Normality

The question of normality is important in Jerome’s story. But it must be understood that what was considered “normal” in the second half of the 19th Century was very different from what is considered normal today. Nowadays, normality is defined primarily in scientific or medical terms. A child displays “normal” development when it grows and acquires skills and knowledge according to a time scale determined by average development rates in the population at large. A person’s behaviour is considered “normal” when it is not disturbed by a pervasive behavioural disorder or a severe psychosis. Normality today is defined as an average. The “norm” is a statistical factor, indicating a scale of factors and allowing for a certain amount of slack; in other words there is a spectrum in terms of what is normal. Any behaviour that neither breaks the law nor is medically abnormal falls within normality and our society must accept it.

In the 19th Century, normality was primarily defined in terms of moral factors. It was determined by social and religious conventions. In the Maritime provinces during Jerome’s time, normal behaviour did not just have to comply with the law; above all, it had to follow Christian morality and precepts and be similar to the behaviour of all the other members of the community. Your behaviour was normal if you behaved like everyone else. Of course, every social class and every ethnic group considered itself normal and saw the other ethnic groups as inferior, if not downright dangerous. The Anglo-Protestants of the governing classes of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia wanted to assimilate Acadians and Irish Catholics because then they would be normal.

Cy Ó Mateur (Celestin, son of Amateur Trahan) was a contemporary of Jerome. In fact, they died the same year, in 1912. Cy was a highly skilled cobbler, but also very poor. According to the inhabitants of St. Mary’s Bay, including his neighbours in Meteghan, Cy was not normal. He was an angry, violent person. He drank a lot, played cards and gambled. He didn’t go to Mass on Sundays, and didn’t take communion. He was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil and to be a witch. People said he could change into a bear or fly to Boston by surfing through the air on a wooden plank. Cy really and truly existed. Today, he would have received government assistance in the form of Social Welfare payments and his doctors would have insisted that he take therapy and be treated for alcohol addiction. But in Jerome’s day, Cy was shut up in the Meteghan “Poor House” and rejected by all.

Jerome too was not normal. His behaviour and his refusal or inability to speak made people afraid, while his unusual body awoke curiosity. Nowadays, people with a physical handicap arouse sympathy, or sometimes pity, because their bodies are different from the medical norm. In the 19th Century, abnormal bodies drew stares because they were spectacular. Whether a deformation had been caused by accident or surgery, as in Jerome’s case, or was congenital, deviant bodies were put on show. Siamese twins broke the unity of the human body. Women with beards transgressed the “natural” differences between the sexes. Giants and dwarfs were at the extremes of the possible. And the members of “exotic” races did not look like the rest of community. So they drew stares.

Throughout almost his entire stay in St. Mary’s Bay, Jerome drew the stares of that community and of hundreds of tourists, not just because he was veiled in mystery, but because he wasn’t normal: he didn’t speak, he flew into strange, unexplained fits of anger and he had no legs.

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Further Reading

Robicheau, Lise A. Le diable et le cordonier. Vie et legende de Cy Ó Mateur. Clare, Nova Scotia: ╔ditions de la Piquine, 2001.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland, dir. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996.