Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity

This is a review of the classic work by psychologist Ashley Montagu, who maintained that Joseph Merrick was able to love others because he himself had received enough maternal love.

An entire generation has grown up knowing Joseph's story, thanks to the semi-fictional 1980 film that was based on this book and Frederick Treves's memoirs. It's a powerful testament to Merrick's legacy of dignity and courage that he continues to move us. Treves's memorable account of Merrick, and this classic work both show us Merrick's humanity and remarkable ability to live without bitterness or hatred towards his fellow human beings.

But Frederick Treves did have a definite bias against Mary Jane Merrick, Joseph's mother. Though Treves knew she did not abandon Joseph at an early age, he accuses her of putting her son in a workhouse. Even though Joseph carried around a cherished portrait of his mother and spoke of her with unfailing love, Treves dismissed his stories as wishful fantasy.. In fact, he portrayed the highly intelligent young man in 19th century sentimental terms such as a "primitive elemental being" and "amiable as a happy woman." Treves took considerable literary license with his story. The known facts about Joseph Carey Merrick contradict the memoirs.

Dr. Montagu is right in asserting that because of the early nurturing Joseph received from Mary Jane Merrick, he was able to 'love, work and play." This shows in Joseph's generous sharing of his handmade gifts - models, baskets and poems. Montagu's case for the power of early maternal nurturing remains as solid as ever. The main flaw --which isn't really his fault - is that a lot of information on Joseph's life has become outdated since this book was first published. As others mention, the best work so far is "The True History of the Elephant Man," but there is a need for an even newer biography. Perhaps there will be one for the 21st century.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Joseph's Last Easter

Though we're still a few weeks away from Holy Week, I find myself reflecting on Joseph's last days. His condition was rapidly deteriorating, and it often left him so weak he stayed in bed until noon. Treves watched helplessly and tried to make him comfortable. There was little else he could do.

Yet Joseph maintained a core of spiritual strength, and attended the hospital's weekly Sunday services, thanks to the ingenuity of the chaplain, Reverend Tristram Valentine. To avoid alarming other patients or staff, Joseph was allowed to sit unseen in the vestry where he could take communion and hear the service. Perhaps in gratitude, he gave Reverend Valentine one of his visiting cards. They show the only known image of Joseph seated and wearing a three-piece suit specially tailored to his unusual form.

Joseph died on Friday, April 11, 1890., five days after attending not one but two Easter morning services. The Easter season with its story of Jesus's death and resurrection, must have been of great comfort to Joseph. We can only hope his end was peaceful..

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Unsung Heroes: Joseph's Caregivers at the London Hospital

There’s no doubt that Treves acted out of compassion in his aim to provide shelter for a fellow human being in need. But Joseph would never have survived without the devoted care of his nurses and hospital staff. As the Head Matron declares in the film, “I bathed him, I fed him, I cleaned up after him, and I see that my nurses do the same.” This is exactly right.

For four years, the nurses, maids, and porters who volunteered to care for Joseph Merrick had to go out of their way to reach him. Armed with bath supplies, linens, medicines and meal trays, they made the trek several times a day up many flights to the Isolation Ward, and later to his home in the remote wing of Bedstead Square. They are truly the unsung heroes of Joseph’s last years.