His entire chest is gone. His neck is one big scar. Half his face is gone. His left ear was completely burned away and had to be reconstructed and that wasn't done real well--his ear looks like Shrek. Half his right hand is mutilated. His arms are burned such that he has no muscle mass. He's not really ugly, per se, but the scars are just enough that most people shy away from him almost unconsciously.
I've seen him around town: at the grocery, at the pub, at church, The gossip which follows this guy behind his back is, to be honest, nothing short of a character assassination. Nobody ever talks to him about it. When he comes in the pub, for example, the subject is casually changed to something else. I can still see it, though, in the way he's treated socially. Everything he says or does is viewed with skepticism because people already have their preconceived notions and stories.
Last night I asked him if he wanted to sit down and chat for a little bit. We'll call him Joe. I'm recently out of a job and my savings have hit zero except for the emergency road funds that I keep. It didn't seem like it could do any harm to talk with Joe before I have to leave.
He was burned when he was two years old. The story from his father has always been,"You burned yourself with a pack of matches." His father was in the process of separating from his wife when Joe was burned. After Joe was released from the hospital the social services department gave custody of Joe to his birth mother. After a few visits, when social services would show up and find Joe wrapped in dressings which hadn't been changed in a week and the mother outside tanning, social services put Joe through one or two low-income foster homes. Eventually Joe was taken in by one of the nurses at the hospital who had cared for him when he was first burned. According to Joe that nurse, and her boyfriend, were two of the nicest people in the world who actually treated him like a normal human child.
Apparently things were going downhill very quickly, though. Joe's father remarried to a legal secretary who had also been through one failed marriage. Now that Joe's father could show a stable house and income the state gave custody of Joe back to his father. There wasn't any more than the most cursory of investigations on the part of the state and nobody ever really questioned the father's story of "I don't know what happened." Joe's father and the new wife proceeded to completely deny all contact with Joe's mother and her family. Growing up, Joe was always told,"You burned yourself with a pack of matches." Joe told me that he's recently managed to come in contact with some removed cousins from his mother's side of the family and their story is,"We don't really know what happened. We always thought you were burned with perfume or aftershave." The pattern of Joe's scarring, specifically that his left ear is completely gone but his hairline is just fine and that the last two fingers on his right hand are so mutilated but the palm is just fine, indicates to me that he was doused with hot grease.
The second wife apparently used her legal connections to secure a civil court case for neglect against Joe's father (her new husband). Not that this was done for Joe's benefit. Growing up his parents (father and second wife) did everything in their power to hide from him how much money there was. The household was structured to demand complete and utter obedience to what sounded like a dehumanizing level. As he was growing up Joe was constantly reminded that the reason why his father was working 60-80 hour workweeks was for the money to "pay off the court settlement for your burns." Joe showed to me the court papers, which he'd finally realized that he was entitled to see when he was 27, and it turns out that not a single cent came from the father--it all came from an insurance company and, for whatever reason, the pages in the court document which detailed how much money there was and where it would be deposited were missing (stricken from the record?). On his eighteenth birthday Joe's parents came to him with a stack of financial and investment papers. When Joe asked what the papers were for he was told that his parents wanted him to sign all of the money over to them for safekeeping while he went to college. Joe was already signed up for college in another state and knew what would happen if he didn't acquiesce--there would be an enormous fight and, once properly escalated, his father would push him out the door. Joe had seen it done to his older brother just two years before. Joe signed the papers and never knew how much money there ever was. Joe's parents, on the other hand, were using his money (which somehow the court made them the custodians of--as if there was ever a more obvious conflict of interest) to leverage everything from refinancing their house to gaining the necessary lines of credit to get involved in priveleged organizations. Joe got, approximately, crap.
I had talked with the lady down the hall about Joe. She's a social worker at a local company. According to her Joe is the subject of what can only be described as a corporate smear campaign. When he's hired he gets treated like a second class employee, gets paid far below what could even be remotely fair for his job (he's a research scientist and showed me some pretty cool stuff that he's done designing pharmaceuticals), and in general the management just uses him to make an example to the rest of the employees. Of course Joe doesn't really know the game that's being run. All he knows is that, wherever he goes, he's viewed with complete skepticism, treated like dog crap, and then if he ever has the guts to stick up for himself he gets ridden out the door. This works out well for the HR and EAP people who can then write all of the paperwork to show that he has stress management problems, or that he has an anger problem, or that he's arrogant and selfish and not a team player, or pretty much whatever they want. The lady down the hall said that, while it's pretty sad, it's an effective way for the managers to keep the other employees in line because Joe really is an overperformer. Once other employees watch an overperformer get hounded out the door they make fewer and fewer requests for themselves.
One of the gossip rumors about Joe is that he's gay and that's why he doesn't assert himself more. When I hear that I just look at the person talking like they are on crack. I've seen Joe attempt to assert his presence standing in line at the grocery or at a burger place. People deliberately cut him down. Not verbally so much but, if you watch how humans behave around each other, it's pretty clear that the prevailing social opinion about Joe (preset mostly by the gossip and stories which follow Joe and come in front of him) is that he gets nothing, that he's not a viewed as a suitable choice for a date, that he should just be grateful that he's not run out of town on any given day.
Joe. Poor bastard. His life is utter and complete crap. Wherever he goes he's set up to fail and then blamed for everything that went wrong along the way. It's like a sick joke that never ends. He has nothing, he's in debt, he's never really been given an honest opportunity. I've met convicted felons who get better treatment from society. He was raised to be a complete dupe and, when he began to develop some measure of self-respect for himself, he's lashed at as selfish, or paranoid, or egotistical.
Aside from the crappy situation that Joe's in he still seems to be pretty okay. He's more or less upbeat (more than you would expect), he's fairly healthy, and he seems to have a real level and honest take on life. I felt compelled that I should at least tell Joe what I know about the gossip and the employers and he just shrugged, looked at me and said,"Yeah. I had figured as much but, whenever I say anything about it, I'm ridden down as a paranoid whiny bitch. What can I do about it anymore?"
Joe's 30... he's looking at 40-60 more years of this kind of treatment. From what the lady down the hall and the guys at the pub say the stories only get bigger and more exaggerated wherever he goes--mostly because it's fun to tell the stories and it gives the employers a real fun game to play. One of the guys at the pub acknowledged that, sure, some of the stuff has been exaggerated and a good portion of it is just outright lie--but that's the way shit goes. You can't fight it when people get to talking about someone.
Let's just say that, while I realize my own complete lack of ability to do anything to help Joe's situation, I don't drink with those guys at the pub anymore.