Your face is more than skin-deep. Few things are more personal, bound up as
one’s face is with one’s identity (“the state of having unique identifying
characteristics held by no other person or thing” – Collins English
That unique arrangement of features recognizable to the
outside world carries on its reverse side – so it seems to me – a corresponding,
invisible reflection of those features that reaches deep into the core of one’s
THAT IS why I was fascinated by the story of Richard Lee Norris,
illustrated by three photos which appeared in the March 29 edition of The
under the headline “US doctors unveil world’s most comprehensive
They showed the “before,” “intermediate” and “after”
pictures of Norris, a Virginian whose lower face was shattered in a near-fatal
gun accident 15 years ago. Despite multiple reconstructive procedures, Norris
felt constrained to hide behind a prosthetic nose and mask.
historic surgery enabled him to “return to society.”
No one who saw the
photos could have failed to marvel at the amazing medical feat that retained the
now 37-year-old’s eyesight, gave him new upper and lower jaws, “a new tongue for
proper speech, eating and chewing; normally aligned teeth; and connected his
nerves to allow for smiling.”
The “after” photo, taken just six days
following the 36-hour surgery, shows – in striking contrast to his tragically
misshapen “in-between” face – a regular, rather unremarkable male visage that
will only improve as it fully heals. Norris should find many reasons to smile
from now on.
YET WHILE rejoicing at this man’s passage from nightmare to
normality, I couldn’t help wondering about the reality of living with a face
that (a) once belonged to someone else, and (b) bears little or no resemblance
to the one he originally had.
Though Norris must feel delivered from a
fate worse than death, there is something surreal and unnerving about it, like a
page out of science fiction come alive.
Cosmetic surgery, even the kind
favored by Joan Rivers and Michael Jackson, doesn’t get close.
transformed Norris simply the old Norris in a new wrapping, as it were, or will
his new face affect everything that lies behind it? Might he have exchanged one
mask for another? “It’s a blend of two individuals,” Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who
led the surgical team of more than 100 medical professionals, told reporters.
“But behind the soft tissue, behind the skeleton – it’s Richard.”
And the patient was said to be recovering with surprising
But Norris’s story led me to speculate about the essence of
identity – a term which encompasses the entirety of human experience, covering
nationality, religion, politics, sexuality, fashion, entertainment, and
Identity is how you perceive yourself, and how you want others to
perceive you – by the passport(s) you carry; the way you worship, or not; the
parties you vote for; the people you associate with, both casually and on an
intimate level; the way you dress, behave, spend your leisure time, and so
TALKING OF self-perception, identity can control a person’s life in
weird and highly unnatural ways; and my justification for describing a condition
called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) in some detail is that it
provides a riveting – and thought-provoking – excursion into the aberrations of
the human mind and their expression on the physical and emotional
BIID was the subject of a British TV documentary I saw some time
ago, but cannot forget. It portrayed what can result from variation in the part
of the brain responsible for creating a “map” or image of a person’s unified
In BIID, this map is deficient, causing sufferers to experience one
or more of their limbs as simply not being part of their bodies. This conviction
causes untold mental agony, leading to an obsessive need to have these
“superfluous” appendages amputated. In extreme cases, the longed-for identity is
that of a paraplegic.
(One may imagine how offensive this quest for
voluntary disablement is to those maimed by war, accident or disease, but
disabled advocacy groups contacted by Newsweek
for a feature on BIID held back
from passing judgment, saying the disorder called for treatment like any mental
health problem.) The documentary followed a British man and an American woman,
both desperately seeking a surgeon to amputate their legs. Each had, as a young
child, seen a person with a missing limb and felt, from then onward, that it was
the “right” way to be.
The woman recalled that as a little girl, she had
pulled the legs off all her Barbie dolls, after which they were “whole.” As an
adult, she sought similar “completion” by having her legs amputated as high up
the thigh as possible. She revealed that she spent weekends in a wheelchair
practicing for the day when this dearest wish would become reality.
legs are extraneous,” she said. “They shouldn’t be there.” Asked when she would
like to have the amputation done, she replied, earnestly: “Today.”
case anyone should dismiss these individuals as crazy, it is worth pointing out,
as the documentary does, that in every other way they are well-adjusted and in
touch with reality. They often hold down jobs and live unexceptional lives –
except for their BIID.
“I have no way to explain it to you – nor to
myself,” the man in the documentary confessed ruefully, well aware of the
bizarre nature of his obsession. “You’re sitting over there thinking it’s nuts.
I’m sitting here thinking it’s nuts…” Pleasant, articulate and well-groomed, he
might have been the friend of anyone reading this piece.
One surgeon in a
Scottish hospital had actually performed such amputations after exhaustive
psychiatric testing ascertaining that applicants’ severe mental distress could
not be eased by any other means – but the surgery aroused such public
controversy that the hospital suspended it.
The woman in the documentary,
a rejected applicant, was devastated at seeing her dream denied. In one of her
last utterances in the film, she voiced her determination to achieve her goal,
even if it involved lying down with her legs in the path of an oncoming
Another BIID sufferer who amputated his own hand called it “a
tremendous relief” after a “torment” that had plagued him for years, and said he
WHAT LESSON to take away from learning about the
existence of such a curious and pitiable identity crisis? For me, it always
comes back to two things: cultivating the twin abilities to feel gratitude and
maintain a sense of proportion.
In a recent column, I asked whether it
was expecting too much of us humans to be grateful not only for the things we
have, but for those we don’t have, like illness and debility. A friend commented
that it was too much to expect – and perhaps it is.
But BIID, though
rare, strikes otherwise quite ordinary people (a Yahoo Web group numbers 1,700
sufferers, according to Newsweek). We might take a moment or two to feel
grateful that the disorder didn’t pick on us; ditto for any number of more
common afflictions we’ve escaped.
“There but for the grace of God…,”
etc. As for keeping a sense of proportion, how does a bad hair day, a
too-flat chest or too rounded belly, or the depressing sense that one’s legs are
too fat compare with the conviction that your legs don’t belong to you, and must
therefore come off? Enough said.
NEXT WEEK, Israel marks Holocaust
Remembrance Day, during which we commemorate the Jewish martyrs and heroes of
that monstrous period and attempt to identify with their suffering.
an emotionally demanding 24 hours, and we return to our daily concerns with a
measure of relief – not forgetting the enormity of the crime, but yet not
allowing it to loom so large in our psyches as to prevent us from building our
own precious lives.
Here too, there are those – including some who
weren’t personally involved in the Holocaust – who suffer from an ongoing
identity crisis, blighting their own existence by lugging around with them a
heavy chunk of Shoah-victim pain.
They would do better to muster their
strength and gently lay down this crippling load, resolving instead to honor the
Six Million by living the full lives they were denied.
Identity can be
destiny, and one thing the Jewish people doesn’t need is more
IT’S KNOWN that trades and occupations were historically a
source of present-day Jewish surnames – the German-origin Kaufman (merchant),
Brauer (brewer), Schuster (shoemaker) and Schneider (tailor) being common
examples of Jews identified by what they did for a living.
But have you
ever noticed a whole bunch of people in the wider world who bear names that
suggest their professions? Golfer Tiger Woods, tennis players Margaret Smith
Court and Anna Smashnova, and poet William Wordsworth are just some famous
examples. There’s even a word for the phenomenon: aptronym.
though, are plumber and toilet-smith Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), and the almost
too aptly named Otto Titsling, a German immigrant employed by a New York
undergarment factory around 1912.
He came up with a brilliant innovation
he called the “chest halter” – but then, having neglected to take out a patent,
had to look on with impotent fury as an upstart French-born designer called
Phillipe de Brassiere ripped off his designs and associated his name forever
with that vital piece of female apparel.
As Bette Midler famously sang:
“The result of this swindle is pointedly clear: Do you buy a titsling, or do you
buy a brassiere?”