A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts

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.

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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.

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  • Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • May 2018
  • 384 Pages
  • 9780374158378

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About Tessa Fontaine

Tessa Fontaine’s writing has appeared in PANK Magazine, 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.

Author Website


“A beautiful and ferocious book, The Electric Woman comes packed with fire eaters and knife throwers, survivors and caretakers, and yet somehow no marvel is more wondrous than the writing itself. Tessa Fontaine’s memoir is a brilliant testament to family, grief, love, and the astonishing trick of being—and feeling—alive. I loved every page.”Annie Hartnett, author of Rabbit Cake

“Yes, I have done it. I have run away to the circus, a realm of wonder, harsh reality, and colorful characters, vividly described by a remarkable writer who pulls off her own high-wire act with honesty and abandon, moving from loss to delight. Tessa Fontaine is an escape artist determined to detonate the grim reality of mere existence, taking us on the most original journey I can remember in a recent memoir. As she moves through guises and adventures, she learns how to become the woman her mother loves and the person she didn’t think she could be: her own marvelous self.”George Hodgman, author of Bettyville

The Electric Woman delivers us to the potent mercy of unmitigated love, the passion of shared suffering, the resilience of the spirit, and the ecstasies of our transfigurations. The heart breaks, and breaks open. I have never read a book more tender of more true.”Melanie Rae Thon, author of Sweet Hearts

Discussion Questions

1. How did The Electric Woman change your perception of the human body and mind? In their simultaneous journeys, what do Teresa and Tessa show us about the nature of death-defying acts?

2. Tessa describes the anguish she experienced because of her parents’ divorce and the differing truths her parents told her over the years. She also examines the “allergy” she developed to her mother’s love. How does her relationship with her mother compare to your experience with your own parents? How does the love between parents and their children evolve over the course of a lifetime? What events—large or small—in the life of your family have significantly altered the way you relate to one another? What experiences have made you rethink the way your family works?

3. The longtime members of the World of Wonders describe how their audiences have changed; politically correct crowds now prefer to watch freak shows in the privacy of their homes. Is it wrong to find “human curiosities” entertaining? What is gained by watching live performances in general?

4. Davy and Teresa’s love story is exceptional. What is at the root of their lasting devotion?

5. As a greenhorn, Tessa has to figure out the pecking order of bosses, showpeople, carnies, ride people, and food people. Is this ladder very different from those in other workplaces? How does the World of Wonders dance between business and art?

6. In addition to sword swallowing, fire eating, snake handling, and bulb sparking, what skills does Tessa develop while she polishes her acts? What separates those who can hack it from those who can’t? What does Tessa learn about herself and her place in the world?

7. Teresa is a former surf-stunt girl, artist, and decorator. How is her creativity carried on by Tessa? How different do they seem? Do they share a common vision?

8. Tessa has to look sexy on the job. She is proud to pass the test of what she calls “coarse teasing,” and she feels protected by her crew after she has a frightening experience with two cops. Other characters also use their sexuality to their advantage—the bally girl who gets free food, for example. In what ways do Tessa’s or other character’s experiences on the road challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes? How do women at the carnival think about using their bodies for performance? What are the dangers or advantages of being a woman in their environment?

9. What is at the root of the financial insecurity described in this memoir, from the sideshow workers who are recruited from overseas to the fact that Teresa and Davy have to sell their house? What did you discover about the relationships between money, survival, and personal fulfillment?

10. What did you predict for Davy and Teresa’s trip to Italy? If you knew you had only a little time left with a loved one, what would you do? Would you stay home or make a final trip? Where would you go? Would you go if you knew you might not make it back?

11. In The Electric Woman, the cast of characters is diverse, ranging from Spif (knife thrower) and Sunshine (fire eater) to Pipscy (mermaid), Short E (daredevil), Red (multi-talented former Navy SEAL), and talkers Cassie and Tommy. To what extent does the World of Wonders become Tessa’s second family? Who made the biggest impression on you? Which act would you want to perform?

12. In “Cash Money,” Tessa makes up stories to enhance the audience’s excitement. How would you answer her question “Is it okay to lie in service of entertainment?” What do you think about lies versus illusions? Does an audience’s expectation of being tricked or convinced change the way you feel about the performance?

13. Tessa describes long hours and strenuous physical labor. The work is at times grueling and strict, but also brings the freedom of being on the road and working seasonally. How might these characteristics change the way a person feels about work? What were your ideas about carnival workers or sideshow performers before reading the book, and have they changed?

14. From the story of Lucille Horn, saved by a Coney Island incubator, to Teresa’s many hospitalizations, medical advances are a key aspect of this memoir. How much life-saving technology would you want administered to you? Did The Electric Woman change your opinion about end-of-life care?

15. Even though life in the sideshow, in the hospital, and in Italy is full of surprises, routines are also an essential part of these worlds. In “Mud,” Tessa delivers a full chronology of a typical day in her life. What kinds of armor does it take to convince ourselves we can do things, particularly anything we are uncertain of? Does it differ for something we have to do over and over again? How does her routine (“fix your hair like a showgirl,” “light up your torches and eat fire”) compare to yours?

16. Tessa tells us about her memories of her brief time with her father, and family stories such as her grandfather Ev’s D-day heroism. But, like most everyone in the World of Wonders, Tessa keeps her past a mystery to her fellow performers. How do she and the other showpeople reinvent themselves? Who does she want them to think she is? How does this reinvention affect the way she thinks about her relationship with her mother?

17. Discuss the book’s title. How does it apply to the various characters and journeys in the book? As Tessa overcomes her fears, how does she ultimately find light?



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.


Copyright © 2018 by Tessa Fontaine