Not The Elephant Man

I don’t know if many of my readers have heard of Joseph Carey Merrick. He lived from the year 1862 to 1890. He was born with deformities all over his body and once grown up he became a sideshow, circus type of attraction. He became known as the Elephant Man.

Scarred Joy is turning a corner, as it were, regarding regular posts. Blog entries, for the most part, will now focus on what society has labelled, “special needs.” The edginess and frank content of my posts will remain. A goal is to raise awareness of the disabilities of our society, as it perceives people with “special needs.” We will also from time to time note the wonderful accomplishments of people with special needs.

Joseph C. Merrick was the subject of ridicule many times throughout his life. People were curious about him. Some people feared him out of their ignorance of knowing how to respectfully respond to someone “different.” He lived with ridicule and being misunderstood, for much of his life.

At some point in his childhood, Mr. Merrick suffered a hip injury, which became infected and resulted in a permanent limp. His life included being out into the world on his own at a young age due to an unhappy home life. He spent time being homeless until an uncle took him into his home for a while. Once the stay with his uncle ended Joseph entered a workhouse.

Through other different parts of his life, he spent time as an exhibit in a freak show and suffered such indignities as being looked at as grotesquely “different” than “normal” people. There were other times in his life where the public treated him as an object to stare and wonder at out of morbid curiosity. This endeavour hosted by some showmen at least enabled Joseph C. Merrick to gain some level of monetary profit.

As Joseph reached his early twenties the times were changing regarding society’s attitude toward freak shows and the like. This change in attitude worked in Mr. Merrick’s favour for the most part. People like Dr. Frederick Treves a surgeon at Royal London Hospital befriended Joseph and introduced him to a more caring environment. Joseph now had more opportunities to meet people than he had in his life. Treves learned Joseph was an emotional, sensitive and somewhat shy gentleman. He was not an Elephant Man to be afraid of. The hospital became Joseph’s home for the rest of his life until he died at age twenty-seven.

There are times in the lives of people with “special needs” where other people will view them as objects of curiosity. There will also be instances where a child or loved one will be addressed in a condescending manner. This may come about through statements like, “oh, she laughs just like a normal girl!” or comments like, “wow, he can do up his own shoes? He’s such a big boy.” Statements like this may be accompanied by a pat on the child’s head or a similar gesture.

While the average typical person may never admit or perhaps not even be aware of it, what I call, “the elephant man” syndrome exists in modern society. People with “special needs” may still be approached in a similar fashion as Mr. Merrick. The fact remains people are often hesitant when approaching a person with special needs, if they approach them at all.

With special needs of any kind, there is a constant companion throughout life. This particular constant is that of Scarred Joy. This means those with “special needs” carry scars throughout life, caused by other people, that reminds them they will always be considered “different”, not “typical,” “not the same” as “normal” people.”

Those of us who love a family member or someone else we love, who is labelled, “special needs,” know our lives have changed forever in some ways. The typical world may never get over seeing the “difference,” before they notice the person. We, however, must remind the world, those we love, who have special needs, are not an Elephant Man.

(for a brief biography on Joseph Carey Merrick see,; See also

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