The first thing we learn to read is the human face, a notoriously treacherous text. I have photos of my oldest son, now almost 22, taken the day after his birth. I’m holding him in front of me with my tongue extended, and he sticks out his tongue in imitation. When we meet a stranger our scan centers on the face, where we seek external clues to internal states. Dickens and Bellow specialized in such correspondences. Working with special-education kids I’ve become less confident in my ability to read the surfaces of human beings.
One kid spends most of his day in a wheelchair. He’s ambulatory but volatile and howls much of the time. He bites, kicks and scratches, and I was warned to keep my distance even when feeding him. I watched him bite his shoes and the edge of a table. In repose, his face is flawless; one wishes to say angelic. To view him out of his habitat – chair, restraints, helmet – would be to see a red-cheeked choir boy, a lovely little kid. When the storm rages inside he’s a monster.
Another boy – at six and a half, the same age as my youngest – is also in a chair, one packed densely with the technology that sustains his life, including a ventilator. It’s difficult to discern the human-machine demarcation. The lenses in his glasses are soda-bottle thick and his mouth hangs open in a perpetual “O.” His nurse is a coolly efficient Vietnamese woman who strokes his arms and hair, and talks to him softly. She handed me a miniature wooden bowling set to arrange on the table in front of him – a ball, six pins – and with our heavy assistance he bowled. I read nothing in his face – pain, pleasure, boredom, relief. He’s mute but the nurse has taught him to communicate with his eyes – one blink, yes; two blinks, no. His linkage with the world is strictly binary, leaving no room for nuance or ambiguity.
On June 6, 1880, Walt Whitman attended Episcopal services in an insane asylum in London, Ontario. He was the guest of an acolyte, Dr. Richard Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist and author of Cosmic Consciousness. Whitman sat in an armchair beside the pulpit, facing the congregation. He recorded the experience in Specimen Days:
“O the looks that came from those faces! There were two or three I shall probably never forget. Nothing at all markedly repulsive or hideous—strange enough I did not see one such. Our common humanity, mine and yours, everywhere…yet behind most, an inferr’d arriere of such storms, such wrecks, such mysteries, fires, love, wrong, greed for wealth, religious problems, crosses—mirror’d from those crazed faces (yet now temporarily so calm, like still waters,) all the woes and sad happenings of life and death…”