Contents: March/April 2002
c o m m e n t a r y
An Unexpected Connection
. . . The secret life of 'Hank the Drunken Dwarf'
by Dan Kennedy
On Tuesday, September 4, precisely one week before the world as we knew it came to an end, a 39-year-old man named Henry J. Nasiff Jr. died in his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. The causes of death were reportedly advanced alcoholism and a seizure disorder, complicated by a genetic condition.
If you'd ever heard of Nasiff, it was, no doubt, by his stage moniker: "Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf." Nasiff was one of the regulars who make their way through the New York studios of The Howard Stern Show. Known collectively as the "Wack Pack," they go by such charming appellations as "Gary the Retard," "Crackhead Bob," and "Beetlejuice," a dwarf who, as a comedic bonus, is also mentally deficient. Ho, ho!
Nasiff's genetic condition was achondroplasia, a bone disorder that is the most common type of dwarfism, affecting by a very rough estimate 25,000 to 50,000 Americans. His shtick was to show up on the set, drunk or pretending to be drunk most likely the former, since his alcoholism was apparently real enough and make an obnoxious fool of himself, spouting outrageous statements like, "Go have sex with Jesus Christ, you faggot," and, "I'm not a midget, I'm a dwarf, you ahole."
This last outburst might be construed as Nasiff's sole attempt at self-respect. Among dwarfs, the "m–word" is widely considered offensive, conjuring images of sideshow freaks. Such a lesson coming from Nasiff was painfully ironic. He had already turned himself into such a freak that P.T. Barnum, the man who introduced Tom Thumb to the world, would have looked away in embarrassment.
When I learned of Nasiff's death, I can't say I was particularly upset. I didn't know him, and his death was not imbued with the sort of tragic drama that drew our sympathies to perfect strangers on September 11.
Moreover, I had a personal reason for how can I put this euphemistically? taking Nasiff's death in stride. You see, the younger of my two children is also an achondroplastic dwarf. Rebecca, too, will be about four feet tall when she reaches adulthood, with short arms and legs, a waddling gait, and a heavy, prominent forehead. I've always been skeptical of the notion of role models, of the idea that, for example, African Americans should feel embarrassed by Mike Tyson. I mean, why? But, clearly, Nasiff did not present the kind of public image I would prefer.
Yet it turns out that Nasiff's life was more complicated, and more closely intertwined with my family's, than I would have imagined which I will explain shortly.
My daughter's nine-and-a-half years have been difficult. Unlike her 11-year-old brother, Timothy, who was a healthy toddler and is well on his way toward being six feet tall, Rebecca was beset by serious, dwarfism-related medical problems as a baby. At five months, overwhelmed by airways that were too small and a life-threatening respiratory virus, she had to have a tracheotomy tube inserted in her throat. For two years she and we lived with oxygen tanks, beeping monitors, and home nurses, until she could grow strong enough and big enough to breathe normally. Today Becky is a bright, happy, healthy girl, but the ordeal set her back developmentally and she is still catching up with her peers.
Like many parents of children affected by dwarfism, my wife, Barbara, and I joined Little People of America, an organization founded over 40 years ago by the late actor Billy Barty. Through LPA we've had an opportunity to meet other parents and even more important dwarf adults, some with their own children, most of them average people with careers and mortgages and successes and failures, just like anyone else.
The positive image promoted by LPA is about as far removed from the repulsive antics of Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf as one can imagine. Yet it seems that, at least on some level, Henry Nasiff desperately wanted to be part of the same community as our daughter. His death notice in the Fall River Herald News, to my surprise, asked that donations in his name be made either to the Billy Barty Foundation or Little People of America. And that's not all. I learned from LPA's executive office that, just last year, Nasiff had paid $300 for a life membership. Even more surprising, I learned that a friend of mine a woman with achondroplasia who holds a professional job, is the mother of an adopted son, and in many ways epitomizes what I want for my daughter actually knew Nasiff.
"He adored Billy Barty," she wrote in a message to the Dwarfism List, an Internet forum that I help run. "He called Billy occasionally on the phone, as he did me. Billy talked to him and seemed to be encouraging him in a positive, mentoring way. I heard from Hank less and less, which I didn't regret, honestly, as he got involved in the Howard Stern stuff and his alcohol abuse got even worse. It's sad that his life turned out this way and ended so young. I feel for his parents and his siblings."
Finding all this out didn't exactly make me feel guilty. After all, I hadn't been pleased to learn of his death; but I must admit to thinking that he would no longer be able to humiliate himself and, by extension, the community of dwarfs and their families to which I belong. Still, I did feel a little foolish to realize, as I have so many times in so many situations, that what I had thought I understood was more complex, and more tied up in human pain and weakness and yearning, than I had appreciated. Who was I to dismiss Henry Nasiff so coldly? I didn't even know him. We Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about interconnection and the dignity and worth of every individual. But often such ideas seem like mere abstractions. Learning more about Nasiff made them real in a way I hadn't thought about before.
After Nasiff's death, his Web site was turned into something of a shrine. Yes, you could still watch streaming videos of a drunken Nasiff spewing invective at the camera, or buy a key-chain bottle-opener emblazoned with "Hank Says: Don't Drink & Drive." But it also included messages from his fans and an unctuous tribute from his manager, a youngish-looking man named Doug Goodstein, who seems to have forgotten that he once described his client's appeal thusly: "There was just a compelling feature of a drunk, belligerent midget."
What drew my eye, though, was a photo of Nasiff, at the age of five or six, holding a phone to his right ear and looking as happy and carefree and full of life and promise as any child. Nasiff may have died a drunken wretch, an object of ridicule. But once he was a little boy who was loved and fussed over, dressed in crisp, new clothes, and photographed so his parents could admire him and show him off to family and friends.
It makes me sick, and more than a little scared, to realize that his parents wanted the same things for him that my wife and I want for our children. The life and death of Henry Nasiff Jr. reminded me what a terrible, and terrifying, leap of faith parenting can be. Nothing brings more joy than when that faith is rewarded. Nothing brings more anguish than when that faith is shattered. All any of us can do is offer our guidance and our unconditional love. And hope for the best.
Dan Kennedy is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix. He also manages the official Internet service of Little People of America, Inc., www.lpaonline.org, and is writing a book about the culture of dwarfism. Kennedy is a member of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers, Massachusetts.
UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 12-14.
All material copyright © 2002, Unitarian Universalist Association.
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