The story of Joseph Carey Merrick began in 1862, when he was born to Mary Jane and Joseph Merrick of Leicester, but the story of the Elephant Man did not start until several years later. It was when he was a toddler that tumours first appeared on Merrick's body. They continued to grow and multiply throughout his short life, the result of what is now generally understood to be Proteus Syndrome. Without modern surgical treatment, the condition eventually became so severe that it made a normal life impossible. As the autobiographical pamphlet above states, Merrick found a means of supporting himself by joining travelling 'freak shows', displaying his deformity to the public under the stage name of The Elephant Man.
While touring, Merrick composed – albeit possibly with the help of an external writer – the above statement as part of a pamphlet to be distributed to crowds at each exhibition. He later attained fame of a different sort through his relationship with Dr. Frederick Treves, whose reports to the Pathological Society of London made him a medical curiosity. Similarly, F.C. Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital, sent letters to The Times requesting charitable donations to cover the cost of Merrick’s residence there in the final years of his life, and these appeals saw the former sideshow performer faced with an entirely new audience of upper-class benefactors comprised of some celebrities and even royalty.
As a result of the spectacular career pressed upon him, scholarly discussions about Merrick’s life and experiences tend to take place within frameworks focused on freakery or nineteenth century medicine rather than a wider perspective of disability history. It’s perhaps significant that most critical approaches centre on the many second-hand accounts of his life. Treves’ reports and his own autobiographical The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, Carr Gomm’s letters, even accounts in the diaries of those who visited Merrick while at the London Hospital: these typically combine with official documents to form the basis on which contemporary scholars analyse Merrick.
Primarily, these second-hand accounts present confused attempts to define Merrick as ‘other’, whether other-as-object or other-as-martyr. In most accounts he becomes both, and yet he is neither. Merrick is other, and yet he is also human; more accurately, he is the realization of the other within humanity, and the reflection of the limitations of binaries and boundaries which define humanity in opposition to the other. But while the contemporary accounts that refer to Merrick struggle with this reflection, the one account which at first glance seems most to struggle, Merrick’s own autobiography, in fact offers a more complete acceptance of his redefined humanity.
Despite debate over the authorship of the statement in this pamphlet, I refer to it as an autobiography because I find no evidence to convince me otherwise; Merrick was literate, and there is no concrete evidence that the pamphlet was composed by anyone else, although he may have had help with the physical act of writing. That said, confusion as to the author is understandable given the strange narrative voice that characterises the autobiography. In their critical exploration of Merrick’s narrative construction, Peter Graham and Fritz Oehlschlaeger note that the persistent detachment of the statement “might plausibly be ascribed either to an external writer... or to Merrick's own distinguishing between his essence and the misshapen 'thing' that was his body” (13).
However, to explore Merrick’s written experience as a means of understanding his own perspective on his “essence” and his “body”, it helps to consider the way in which the autobiographical pamphlet can be considered a piece of disability writing, and to examine this voice in relation to those which speak about Merrick. Mark Mossman explores the function of disability writing in relation to the disabled persons’ construction or definition of selfhood; he describes how disability writing “attempts to reclaim ownership of the body and the way the body is understood” by spinning the body’s inherent instability into “the articulation of a volitional mode of selfhood” (7).
For Mossman, “writing disability becomes an empowering act of control, a deconstructive critical strategy that attempts to break down oppressive and imprisoning cultural construction… the performance and general representation of disability is re-centered, re-focused on the disabled subject itself” (7-8). At first glance, it would appear that Merrick’s autobiography does not constitute “an empowering act of control” or a “deconstructive critical strategy,” given that Merrick seems to describe himself within the confines of stereotypes imposed on him by Treves and others. Merrick emphasises his own otherness by referring to his right hand as “almost the size and shape of an Elephant's [sic] foreleg,” and to himself as an impossible “thing”, informing readers that “no one would believe until they saw it, that such a thing could exist.”
The way that Merrick both distances and owns his body throughout his autobiography also seems not to fit under the heading of disability writing, which Mossman asserts attempts to reclaim ownership of the body. Merrick’s narrative alternates between the use “the” and “my” when referring to his body: “my head is 36 inches”, “the face is such a sight that no one could describe it”, “the right hand”, “my feet and legs”, “my body”, “my deformity.” While these fluctuations and the images of otherness that Merrick employs could be seen as an inability to reclaim his body or as evidence of an external writer, they can also be interpreted another way.
Merrick describes his body as both part of his subjectivity, claiming his embodied experience as a fundamental part of his humanity, and at the same time realizing his body as an object. His language throughout this passage reflects a subjectivity like that outlined by Ruth Robbins, in which “we are not only subjective selves... but also objective selves - selves with a material presence in the world, selves with bodies that may in fact be subject to actions and forces that we cannot control, which are in fact the objects of the actions and desires... of others” (8-9).
From this perspective, then, Merrick is not hesitating or unable to reclaim his body; he is in fact claiming ownership of his body as intertwined with his subjectivity and as distanced object. In short, he is claiming ownership of his body in a way that those whose bodies conform to the strictures of “normal” humanity cannot do, at least, not comfortably. Understanding Merrick’s autobiography as a method of reclaiming his body and his embodied subjectivity brings it more in line with disability narratives. However, rather than simply “deflect[ing]and displac[ing] the powerful gaze of the ‘norm’” (Mossman 8), Merrick’s autobiography calls the very nature of the ‘norm’ into question. The accounts written about him by others attempt to divide him into the bodily other and the human spirit, but Merrick’s autobiography denies this separation, and brings his body and his spirit together into one lived experience.