Verne Troyer’s Passing: What’s Prejudice Got to Do With It?

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Actor Verne Troyer sadly passed away on April 21. He suffered for many years with alcohol abuse, relationship troubles, and suicidality. A statement posted to his social media accounts states “Depression and suicide are very serious issues,” followed by an appeal to be kind to one another and consider the pain others may be in. This heartfelt plea is sorely needed, though this statement runs the risk of morphing into the tired, empty narrative that too often follows such losses.

Again and again after an incident like this occurs, the media bombard the public with calls to bring about greater awareness of “mental illness” and the importance of “treatment” that is generally described in a narrow way. There is little discussion about why the person may have been suffering in the first place. Everyone immediately jumps to trying to understand what was wrong with him, while few step back and wonder what happened to him.

While Troyer never spoke publicly about his experiences or why he was so unhappy, what is known is that he was, well, different. He was a dwarf in a world that objectifies and taunts many of his similarly sized peers. Troyer also worked in a town that has quite famously promoted degrading and offensive portrayals of little people.

His passing can be an opportunity to bring attention to prejudice and abuse that lead so many to abuse substances, feel suicidal, and become overwhelmingly depressed. Being different in a world that values homogenization over almost anything else is torturous for most. There are long-term and sometimes lifelong consequences of being bullied, marginalized, oppressed, and abused.

Being small in a big world is depressing

To get an idea of what being a dwarf is like in a cruel and oppressive world, read this blog by Rebecca Cokley, someone with firsthand experience. She discusses the high rates of suicide and depression among her community and how daily life for so many is filled with humiliation, isolation, hopelessness, and fear. Cokley describes how even the most mundane moments of daily living turn into yet another circumstance of being objectified, marginalized, and dehumanized.

A quick investigation through several academic search engines resulted in the glaring conclusion that this issue is not of much concern among psychologists, sociologists, or anyone else who should be interested. This is not too surprising since researchers tend to study what matters to them personally (or, worse, what is profitable).

What little has been found is that people with certain types of dwarfism tend to have heart disease-related deaths at 10 times the rate of the general population. This could be interpreted many ways, but lifestyle is the most direct causal factor in the formation of heart disease and stress is a large part of it. There was also a study showing that short men, generally, have a twofold higher risk of suicide than taller men — and “short” in this study was under 5 foot 9 inches. Imagine what it’s like being THREE FEET shorter than that.

Most people are familiar with dwarves, not because they know someone personally or have actually engaged with such a person, but rather because they have seen them in a circus or being humiliated on television. Cinematic presentations of dwarves are commonly known to be exploitative and vicious. An article in The Hollywood Reporter details just how vile things are. As a literal illustration, a picture is included that features Troyer and other dwarves in Hollywood, reminding people that “We are all human beings.”

Actor Peter Dinklage, an exception who has found success in Hollywood without exploitation, stated in an interview with the New York Times in 2012 that “Dwarves are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice.” His remarks came after Martin Henderson, in England, died after being thrown like an object by a drunken Rugby fan as a “prank.”

Troyer was also a rare exception in that he found some quality roles, such as in Austin Powers and Harry Potter, yet he did not escape the path that begets many of his peers. The latter half of his career was spent on reality television shows that provided fodder for the voyeur wishing to laugh and scoff at the little person in pain.

Yes, he subjected himself to the viewing wittingly, as most do. Finding humor in what one cannot change is a wonderful tool to help a person survive such cruelty.

This does not mean that it doesn’t hurt.

Bullying and so-called “mental illness”

Bullying, along with other forms of oppression, trauma, and abuse, is ubiquitous across mental illness diagnoses. In fact, bullying from peers can have even more severe consequences than parental verbal abuse. Those who have been bullied and are also bullies fare the worst.

In general, victims of bullying commonly have long-lasting problems with anxiety, depression, and physical ailments linked to stress. Having been bullied is highly associated with increased risk of suicide, with verbal bullying being most closely tied with an actual attempt.

The relationship of bullying to anxiety and depression is also dose-responsive — meaning, the more one is bullied, the greater the risk. And the most common way that bullying victims tend to cope with their experiences and sadness is through the use of alcohol and drugs.

In addition to the commonly discussed link between bullying and anxiety/depression, a strong link also exists with psychosis, namely paranoia and intense distrust of others. This relationship exists especially for those who are particularly sensitive to interpersonal interactions and relationships. In other words, those most profoundly impacted by bullying and cruelty tend to be those who are also the most sensitive and kind.

Is it any wonder that people who are chronically made fun of, marginalized, rejected and humiliated tend to also be sad, anxious, distrustful of others, and turning to substances and suicide as the only way out?

Many spend their whole lives trying to prove themselves to the phantoms of their past — obsessing with finding the ever-elusive “success,” holding out for the hottest guy/gal, trying to be perfect lest any mistake prove the bullies right, and never, ever being able to be content with what one has. What happens when one realizes that despite all these efforts the bully might have won?

Changing the narrative

Verne Troyer’s death at such a young age is a tragedy. Only those closest to him know what he experienced in his life and why he suffered as he did. But his passing need not fuel the tired storyline of brain diseases and nefarious illnesses. Rather, perhaps it can provide a mirror to the trauma occurring every day for those who are deemed different.

Yes, people can benefit from empathic professional treatment that actually considers the context within which one’s suffering developed. But that should not preclude us all from examining how we can do better. People are suffering because society thinks it’s funny to humiliate and torture them. This must end, and will only do so once we start looking at the greater reality and start really acknowledging and caring about what is happening to people — not what’s wrong with them.

22 COMMENTS

  1. For the young folks listening: This article is overanalyzed a bit.

    With bullying: You can’t change everybody. Pretty much just ignore and say it’s not worth it. Your life will significantly improve. Just try to say your honest thoughts. Don’t try to be like somebody else so that you will be you and no one else.

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    • Ignoring bullying works most of the time. But if you’re dealing with psychopaths, it doesn’t work. Psychopaths will keep on attacking you, because they assume you don’t know they are psychopaths, and are just ignoring their asinine behavior. You actually have to get physically away from the psychopaths.

      My condolences to Verne’s family and loved ones. I agree, Noel, especially today’s “mental health professionals” do need to “start really acknowledging and caring about what is happening to people.” Those of us who were not brainwashed into the DSM belief system don’t have this problem, like your industry does. And unfortunately, what today’s DSM believers do is 100% the opposite of caring for or about people.

      Today’s “mental health” field is 100% about what is wrong with their clients. Which stigmatization can I defame this client with? They pick out and make up flaws in their clients. To the extent that in the end, once their medical records are pointed out as being filled with untruths, they even try to declare a person’s entire life to be “a credible fictional story.” Bye, bye, insane “mental health professionals.”

      Pointing out and making up flaws, DSM defaming, and torturing people with massive neurotoxic drug cocktails is NOT “mental health care.” Today’s “mental health professionals” do basically everything 100% wrong. Including the fact that the “mental health industry’s” primary actual function on this planet today is turning millions and millions of child abuse victims, into the mentally ill, with the psychiatric drugs. Our society needs to start arresting the pedophiles instead.

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  2. I can believe it. It must also be hard for unusually short men to find women. A lot of (silly) women I know won’t date a guy under 5′ 9″ no matter how wonderful, clever, charming, handsome or rich he is. I didn’t care, myself. As long as his legs were long enough to reach the ground. 🙂

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      • My younger sister is only 4′ 9″ but it’s not too bad. 1. She’s a woman. 2. She’s slender and cute.

        I’m 5’4″ almost average for a woman but narrowly escaped an eating disorder. From age 10 on up everyone kept telling me I was fat and ugly.

        You can never be too thin or rich. The only way I could be worthy of love was to starve myself till I was small, beautiful and feminine.

        My curves were sexy–but ugly sexy. They made guys lust after me brutally and want to rape me. If I didn’t have big, gross breasts and thighs the bullying would stop.

        Then in college I would go days without eating. No bullying, but I was ignored; no guy wanted to date me. I wasn’t slender and perky. 🙁 I realized I was fated to be alone forever at 20.

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        • Wow, I’m in awe of how simply and bluntly you wrote about your experience. You captured the reality for many women in a clear and forceful way. And I’m sorry that you were sexually harrassed by men. I think your experience is important for people to understand because so many women live with these issues, and so many men perpetrate them.

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  3. Whew! I apparently barely passed out of the realm of shortness humiliation at 5′ 9 1/4″.

    Thanks, Noel, for your beautiful rendering of a very sad picture. I very much doubt that social prejudice and bullying will be part of the narrative, but you do a great job of bringing that reality to life.

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  4. Not to be the Debbie Downer here, but assuming that Troyer’s suicide had to do with his dwarfism—even though, as far as I know, there is no evidence of this—ALSO shows “prejudice” of a sort. Sure, many little people are bullied and it is good to talk about that fact. But, like all people, little people are complex humans with complex lives. Verne Troyer was a real person with a complex inner life, and assuming (with no evidence) that his suicide boils down to dwarfism seems really disrespectful, actually.

    if I died and suddenly my death was ASSUMED to be because of my skin color, for instance, I would be rolling over in my grave. Racism is real, racism has no doubt affected me throughout my life, yet at the same time I do not think I would want my suicide to be interpreted as solely or even mostly about that without some evidence. If I wrote a suicide note talking about racism, okay, go ahead. But what if I killed myself out of grief over the sudden death of a loved one, a career-ending mistake, or simply existential angst of some kind? A psychotic episode? Self esteem issues? Revenge? Would I want all of that, which would be the real content of my suicide, to be ignored and someone to publicly assume that my suicide was really about the vast burden that is my skin color? No, I wouldn’t. I don’t view my skin color as a burden. I don’t view racism as the defining factor in every move I make in my life.

    This article is well intentioned but really upsettingly tokenizing in a way.

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    • Suicide is a choice. Often people make this choice out of desperation like fear or overwhelming unhappiness or physical pain.

      Troye’s unhappiness may have stemmed from his unusual physique. Also his addictive behaviors. Not all little people make this choice.

      The only way to stop suicide is to talk someone out of it. Offer them unconditional love and hope. Both of these are in scant supply in a psych ward.

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      • It MAY have stemmed from his unusual physique, just as it “may” have stemmed from deep guilt over being a white male… but there is no specific reason to think that either of those possible reasons WERE in fact what it stemmed from. The man was an alcoholic, and struggled with depression which he likely believed was a content-less chemical imabalance.

        Do you not see how rude it is to assume that just beause he was a little person, that is what killed him?

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    • Hi Meremortal,

      I appreciate your comment and think you point out something very important. I tried to explicitly say that I was not making assumptions about him, personally, because we do not, in fact, know anything about why he was so unhappy. What I was trying to say, and perhaps did not do a good job of, is that we need to actually ask WHY. That question so rarely gets asked – instead, it becomes about “mental illness”, which explains absolutely nothing. We as a society need to ask the hard questions about why a person suffers as they do. I also suggested that this could possibly be an opportunity to bring to light a very serious issue that NOBODY talks about. My intention was to provide a possibility of what could’ve been at play so as to simply consider that there are reasons why people kill themselves. My sincerest apologies if in the process I did the very thing I was trying desperately to avoid. It certainly was not my intention. You are right – we do not know what he went through or why he suffered so. I just wish we, as a society, would be daring enough to ask.

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      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Noel. I agree that it is crucial for people to talk about “why” people suffer , instead of just putting it down to content-less “mental illness.” I think it could have been written a little more carefully so as not to imply that dwarfism was what caused Troyer’s emotional suffering / death. However it is a good mission, to always try to get folks thinking about the real, social causes of suffering. So thanks for your response & your work.

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        • A wonderful exchange between Noel and meremortal! Thank you both for engaging in true dialogue to reach common ground; an example for all of us. The common ground stated so beautifully is that we as a society have decontextualized human distress by calling our experiences “mental illness”. By avoiding what for some of us is central i.e. early life experiences including all kinds of childhood adversity, abuse and neglect is not new. For centuries the admission that childhood abuse exists appears to make an inroad then disappears for another 50-100 years. Let’s not forget Freud’s first theories of childhood sexual abuse in his times. It’s just so painful to look at ourselves, our flaws, faults, injustices and traumas from generations.
          I call to all your attention Ophray Winfrey’s segment on 60 minutes around Mar 11, 2017. Afterwards she was interviewed by CBS Morning Show (both of these are on You tube). She said her story on childhood abuse transformed her life. She used the words of the hearing voices movement and others that Noel refers to “”don’t ask what is wrong with me but what happened to me”. Ophray referred to this phrase as transformative for her. “It changes the way I see life, the way I see people’s behavior. It changes the way I will run my school in South Africa”. She goes on to say “I want to stand on the table tops and shout this out for all to hear”. Ophray making the connection. Experiences are meaningful and not to be denied.
          So my charge to all of us here; can Ophray Winfrey lend her voice to the cause she says transformed her? How do we reach her to ally with her?

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          • I think that I understand what you’re saying, and I’m in general agreement with you. But I do want to expand on something you said. You said, “It’s just so painful to look at ourselves…”… Well, yeah, I see the truth in that, but can you see how that’s also the problem? We keep perpetuating the idea that honest and thorough self-examination is somehow “painful”, and “difficult”. It may in fact be, and often is. But it doesn’t *HAVE* *TO* be that way. I’ve lived by a quote I learned in A.A. meetings: “You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep.” The idea is that a *willingness* to talk about whatever needs to be talked about, goes a long, long way towards health and healing. No, that doesn’t mean we need to always be blabbing everything to everybody. It means having both ACCEPTANCE of our own painful experiences, and others. And it means a WILLINGNESS to confront and work through them. We can do it ourselves, with friends, or with professionals of various kinds. This process is also like the Mahayana Buddhist concepts of “attachments’, and freeing ourselves from the bonds of these attachments. If I had stayed with psychiatry and psych drugs and the so-called “mental health system”, I’d probably be dead by now. It was lots of A.A. meetings, working the 12 Steps, The Dalai Lama’s Buddhism, and a couple of excellent clinical psychologists which really saved me. But none of it would have worked without my own acceptance of myself as I was, and willingness to work for something and someone better. A better future me. My life still pretty much sucks, but I’m a happy man anyway!

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  5. “People are suffering because society thinks it’s funny to humiliate and torture them.”

    Or at least because it causes the bully to feel powerful at the expense of others–which is not power, of course, it’s pure cowardice and delusional thinking. “Bully” and “victim” are two sides of the same coin, and indeed, a powerful system of enabling allows this all to perpetuate. Breaking the system is not an easy feat, but I don’t see any way forward without doing so. Being different is our innate creativity and breaks new ground.

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