Last night, Kathy and I were among the millions of Americans who couldn’t find anything better to do at 8:00 CDT than plop down in front of the television set and watch what was billed as an exceptionally dramatic episode of “Jon and Kate Plus Eight.” In case you don’t know, this is a reality series which for the last few years has followed a couple who is raising sextuplets and twins – eight kids in all. And in case you’ve been vacationing on Neptune, Jon and Kate’s marriage – a bit turbulent even in the best of times – has been unravelling over the last few months. And thanks to the TLC network and its omnipresent cameras, we get to watch that unravelling. . . that is, if we choose to do so.
I was more than a little dismayed that I would be drawn to such a spectacle – and even more dismayed to realize that when I’m fully honest with myself, this was not all that much of an aberration in my TV viewing. I do avoid most reality shows as though backing away from an open sewer – anything like “Survivor” or “The Bachelor” or “American Idol.” (I find any shows that involve voting people off to be so unpleasant.) But for some reason, I find myself drawn quite strongly to various programs that showcase various aspects of human misery and suffering – especially programs that either are or appear to be documentaries but which in fact are just another variation of reality program.
I’m talking about programs like “The Chinese Elephant Man,” an hour-long documentary on the National Geographic channel which introduces us to a young man (pictured above) suffering from the same grotesque disfigurement as history’s so-called Elephant Man, John Merrick. I spotted this intriguing title on our Tivo guide and decided to check it out, and ended up watching it from start to finish, unable to take my eyes off of the screen once I had seen the young man in question. You see this young man who scarcely looks human and you honestly wonder if there’s something wrong with your t.v. screen – or you wonder if perhaps you’ve tuned in to the Sci-Fi channel by mistake and are looking at a space alien in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But no – this is a real live man suffering terribly. And we get to watch, almost like we are at one of those circus freak shows- except that there is no circus. . . just your television set.
I’m talking about programs like “The 900-Pound Woman,” in which we are introduced to a woman who weighs just under 900 pounds and is seeking gastric bypass surgery in an effort to bring her weight down to something a bit more manageable. This is a woman with two young daughters who has eaten herself into a state of complete imprisonment in her bed and body- utterly dependent on those around her for everything short of the brushing of her teeth. And if you watch television enough these days and just do a bit of channel surfing, you will see a plethora of other programs showcasing other men and women just like her. And as disconcerting as it is to see these people, it’s almost more disconcerting to realize that there is a sizable audience for such fare. . . . and I’m part of that audience. (By the way, I am aware that there is a very big difference between someone whose suffering is largely a result of their own poor choices and suffering that is entirely innocent and undeserved. But they’re both tragically painful scenarios – just in different ways.)
Recently ( I don’t want to say exactly when or where or under what circumstances ) I had the occasion to meet someone who suffers from severe facial disfigurement due to a medical condition which began to afflict them when they were in their thirties. (Until then, their appearance was perfectly normal.) I made a point of going up to this person to say hi and find out a little about them – I suppose out of plain old curiosity as much as anything – and realized as soon as I came close to him that I had seen another person with this very same affliction back in the early 80’s when I was going to graduate school in Lincoln. I would often ride a special bus called the Scooter that would make a long, continuous loop around the downtown (it only cost a quarter) – and every so often I would spot a man riding the bus who almost looked like he was wearing some kind of grotesque halloween mask. Once I’d seen him the first time, I never boarded that bus after that without hoping that I would see him again and get a closer look. And I did indeed see him a couple of times after that. . . and tried not to be too obvious in my staring. Honestly, For me he was nothing more than a sideshow attraction without the sideshow. Not that I ever pointed – and not that I thought there was anything remotely funny about him. I suppose on some level I even felt badly for him- but what I felt more than anything was simple-minded, insatiable curiosity. And I guess that means that this man was a curiosity to me, and nothing more.
And then recently I met the aforementioned person who – at least as far as I could tell with my amateur eye – suffers from exactly the same affliction. And he turned out to be a very nice person who knows some of the same people I know. (One itty bitty connection between the two of us- I sang and played for the funeral of the pastor who married this person and their spouse many years ago.) And the longer I talked with him, the more I realized what an awful mistake it is to reduce a human being to a curiosity – and I realized how often I have made that very mistake. What a fool.
And towards that end, I hereby swear and avow that I am done with watching any of these “1,000 Pound Twins” programs. Of course, I am quick to make lavish promises that I don’t quite manage to keep – and I almost wish that I could rig the television set so that the next time I stumble on a program titled “The Women With Two Heads” and watch it for more than five seconds, a mechanical arm would splat me in the face with a platter of Salmon Loaf. If any of you know of such a TV, please let me know. I sorely need it.
pictured above: the subject of a National Geographic documentary titled “China’s Elephant Man.” These enormous growths on his face are so sizable and heavy that when he walks around, he actually has to carry some of that excess tissue in his hands. Thankfully, by the end of this hour-long special we see the result of an initial surgery which removes some of the some growths – which further surgeries presumably to follow. We are never really told just how normal-looking this young man’s face can ever be (I suspect that it has been irreversibly damaged) but there is hope that he can have a bit more of a normal, healthy life once all of the surgeries have been completed.