The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Shadowy Selves, Part 2

by Tricia Dower

I first saw David Roche late last year in Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Shameless: The ART of Disability. The 2006 film marked Klein’s return to filmmaking after a stroke in 1987. (And, yes, she’s Naomi’s mother.) Roche, a humourist and motivational speaker, is one of five artists featured in the plays. When he gave a performance in Victoria a week and a half ago, I was there. It was only three days after I had first learned of Jung’s Shadow. How serendipitous, then, that David opened his performance with words to this effect:

"We with facial deformities are children of the dark. Our shadow sides are on the outside. And we can see in the dark, see you turn away. But we understand you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable. My job is to carry the weight of your fears.”

David is funny —“How do you tell each other apart?” he asks us — and mischievous: When kids stare at him, he’s tempted to say, “My face is this way because, when I was your age, I touched my wee-wee.” Mostly, however, he’s moving. The power comes from his willingness to put his inner and outer selves on display and his sense of theatre.

The stage is dark as he walks out and stands before a chair. A spotlight goes on and he lets you have a good long look at him before he speaks. His face is disfigured from a tumour that developed when he was an infant and the subsequent surgery and radiation treatment. He tells of applying for the Catholic priesthood and being turned down because he was too ugly. “The priest saying that was like God saying it,” he said. His self-esteem was shattered for years. He was thirty before he talked openly about his face to anyone other than doctors. It’s hard to imagine spending thirty years remaining quiet about something so defining, but, then, many of us avoid discussing our alcoholism, our drug addiction, our obesity, our suicidal thoughts, choosing to bear our shame alone.

Because of his face, David had no difficulty believing in the dark, monster side of himself. A belief in his inner beauty was more hard won. He and his wife Marlena Blavin give a presentation to 11-13-year-olds called Love at Second Sight: how they met and how she fell in love with the inner man. With that age group, “it’s all about appearance,” he says, and giving them a different perspective makes him feel useful. Adults who hear him speak tell him he’s inspirational and that keeps him going, as well.

I couldn’t help recalling a young man I knew in the ‘70s when I worked for an insurance company. He was the spokesman for a fire safety campaign we developed and he toured around the country for us, warning people about the dangers of fire. It gave him a sense of mission. He had been horribly burned in a crib fire when he was two-years-old, in the days before fire-retardant pyjamas. It was hard to look at his face. He took his own life a few years after I met him.

David says he’s accepted his face and looks at it as a gift. I want to believe that.

Photo of David Roche by Kathleena Gorga.


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

I had an encounter with a person like David when I was sixteen. I'd been sitting at the back of the bus, waiting for it to leave the terminus, when I spotted a small man with a strange face approaching down the sidewalk. I had to stare to figure out what I was looking at. His whole face was covered with what appeared to be a birthmark. The skin was a deep purple and fleshy. He walked slowly, as if tired, hardly bothered, or appreciative that people were moving out of his way. It was only when he climbed abord my bus, that I thought to look where he might sit. The seat next to me was one of the few available. We did lock eyes, but he seemed too tired to care what I was thinking. He started nodding off almost immediately after plopping down next to me. I spent the entire bus ride with my elbow in his side, trying to keep his head from touching my shoulder. I was sixteen, an avid weightlifter, a tough guy, but I was also horrified. This little man could have had me running screaming like a child had his head fallen in my lap. I got off before him, not giving a shit who could read the expresion on my face. Through David's words, as you have them quoted, Tricia, I'm not ashamed of going back in time, once again, to that bus ride. I've often thought about that small man over the years, not how he'd horrified me, but about how tired he'd been, too tired to care about carrying the burden of my fears on his shoulders, as David mentioned is often the case for the disfigured. Seems like it was too easy for me to get away from the horror he'd caused me. All I had to do was get of the bus. It was almost as if I'd left the fear and loathing in my seat next to him. The guilt and sadness at my reaction that day, I still carry with me. David sounds like a lovely man. Thanks, Tricia.

Sat Jun 23, 09:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Tony, thank you so much for sharing this. I'm sitting in a tiny office provided for guests at the Banff lodge my daughter and I are staying at and I am moved to read what you wrote.

Sat Jun 23, 10:56:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Powerful post, Tricia, as always. Gives me much to think about.

Sun Jun 24, 01:11:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

What a great post, Tricia. Thank you for making us acquainted with David.

I remember two "deformed" children back in public school - one had a rather acute case of hydrocephaly. Another also had a very large head with a very tiny mouth and chin, like an upside-down cone, giving him an odd puppet-like appearance. They both suffered from dwarfism. However I also remember that the other "normal" children were hugely protective of them and they had scads of friends. I wonder if that continued throughout the rest of their lives and into adolescence and adulthood. I can only hope.

Sun Jun 24, 11:36:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Tricia, this is a profound thing you are sharing. I am very moved and would like to learn more about David. He's the gift.

Mon Jun 25, 06:36:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Liesl said...

Thanks, Tricia. Thought provoking and so very poignant.

Tue Jun 26, 01:07:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Larry said...


David used to live down here (maybe he still does, but I don't see him performing around anymore). He and John are well acquinted, so we would often go to see his stand-up. I agree with you; I think it's amazing what he's pulled together in his life. The story of his romance is pretty wondrous.

The final line of your entry strikes a taut, difficult to forget, ambiguity. In its own way, it says more about our dark side than everything preceding.


Tue Jun 26, 09:29:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Suzie said...

it was one thing to realize how good your stories are but something else is coming up now, the ability to deeply touch people in their human essence.
One of my late sister had a handicaped body while her mind was just as "normal" as can be. I sure went through the protection mode and had to deal with my own emotions when everybody else were either looking straigth at her or trying to avoid looking at her. I think that's when we really know we're human when those emotions leaves us with much less control over our reactions.
thank you for reminding us of the inner beauty and the courage of those who don't fit the esthetic accepted model around here. I feel human again.

Tue Jun 26, 02:24:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Wow, I'm back from Banff and so pleased to find all these thoughtful comments. Thank you Tamara, Mel, Andrew, Liesl, Larry and Suzie.

Larry: I believe David still lives in California.

Andrew: you can find out more about David through the link I provided -- it's part of his home page. Also, his tour schedule is there and he'll be in Ottawa on October 25 if you can make it there.

Suzie: I didn't know that about your sister. It must have been difficult to see others' reactions to her -- to realize that they couldn't see the person you knew.

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your reactions to this post.

Tue Jun 26, 03:08:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

A very moving post. I can't imagine the courage David must have. Thank you so much for sharing this, Tricia.

Tue Jun 26, 10:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for reading, Steve. Yes, courage is a good word for what David has in abundance.

Tue Jun 26, 11:50:00 pm GMT-4  

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