"Reviving the Elephant Man" (Forensic Reconstruction)





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Published on Dec 30, 2009

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"Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God.
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul,
The mind's the standard of the man."
~a poem by Isaac Watts which Joseph Merrick often used to close his letters.

Joseph Merrick was the unfortunate sufferer of a genetic disorder called Neurofibromatosis Type I, or "von Recklinghausen Disease". More recent speculation suggests that he might also have suffered the effects of Proteus Syndrome, which is spontaneous rather than genetic. Tests on remaining samples of Merrick's hair and bone has not been able to detect any signs of the mutated gene that causes Proteus, however.

This was a tremendously difficult project to do independently, and while I was aware of the 2003 forensic reconstruction of Joseph Merrick's head sculpted minus the ravages of his disease, I preferred to gather my information directly from the source as I usually do: various pictures of Merrick's face and skeleton at different angles which gave small hints as to his possible actual features beneath the cocoon of tumors. I don't offer this rendition as an actual true depiction of what the Elephant Man might have looked like in full health. Like any art, it is an educated guess.

OCTOBER 2012: TO VIEWERS WHO, FOR THEIR OWN REASONS, TAKE EXCEPTION TO THE CONTENT OF THIS VIDEO: There are a growing number of viewers, who, for various reasons and beliefs, are convinced that I created this video out of pure spite for Mr. Joseph Merrick, rather than for reasons of compassion, and are prepared to stand by the conviction that this video is shameful, harmful, barbaric, and insensitive. I have given the reasons for this video's creation more than once, but I will do so again.

To whom it may concern: I am, and always have been interested in the subject of pathology and medicine. Sometimes removing the signs of disease gives a better impression of how the disease manifested to begin with. I am certainly not the only party to share in this curiosity, as Joseph Merrick's head has been forensically reconstructed by other artists (notably in 2003) to show his possible appearance without the tumors that destroyed his features. Science can seem heartless and uncaring, until the knowledge it gains helps patients in the future from suffering nearly as badly.

Curiosity can be unseemly if mistreated, but in this case the curiosity is not borne of the desire to change history or to openly reject Joseph Merrick himself, as some have claimed. This video was conceptualized out of the desire to prove universally that Joseph Merrick was more than his disease, and that with the medium of art he could be SEEN as being more than his disease, particularly by those who have difficulty seeing much beyond the morbidity of his disfigurements. A reconstruction shows a willingness to see the humanity of the person, "Regardless of what you look like, THIS is who I see" type of approach.

While some viewers feel it is insensitive and insulting to not accept Merrick for "who he is" and feel it is sinful to change the will of the creator by changing his appearance, I feel it is equally insulting to be judged on appearances alone and never be seen for what may exist within, particularly if the exterior is hard for the public, religious or otherwise, to look at. So this video is a metaphor for who Joseph Merrick was beneath the shell of what misfortune made of him. It is an offering of compassion, not contempt. If he can only be healed in art, so be it, but all of the respect and good will toward him is there. THAT is why this video exists. John Hurt as the Elephant Man exclaimed "I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!" This video and the message behind it proves he was right.


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