So that all sounded pretty interesting to my parents, and then the doctors started talking about the risks. And look, there could be excessive bleeding, there could be an infection, we might stuff it up the operation, might not work. Oh and by the way they said, there’s a one in four chance your son may die on the operating table. 1 in 4!
Now my dad was a gambling man and he did not like those odds. He started arguing with my mom and my doctors and said: Why would we risk our son dying? Why would we risk him dying at that higher chance just for pride of appearance as he called it.
Now my mom I think understood better the importance of appearance and at least having something a bit more normal of an appearance when you’re growing up. And so they argued back and forth, back and forth for months and went back and forth to the doctors with questions about the risks and could it be mitigated and getting a sense of what it would mean. And it got to the point where my mother threatened to leave my father and go away and sign off permission for the operation to go ahead on her own. Luckily it didn’t come to that, my father eventually agreed and I survived.
After that I looked a little bit more human, I had a less than perfect nose, but I had eyes at the front of my head and I got on with life.
Skip ahead ten years. I’m 14, kids are pretty much guided missiles when it comes to finding every bump, every scar, every nose made out of an old toe that they can find. And they did. So by the time I was 14, I had accumulated a pretty strong playing roster of nicknames: Jake the pig, Pinocchio which didn’t make any sense because he’s known to grow and stumpy, retard and a quite specific and actually pretty awful toe nose.
And those were the sorts of things that stopped me being comfortable with my face. Those were the things that stopped me owning my face. It’s hard to sort of deal with pimples and bad haircuts when you don’t look like everyone else and you look so different from everyone else.
So doctors then started talking to my parents about another operation, because at that stage I’d started to notice girls, and I’d started to notice girls noticing my face. And doctors had started to notice me noticing girls knows my face. So they said, well, we better get stuck into Robert again.
So what they said is, OK, we’re going to do another big operation. And by then I had about two dozen operations, some minor, some like the re-making of Robert Hoge when I was four, quite substantial. And they said, OK, we’re going to do another one.
So what they told my parents, they said, look, we’ll fill in the bumps at the side f his head where his eyes were and we’ll get rid of some scars, we will remake him a new and much better nose for the second time. And because making me a new nose would emphasize that my eyes were still a little bit too far apart, they’d move him again just about a centimeter close up, and I’d look wonderfully perfect, perhaps like David Hasselhoff, who knows.
And so my parents started talking to me about that and then we started talking about the risks, and you know, the same risks of infection, bleeding, they could undo the good work they did when I was four and the scar, by the way because we’re moving the orbit of your eyes, there’s a one in four chance you might go blind.
OK, so we discussed it a bit and then my parents did the worst possible thing they have ever done to me, ever. They said, ‘Robert, you’re 14; you’re almost an adult, it’s your choice. It’s entirely your choice, it’s up to you. If you want to have this, great; if you don’t want to have this, great.’
Now I was a grade nine boy, the worst possible form of humanity, I didn’t know how to make this decision. So we talked for a while about the risks and eventually it came to decision time. So I sat down with my parents at the same kitchen table when my brothers and sisters had voted to bring me home 14 years earlier.
And I talked to my parents about it and my brother was there listening in. And we talked about the opportunities and the risks and he stayed silent the entire time, until we brought up the fact: the operation could cost me my eyesight. And he then piped up and said, “What use is it being pretty if he can’t even see himself?” In that instant, I owned my face, until then my life had been governed by my appearance but I’d never had much say in that. Decisions were made about the fate of my face by my parents, by my doctors, by social workers, by kids teasing me.
And the comment from my brother made me realize that I had a choice and I could actually own my face by exercising that choice. I didn’t figure I’d necessarily ever be worth painting but I was done with being the doctors’ canvas. I think it was the right decision. I’m pretty sure it was, I kind of think that if they made me look a bit more normal, I’m never going to look perfectly normal and there’s always that bit of dissonance. And there’s this thing — this idea called the uncanny valley in robotics and computer animation and it refers to this idea that as artificial faces become more normal looking and more realistic they become that little bit more off-putting, because we can tell the difference between Daffy Duck and a CGI creation and that CGI creation just looks that little bit wrong. And there’s an uncanny valley of ugliness too, and that’s where I would have been.