Carmen Tarleton, whose angry husband destroyed her face
To know someone deeply is to love them. Our culture’s insistence on surface, on conformity to a prescribed appearance -- always appealing -- is not true to the way people attach to each other. Consider that to a lot of us, Worf on “Star Trek” has come to seem familiar, friendly and lovable. In fact, he gets paired off on the show and NOT to another fierce Klingon, but to Counselor Deanna Troi, gorgeous and compassionate.
Michael Dorn who played Worf
Most people haven’t really known people who needed face transplants. My hostess during my ministerial fellowship in Hartford had had a husband who lost a quarter of his face to cancer, but he had died by then. When he was alive, he never left the house. Now that we actually CAN transplant faces, we see them as half of the before/after pics, optimistically, redeemed. The media normally censors the most “disturbing” (their euphemism) images of human damage. The trouble with the truth is that a lot of people can’t handle it. But if it’s not available to our map of the world, we never come to either accept or provide the resources for change.
Tough as it is to realize how damaged one can be and still live, it’s even worse when we find out how often the faces were smashed and melted by someone trying to destroy the identity of the person, hoping to make them suffer terribly without dying, to be repulsive to everyone else out of a twisted desire to own them. Hate is the obverse of love; the opposite is to walk off whistling and find someone else.
Carmen before the lye attack
So I love the story of Carmen Tarleton. After her estranged husband poured industrial lye on her and she endured fifty surgeries to get a face back, she decided to learn to play the piano. And she and the piano teacher (an older guy) fell in love. I think he sees her the way she is just above and she does, too. THAT’s how people attach: sharing something. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/01/health/tarleton-face-transplant/ So now she’s looking forward to having enough muscle and nerve grow back in her face to be able to pucker up for a kiss. She still has her voice.
After all, a responsive voice (if it belongs to Scarlett Johanson) is enough for a man to fall in love with, according to Hollywood. But there are plenty of stories about people who imagine a face for a voice they know and get a shock when they meet it.
It’s even a shock to meet one’s own face in the mirror after sort of forgetting about one’s age, esp. if one doesn’t use makeup or shave regularly. If I go through the day with computer glasses, which are set for 18 inches, my wrinkles disappear, my Scots ruddiness seems natural, and I don’t see the rampant eyebrows. The first selfies I made were on a hot day after I’d been in the yard working. I deleted them but was startled when Google Images resurrected them. Maybe people won’t realize that’s me.
As an alternative I sent someone a photo of my face taken when I was still a teen and, sure enough, that shows up on Google Images, too. Of course, the images I get are not the ones you get. The computer algorithm thinks every old woman with short hair and glasses is me. We’re a tribe.
These are not me. My mom's mastectomy was on the other side and more radical.
We are used to rarely or never seeing genitalia or female breasts until the Aquarian Revolution began addressing the question of “why not?” There were two contexts that had custody of the images: one was medical, which kept photos of the result of breast surgery from sight; one was pornographic, which omitted any examples “substandard.” (At least the newer “fab” actors, like other Hollywood performers, are remarkably attractive.)
Today transgender folks go where few have ever gone before.
Of course the reaction is obsession among the young and otherwise insecure about whether they are “normal.” They never really develop the inner understanding of how multiple, surprising, and unique human bodies (like any other mammal bodies) can be. Radical differences used to be assigned to freak shows -- the fat man, the giant, the bearded woman -- and even mild divergences could be stigmatized. At least in junior high.
These days in the paradoxical way the society often works, women of extreme emaciation and men with steroid-produced muscles have become the most admired. Plastic surgery offers a nice living to surgeons, though the examples of bad practice abound on the Internet, the shocking reverse of face-transplants in which known and loved faces become masses of scar tissue.
We stigmatize people who are different and yet one of the figures who has recently entered many hearts is a dwarf -- not a cartoon character but a real-life dwarf actor of major acting chops and a gift for making us look at his heart instead of his height. Our present fascination with sci-fi and fantasy creates a context that welcomes him. Here’s a clip that’s not “Game of Thrones.” It’s “X-Men.” The pretty girl is blue -- literally. No one was looking at her face anyway. http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/178525/
Mammals don’t like difference. White crows are commonly killed by black crows. Humans create their own markers with paint and headdresses in hopes of looking impressive instead of edible. We look for faces and if they can’t be seen, they can’t be “read,” which interferes with our empathy. On the other hand humans sometimes prefer the unusual (albino buffaloes and tigers), attributing magic to them, trying to “own” them.
Babies at first react to anything that’s vaguely like a face: researchers can hold up a paper plate with two eyes and a smiley mouth drawn on with a felt-tip and the baby will “see” a face, pay close attention, and perhaps smile. But then later comes a phase when babies are afraid of unfamiliar faces and kick up a fuss when their usual caretaker isn’t there. These changes in reaction seem to be created in the process of brain maturation: perhaps from learning or perhaps from new brain parts coming on-line -- or, wait now, the interaction of the two because it is the learning that brings the new brain parts into existence.
A person with Marfan syndrome
I have trouble managing my desire to stare, which is fine if I’m looking at photographs, but not so much for the beautiful young woman with Marfan syndrome who used to ride the same bus. Or the young man who composed music on the bus, using a special laptop sort of instrument. He was more direct, challenging me, “What are YOU lookin’ at?” I was abashed and scolded myself, but just wanted to know about them, not to hurt them. Why were they hurt?
Because of The Stigma. We stare at “the different” as though we were creating repelling beams that will keep them away from us. Or tractor beams that might trap them. It’s as though the traffic streams of photons were magic rays. One of the abilities of those rays is to activate in the victim of the staring a visceral reaction of self-criticism, feeling exposed, unhuman.
The fourth level of the brain and therefore the identity is the community, esp. the one usually within eyeshot or most familiarly known. We are nervous about them changing -- losing or gaining weight, dressing some new way, creating a new hairstyle -- and even challenge them. But that works in reverse: if people react to us, ask us if we’ve lost weight, even remark, “Hey, lookin’ good!” we say to ourselves, "What?" Community view, world view, affect our identity and therefore the way our brains function.
Al Pacino played Dr. Kevorkian in a movie.
Would you trust this woman?