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Eyes Without a Face

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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.

In her book, A Face in Time Judy Ryan writes of such torment. Consider an excerpt from the book in which she describes her feelings about a twenty-year class reunion:

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.

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About Dirtgrain

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    Great stuff, man.

    I’ve seen a few human monstrosities in my time, and I must sadly admit that my reaction is always “I’m going to extract myself from this situation, ASAP.” Not a good feeling, but I believe a pretty universal feeling.

    I remember the cruel kids in junior high school who would point and laugh at and mock those sitting at the “retard table” in the lunch room. Looking back, I am disgusted with myself that I laughed along with them (though at least I was decent enough not to actively participate in the public torment).

    People are inherently cruel, IMO. We are able to learn, through proper socialization, to behave in a less cruel manner, but we are all doomed to be mean-spirited at our core.

    Personally, I blame that darn DNA… :-/

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    I believe the notion that everyone is abusive is false. I never harassed the handicapped kids as a child. Knew other children who didn’t, either. The mean kids, did. And, they grew up to be mean adults, I suspect.

    A writing acquaintance of mine who had cancer as a child, and, was disfigured as a result, committed suicide a few years ago. The ‘scaring people’ issue was compounded for her because she was the kind of thin, willowy blonde men often approach. Some of them would become quite abusive when she turned around and they saw her face.

    Coincidentally, Dirtgrain and I happened to write about a similar topic the same day. I have a review of a DVD of quadriplegic singer Teddy Pendergrass’ return to live performance up in Music.

  • Shark

    Nice work, Dirtgrain; Lots of complex ambiguities in these situations.

    Sorta puts the concept of personal “problems” in perspective, too, eh?

    One also has to dance with the concept that God might actually be an evil, cruel, merciless motherfucking bastard.

    And that so many of us have the luck and luxury to worry about meaningless crap– while others deal with tragic life and death circumstances that are serious, overwhelming, and monumental.

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    I don’t have real problems. Some teacher used to tell his students, who were complaining about an outfit or a date or a hairdo, that they have “happy problems.” He said that those are the kind of problems that you can laugh about years later.

  • Zach

    I’ve lived in Ypsi for 4 years now, and I’ve seen this man without a face. About a week ago he was intercepting people on their way between Staples on carpenter and their car. As I was pulling up, I saw him notice me and start walking toward my car. I freaked out. I don’t know why, and I’m not proud, but I pretended not to see him, and kept driving. I was overcome with fear, as if he was a boogeyman. He has to realize people have this reaction to him, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

    I don’t really know why I’m writing this. Its late and I have to be on campus in the morning.

  • anonymous

    The man who everyone describes is now sitting in front of Starbuck across from Borders on Liberty in Ann Arbor. His appearance and note about having bone cancer was mentioned to me recently so I went to meet this man. I will admit I gave him 5 bucks after I inquired about his appearance, his living situation and health. However I was bothered by his approach to life and the answers he gave me. As soon as I could I got on line and begin searching for answers. I am so glad to have found this article from another site. It bothers me that he makes his living in such a fashion and apparently chooses to be the person he has now become.

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    Some local people have left some insightful comments to this piece on my blog: click here to see the entry (scroll down for the comments). I haven’t seen him in Ypsilanti lately. Arborland seems to be a place where he begs often. In a way, I don’t want to see him ever again. But then I question myself and wonder if I just don’t want to confront what seeing him brings out in me, to confront the cruelness that is inside me. It’s confusing.

  • shanna

    So what are we going to _do_ about this. David Roche’s audiences get used to his face in a few moments. We need to figure out how to condition young children, and ourselves, out of the responses we have. Sure, the responses are natural. Lots of drives are natural, and still, they are modified by our education and social training.

  • cw

    I know the man you are speaking about. In my circle of friends we used to call him NoFace. MY friend Joe even wrote a book about the guy.

    About 2 years ago I landed a decent job that among many other things, put me in direct associated with the man, providing services and such. We talked a lot 2 winters ago, also rode the bus together quite a bit. I know his brother and sister in law quite well too, in a non-conflict-of-interest kind of way, you know.

    One thing i never did understand or dare ask was how or why he keot going. MAybe drug use, alcoholism, anger or just apathy. Like I said, never asked. But its haunted me for a long time, that idea, the image of him.

    You would think that talking with him and working with him would make it go away, that gut intinct that horrifies you. Everytime I see him my brain doesnt beleive what its seeing, tried to fix the picture and my eyes get blurry and i get pretty dizzy. Its like a cartoon, or, everything goes technicolor and it scares the fucking piss out of me.

    I heard on the street once that if he stopped drinking long enough to get into the hospital they could start repairing the damage, to both his face and his life, but it doesnt appear that he will.

    What a sick sad world we live in man, trapped in cages of meat and bone and hiding from the absurdity of it all behind fences and ‘stress’ and fake problems and television. Fuck God.

    peace, -c

  • Rbert16000

    I feel sorry for CW… I have seen this man. I have seen many ugly people in the world. The scarriest to me are the ones who you cant see. You look at them and see beauty, but when you get to know them, you see ugliyness which far surpasses Yippie… the man with no face as you refere to him.
    Like CW, many often blame God for things we cannot understand. That is pretty ugly. It sows ignorance, and fear.
    I am willing to stake my life on the fact that Yippei saved many lives in a round about way. He tried to play God and failed. It is one thing to see him and run away in fear, and quite another to look beyond the mask we all have while we are here to see what we all have to give to each other. To me that is the gift of life, the gift God has given to us. Dont you see, it’s all what we make of it… That’s all it is.

  • Sarah

    I actually worked with the doctor who made this man’s prosthesis. The doctor told me that this guy goes to great lengths to tell people that he had oral cancer(when it was in fact a failed suicide attempt), and begs people for money to pay for a prosthesis (which he already has) when really it is only to support his drug addiction.

  • Laura

    I know I am a few years late but I wanted to share something that happened my freshman year at UM in 2003. I was at Old Navy on Carpenter and had just gotten into my car. It was getting to be almost dark out and I was an 18 year old girl, alone. As I was putting my car into drive, No Face came up to me and banged on my window, showed me a note asking for money. He didnt have on a surgical mask and I could see the holes in his face where his mouth/nose had been. I am not proud of my reaction, either, but I put the car into drive and got the hell out of the parking lot. On the way home I actually started crying and had to spend the night at my friends house, his face kept haunting me. I honestly thought Iwas going crazy and had just imagined it until I got online the next day and found some information. I thikn he definitely tries to scare people and for that, while I pity him, I do not mind sharing my story.

  • Amy

    I saw the no face guy one night back in 2005 on my way to Borders off Carpenter. It’s a night I will never forget. Mind you, Im a grown 30 year old woman. I saw him and he asked me for money, and I was so horrified and overcome with fear, that I ran back to my car and went home immediately. His presence is sheer evil. After calling my neighbor in fear, she came over and we talked about it. We both had the same reaction…absolute fear and an overwhelming sense of anger…5 years later, he still haunts me.

  • ern

    I haven’t seen this guy around Ann Arbor in 5 years or so. Does he still troll around Ypsi or has he disappeared?

  • Dirtgrain

    I haven’t seen him or heard about him in years.