it allows us to feel better about ourselves. After all, no “midget” could ever be expected to pummel through the lane like a freight train and finish a fiery fast break with a thunderous foul-line dunk in the NBA. No “midget” could model for American Apparel, or become a Victoria’s Secret Angel for that matter. No “midget” could ever star as one of the leads of an acclaimed television series, become everyone’s favorite character in it, win an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance, and marry a hot, full-sized, liberal theater chick (you know, the dark and freaky kind) … right?
The one remarkable thing about DiDonato is how she gives the impression that she’d rather younot feel sorry for her. Much of the accounts she shares in Dwarf encompass parts of her life that are as commonplace as any in any normal American girl’s life. When she relates an important conversation with her father over ice cream in which she asked about boys, wondering what they found “beautiful” (to which he sweetly responded by making an hourglass shape with his hands and reassuring her that she had that), I see a warm father and a typical tweenaged girl—not a dwarf. When she swoons in the book over her husband Eric, her real-life knight in shining armor, I can’t help but visualize a woman in love—not a “midget” in love. When she says things like “let’s be perfectly clear: I am not a midget, I am not a dwarf—please, just call me Tiffanie,” I’m mostly left quite satisfied with doing just that, and seeing her simply as “a woman with ideas, talent, and a sharp tongue.”
She’s not “remarkable” because there was never anything “unremarkable” about her to begin with. Unless you were her mother or father or one of her childhood friends, you couldn’t have truly known what this girl was made of—but if you thought you knew, it was because you’d taken one look at her and said, “Eh, she’s nothing special.”
Allow me to close on this:
Around this time a year ago, some bitter Knick fan in Jersey was considering dumping his allegiance to the boys in blue and orange and becoming just another Laker fan living in New York, for he’d grown weary after a long decade of basketball mediocrity. He didn’t know what 2012 would bring him and his entire city, that in less than a month’s time, some no-name, Harvard-educated Asian dude from the D-League sitting at the end of the bench would mean all the difference between another losing season and the revitalization of a once storied franchise—that he’d single handedly put his team back on the map in one of the greatest, most uplifting sports stories ever.
Ask Derek Fisher. Really, you just never know what can hit you.
♦ ♦ ♦
Excerpt from Dwarf:
‘Do you know what four inches feels like?’ I asked. I wanted him to know I was a veteran and not going into all of this blindly.
He shook his head no.
‘Four inches was more pain than I ever thought possible the first time I had surgery. Every night, I felt the muscles in my legs twitch and jolt and bang against me from the inside out. It was horrible, and while I was doing it, I swore I never wanted to feel that much pain again. But now I know that I need to do this again. I also need it to be worth all that pain.’
Originally published on PolicyMic (01/03/13).
Edited by Elena Sheppard.