by Tim Mollen
Journal entry: November 16, 1980 (age 11)
I’ve been to a few PG-rated movies, but I had to talk my parents into letting me go see The Elephant Man a few weeks ago. “I’m in sixth grade now, and besides, it’s a historical drama.” My parents relented, and I was off to the Oakdale Mall Cinemas in the care of my four oldest brothers.
Jerry, 28, paid for my ticket and bought me some popcorn. Jim, 24, had chosen the movie, based on his preference for intellectual, art house fare. He spent the previews defending the choice to John, 21, who had lobbied for watching Jamie Lee Curtis scream for two hours in Terror Train. But Bob, 19, seemed content with the chosen film, and made a special point of sitting next to me.
From the movie’s opening frames, I was mesmerized. I had never seen a black and white film in a theatre before, and its stark atmospherics gripped me. My eyes were open wide, but as the movie went on, I began to sink into my seat. I was absolutely horrified by the cruelty unleashed on the title character, a noble soul in a grotesquely disfigured body. To watch an innocent person of such grace and goodness being subjected to a lifetime of ridicule and abuse was more than I could bear. During several especially upsetting sequences, I burst into tears of sympathy and fear.
Bob was alternately startled and amused by my visible reactions during the movie. He made a few attempts to pat me on the arm and say, “Are you okay?” But I was transfixed by the screen, and barely noticed when Bob snickered to my other brothers, who craned their necks to see their freaked-out sibling.
Walking to the parking lot afterwards, I was in a daze, shell-shocked by the experience. In the car, Bob came up with what he thought was a masterful impression of the Elephant Man. He contorted his face and body, and made disgusting slurping sounds as he said things like, “I am not an animal! I am fun at parties!” Jerry, Jim and John all laughed, but I had a meltdown. “Stop it,” I screamed, “that’s what they did to him!” Jerry told Bob to cool it, and he did for the rest of the ride home.
But older brothers never leave exposed nerves untouched for long. In the weeks since the movie, Bob has never missed a chance to reach out a twisted hand to me and gurgle, “My name is John Merrick, and it’s very nice to meet you.” Today, he was following me around the house, repeating his favorite line from the movie. It was hard to explain to Mom and Dad why his repetition of the phrase “I like potatoes” threw me into an apoplectic seizure. But I tried, and Dad, confused but dutiful, ordered Bob to stop telling me he likes potatoes.
I hope I don’t have nightmares again tonight. Maybe I’ll have a nice dream. Maybe I’ll dream that I have a sister.