In 1980 John Hurt played the part of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man. I was curious to see it because here was a man facially disfigured like myself, only more so. I knew something about Merrick’s story and was anxious to see how it was portrayed. Nothing – and I mean nothing – quite prepared me for the experience.
Let’s put a little context into this. At the time The Elephant Man made its appearance (it was released in 1980) I was at my lowest ebb, leading a double life in effect. I had a very good job in the then Cork Examiner and seemed outwardly fine to those who knew me at work. But once I left work I lived a different existence, rarely going out because I didn’t want to feel the glare of prying eyes, or the sting of people’s comments about my face. I thought the best way to avoid them was to stay indoors as much as possible, away from public scrutiny. Of course this also meant I didn’t mix with people, which only increased my sense of anxiety, loneliness and growing despair.
I’ll always remember sitting in the cinema watching as Merrick’s humiliating life unfolded – the daily taunts, snide remarks – his distorted face attracting brutish behaviour by others. I found myself emotionally drained, shocked to the core by how easily I identified with Merrick’s treatment. And I couldn’t stop the tears welling up and then flowing down my cheeks. I couldn’t hide my feelings anymore because I too was Merrick. My life had been defined by my face and people treated me like I was subhuman.
I fled the cinema after 40 minutes unable to handle the scenes unfolding before my eyes. It was too much for me to bear, too raw and close to the bone. I thought it best to leave before I fell apart. It took me weeks to get over the experience, to gather my thoughts and establish some kind of equilibrium in my life. But The Elephant Man remained seared in my mind. It hadn’t helped me, and yet it had: It finally made me realise my mum’s saying that there is always someone worse off than you is true; but I also felt even more sorry for myself, which perpetuated my belief that I should keep hiding from the outside world as a much as possible.
It would be many years before I could sit down and watch The Elephant Man in full. By that stage I was married with children and I could view it in a different light.