Lakshmi and the Cat-People

A few years ago, I read about a man who had an unusual layer of fur that covered most of his body. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this and I can’t remember all the details, just the broad outlines.) This “pelt” made him look like a kind of “cat-person.” I believe he was a Brazilian who was later brought to Holland, where he married and fathered children who were also covered in a layer of soft fur. Far from being despised or otherwise poorly treated for their unusual appearance, the family was embraced and even celebrated as a mark of the dizzying diversity of God’s creation.

I thought about that as I read about a two-year-old girl who is undergoing an operation to remove the most glaring evidence of her “phantom twin.”

The girl is joined to a “parasitic twin” who stopped developing in her mother’s womb, while the surviving foetus absorbed the limbs, kidneys and other body parts of the twin. The rare condition is called isciopagus.

The girl, Lakshmi, is named after the four-armed Hindu goddess of wealth, and some in her home village in the northern state of Bihar revere her as a goddess.

The father said something I found pretty striking.

“All this expenditure has happened to make her normal,” her father, Shambhu, who goes by one name, said. “So far, everything is fine.”

Of course this small child’s father wants her to be normal and to flourish. And I believe the family is doing the right thing. I can barely fathom how hard it would be for this kid to survive in such an unusual body.

But this also reflects on the impact of our definition of a “normal” body on those with abnormal bodies, and how far we’ve come from the age of the cat-people. As technology advances, as a whole host of bioconservatives never cease to remind us, our ability to enhance and “perfect” our bodies will steadily shift our understanding of what is normal and acceptable. Will it broaden this understanding, the fear of those who dreaded the rise of, well, cat-people, or will it narrow it, so that virtually all of us will “fit in” as svelte, long-limbed goddesses and gods?

I can’t imagine a bioconservative arguing that Lakshmi should continue to live with four arms and four legs, particularly since there are real risks to her health. But what if this really were about our normative understanding, and the operation in fact threatened her with a non-trivial risk of death? That is, would placing her at risk be worth it even if she’d be perfectly healthy in her highly unusual “natural” state? In this case, one wonders if we should engage in some introspection regarding the costs of these expectations. Perhaps those Dutch Christians, full of wonder at the unlikely fruits of nature, have something to teach us.