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.
But it got me thinking about what I might have looked like if I hadn’t had the operation, and I think it might have been something like this. Now that’s a pretty deep uncanny valley right there. I don’t know anyone who thinks that looks better than this. I’m happy to hear we can have an argument and you can tell me about it. But it’s quite off-putting looking at that face.
And I think there’s an uncanny valley of ugliness too, and it relates perfectly to notions of ideal beauty. We try to define ideal beauty like it’s Mount Everest and that everyone needs to climb it. That’s actually wrong. Ideal beauty is much better when we think about it as a million different points on the map. Sure, if you want to go to Mount Everest, go. Walk up to base camp, wave at the summit. But then choose your own point on the map and walk away from it.
Because it’s the choices that matter and my — funnily enough, my ugliness made it easier for me to own my face than many of you. But we all face choices every day. I had one choice when I was 14, about one aspect of my face and I exercised that choice and it has governed how I look for the rest of my life. But we all make choices every day to shave, to wear makeup and if so, how much, to wear piercings, to bleach our lip hair, all those kinds of things.
And those sorts of things are what give us entry to the tribes who want to enter. Choosing to dress like a Goth is exactly the same choice as looking like a bearded hipster. It’s just a different decision.
So a year or so ago, a friend of mine, an artist friend of mine Nick Stathopoulos asked me to make a decision. He asked if he could paint my portrait. And I said, OK sure, no worries. I figured at worst case it would mean I had to sit still for a while. So I went and sat for Nick and he did some sketches and talked about some of his ideas and then I went away and he invited me back a couple of months later to see progress on the work. And I went into his studio and looked at this massive portrait of my face and just stood silent for two whole minutes. And this is what I saw.