Monday, March 30, 2009

Horrible Things Happen To Wonderful People

I've been thinking often about the people who receive face transplants, which is understandable since I've been writing about Face/Off these last couple of weeks. The aspect of face transplants that I didn't bring up is a discussion of why anyone might need a transplant in the first place. I'm not going to get into this in great detail, but bear with me since this entry explains my rationale for selecting the next film.

Face transplants carry the risk of infection and/or rejection, as do all transplant surgeries. As I said in my last Face/Off entry, rejection can be immediate, or occur days, weeks, months, or years later even if the patient is on anti-rejection drugs. Those drugs also increase a person's risk of developing certain types of cancers. a person receiving this type of transplant must be prepared to risk their life, and take the risk of having to live without a face at all, if the transplant is rejected.

Who is willing to risk everything on this type of surgery? Someone with incapacitating deformity, that's who. Many of the people who qualify for face transplants are so horribly disfigured that they can't see, talk, smell, or eat properly. What is the quality of life of a person so mutilated or deformed that they have very little, or no, social interactions at all?

This is a link to the site of Jacqueline Saburido, a woman who was severely burned in a car accident. She would likely be a candidate for transplant surgery. Her image puts things in perspective. You are not looking at movie make up when you see her picture. You see her face. Her story is tragic. Jacqueline Saburido

If I had a severe facial disfigurement, how could I live without care free, social physical contact? I'm average looking. I blend in with the crowd. no one stares in shock at my appearance, or is afraid to touch me, or assumes I am mentally retarded due to a speech, hearing, or visual impairment.

I'm not an ethicist or philosopher so I'm going to leave the big investigation of the emotional toll of living with deformity to someone else. That said, I find that if I can ground my intellect in the study of a physical condition, it allows my emotional self to get to work empathizing and putting the unimaginable into some kind of context. Here's a challenge for me as I write this blog - How do I describe severe deformity and still show enthusiasm for the topic and not come off looking like a totally callous jerk? The human body is really amazing and studying even really bad stuff can be (dare I say it?) fun. It's easier to get excited about topics that will kill you, since we all die. But we're not all going to come down with a horrible disfigurement. I face this type of issue when I teach my pathology class, but there I can have a conversation with the students and they can help shape the lesson.

This blog's tagline has a quote on it from Young Frankenstein, so I think you can see my dilemma. i want to talk about movies that are inspired by actual horrible events. I want to be respectful, but I also want to entertain. I'm not quite sure how to address this issue, but I'm going to try to give us some emotional distance from the condition under discussion. We will look at a pathology that is so rare, there is no chance that we or anyone we know will develop it(1). By examining deformity through the context of a movie we can check out make up, acting, and narrative, in addition to exploring the actual condition itself. That should help a little.

What is it like to live with such a Horrible disfigurement? I can't imagine, and I think I have a pretty active imagination. To explore these issues I did what I often do, I read and watched movies. I mad some personal discoveries, and then found myself on the doorstep of David Lynch's 1980 film, The Elephant Man.

I'll leave the script analysis to experts like Todd Alcott, but I do find parts of this film provocative, well presented, and moving. When the elephant man, John Merrick(2) (played by John Hurt) makes his first visit to the home of surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife (Hannah Gordon), they sit on a love seat and look at family photos. The wife starts crying, overwhelmed by Merrick's condition, and then I started crying! I cried twice! How embarrassing! I rarely cry at a film. Lynch and the cast really humanize this guy.

It is easy to be flippant talking about face transplants when discussing a film like Face/Off because nothing is at stake. Movies that are "based on a true story" are hard for me to watch because someone was actually subjected to the events of the film. Lynch did a great job with The Elephant Man, but the film would affect me in a very different way if Merrick were a fictitious character.

There is still debate about what caused Merrick's deformity. That's where we'll start next time.

1. There is no chance of adults suddenly developing this congenital condition, and it is so rare that there are only a few hundred people in the entire world who have it. The condition usually manifests between the ages of 6-18 months.
2. According to a couple of sources including Wikipedia, the film mistakenly names Joseph Merrick as John Merrick. Long story. We'll call him John to reduce confusion, I hope.


  1. There's really no confusion. Here are the basic facts:
    The "Elephant Man" movie is wonderful but based fairly loosely on Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890) born in Leicester and died at the age of 27 while living at the London Hospital.
    Merrick suffered from an extremely rare disease called Proteus syndrome, which causes severe overgrowth of bone and skin. His case has been the worst in history to date.
    Unlike the movie, Merrick chose his career as a "novelty" and took the show name "Elephant Man" after he could no longer hold a job. His managers treated him well and he became fairly wealthy. They never beat him or brutalized him.
    The tea scene with Mrs. Treves is lovely and captures the gentle spirit of the real Joseph Merrick.
    Hope this is helpful!

  2. Thanks, Mae! This is a great synopsis. I understand that Treves' own writings referred to Joseph Merrick as John, so the confusion of the names has been going on for over a century. Given that, you really can't blame Lynch for using the wrong name. When we get into the film and start talking about the Merrick in the movie and the Merrick in the real world, some confusion may be inevitable...

  3. Hi Kriota
    Interestingly, Treves' manuscript shows that he wrote "Joseph", then deliberately changed it to "John." No one knows why Treves called Merrick "John," but he did right from the start in 1885, while EVERYONE else called him 'Joseph." Heck, even Joseph signed himself "Joseph."

    Researchers in the late '70's had already figured out his real name by the time David Lynch made his film. He must have deliberately chosen "John" (as Treves did) to create Merrick as a semi-fictional character, since he wasn't making a documentary.

    Okay, I've said my two bits about 'Joseph' vs. John! :-) Thanks for hearing me out.