Then, in my thirties, I hit a wall. When friends asked, “What are you dressing as this year?” I’d reply: “I am a costume of the future! My task is to perfect the details of being me.” It was a joke, but also a response to a lifetime of being stared at, for my curved spine, orthopedic boots, arrhythmic limp, being short — in short, all the things that made me unacceptable. I felt that no matter what I wore, viewers just subtracted the costume right off my body. What was the point of putting a monster over a monster?
Why do I say “monster?” Because that’s how I’ve been treated.
But now I have claimed “monster” for myself. I wrote a book, “Golem Girl,” that came out last year. In it, I trace the history of the legend of the Golem and how the concept of the artificially constructed creature has been woven into Western culture. That’s how I see myself — as a rough body fashioned from clay, a being as much built as born.
Halloween is the time of monsters, of course. Creatures with damaged bodies, scarred faces, lumbering gaits, missing limbs; brutes that drool, emit miasmas, bleed, leak, manifest psychiatric conditions that put them beyond the pale of acceptable society. Frankenstein (a Golem); his Bride (a Golem); the Borg (a Golem, and so is Mr. Data); Dracula (infectious); the Wolfman (infectious); Darth Vader, Captain Hook (amputees); Freddy Krueger (facial disfigurement and mental illness) … I’ll stop there. If I listed every disabled villain, I’d be here till I was not a Golem but a ghost.
One real-life disabled person who does show up in costumes — at Halloween and year-round, for that matter — is Frida Kahlo. But you’d never know that she was disabled, injured by a trolley crash in her youth, and later by surgeries, gangrene and chronic pain. A “Frida Kahlo costume” image search turns up hundreds of Fridas in her Tehuana dresses, Frida holding cigarettes and monkeys, Frida eyebrows, Frida flower crowns, even Beyoncé as Frida — yet not one back brace, plaster cast, cane or prosthetic leg among them.
I first encountered Frida Kahlo’s work 40 years ago, when I was a young painter searching for a visual language that would allow me to explore my own experience. Her work showed me that one could portray disability with beauty and honesty. I know that Frida asserted her allegiance to her Mexican heritage in the Oaxacan dresses, but I think that she was also finding poetry in the losses of her body. The more she was in pain, it seems to me, the more she decorated herself, as if sending up prayers for pleasure. Her costumes let her be seen as she desired — and as desirable.
She knew, as I know, that it is so hard to leave the house if you don’t want to be seen. Open my closet. You won’t see any floor-sweeping ruffles, but there is plenty of offbeat garb. Dramatic black coats. Bright printed jackets. Beaded and sequined evening gowns, including a bright-red formal with a cape on its shoulders. Three velvet cocktail dresses (one studded with pearls). Garments that are the opposite of hiding.
The most telling are my boots — knee-high black leather with thick rocker soles. The left is several inches higher than the right, because of my considerable leg-length difference. When I was a kid, I tried to hide those legs, to deny that I wore huge orthopedic contraptions. But a Golem is powerful only when it marches through the world, not when it hides in the dark. So now I decorate my boots with an entire wardrobe of shoelaces, from Pride-Flag rainbow to gold-and-silver glitter.