The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

by Tessa Fontaine

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A New York Times Editors' Choice; A Southern Living Best Book of 2018; An Amazon Editors' Best Book of 2018; A Refinery29 Best Book of 2018; A New York Post Most Unforgettable Book of 2018

"Fascinating." Vogue

“This is the story of a daughter and her mother. It’s also a memoir, a love story, and a tale of high-flying stunts . . . An adventure toward and through fear.” Southern Living

Tessa Fontaine’s astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, The Electric Woman, follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery—through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother.

Turns out, one lesson applies to living through illness, keeping the show on the road, letting go of the person you love most, and eating fire:

The trick is there is no trick.
You eat fire by eating fire.

Two journeys—a daughter’s and a mother’s—bear witness to this lesson in The Electric Woman.

For three years Tessa Fontaine lived in a constant state of emergency as her mother battled stroke after stroke. But hospitals, wheelchairs, and loss of language couldn’t hold back such a woman; she and her husband would see Italy together, come what may. Thus Fontaine became free to follow her own piper, a literal giant inviting her to “come play” in the World of Wonders, America’s last traveling sideshow. How could she resist?

Transformed into an escape artist, a snake charmer, and a high-voltage Electra, Fontaine witnessed the marvels of carnival life: intense camaraderie and heartbreak, the guilty thrill of hard-earned cash exchanged for a peek into the impossible, and, most marvelous of all, the stories carnival folks tell about themselves. Through these, Fontaine trained her body to ignore fear and learned how to keep her heart open in the face of loss.

A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, The Electric Woman is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds, especially that ever constant: good old-fashioned unconditional love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374717025
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 149,060
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Tessa Fontaine’s writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Sideshow World, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama and is working on a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. She also eats fire and charms snakes, among other sideshow feats. She lives in South Carolina. The Electric Woman is her first book.
Tessa Fontaine’s writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Sideshow World, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama and is working on a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. She also eats fire and charms snakes, among other sideshow feats. She lives in South Carolina. The Electric Woman is her first book.

Read an Excerpt



One day after the stroke

October 2010

Her arms were tucked against her sides. She had been arranged.

"Prepare yourself," my stepdad, Davy, whispered into my hair when he hugged me outside her hospital room. I'd just arrived from across the country after a night of emergency phone calls. I was not prepared. My mom was in a hospital bed, covered in machines. There were remnants of fluid, blood and yellow secretions, dried all along her head. A ventilator taped across her mouth pulled her skin taut.

I started to whisper something to Davy, but he stopped me. "She can't hear you," he said. "She won't wake up."

"Until when?" I asked.

He let out a sigh that caught in his throat halfway, the air turning into a sob that turned into a cough that turned into silence. We stood beside one another, not touching.

She was in an induced coma. They had filled her with barbiturates to knock her out. That's what a nurse told me, when I asked, after being in the room with my mom for ten minutes and then fleeing to find some goddamned information. I pinched and pinched and pinched myself.

"What is happening?" I asked another nurse. She squeezed my shoulder like a football coach.

An induced coma reduces the rate of cerebral blood flow. After her blood slowed, they hauled out the chain saw. I do not know if they actually used a chain saw. Probably not. But it had to have been a big saw to cut away half of a human skull.

When I came back to her room, Davy, my aunt, and my uncle stepped outside.

"We'll give you a few minutes alone," they said. "To say what you need to say."

* * *

Two weeks before, a handwritten note had arrived from her that said, for no reason, she was proud of me.

* * *

I walked into the room. Sat in a chair beside her bed. I knew she would not open her eyes. She would not say babygirl, that high-pitched, delighted greeting that was all mine.

The bandage covering her head poofed out over the opened area because her brain was so swollen, because the bleeding would not stop. It looked like a piece of popcorn that had begun bursting from its kernel. Her head was shaved.

Her hospital-room window looked out onto the roof of another building, a large, flat rectangle coated with something like pressed gravel. There were seven seagulls standing on the roof. Fat, white bodies with bright orange beaks and spindly legs.

She had had a hemorrhagic stroke.

I needed to say the important stuff.

* * *

"Mom," I said, touching her arm. All my insides were aflame.

I kept my hand on her arm. The ventilator wheezed. Took my hand off to cover my mouth. I thought I'd scream. I thought I'd throw up every single thing I'd ever eaten. I needed to tell her the things I'd done such a shitty job telling her. Open. Your. Mouth. Speak.

The fire in my lungs turned to ash. Every word I'd ever known was burned.

Out the window, the seagulls were all facing the same direction. Seven seagulls, evenly spaced, their faces pointed the same way. I stood up and looked where they were looking. A parking lot, scattered trees, a road. I didn't believe in omens.

Davy came in and sat beside me. He gave a few details. The very private specifics of an emergency.

The vomit and shit when he'd walked into their bedroom.

The eyes rolled back in the head.

The speed with which the paramedics came.

The unknowing at the hospital.

The chaplain assigned to him as he waited.

"When I saw the chaplain, I knew," he said. "That's when I knew how bad it was. I didn't know until then, but it was the chaplain that made me understand. The hospital assigns them to families who are losing someone. Even after I said no thanks to his counseling, no to prayers or hand-holding or any of that shit. He kept coming back, checking on me, asking how Teresa was doing. So I knew. They thought she'd die for sure."

His voice was steady this entire conversation — the shock of it, maybe. The up-all-night-at-the-hospital of it.

The gulls were not facing the window. That would be too obvious. An omen.

Outside, there were bay trees and beyond that the dried-out October hills and far beyond that, twelve miles at least, the Pacific, which is where those birds must have come from originally. And if that was true, if they'd left the salt and spray, taken wing from the smooth sand, found wind to ride and flapped and let their feathers carry them here, then were they here for her? Did they know? Did they come to guide her back to the ocean?

* * *

The water is clear and the sand is warm and every morning, before going to work at the travel agency, she slices into an orange-pink papaya. She eats half for breakfast, spooning out the flesh in big hunks, wiping her chin with the back of her hand, because there is almost too much juice, too much perfume, because it spills over no matter how careful she is.

But she is not going to work.

She's nineteen and about to climb onto a surfer's shoulders out in the turquoise waters of a Hawaiian beach. Her name is Teresa.

There's a crowd gathering on the sand. She steps into the ocean beside the surfer, paying no attention to the small sharp shells beneath her feet.

Out into the water then, deeper, until it is time to paddle.

They climb onto the board belly-first, she below, the surfer on top of her, two sets of arms paddling in tandem. They must move with one another like oars along a canoe. Over the break, farther out to the point where the waves begin swelling enough to catch.

They are so far out, and then a little farther, and a little farther still. They turn their board toward the shore. She can feel her heart hammering against the wood. Waves pass beneath them, lifting the back and then the front in a gentle roll.

Mornings when they practice, gulls swoop nearby, small clear fish move in clouds. The pincushion sea stars wink and wave.

A big swell nears. Teresa looks over her shoulder a few times, checking to see how quickly the wave approaches, how it is rising. The audience holds their hands above their eyes to block the glare. They are ready to be amazed.

The wave catches hold of the board with a little tug and they begin to fly. She presses herself up, stands quickly, and the surfer behind her does as well. He grips her by the waist.

She springs up and he lifts her, one fluid motion, her body rising from the board and into the air, her feet at his knees and then she's nearly to the sky, touching the sun, her head and shoulders bent back as he lifts her waist above his head and then plants her on his shoulders. Her legs bent around his chest, she lifts her arms in the air, sitting high above the water.

She smiles and waves for the audience. They cannot hear the blood roiling in her temples, the nerves, they cannot feel her hammering heart. She performs fearlessness. The board is unsteady atop the water and the surfer's legs shake with the effort of balance and she quivers as she flexes her muscles to stay upright, she must stay upright, and still, she keeps one arm up, up, up toward the sky, that kind of queen, pointing at the sun, that high.



Day 7 of 150

World of Wonders June 2013

I've just finished Windexing the glass in front of Queen Kong, our giant taxidermy gorilla, when Tommy pops his head into the tent. "You ready to meet the snakes?" he asks.

The night before, Tommy had gone to negotiate the purchase of two giant boa constrictors from some guy in town — I didn't know who, or where they came from, or how Tommy knew these snakes were safe to handle, but I knew they were being delivered to our show today.

It is the night before we open at our first fair. I've been with the sideshow for seven days. Our circus tent is up, taut and shining, the banner line is hung, stages built, curtains scrubbed, illusions bolted, ratchets oiled. Fireflies spark and fade. Men in yellow "Safety Is Non-Negotiable!" shirts straddle the metal arms of the scrambler beside our tent, cursing above the blaring pop country hits as they hinge and pin the little metal closures.

I follow Tommy into the bunkhouse/backstage area, the back end of a semi where we all sleep and eat and live, just a curtain away from the audience when we'll be performing.

Tommy unlatches a plastic trunk and inside, coiled around one another, are two boa constrictors.

"Do you know how to pick them up?" he asks me.

"Maybe you could show me how you like it done," I say.

"Sure," he says, a half smile across his face that makes me wonder if he believes my e-mail bluff about the snakes at all. "You've gotta reach both your hands all the way inside the box, under the bodies of the snakes," he says, crouched low and elbow-deep in the snake box. I was hoping for some kind of net or gloves. But his hands are right on the scaly bodies. Not even the illusion of protection.

"The dude I got these beauties from said they'd been handled before, so they should be easy enough to manage. Use both hands to pick them up," he says, his nearly cartoonish New Jersey accent thick in his voice. "If you pick up a giant snake with one hand, it could kill it. Their backs break, they get paralyzed, and they can't eat. Last season, one of the snakes died after a performer accidentally picked him up that way."

Tommy stands and faces me. His arms are stretched out wide in front of him and the snake, a seven-footer, is draped between his hands, her body making a giant M.

It is my turn. I should hold out my arms and take the snake. But there is ringing in my ears. I can't stop swallowing and my heart is pounding and I can't move toward Tommy. I try to focus on what I see.

The snake has tan and chestnut diamonds down her back, the shapes outlined in black and cream. She is as big around as a grapefruit. Wrangling these snakes will be one of my primary jobs and one of the skills I listed on my qualifications. I can't let him know how scared I am. I stretch a smile across my face as wide as I can.

"What's her name?" I ask.

"No name yet."

"Hello, snake," I say. She does not blink.

Tommy steps toward me, and without meaning to I step backward. He steps toward me again. I involuntarily step back, trying to throw a casual laugh on top of my ducking and dodging like this little tango is just a joke. After a few steps, though, I've come to the wall. My back is cold against the metal-and-wood paneling that runs inside the truck. I feel the film of dust slide against my palms. I try to come up with excuses that might explain why I'm trying to escape the snake, but my mind is nearly blank. I start to sweat.

"Will she bite?" I ask, desperate to stall.

"Boas don't bite," he says. "They squeeze their prey to death."

"Oh, right."

"But she won't do that to you. She knows you're too big to eat," he says. "Just make sure she doesn't get around your throat, of course," he says. I touch my neck, imagining her body tightening around me.

I had some idea that because I'd been through so many harder things, once this moment of reckoning arrived — once it was me and the snake, not the imagined fear, not the generic childhood phobia — I'd see she was just another beautiful creature on the earth trying to get by, and I'd find peace.

I find no peace.

* * *

Sideshows are where people come to see public displays of their private fears: of deformity, of a disruption in the perceived gender binary, of mutation, of disfigurement, of a crossover with the animal world, of being out of proportion. And that is a sideshow's intention — to frame whoever or whatever is on display as being outside the realm of what's "normal." For the snake act, it should appear that I have such chemistry with the creature that we are almost one. That's what's interesting to see — the snake/human duo who have overcome the predator/prey divide.

* * *

I look at the snake. She is moving her head side to side, trying, I'm sure, to find someone to kill. I'm sweating. A few of the other performers come through the stage curtains and into the truck, rushing right to the snakes with open arms and kissy noises and pet names. They've all worked with snakes before.

"Who's a snake? Oh, you're just a snake, that's right, girl," Cassie says as she reaches out both hands and takes the snake. She notices me trying to plaster myself to the wall and breathing hard. "The snakes think you're just a big tree," she says encouragingly. I nod my head, glance out the door to the darkening escape route where a polka band rehearses "America the Beautiful."

"I haven't actually, uh, spent much time around snakes before," I say, ready to be chastised, ready, at twenty-nine, to be treated like a fibbing child, but the admission doesn't seem to faze anyone. Tommy shrugs and Cassie steps toward me.

"Here's the little angel," she says, moving quickly as she drapes the snake around my shoulders.

The snake is cold and so heavy she forces my neck to bend so I'm looking down at the floor, and I taste blood as I bite the inside of my cheek, knowing, like a sword in my heart, that I cannot do this.

* * *

I ended up with a snake around my neck because of a conversation with a giant.

February 2013.

Four months before this snake moment.

Two and a half years after my mom had her stroke.

A town in Florida where sideshow performers retire.

I snuck around back behind the circus tent to an old, off-white trailer, peeling, rusted, with all its curtains drawn. I knocked. Something inside bumped the trailer's wall and the whole thing shook. It was still again.

I could feel my heartbeat under my tongue, pulsing that soft skin like the belly of a panicked frog. Trespasser. That's what the man would say, if he ever opened the door.

I knocked again. Something jostled in the trailer, followed by some clanging. The door opened the width of a human head.

"Yes?" the man asked. He was huge, his neck bending and back stooping to fit his face into the door's opening. In the dim trailer light I could just make out that he was wearing droopy underwear and a yellowed T-shirt.

"Hi," I said, unsure of what to say next, realizing I hadn't planned anything beyond this moment. "I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the sideshow. About your life?" He stared at me.

"I'm a big fan," I said, and smiled, and didn't step away from the door despite his silence.

"I don't do daylight," he finally said. His voice was low, and gruff, and gravelly, like a man who'd been shouting into a microphone for a lifetime. Which is exactly what he was.

"I can come back when it's dark," I said. "I'm a student." I was trying to throw any pieces of my identity toward him that I thought might make him sympathetic. Willing to talk.

He sighed. "All right, then. Come back when it's dark."

* * *

I walked around to the front of the tent, paid three dollars, and went inside.

Steel blades flew from a man's fingertips and landed inches from a woman turned sideways, her spine arched. Thwack. Knife after knife sliced the wooden board. Stood straight out. A constellation of metal like a saint's glow. Like she was made of prayers. Thwack. She did not flinch. Stared at her assailant. I had spent a lot of the past few years feeling tired, half-asleep, in the lulls between emergencies. But in this tent, watching the blades make a new shape around the woman's body, I felt very, very awake.

The knife-throwing pair was performing on a stage inside the World of Wonders, a sideshow at the Florida State Fair. The World of Wonders, the talker outside had said, was the very last traveling sideshow of its kind. I'd never seen anything like it — the Bay Area, where I grew up, was far too PC for a sideshow. But recently I'd learned that there was a town called Gibsonton that was famous for its sideshow performers, and that there was a sideshow performing at the fair just down the road from Gibsonton. I headed for Florida.

* * *

I watched the acts twice through. I smiled and rolled my eyes with the rest of the crowd as a human-headed spider told us she's just hanging out, covered my eyes as a man hammered nails up into his nostrils. Other performers manipulated their bodies, harming them — or seeming to, or avoiding the harm at just the last moment, when it still felt like things might go very wrong.

But nothing went wrong. They survived.

And I witnessed these miracles they were performing. I was not sitting in hospital rooms, or helping with a physical therapy transfer. I was not talking through options for surgeries.

Instead, I was keeping my eye on the blade as the knife thrower landed the final piercing tip just beside his assistant's head. He turned to the audience, gently nodded, and walked toward the board to gather his instruments. The knife, somehow, always missed the flesh.

* * *

The trailer was dark and musty. There was a three-foot-long shaggy spider leg on the floor beside a torn canvas banner. Painted there, a man swung heavy chains from his eyelids.

"The work is very hard. Dangerous," Chris Christ said right away. He co-owned the World of Wonders with his partner, both in business and in life, Ward Hall. They've been together since 1967.


Excerpted from "The Electric Woman"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Tessa Fontaine.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
Prologue: The Trick Is There Is No Trick,
The Architecture of a Wave,
The Snake Charmer,
Human History,
Open the Gates,
The Dragon,
Snickers T. Clown,
Hair Ingredients,
Let's Us Have Fun,
The Moon Is Apple Pie,
The Softest Skin of Anyone in the Entire World,
And the Low Sky Opens,
The Departure,
Fresh Meat,
The Titanic Was Child's Play,
Premium Footlong Corn Dogs,
Where Your Name Is Writ,
Cash Money,
The Sword Swallower,
The Animal Undone,
Sounds Past the Noises,
Behind the Night's Dress,
Christmas Fish,
Dr. Frankenstein's Hushed Blood Love Song,
The Heroes,
By Ship into the Sea,
The Great Reveal,
Out of the Mist,
Epilogue: Where You Will Float Electric,
A Note About the Author,

Reading Group Guide

When her sixty-four-year-old mother, Teresa, suffered “as big and bad a stroke as you can have and still be alive,” Tessa Fontaine entered a nightmare of wrenching uncertainty. Three years later, severely disabled but still possessing a spark of her former vitality, Teresa and her husband set out on an ambitious journey. Their itinerary called for them to cross the country by train, and then to cross the ocean by ship, culminating in a long-dreamed-of, long-postponed romantic sojourn in Italy. Worried about the travel calamities that surely awaited her mom, Tessa was nonetheless suddenly released from caretaking. So she decided to set out on her own extraordinary journey—a path that led her to the last traveling American sideshow.

After bluffing her way into the World of Wonders, Tessa soon learned the art of eating fire, escaping from handcuffs, charming snakes, and swallowing swords. In The Electric Woman, she brings to life the intense camaraderie and exhilarating triumphs she experienced in the carnival world despite a grueling, hardscrabble life on the road. Her relationship with her free-spirited mom had always been strained, but spending a season with people who embrace the impossible brought Tessa’s appreciation and love for her family clearly into focus.

A true story of vanquishing fear while championing change, The Electric Woman will transform the way you see life itself. We hope the following questions will enhance your reading group’s experience of this electrifying memoir.

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