friday faves - elephant man

It’s a beautiful, disturbing charcoal dream: a silent howling woman in a slow-motion blur of hair and teeth, pounding gears and hissing steam, the haunting roar of an enraged elephant. It’s the opening scene of The Elephant Man, but the dream shares the gloom and rush of blood from a recurring dream I had as a kid, throbbing through my ears. In my dream a huge boulder thunders down a steep jagged butte headed for a tiny baby, sitting in a meadow at the base of the slope. A single hair on the top of the boy’s head plucks like a harp as the gigantic stone approaches; its looming shadow finally engulfing the infant’s oblivious form just as I wake up.

The film, based on fact and directed by David Lynch, remains an all-time favorite of mine since first seeing it nearly thirty years ago. In an outstanding performance John Hurt plays John Merrick, an abused, circus "freak" in late 19th century London, who is discovered by a physician, Frederick Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Merrick suffers from a congenital defect that has rendered him hideously deformed, crippled and dying.

Merrick is at first assumed an idiot, a simpleton. He lives behind a burlap bag with one oblong hole cut out to see beneath a slouching black cap. The rest of his body is hidden under a dark cape. He’s beaten, humiliated and abused by self-serving individuals throughout the film. He goes from being gawked at by circus goers, assaulted by his manager and nakedly scrutinized by curious physicians. At one point, Treves, who has taken Merrick under his wing, asks himself, “Am I a good man ... or am I a bad man?” for having subjected the innocent soul to the perverted ogling of some in high society. Yet, through all his tortures Merrick remains as grateful as one whose life had been saved, and indeed, his had been.

Watching, I found myself entranced by Merrick’s left arm and hand that appear and function normally. I was spellbound by his hand’s beauty and perfection revealed in shocking juxtaposition to the rest of his disfigured, monstrous form. For me, his hand became the oddity and I could not avert my gaze. And in his slender fingers I saw beauty and grace that mirrored itself in his gentle spirit, his kind heart, if not even in his perseverant, lopsided, dragging gait.

Midway through the film I heard Calvin whimper in his sleep. I ran upstairs to learn he had dirtied his diaper. Michael came to help. Half asleep, our sweet boy rubbed his head, stretched and writhed in a dreamy drugged-up stupor. His cheeks were pink, his hair tussled, his belly soft and smooth as dough. He’s so beautiful, I thought, so innocent, and I kissed his warm forehead. My heart winced with love as I realized, gazing at him, that my boy’s brain is as messed up as the elephant man’s contorted frame.

I wondered about that recurring dream; imagined it as some sort of harbinger or omen of what was to come, of some gigantic invisible rock that had smashed my boy’s brains to smithereens, provoking seizures, yet somehow preserving the utter perfection of his body. And I realized that these two innocent souls, John Merrick and little Calvin, are the same: both crippled, disabled, devastated, yet both filled with the kind of love and grace and beauty sometimes difficult to discern in the ordinary.

Originally published 02.27.12.

Joseph Carey (John) Merrick , August 1862 – April 1890

1 comment:

  1. I, too, loved that movie and haven't seen it in a long time. I wonder if it's appropriate for my sons? I have an "anchoring" element in my book (that I've been writing for years) -- a woman who used to fall down and seize on my college campus. At the time, I didn't know anything about epilepsy, but I seemed to see her fall and seize over and over during my four years there. I never knew her name but can see her clearly in my mind's eye nearly thirty years later -- prescient?