Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Joseph Merrick, and the Privilege of Telling Your Own Story

I met Joseph Merrick the way most people do, which is via the David Lynch film adaptation The Elephant Man; in my case closely followed by reading the original text it was based on, namely The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Dr. Frederick Treves. The film adaptation follows Treves’ account relatively faithfully in spirit, although it does swap around the order of events for dramatic effect, and give Merrick a far more comprehensible speaking voice than he actually had (for understandable practical reasons) and with it an inexplicably middle-class accent.

Years later I discovered more about Merrick’s actual life and learned a valuable lesson: there is more than one way to dehumanise someone.

Treves’ account is not a biography of Merrick, but an autobiography. As the title suggests, Treves is giving an account of his own reminiscences, and the book contains stories of other patients as well. Curiously, another story in the same volume, ‘A Cure for Nerves’, at least affects to be a first-person account written by a female patient, although she is not named. As such the story begins with Treves’ first meeting with Merrick, and his interpretation of events and of Merrick’s character. However, this interpretation is openly in conflict with Merrick’s own account of events, and this is obvious even within the context of Treves’ work itself.

‘…he was a child, yet a child with some of the tempestuous feelings of a man. He was an elemental being, so primitive that he might have spent the twenty-three years of his life immured in a cave…’

‘…Of his father he knew absolutely nothing. Of his mother he had some memory. It was very faint and had, I think, been elaborated in his mind into something definite. Mothers had figured in the tales he had read, and he wanted his mother to be one of those comfortable lullaby-singing persons who are so loveable. In his subconscious mind there was apparently a germ of a recollection in which someone figured who had been kind to him. He clung to this conception and made it more real by invention, for since he could toddle no one had been kind to him… It was a favourite belief of his that his mother was beautiful. The fiction was, I am aware, one of his own making, but it was a great joy to him. His mother, lovely as she may have been, basely deserted him when he was very small, so small that his earliest clear memories were of the workhouse to which he had been taken. Worthless and inhuman as this mother was, he spoke of her with pride and even with reverence. Once, when referring to his own appearance, he said: ‘It is very strange, for, you see, mother was so beautiful.’

Treves dismisses the entirety of Merrick’s life up until the point of entering London Hospital as ‘one dull record of degradation and squalor’. His ignorance of the etiquette of upper middle class life is taken as evidence of Merrick being a half-civilised, ‘elemental’ being, rather than of him being a working class man from Leicester. One example of this given is, of all things, the fact that he signed off a letter to Queen with the phrase ‘yours very sincerely’. Notable also is the fact that in this account, Treves gets Merrick’s name wrong, referring to him as John instead of Joseph; an absurd basic error repeated in the Lynch film.

Merrick wrote (or at least contributed to) his own account of his life, in the form of a pamphlet which was distributed by Tom Norman to people viewing Merrick when he was exhibited on Whitechapel Road. It is likely that Norman had a part in the writing of it. Nonetheless, it’s a useful source and the contrast with Treves’ account is stark:

I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely - the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me; after she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings; unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times, but suppose father had some spark of parental feeling left, so he induced me to return home again. The best friend I had in those days was my father’s brother, Mr. Merrick, hair Dresser,Church Gate, Leicester.

When about 13 years old, nothing would satisfy my step-mother until she got me out to work; I obtained employment at Messrs. Freeman’s Cigar Manufacturers, and worked there about two years, but my right hand got too heavy for making cigars, so I had to leave them.

I was sent about the town to see if I could procure work, but being lame and deformed no one would employ me; when I went home for my meals, my step-mother used to say I had not been to seek for work. I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home for my meals, and used to stay in the streets with an hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark – “That’s more than you have earned.”

Being unable to get employment my father got me a pedlar’s license to hawk the town, but being deformed, people would not come to the door to buy my wares. In consequence of my ill luck my life was again made a misery to me, so that I again ran away and went hawking on my own account, but my deformity had grown to such an extent, so that I could not move about the town without having a crowd of people gather around me. I then went into the infirmary at Leicester, where I remained for two or three years, when I had to undergo an operation on my face, having three or four ounces of flesh cut away; so thought I, I’ll get my living by being exhibited about the country. Knowing Mr. Sam Torr, Gladstone Vaults, Wharf Street, Leicester, went in for Novelties, I wrote to him, he came to see me, and soon arranged matters, recommending me to Mr. Ellis, Bee-hive Inn, Nottingham, from whom I received the greatest kindness and attention.

In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well – in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before. I must now bid my kind readers adieu."

In short then: his mother was not an invention, she did not abandon him as an infant, he didn’t enter a workhouse until he was well into his teens, he remembers his father perfectly well and is justifiably angry with him and his stepmother for their treatment of him, and so perhaps just doesn’t want to talk about him (he might even be concerned that a paternalistic doctor might try to reunite him with his dysfunctional family), he endured and recovered from an operation at a time when that was extraordinarily dangerous, he chose the freak shows over the workhouse, and he seems content with the choice.

It’s also notable that the audiences at the freak shows (the working classes demonised by the Lynch film) are the ones who wanted to hear about Merrick’s life in his own words, in seeming contrast to the middle and upper classes who would rather read Treves’.

Of course the latter point could be Norman offering a self-serving account of his own, but it seems to better fit the facts. Nadja Durbach, who has researched Merrick’s life extensively, confirms that he made a decent amount of money and given the conditions of the workhouse seems to have made the sensible choice. Unfortunately, after Norman’s shop was closed down by the police, Merrick took on a continental tour with Sam Roper, a travelling showman. He was robbed and abandoned in Brussels: and made it back to London. From my research thus far, that’s all I can find: ‘made his way back to London’. Apparently alone, with no money, and with a severe deformity. How?!

The Merrick of this account suffers, yes; but he is also pragmatic, resourceful, and pissed off, with his stepmother in particular. He is not a child, ‘elemental’, or ‘primitive’. He’s not even helpless, vulnerable though he might be. He’s human. And he has his own story.

The Lynch film is Treves’ (self-serving) story. The Pomerance play, released at the same time, has the advantage of being far more aware of Merrick as human - it gives him real intelligence, agency, and sexuality; it questions Treves’ morality to a far more significant degree, and is clearly happy to make the audience uncomfortable in order to achieve these things. But it is still Treves’ story, starting with Treves’ encounters with Merrick, and being primarily concerned with Treves’ moral development. I’m aware of a couple of other appearances of Merrick in wider fictions, which have related problems: ‘A Taste for Monsters’ by Matthew J. Kirby is a young adult novel which has Merrick as a core character, but it’s not his story, it’s the story of a nurse who looks after him (and also about Jack the Ripper and ghosts). Merrick is very much the naive child in this one. His portrayal in the TV series Ripper Street isn’t bad - it’s fairly human - but it creates a heroism for him based on events that never happened and are wildly implausible instead of telling his actual story, and obviously it is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part.

The only fictional portrayal I’ve come across which centralises Merrick, ignores Treves completely, and is concerned with Merrick’s own experiences of his body and of humanity more generally, is The Last Stand of the Elephant Man by Jennifer Pelland. But to tell this story, Pelland transports him 400 years into the future, and into a new body. His simultaneous attachment to and disgust for his original form shapes the narrative.

It’s not surprising that science fiction steps so easily into the role of telling stories that don’t usually get to be told. Certainly there are those that can imagine a time-travelling shape shifting alien who lives in a police box that is bigger on the outside than the inside but cannot imagine that alien being a woman… but despite the presence of such small-mindedness amongst some science fiction fans, the potential for sci fi as a liberating and transformative force remains. In the Manifesto of the Uncanny Magazine’s special issue, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, Elsa Sjunneson and Dominik Parisien put it this way:

Destroy. That’s the brief of this issue. Destroy science fiction. Why? Because disabled people have been discarded from the narrative, cured, rejected, villainized. We’ve been given few options for our imaginations to run wild within the parameters of an endless sky.

This issue destroys those narratives and more.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction takes the rallying cry of We are here and Our stories matter and looks to the future. The other projects all began by “destroying” science fiction, and this one is no different. By turning our attention to the future, we are able to explore concerns and realities in the present and amplify them, correct them, highlight the ways they might become better or worse if allowed to continue on their present course. Through science fiction, marginalized people are able to say, We are here, now, and we will be there later, too.

But it is not just enough to talk about disability. It is not enough to just say that we are here, that we will be there later. We need to remember that we are people, too. The disabled artists in this issue are not just disabled people, as so many would boil disability down to a single trait. These are fully actualized individuals…

It is a shame that we have to step into such far removed fictions in order to tell the truth, but it’s a valuable tool. Of course, Uncanny Magazine has an advantage over me in that it could call upon disabled authors to create those fictions. I am, in a way, attempting to tell Merrick’s story here, but I don’t pretend to be qualified to do it. ‘Speaking up for those who “have no voices”’ is a poor substitute for shutting up and letting them speak for themselves. All I can really do is to point, and bid you listen.

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