A man wearing a surgical mask moves anxiously through a maze of fluorescent lighting and packaged food. He maneuvers quickly and methodically–no time for browsing, for meandering, for thinking. He knows this supermarket. He knows at this hour business will be slow, and he’ll have to interact with only a cashier before escaping back to the safety of his hiding place: Home.
He ticks through his grocery list without encountering other shoppers, and moves up the last aisle toward the registers to check out. Homestretch. He comes to the front of the store and loses his breath: a few customers wait in the only open queue. His heart beats faster. He’s flush with embarrassment. And he hesitates. He’ll hide somewhere until the other customers leave, and then he’ll check out, he resolves. He hurriedly dips back into the frozen aisle and tries to catch his breath.
“Can I help you, son?” interrupts a voice from behind.
He turns to see a security guard with a hand on his pistol. The guard looks nervous himself–seeing a man run around a grocery store in a surgical mask at this hour is, well, unusual.
He has a secret under his mask, one he doesn’t want to reveal to any stranger, let alone a supermarket security guard. But he’ll have to explain.
Meet Richard Lee Norris.
Richard lives in Hillsville, Virginia. He’s performed the preceding routine for about 15 years. One assumes it gets easier with time, but not for Richard. He remains reclusive, making most trips outside his home during hours of the day when others won’t see him.
If they see him, they’ll stare. They’ll laugh. They’ll cringe. That’s because Richard has no face. He lost it in a gun accident in 1997.
Richard lives his life as a real-life monster, living in the shadows, on the edge of society–a terrifying, shocking sight if ever there were one.
And this was Richard’s life–a subject for whispers, double-takes, cruel comments, terrified passersby, pity, fascination–until he underwent a successful face transplant at the University of Maryland nine months ago, the most comprehensive in history. The procedure replaced his jaws, tongue, skin, and underlying nerve tissue, said an October press release from the University.
“I have been undergoing physical therapy and also speech therapy,” Norris said in the release. “I have been doing very well regaining my speech back. Each day it improves a little more.”
“People used to stare at me because of my disfigurement. Now they can stare at me in amazement and in the transformation I have taken. I am now able to walk past people and no one gives me a second look.”
Out of context, the statement is brow-raising. That someone would be proud for being plain? Proud that his looks don’t warrant a second look? This is the story of a man who, by any childhood definition, once fit the profile of a monster. His was the face that kids see under their beds and in their nightmares–a face that warranted unwanted attention from the curious, the mean-spirited, the sympathetic: unnerving spotlights, shining as harshly as the fluorescent lights of a grocery store.
It’s impossible for you and me to imagine what it’s like being such a monster. How would it be to live life hideously and under such a label? It’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to feel so ugly, so unfit for society, that the life of a recluse is what we’d deem superior to suffering the attention from others.
But rethink the impossible. The real monsters here do not include Richard in their ranks. The real monsters of the world are those of us who push people like Richard into hiding, whether we intend to or not. We–those so blatantly fascinated and disgusted by the physical perils of others–we are the perpetrators.
The monsters of our youth never went away. They didn’t disappear when we grew up. We became them.
Supermarket encounter dramatized. Read more about Richard’s story at UMM.edu/news.