Roger Ebert did many important things, and one is this: With his face in ruins, he faced the world. "I will look the way I look," he said, "and express myself in print, and I will be content."
And yet. The classic photograph of him after his surgeries had failed is Ethan Hill's shot, which accompanies a fine story that ran three years ago in Esquire.
In it, Chris Jones wrote:
because he’s missing sections of his jaw, and because he’s lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can’t really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn’t have those muscles anymore. His eyes will water and his face will go red—but if he opens his mouth, his bottom lip will sink most deeply in the middle, pulled down by the weight of his empty chin, and the corners of his upper lip will stay raised, frozen in place. Even when he’s really angry, his open smile mutes it: The top half of his face won’t match the bottom half, but his smile is what most people will see first, and by instinct they will smile back.
Is it possible that he made things any easier for someone else with a facial deformity?
The terrible wounds that the first mechanized weapons inflicted on soldiers in World War One terrified people. There was mockery, discrimination, broken engagements, segregation, unemployment, suicide — and, in Britain, pioneering surgeries that were the forerunners of the failed restorative treatments Ebert endured. Pat Barker's latest novel, Toby's Room, deals with these wounds; a similarly maimed man flashes briefly into Kate Atkinson's bewitching new novel Life After Life. These faces were threats to the war effort to be repaired or masked and got out of the way.
Just the opposite happened in the next war, in a particular English town. East Grinstead became known as "the town that wouldn't look away" because of the radical good sense of surgeon Archibald McIndoe. He insisted that the terribly burned RAF men being treated there, who had lost facial features and fingers, go to the pub, and he asked local people to invite them over for tea. They became objects of civic pride, not horror. Their elite training was tremendously valuable; healing them and putting them back to war in some capacity was paramount.
What about facing the world with a congenitally different face, alone with it, absent Ebert's interested public or the airmen's larger purpose? There's an unforgettable young boy named Auggie at the centre of a lovely novel for older children that came out last year: Wonder, by the American writer R.J. Palacio. "I won't describe what I look like," Auggie says. "Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." He is leaving the cushioning, embrace of his homeschooling family for middle school — an enlightened school, but a minefield nonetheless. Auggie is charming, gutsy, hesitant, hopeful, self-absorbed and wry. Palacio wrote the book after becoming guilt-stricken while hustling her own children away from a little girl whose face was strikingly different, for fear of their reaction. What we think we will do, what we want to have done, is so often not what we do. I'd like to ask her more about all that, and I think I will. I'll tell you about it soon.