In My Own Write: A question of identity

That unique arrangement of features recognizable to the outside world carries on its reverse side a corresponding, invisible reflection of those features that reaches deep into the core of one’s being.

RICHARD NORRIS after surgery, and with his new face 370 (photo credit: University of Marylnd Medical Center/Reuters)
RICHARD NORRIS after surgery, and with his new face 370
(photo credit: University of Marylnd Medical Center/Reuters)
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 Dictionary).
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 being.
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 Jerusalem Post under the headline “US doctors unveil world’s most comprehensive face transplant.”
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.
Last month’s 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.
Is this 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.”
That’s reassuring.
And the patient was said to be recovering with surprising speed.
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 more.
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 on.
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 planes.
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 body.
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.
“My legs are extraneous,” she said. “They shouldn’t be there.” Asked when she would like to have the amputation done, she replied, earnestly: “Today.”
In 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 train.
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 felt “wonderful.”
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.
It’s 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 victims.
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.
More amusing, 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?”