You might call the characters in Bearded Women Stories freaks, although it probably wouldn't be politically correct to do so. The narrator of my favorite story in the collection, "Bianca's Body," has the lower half of a second body (she's named it Bianca) growing out of her own torso. Although the narrator's husband can have sex with either body (it takes some creative maneuvering), conceiving a child would probably require Bianca's removal -- a possibility that leads to considerable marital strife (in part because Bianca is the better lover). The narrators of several other stories are equally suited for carnival sideshows: a woman has snakes dangling like dreadlocks from her scalp; another is more than eight feet tall; one has an extra set of ears; another has holes in her hands so she can work as "the human fountain."
Some of Teresa Milbrodt's best stories are about women coping with adversity. A woman with a debilitating disease, contemplating suicide, wants to be buried in a scallop-shaped coffin, then finds herself confronting the coffin maker who wants to keep it. Freakish in mind or body they may be, but Milbrodt's characters have the same problems as everyone else. They're working in low paying jobs, struggling to pay their bills, trying to find ways to better their lives. They wish they could find love, or at least get a date with someone who isn't a jerk. They may have been teased more than other kids, and in adulthood they must endure those who view them as signs of the impending apocalypse, but as a result of being mocked they've learned to have compassion for other people who might be regarded as abnormal.
A unifying theme of Bearded Women Stories is, I think, the commonality of existence. As Milbrodt observes, the tattooed lady may have unusual skin illustrations but everyone develops markings on their skin -- nature's skin art -- as they get older. We are defined not just by the characteristics that make us unique, but also by those that make us just like everyone else: emotions, needs, desires. Most of Milbrodt's characters are visibly or behaviorally odd, but the stories send the message that nearly everyone is odd in his or her own way, even if their strangeness doesn't become evident until you come to know them well.
However unusual we may be in appearance or personality, learning to be comfortable with ourselves is the key to contentment -- that, at least, is overall message I took from Milbrodt's stories. The cyclops woman, for instance, knows that -- unlike herself -- "those who decree themselves unlovely" would never be noticed in a crowd. At least for now, she -- unlike her glaucoma-suffering father who insists that she hide her eye behind a shade -- has the ability to see clearly. That theme resonates through other stories. Which character has the greater problem: the "Butterfly Woman" who has skin flaps like a flying squirrel or her diabetic mother? The woman in "Markers" with the tattooed body or her stroke-impaired sister? And which character is the true freak: the titular bearded lady in "Mr. Chicken" (for whom deciding not to shave becomes a liberating experience) or the obese man who eats one hundred chicken nuggets every day at the restaurant she manages while fixing frightening stares on the other customers?
Not every story works; the only one not narrated by a woman is the least interesting of the "freak" entries, while the final story is too ordinary to fit in with the rest of the collection. Still, every story is well written, filled with the sort of detail that breathes life into characters. If I could, I would give Bearded Women Stories 4 1/2 stars.