31 August 2010

Tragic Tales: The Elephant Man

By Jennifer Linforth

As soon as I type his name readers will know the tragedy of this man. An image will pop into their heads and they will nod, but it was not his outward appearance that made him a tragic tale of the 19th Century, but the brilliant mind the world would never embrace.

Joseph Carey Merrick, the "Elephant Man."

As a child, Mr. Merrick's story was the first that fascinated me. Like all children I was drawn to the difference setting him apart. As I grew older I understood more about him and he was far more than a deformity and medical marvel.

He was a quiet, brilliant man--though many assumed otherwise.

His doctor, Frederick Treves, first met Merrick at a freak show. His descriptions of what he saw of Merrick are horrifying and fascinating. (This I had a particular interest in, for it is said Gaston Leroux may have been influenced by Merrick's sideshow years when he crafted The Phantom of the Opera.) But the tragedy lies here in what Treves writes of the man behind the monster:
I supposed that Merrick was an imbecile and he had been an imbecile from birth. The fact that his face was incapable of expression, that his speech was a mere spluttering, and his attitude that of one whose mind was void of all emotions and concerns gave ground for this belief.

From: The Joseph Carey Merrick Tribute Website
This is an easy thing to assume for times have not changed. The world is still judged by outward appearance (Does anyone recall Susan Boyle and the audience reaction when she first walked on stage and spoke?) Furthermore Treves shows us this:
It was not until I came to know that Merrick was highly intelligent, that he possessed an acute sensibility and--worse than all--a romantic imagination that I realized the overwhelming tragedy of his life.

From: The Joseph Carey Merrick Tribute Website
That part of Merrick's life echoed with me again while writing The Madrigals, for Gaston Leroux wrote of Erik, the horribly deformed but genius Phantom, "...all he wanted was to be loved for himself."

For a topic on tragic tales I could have gone into Merrick's life, what he looked like and how he lived. Most of the world knows this. Instead I went with how he made me feel. His story is just a brilliant tale--the tragedy lies in the assumptions left in its wake.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

Sad that today we are still judging people by their appearance. We certainly haven't learned much over the years. In some ways we are getting worse.
Yes I do remember the reaction to Susan Boyle. It actually made me angry the first time I watched it not knowing what her voice was like. The smarmy comments and eye rolling from the judges and the smirks and rude looks from the audience were not called for. Just because she was a plain old maid, she was a joke and obviously not capable of anything worth paying attention to. It gave me great satisfaction to see them all be put in their place.
If you don't conform to the "Beautiful People" image you are less worthy. When our son was in grade school, I overheard him being teased because his mother was fat. This shows too much emphasis is being placed on body image at home. It makes me wonder what these people are saying to their children. I wasn't a size 2 but I wasn't obese either. For children to pick on someone they don't even know and make assumptions about them is wrong. Unfortunately, they are not being taught to judge people by who they are and what they can do. For perspective, they should pay a bit more attention to the train wrecks some of the Beautiful People's lives are.
There are many people out there like Joseph Merrick that have so much to offer, but are being overlooked or ridiculed because of their appearance. Susan Boyle showed them how wrong they were. Sadly, when she finally had the opportunity to fix herself up a little and treat herself to a makeover, she was criticized for that. Changing your hairdo won't change who you are. Neither will loosing weight or gaining it.

Thanks for the thought post. People need to read it and think.