A man lives in Ypsilanti whose fate is to go through life terribly disfigured after a failed attempt to commit suicide by shooting himself. I first heard about him last year from my students. They said that he had blown off his face with a shotgun and that now he goes around scaring people and begging for money. Some call him Eyes Without a Face, among other things.
I saw him for the first time as I was driving a few weeks ago. He was walking along Congress St. toward Michigan Avenue. It was only a few moments, and I can’t get the image out of my mind. He had a huge empty hole on his face where his nose and the middle of his face should be. It looked as if his face were caving in like a sinkhole. Even though I didn’t get a good look at him, it scared the shit out of me, and I quickly looked away and drove home. This reaction troubles me. It’s not typical of me.
When I was growing up, I had a friend, Tommy, who was born with water on his brain. This led to major deformities of his head. Kids would call him “Frankenstein.” Even as a kid, it occurred to me then that the label was full of malice and carelessness (perhaps “Eyes Without a Face” is in the same category).
For some reason, those who don’t encounter deformity in their lives are likely to react carelessly and viciously when they do see it. It is our natural, unthinking reaction to otherness but it is so undeserved. Tommy’s deformity is unfair on many levels: that he was born with a deformity at all; that people treat him so poorly because of it; that he has had to go through so many surgeries, even as a young child. How many times has he had to hear “Frankenstein”, along with a host of other labels? How much worse has it made his life? But Tommy seems above such labels. He has not become bitter at the world–at least he doesn’t show it. Instead, Tommy is perhaps the nicest and funniest person I have ever met. I have never seen him react to the meanness in kind. That shows incredible character. So many don’t see who he really is (I just heard him referred to as Frankenstein again–by adults).
The man from Ypsilanti is different to Tommy. The deformity didn’t choose this man–rather, he chose the deformity. At least he chose to risk it, although I doubt most people attempting suicide thoroughly consider the possibilities if they fail (not sure here, though). From what I have heard, this man is not happy, nice or funny.
He horrifies people on purpose. I heard stories of him walking around with a surgical mask covering the gap in his face, asking for money, which apparently is used to support his drug addiction. When he is turned down, he removes the mask. He also asks for money to buy gauze so that he can put it in his face, which he exposes to potential marks. One friend told me that as he was getting out of his car, turning around, this man snuck up on him so that they were face to face and scared the shit out of him. He is trying to become a monster in other people’s eyes (or he has internalized the way we have treated him and become a monster truly?).
Surely, somewhere along the way to his recovery from the failed suicide, somebody must have gotten him a prosthetic (see Getting a New Face After Rare Infection for such an example–this story is a good example of why we need national health care). Maybe he had no insurance, but I found organizations that would help him out–I think. It must be that he intentionally goes without a prosthetic, walking the streets of Ypsilanti, haunting people.
Anger surrounds him. It emanates from him, obviously, based perhaps on the failed suicide attempt, what he came back as afterwards, or society’s role in the whole thing–why he chose to attempt suicide in the first place, maybe. It’s as if he has come back from the dead to torment us, to make us look more closely at the lives we carelessly overlook as a society and the things that we do that directly and indirectly lead someone to do such a thing. He is a ghost and I wonder how his anger can be appeased, how he can be made human again.
The first reaction to his story is why didn’t he finish the job? If life was so bad before he shot himself, then how can it be any better now? He must live for something–I hope not just drugs. Maybe it’s a miracle that he is alive. If I believed in God, then I would think that God had some purpose for this man–maybe he feels there is a purpose, and so, even though he is addicted to drugs, he lives on. Of course, knowing what it feels like to shoot his face off may well inhibit him from trying suicide again. Can one really learn from such a mistake that has such an extreme outcome?
I wonder what it does to him to look into a mirror, confronting the outward ugliness that seeps inward. Its stigma, its reminder of his costly failure, corrupts his lingering humanity, turning him into a specter, a plague. Can you imagine the fury as he contemplates his incompetence or just bad luck? How many times a day does he think “what if?”. This torment could encourage him on his path of self-destruction and abjection.
It was in my senior year of high school that I lost my original face forever to a malignant muscle tumor, embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. For the first time in twenty years, I was about to put my altered face forward before all my former classmates.
At the age of seventeen, after a year of treatment and illness I survived a fatal diagnosis. The resulting damage from the tumor and radiation was devastating. I was left with permanent, partial baldness on the left third of my scalp, restricted movement of my jaw, loss of sight and hearing in my left eye and ear, and skin and tissue that were aged and damaged. The bone and soft tissue in my left cheek had been ravaged by the size of the tumor and the affects of the radiation. As a result, my upper cheek was dramatically sunken. Even after twenty-one corrective reconstructive surgeries, I was still wondering if I would ever be free of the shame and embarrassment of my deformity.
So what was so frightening about this celebration? My fear of rejection and pity. For some reason I was not able to mature the attitudes of these young teenage images. Would they laugh, or be talking behind my back? For days, I ran scenario after scenario in my mind, speculating how this evening might turn out. My imagination was overwhelmed with panic and dread, never allowing me to get past the hotel lobby. Each enactment had me turning around and going home before anyone had the opportunity to see me.
We are all insecure people, but most of the reactions that we think people are having to our appearance are figments of our imagination. With a deformity, you know the reactions are really occurring (although Ms. Ryan’s reunion went well).
In all of these ideas and attitudes that I have about this man from Ypsilanti, I am faced with a dilemma. I think of myself as compassionate, yet I can’t get away from my anger at what this person has done and is doing to himself–and to others. As a teacher, I have had to deal with students who have deformities, but none so bad as this one. What if he were my student, and he insisted on showing his unmasked face? Does a person with such a deformity owe it to society to mask that deformity as much as possible? Yet I believe I could deal with it if he didn’t wield his deformity as a weapon. It is not so much his outward deformity, as it is what this deformity has done to him as a person. I’m afraid of his life, his situation. What can I do for him when I can’t confront the pure spite, anger and vindictiveness that consumes him? I don’t know that I would do any better in his shoes.
I can hear the Elephant Man saying, “I am not an animal. I am a human being”. This movie is about the way we treat those who are different from us. It explores how humans construct their identities. In viewing the movie, we must rethink how we define what is human. Can you think of a person without thinking of his or her face? John Merrick had to struggle so hard just to be human in the eyes of others.
It should not be so hard, but it is. We have an innate, extreme reaction to deformities because we fear nature and being subjected to its cruel whims. Many don’t show compassion because to do so is to open oneself up to confronting this ultimate fear. The easy way is to call deformed people names, laugh at them, and mistreat them. In so doing, one becomes less human and more of a monster himself or herself. We can’t look to the faceless man for inspiration, but there are those, like Tommy, who can inspire us–who can challenge us to be more human.
David Roche has become famous because of his performances relating to his facial deformities. In “My Face Does Not Belong to Me” he writes the following:
As a performer, I am presently touring my one man show, The Church of 80% Sincerity. As a person with facial difference, I am a one man show, both on stage and off. I was born with an “extensive cavernous hemangioma”—a benign tumor consisting of blood vessels—on the left side of my face and neck. The radiation therapy I received as an infant caused the lower part of my face to stop growing and left radiation burns on my temple and eyelid.
My face does not belong to me; it belongs in a catalog of symbols. As a performer, I am a metaphor for disability. The facially disfigured person is the most hackneyed symbol in cinema and theater, commonly standing for something that has gone dreadfully wrong. No other metaphor is so overused as a portent of despair and evil.
Despair is the message of the Phantom of the Opera, a character totally defined by his disfigurement, forced by the playwright to live forever in the dark. Evil is conveyed by Freddy Kreuger and his slasher film counterparts—barely human, driven insane by deformity, constantly lurching out of the bushes to exact revenge upon the cute. In The Lion King, Simba’s adversary is named Scar. Hmm—wonder if he is a bad guy? Of course there are always counter examples, such as Disney’s Quasimodo. We all love that cute Quasi—but just as friends! As far as romance is concerned, he will have to be satisfied with ringing his own bells.
The face is the locus of the human persona. At the deepest level, a distorted face can signify that God or the universe may be quirky and careless, or at worst, vengeful and punitive. When others judge a face to be marred, it serves as an unconscious reminder to them that the whole human experience, including their own, is one of being flawed.
In our western culture, we have inherited the dogma that we are innately evil, born with the birth defect of original sin. The religions of the east filter their Calvinism through concepts of enlightenment and karma. This sort of cultural and religious background is the basis for the deep subtext that perforce accompanies any disabled character. Even the medical model of disability only substitutes cure for salvation. I believe that seeing and accepting one’s “flawed” condition is a core spiritual growth experience, an essential step in developing emotional maturity for all people, disabled and otherwise.
Ann Lemott describes one of Roche’s performances, “The Church of 80 Percent Sincerity”:
He told of wanting to form a gang of the coolest disfigured people in the world, like the Phantom, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Freddie Krueger and Michael Jackson. They’d go places as a group–bowling, perhaps, or to one of the make-over counters at the next Macy’s White Flower Day Sale.
“People assume I had an awful childhood,” he continued. “But I didn’t. I was loved and esteemed by my parents. My face may be unique, but my experiences aren’t. I believe they are universal.”
Wouldn’t you think that having that thing on his face totally messed with his adolescent sex life? Of course it did, he said. And he was a little fat, too, a chubby little disfigured guy. But these things were not nearly as detrimental as having been raised Catholic; having been, as he put it, an incense survivor.
Telling his stories through a crazy mouth, a jumble of teeth, only one lip and a too-large tongue, David’s voice did not sound garbled but strangely like a brogue; like that of a Scottish person who just had a shot of Novocain.
“We with facial deformities are children of the dark” he said. “Our shadow is on the outside. And we can see in the dark: we can see you, we see you turn away, but one day we finally understand that you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable to your family, and society and even to God.
“All those years, I kept my bad stories in the dark, but not anymore. Now I am stepping out into the light. And this face has turned out to be an elaborately disguised gift from god.”
David Roche has a lot to teach the world, and I hope he gets the world as an audience. The deformed man from Ypsilanti could teach us a lot, as well. Unfortunately, what he teaches up to this point is anger, fear and inhumanity.
He needs compassion, not drug money. The “Psychological Emergency” Of New Onset Physical Disability And Deformity describes the process of coping with severe deformity as being similar to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving. Perhaps this man has not successfully mourned the identity that he lost with the tragedy. I hope he can figure out who he is and how he can find a positive place in Ypsilanti and the world.