Thursday, July 26, 2007

Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man

I just finished a fascinating book, "The True History of the Elephant Man", by Michael Howell & Peter Ford. If you're feeling sorry for yourself, which I think everyone does from time to time, perhaps it would be good to reflect on Joseph Merrick. Usually called John Merrick, from a mistake made by Sir Frederick Treves, Joseph likely suffered from neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome not elephantiasis. Here are some parts of the book which really touched my heart and I hope yours too.

A favorite of Joseph's
"False Greatness", by IsaacWatts

Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind's the standard of the man.

At last, Treves said, he asked a friend, "a young and pretty widow, if she thought she could enter Merrick's room with a smile, wish him good morning and shake him by the hand." It was essential that she should betray no trace of revulsion or embarrassment. The young widow whom Treves approached was Mrs. Leila Maturin, whose husband, Dr. Leslie Maturin, had died in 1883 within only two months of their marriage. She listened to Treve's proposal and his description of the Elephant Man, and without hesitation accepted the role in which he was casting her: an introduction of beauty to the beast, if with strict limits on the hopes of a transformation.
Treves accompanied Leila Maturin as she was taken to the little basement room to meet Joseph. She entered his room with an easy grace, smiling as she approached him, reaching out and taking his hand as Treves presented him to her.
It was all too much, Jospeh could not speak. Slowly he released her hand and slowly he bend his great head forward to his knees as he broke into heart-rending sobs and wept uncontrollably. The meeting ended as quickly as it had begun.
Afterwards Joseph confided to a rather shaken Treves that this was the first time any strange woman had smiled at him, let alone taken his hand in greeting. The event itself was, however, a landmark, ushering in a wholly new phase in the life of the Elephant Man.

As a specimen of humanity, Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, and with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.


Jenny said...

Sounds fascinating Adam...should borrow it from you!

Shirley said...

Thanks, Adam. The story of this man brings such humility. I'm glad your heart has felt the touch of God in the reading of Joseph's life. S

Gwen said...

I remember watching the Anthony Hopkins movie as a teenager, and bursting into tears when he says, "I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!" Very moving story indeed.