Today on the Equus Blog Tour, please welcome Michael Leonberger.
When you run the stories of the Elephant Man and Jack the Ripper side by side, you get a tragic kind of tapestry that is gruesome on the side of the gentlemanly doctor, and gentle on the side of the freak show performer.
We’ll lay these stories out flat beside each other, like old leathery straps of skin, inked in the blood of history. We’ll suture them together now, and see the whole history of the world, staring back at us in the serrated, glinting blade of the ripper, or in the gentle, vulnerable eyes of Mr. Joseph Merrick, aka the “Elephant Man”.
We’ll see the history of a world that uses other people’s bodies as props: how Jack the Ripper (never caught, but most likely a doctor as evidenced by his understanding of anatomy and the expensive grape stems he’d leave behind) mutilated the bodies of society’s out-casted women in Whitechapel in 1888, and how the world didn’t mourn those women. It had resigned them to that fate already: they were prostitutes, and only bodies to be used and discarded in the dark. The Ripper only literalized the extreme sexism that had abandoned these women to the streets in the first place, and subsequent newspaper articles on the crimes only used and discarded them further, until these women of the night were reduced to frightened fantasies in society’s collective unconsciousness. They once had names, though. They had memories, hopes, fears, and dreams. Hard to see that in the sooty print of a tabloid, or in the true crime section of the bookstore. They print their autopsy pictures in books even today, and it is an awful kind of tragedy to have the world remember you exclusively that way, even a century later.
Dust to dust, but you’d hope to be something more. You’d hope your peers in the species would let you be something more, but then they’d have to really see you, first. They’d have to really know you, and frankly, your body sometimes gets in the way of all that.
Likewise, paying geek-show customers used the deformed body of Joseph Merrick in the late 19th century in Whitechapel for their own purposes as well: to scream, to laugh, to clump together and warm themselves by the fires of his misery, stoked by their rejection and burning deep inside his misshapen “other” body. Bodies, the place where personalities live, where the customers couldn’t really see his, not for what it really was: the personality of a decent young man, bending from the unimaginable burden of a young body full bloom in its rapid decay, laid out for the visual consumption of perfect strangers.
We use each other all the time, don’t we? It’s a shameful and sometimes instinctual approach to other people, hidden as they are in their own bodies, all curled up and tucked away in the wrinkled bedsheets of their brains. It’s hard to get to know people; to really trepan someone and peer inside their skull and see them for who they are.
I love when studies are published that declare reading fiction encourages the growth of empathy, because it validates a long held suspicion of mine: that reading (and writing) are some of the purest ways to glimpse the insides of another person’s world. It’s like purchasing a ticket to another person’s soul, a front row seat, right in the warm, gooey space behind their eyeballs. If you read, you can see the whole world from that magnificent vantage point, until you really feel like you know other people.
You can imagine how they might see things, at least. Their senses; their memories; their ingredients, and how those things might set them up to make different decisions than the ones you yourself might make.
You become less judgmental, and the whole world can relax just a little bit more in your presence.
Not that reading and writing have an exclusive corner in this market: art in general is, as far as I can tell, the jewel encrusted height of communication. It’s our humanity’s last stand, a romantic gesture for the soul of the species as a kind of collective experience, rather than the isolated and alienating individual journey it might otherwise be.
No mystery than that Joseph Merrick was an artist: he created a miniaturized replica of the Mainz Cathedral while staying at the London Hospital in the late 19th century (a stone’s throw away from Whitechapel and the cite of the Jack the Ripper murders), and wrote the following poem:
‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
When Joseph Merrick died, it was because he wanted to lay flat in his bed, like “ordinary people”. He removed the high stack of pillows he required to keep his head up while he slept at night (his head measured 36 inches around). When he laid down flat, the weight of his own head broke his neck.
Meanwhile, Jack the Ripper probably died several years later surrounded by doting grandchildren, who never knew ‘ol Gramps was Satan incarnate.
How could they have? They couldn’t see past his mask. It wasn’t like the one that Joseph Merrick wore when he took walks in the gardens of the London Hospital: a sack with eye holes to hide his physical deformities.
No, the Ripper’s mask was one of skin and bone, and whatever it hid inside was legions worse than anything the customers at the freakshow could have stomached.
When I was a little kid, I was struck with the desire to tell a story where Joseph Merrick won, in obvious, pulpy comic book colors. Where he took on anyone who ever belittled him and made a break for it, to somewhere where he was free. Where he wasn’t reduced and compartmentalized by his obvious physical limitations. I remember fantasizing about it while brushing my teeth, and somewhere in the brush’s rhythm, a story puttered in and out of my thoughts: one with the sweet promise that one could be measured by the soul. That if it’s wings were powerful enough, it could fly away.
Likewise, I imagined those women in Whitechapel: if they could have simply plucked out the offending eyes of those who had objectified them, those who would reduce all of their human complexities into simple bodies, meant to be used and discarded and eventually dissected and butchered. If they had found an escape in those infinitely black shadows in the back alleys of Whitechapel, instead of certain death.
The ingredients of those parallel narratives eventually merged together in my thoughts as an adult. I did my best to sew the pieces together.
One piece involved a town full of men (possible rippers) unsure of how to prove their masculinity. They figured they needed women to grab and monsters to fight, because somewhere between that binary lay the promise of purpose. Without that, they’d have to succumb to the meaningless blackness of those back alley shadows. To the void. The dreadful thing. So they found bodies to make their narrative real.
Another piece involved a boy, so woefully disfigured, that he would play the part of their monster. He was, as far as they could tell, meant to be chased and ridiculed because his appearance fit within their fantasy. They could not see past his scars, his internal life obscured to them. To them, his life, his whole reality, was just another void.
The last piece was a girl whose internal life was also obscured to them, blocked out by a body they found attractive. She was there to love them, even if she didn’t know it yet, even if she didn’t want to, and if both would just play their parts, and subjugate themselves to the town’s collective fantasies, it would be testament entirely to the triumph of the town’s will.
And that was why it became so imperative that the boy and the girl had to escape.
Because that same void didn’t look like nothingness to them at all. It looked like promise. An alternative. Escape.
I began assembling the pieces together in darkness, hours before anyone awoke, in a misty place before dawn that seemed like the promised land to me.
I wrote Eli the Hideous Horse Boy, and I’m very pleased with how the story came out.
I think it came to me in the moonlight, like some crooked footed, mystery eyed pony, cloaked in the skins of ancient tragedies that always seem new.
It was hungry for stardust and blood.
I hope I fed it accordingly.
Michael Leonberger is a writer and teacher from Virginia, where he currently lives with his girlfriend and their pet turtle.
He graduated from VCU with a degree in Cinema and has worked jobs as disparate as a horror make-up effects artist for Kings Dominion’s Halloween Haunt to being an extra in the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln.
In 2014, his first feature film, Goodish, was an official selection in the VA Film Festival in Charlottesville, VA. That same year he published his first book, Halloween Sweets. He has since published several short stories.
Michael’s work can be found here