Eating fire in one of the last remaining traveling sideshows in the country may not be a typical response to the grief of facing a mother’s illness, or the inevitable loss to come, but that was precisely what writer Tessa Fontaine did after her mother suffered a paralyzing stroke in 2010. “Bizarrely, I was trying to give her a legacy, running away with the sideshow. To say, ‘I see you, mom. I see the joy that you had in doing beautiful and wild things and I want to do that too,’” she tells me over Skype.
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In her memoir The Electric Woman (FSG), which came out this month, Fontaine chronicles her mother’s illness, how she was able to rewrite their uncertain and previously tumultuous relationship, and her adventures with the World of Wonders sideshow.
Performing in World of Wonders, which began as an assignment for her MFA program, became a coping mechanism. It was far from an easy act of escapism: The sideshow toured through eight states, and its attractions included fire-breathing, knife-throwing, and snake charming. But it was not learning the acts that was hard, Fontaine writes; it was the tour life itself. They worked 15 or 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and lived out of semi-trucks. Still, after her initial stint, Fontaine stayed on, partly because she knew it was something her adventurous mother would have done. So she scorched off her eyebrows and eyelashes, swallowed painful swords, and untangled snakes from her hair, because her mother was experiencing so much pain—and would soon embark on her own escapade.
No one had expected Fontaine’s mother to make it out of the hospital, let alone still be alive a year after her stroke. Despite bring paralyzed, bound to a wheelchair, and unable to speak, Fontaine’s mother was still fighting. It was then that her stepfather began planning what she refers to as the “suicide trip.” They wanted to take the solo adventure trip to Italy—sans children and restrictions—they’d never gotten around to.
So, in 2013, when her mother and stepfather departed, Fontaine joined the sideshow for five months, as “the ultimate distraction.” “It’s a very painful separation, when you stop being someone’s child or feeling like you are the person who gets taken care of. I would have chosen to stay in that role forever,” she says. Fontaine discovered she would have to let her mother go over and over again. She mourned a mother she had always been unsure of; their relationship and the person Fontaine had known were gone. She grieved, too, the tragedy of time and the assumption that some future moment would allow her to let go of all her anger and fully let her mother in.
Fontaine’s mother had left her father and her when she was two. And while Fontaine rejoined her some years later, to live in a new home with a stepfather and a little brother, she clung to this hurt all her life, feeling alien in the new family her mother had built. She cultivated a distance that sometimes manifested as an even more dissonant emotion. “At fifteen, in the midst of a fight about a friend’s house I was no longer allowed to visit, I told her: ‘I don’t love you,’” she writes. “They weren’t just fighting words, though. Since I was thirteen, I’d known it. I believed it through my early twenties. I didn’t love her.”
Fontaine’s memoir is soaked with regret for that moment, despite her mother probably being wise to teenagers’ feckless cruelty. But back then, this woman made Fontaine skeptical and uncertain. “Some of that was her wildness,” she says. “She was not a predictable woman. She did not do the things mothers do that you see in movies or you read in books.”
Her mother moved alone to Hawaii shortly after graduating high school, and performed acrobatic feats on the shoulders of surfers. Later, she fished for crab, one of the deadliest jobs in the world, on a boat in Oregon. As a Ms. California runner up, she’d done crazy drawings on the stage in lieu of the traditional talents of singing or dancing. She wore theatrically bold clothes, laughed too loud, and belted tunes even louder. And as a young woman, when she’d seen an opportunity to escape an unhappy marriage, she leapt.
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Fontaine now recognizes and embraces that same wildness in herself: “It took the sideshow for me to recognize it and to pull it out.” She has also come to peace with her mother’s choices after writing The Electric Woman. “I think she was trying her best, and she messed up and was trying to make up for it after. It just took me a long time to be able to say, It’s okay,” she says.
Fontaine’s mother made it through her dream trip and lived for three more years; she even got to watch her daughter perform in the sideshow. In 2016, her mother and stepfather left for Europe again in a boat. But this time, Fontaine and her brother met them in Greece for the last week of the trip. She took her mother swimming, cruised her wheelchair down the streets, and shared that her book had just been bought. A day after they departed, Fontaine’s mother had another stroke on the boat and died. “It does hurt to eat fire, you know—it does hurt to have your mom dying. But bravery is just a matter of doing the thing, even though you’re scared. It’s not that you stop feeling scared—it’s just that you do it anyway,” says Fontaine.
You eat fire. You show up. You watch your mother return from an impossible journey and watch you perform for the last time as “the electric woman.” You plan a new trip together and go with her this time: full circle. As Fontaine writes, “The trick is that there is no trick.”