Remembering The Elephant Man

I just watched the 1980 film The Elephant Man, a true story about Joseph Merrick, the 19th century Englishman who suffered from a disfiguring ailment and who spent much of his life as a freak show attraction.

Poster of The Elephant Man movie

Poster of The Elephant Man movie

Although some of the film seems to have been fictionalized for dramatic effect, it is still a sensitive account of how disabled people have been treated throughout the centuries.

A definitive diagnosis for Merrick has never been identified, but it is most commonly believed that he had either neurofibromatosis or Proteus Syndrome. He had an enlarged head with protruding lumps and wart like growths over much of his body.

He was frightening to look at, but inside his twisted body were the heart and spirit of a man who loved art and literature. He was a talented artist who created stunning tabletop models of cathedrals.

The freak show phenomenon

The first part of the film, in which Merrick is beaten and starved by a drunken freak show operator, is painful to watch. But once he is rescued by a physician and given a safe place to live, the story takes a more hopeful turn.

Merrick, besides having a disabling disfigurement, also had the misfortune of being born in 19th century England. Freak shows were extremely popular in Europe during those days, with bearded ladies, dwarfs, people with microcephaly and other out-of-the-ordinary humans exhibited to frighten and titillate the public. (They were also popular in the United States.)

There was a hospital in London that charged admission for people who wanted to peak through a window and view people with mental illness in a locked ward. People with deformities or disabilities, who otherwise couldn’t get a job, joined traveling circuses just to survive.

The lesson

I have to say, I’m mystified by this phenomenon. Fortunately, most people developed the same reaction early in the 20th century and people who were different ceased to be objectified in such a shocking way.

We still regard people we consider “other” with suspicion and fear. We fail to fully embrace folks of a different race or nationality or those with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Which brings me to the lesson that I learned so well from my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability. If I take the time to get to know people I think are different, my fears dissolve and I see that we are much more alike than anything else.

Like Joseph Merrick, my uncle was “different” in appearance, but also like Merrick, he had much to offer. It was just up to me to slow down enough to appreciate him in his wonderful uniqueness.