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.