Friday, 11 May 2012

Behind Your Mask

After first seeing the film "The Elephant Man," I was moved to write a song for Joseph (who was called "John" in the film and Broadway play of the same name.) I was haunted by the idea of a living, suffering being with a gentle soul and longing for human contact, forced to wear a concealing mask whenever he was in public. You might say he spent his life behind a mask, until Frederick Treves brought him to the London Hospital and introduced him to society.

Even then, Joseph could only go outside at night, concealed in his iconic hat, mask and cloak. When he went to Drury Lane Theater, he needed to be shielded from the public gaze. That required elaborate arrangements --smuggling him into the theater by the royal entrance and seating him in a private box behind three nurses in evening dress.

Visits to the countryside required more elaborate preparation. Joseph was conveyed in a cab with drawn blinds to a second-class railway car on a separate siding from the main train. He boarded there and then the car was coupled to the rear of the train for his journey to Northamptonshire, for a wonderful holiday on a private estate owned by Lady Louisa Knightley. Only then could he roam freely in the woods by daylight, savoring the fresh breeze and warm sunlight, the sights and sounds of animals and brooks. He wrote excited letters to Treves and other friends, pressing flowers and leaves between the pages. Those three extended holidays gave him a taste of freedom the rest of us take for granted.

In my work at an elder home, I am reminded of Joseph. The residents, some of whom are unsightly and frozen in wheelchairs, don't wear actual masks, but their mental state keeps them confused and foggy most of the time. They are like living statues. Yet if you sit face to face, touch their hands and speak their names, they respond, often quite eloquently. As with Joseph, people underestimate how much these elders understand, think, and feel. I wish I could spend hours with each one of them as Treves did with Joseph, drawing them out and encouraging them to express their thoughts, but the busy schedule only allows for a few brief moments with each person.

A few years back, the celebrated neurologist, Oliver Sacks, wrote a book which was made into a film, called "Awakenings," about his patients with equine encephalopathy - many of them had spent decades in a frozen trance. The use of L-dopa seemed to miraculously bring them back "to life," but they were convinced it was still the roaring twenties. People emerged as individuals with passions and memories - for a short time anyway. The drug had mixed success and some had to be taken off it. But the point of the film and this long blog is to reflect on how many people live behind some kind of mask, real or metaphorical. It only takes the human touch and a moment of contact to awaken them.

BEHIND YOUR MASK (for Joseph Merrick)

I saw a photograph of you the other day

Far beyond my strangest dreams

A sidehow of the age, a showpiece on an English stage

where horror mixed with love like a bitter wine.

Behind your mask you were a dreamer

A suffering heart

Behind your mask, you had the courage to be a man

And I wish I could have known you

I wish that I could have seen behind your mask

where you lived and dreamed.

I heard the story of your life the other day

Far beyond my strangest dreams.

Building a cathedral in your room, lonely man

Living with your poetry and portraits of fine ladies

You longed to be the hero of their hearts

Behind your mask, you were a dreamer.

M Siu Wai Stroshane c 1982