Monsters and Dust

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The human face is the poetic location of humanity, or inversely, to be faceless is to be inhuman. Isabelle was in new territory. Before the practice of face transplants, we had historic familiarity with the loss or destruction of the face, but not with the gain of a new one, save for the space of horror movies. Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), a 1960 French horror film, explored the idea of a face transplant through the lens of sadism. It was about a doctor-turned-mad scientist who lured and captured female victims and experimented with grafting their faces onto his daughter, who had been disfigured in a car accident. The film was considered a perversion, shocking critics and audiences, but had lasting influence on 20th and 21st century filmmakers for its combination of outlandish violence and psychological drama. 

That face transplants figured in popular imagination first in a horror movie is not surprising. The idea of the human face as the physical expression of individuality makes the idea of a face transplant illogical and disturbing. When first presented with the option of a face transplant, Isabelle exclaimed, “But how can you live without a face?”5 in reference to her donor, before her doctors explained that, of course, her donor would be dead.  

Isabelle’s reaction of immediate concern for the donor over her own experience reveals her horror in absorbing another’s identity as though it were an aggressive act. Throughout her recovery and adjustment to receiving her new face, she grew increasingly connected to her donor. The donor was also a suicide victim, of the same age, 38, and this symmetry increased Isabelle’s sense of connection. While Isabelle was undergoing physical therapy to gain mobility in her new facial features, she worried irrationally about hurting her donor, though she knew the donor was dead. For Isabelle, the phantom flesh existed in a twilight state of life. It wasn’t hers—she was borrowing it from a ghost—yet it was real flesh, alive and vulnerable to injury.