Meet Mark and Anu Trombino, Karla and John Lizzo, Len and Lenette Sawisch, and Sharon and Ron Roskamp. They lead typical American lives: they have children, pursue successful middle-class careers, and live in the suburbs. If you did business with any of them over the phone, you would probably have no reason to suspect they are anything but typical. If you were to meet them, however, you’d be surprised to find that they are all dwarfs, with the exception of John Lizzo, the tall, rangy fellow who married Karla. And if you thought you recognized any of these “little people,” as they call themselves, you probably saw the 1982 Emmy-nominated PBS film Little People.
Left: Mark and Anu Trombino
Now, some 20 years later, director/producer Jan Krawitz returns with Big Enough, her “then and now” sequel to the earlier documentary (which she made with Thomas Ott). In Big Enough, Krawitz sets out to find out what happened to spirited 11-year-old Mark, upbeat 16-year-old Karla, newlyweds Ron and Sharon, and one of the country’s only angry dwarf comedians, Len. How have the years treated their hopes, expectations, and fears? Just how typical, and how different, have their lives been? And how has their — and the country’s — view of dwarfism changed over the last two decades?
Len lets us know he’s “retired from being a dwarf” (but not, evidently, from making jokes). In 1982, he was 32 years old and angry. Clips of his old nightclub act reveal his edgy humor. But if he was an apostle of “dwarf pride,” he also needed to find out what the term might mean. How to be proud of being a dwarf? In Big Enough, Len seems to have found his answer. Older and mellower, he’s more absorbed by family life and fishing than by the gospel of dwarf liberation. Being a little person, however, can never be entirely forgotten. He and his wife, Lenette, also a dwarf, have two children: a daughter, Joelle, who is little, and her average-sized older brother, Brandon. Now Len has to face the fact that, for all his hard-earned peace, he can’t spare Joelle the physical and social pains dwarfism inevitably brings. Nor can he be sure about the ultimate effects on Brandon of his unusual upbringing among little people.
Children are also on Karla’s mind. Her doctors say she can bear children and she contemplates doing so. But she’s plagued with doubts that temper the optimism of the 16-year old from 1982. In the intervening years, she has endured chronic pain and the resulting medical procedures, including spine-straightening surgery, which little people often endure. Although she has an average-sized spouse who happily provides critical daily help, Karla’s confidence in her own ability to cope is tenuous. She wrestles with the child-bearing dilemma shared by little people, and already mentioned by Len. Karla knows that she has a 50% chance of giving birth to another little person. (Dwarf couples have a 75% chance.) Is she being selfish to bring another dwarf into the world? Or does she deserve the same choice that average-sized people have about whether to start a family?
With a certain irony, these questions have been thrown into high relief by the recent discovery of the gene that causes achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. The possibility exists that early testing could, if dwarf couples choose to terminate a pregnancy, reduce the incidence of dwarfism. Just when the Little People of America (LPA, a national organization founded in 1957) and the community it represents have reached a peak of cohesion, vibrancy, and confidence. Just when Len’s “dwarf pride,” through the struggles and self-acceptance of little people themselves, has come to mean something, is dwarfism a condition to be wiped out? No one is more conflicted about the answer than the subjects of Big Enough.
Ron and Sharon Roskamp weren’t as hesitant about having kids. But now that their two dwarf children, Alisha and Andrew, are teenagers, they reflect with ambivalent feelings of misgiving and hope about their futures. For their part, the kids are happy to be here and don’t blame their parents for anything. They recognize that as “second-generation” dwarfs who grew up with dwarf parents, they have had an easier time of it than their parents, who didn’t meet similar individuals until they were young adults. But Ron and Sharon, like the other little people in the film — and it is one of the important updates in Big Enough — can’t help but reflect that adulthood, more than childhood, tests the mettle of little people. For all of childhood’s fabled cruelty, it is the onslaught of adult life’s typical problems — dating, marriage, jobsimmeasurably complicated by dwarfism, that definitively divides little people from the world around them.
Like Ron and Sharon, Mark (the high-spirited 11-year-old from “Little People”) and Anu met at an annual convention of LPA. Mark and Anu, like so many other little people, can testify to the shock, importance, and ultimate salvation of meeting other dwarfs. Mark grew up in an average-sized family, looked after by two younger loving sisters, and generally well tolerated by his peers, who were won over by his outgoing nature. In childhood, dwarfs can initially keep up with their classmates and friends. It’s about the time when dating arrives in a teen’s life, and when a person begins to develop his or her adult features, that the truly daunting dimensions of living a full life emerge.
For Mark, the sudden loneliness of growing up was eased by the get-togethers of Little People of America. Anu was similarly raised by an average-sized family who moved to America when Anu was young because staying in India would have condemned her to a second-class education. At that time, physically and developmentally disabled children were not permitted to attend class with average students.
Ultimately trained as an electrical engineer, Anu was again fortunate that her father, unable to find a suitably educated match for her in India, abandoned his idea of an arranged marriage and allowed her to find her own way. Mark is probably the one subject most like himself from the 1982 film, and he and Anu are quite happy with the lives they lead. But Big Enough reveals how typical chores like shopping and making dinner require atypical amounts of determination, patience, and strategy.
Through a skillful weaving of “then and now” stories of its four families, Big Enough captures an extended and intimate view of the myriad physical and emotional challenges confronting little people. The film discovers the humor, grace, frustration, confusion and anger with which one group of little people has, with inspiring success, faced these challenges. Big Enough also suggests that, while the physical problems of dwarfism have not changed, America today is more accommodating of difference.
“The fundamental questions in the film were, ‘How has being a dwarf defined you?’ and ‘How has your life changed from what you imagined it would be?'” Krawitz says. “But I also wanted the average-sized viewer to intersect with these people in a personal way. Human needs and dilemmas like looking for love and choosing to start a family are challenges common to all of us, regardless of our individual characteristics. Such questions cut to the heart of how we define a life worth living. They are made more urgent by the specter of genetic testing, which may give us more choices in answering these questions than we ever imagined.”
Big Enough has been funded in part by the Stanford University Research Incentive Fund, Fleishhacker Foundation, Peninsula Community Foundation, Yale University Shenkin Fellowship, and Silicon Valley Arts Council.