I listened to Howard Stern on and off over the last ten years. Many of my close friends were avid listeners and they always made sure to let me know of something unusual about the show on this or that day.
One of the most interesting characters on the show, who I remember hearing on several occasions, was Eric the Midget (aka Eric the Actor). He would call in to the Howard Stern quite often. He was a part of Stern’s “rat pack.” Howard, it seemed, was obsessed with Eric’s life and asked many questions about how Eric lived his life.
In many ways, one could argue that Stern’s interest in “Freaks” expressed his interest in what it means to be human and in-common. In fact, this kind of argument was made by Leslie Fiedler in his book by that name: Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.
At the outset of his book, written in 1978, Fiedler points out that the word “freak” has gone from being a negative name to an “honorific title by the kind of physiologically normal but dissident young people who use hallucinogenic drugs and are otherwise known as “hippies,” “longhairs” and “heads.” Such young people – in an attempt to perhaps make clear that they have chosen rather than merely endured their status as Freaks – speak of “freaking out,” and, indeed, urge others to emulate them by means of drugs, music, diet, or excitement of gathering in crowds”(14).
However, Eric was a real midget. He didn’t choose to be a “freak.” And he didn’t think of himself as a “freak,” either. Howard treated him as he would treat many people on the show. And like Leslie Fiedler, Howard may have seen something in Eric that he saw hiding in himself. He identified with him although, in many ways, he tried to retain his distance.
At the end of the introductory chapter, Fiedler recalls his feelings, when he went to the “Circus World Museum” in “Baraboo, Wisconsin.” There he saw wax effigies of Freaks from the past: “Lionel the Lion-faced Man and Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy,” and the “Cardiff Giant.”
Confronting them, I could feel the final horror evoked by Freaks stir to life: a kind of vertigo like that experienced by Narcissus when he beheld his image in the reflecting waters and plunged to death. In joined twins the confusion of self and other, substance and shadow, ego and other, is more terrifyingly confounded than it is when the child first perceives face to face in the mirror an image moving as he moves, though clearly in another world. In that case, at least, there are only two participants; the perceiver and the perceived….so the distinction between the audience and exhibit, we and them, normal and Freak, is revealed as an illusion, desperately, perhaps even necessarily, defended, but untenable in the end. (36)
Given his final words, we can see that Fiedler would likely find the difference between himself and Eric effaced. He would come to terms with the other. But now…it’s too late. And we must mourn our loss.
Eric died today at the age of 39.
To give you a sense of who he was and how Howard related to him, I’m going to post a few clips.
And here was a recent show….
As Fiedler might say, Eric was one of us, yet, at the same time, he wasn’t. This difference and its limits were traversed by Howard Stern for well over a decade. And we have yet to go through all of the footage and to figure out what happened and what this all means. Because of Stern, Eric the Midget (Eric the Actor) was heard by millions of listeners who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance on the street. He was on Stern right to the very end. And Howard, ultimately, didn’t want to exploit him. He wanted to make his life better and gave him the stardom that Andy Warhol believed all Americans deserve.
And now he’s gone.