The Australian | Review | Robert Hoge’s ‘Ugly: My Memoir’

ROBERT Hoge was born with a tumour stretching down his face, a lump the size of his newborn fist. It pushed his eyes to the sides of his head, “like a fish”. His malformed legs had to be amputated.

Days after his birth, his mother, Mary, told nurses she didn’t want to see her baby. She wrote in her journal: “I wished he would go away or die or something.”

But the moment passed and Mary and husband Vincent did everything they could to give their son a typical childhood as he grew up with four older siblings in suburban Brisbane. He would undergo radical surgery to repair his face using tissue from his useless legs.

Hoge’s story is a fascinating one: how does life pan out for someone who is not only severely disabled but considered by society to be ugly? We all have our physical quirks, things we like about ourselves, things we don’t. The word ugly carries a greater weight, though: it suggests something irredeemable, something you can’t outgrow.

Hoge’s perceived ugliness and his functional disability are thought of as one. This book is an attempt to map their effect on a young man’s life. It ends in 2002, when Hoge’s daughter was born. He lives with his family in Brisbane.

Hoge is generally a warm, likable storyteller: honest, conversational and, in a typically Australian way, ready to find humour in his struggle. He writes that when he was old enough to venture into the surf, he’d leave one of his artificial legs planted next to his towels. “No one ever touched our stuff,” he says.

He lays out the “top 10” names he was called in the schoolyard, from Cripple to Toothpick Legs to Transformer, rating each for originality, humour and “hurt factor”. It’s a neat way of cataloguing schoolyard distress. It also gives you a sense of the difficulty of being different during your formative years.

Toe-nose takes first place, a cruel play on the fact doctors rebuilt Hoge’s nose using cartilage from his amputated toes.

Calling a six-year-old kid with glasses “four-eyes” may be very hurtful and painful to that child, but at least in some way it makes them part of a group. They’re not alone. They belong … But toe-nose was so specific. It cut to the very heart of me, making me ashamed of the good work the doctors had done; sometimes I wished they hadn’t bothered. And it didn’t apply to anyone else. I owned it. At the time it felt terribly hurtful, terribly strange.

Ugly: My Memoir could have been a third shorter. Tighter editing could have left out a few anecdotes about the early years – running a local grapefruit stand, being accused of stealing chocolates, getting in trouble at school for bad handwriting – that don’t add to the overall narrative and make the book drag. At times it feels like a fascinating magazine article that has been stretched beyond its natural length.

Learning to swim was obviously a milestone: “Swimming was freedom.” But why spend six pages on an anecdote that could have been covered in three? I sometimes hoped Hoge would quit trivialising and start analysing. When he does go deeper, it’s rewarding. What does Hoge’s disability mean to him? Put simply, “it sucks”.

Outright sympathy is frustrating, though. He prefers it when people take an interest: “Acknowledging someone’s ugliness can be about saying you’re not scared to talk about the things that make them, them.”

When Muhammad Ali raised the flaming Olympic torch aloft in Atlanta in 1996, his left hand shaking with Parkinson’s disease, he didn’t feel smaller for being a champion athlete now disabled. He felt pride. He was still a champion; he was still, despite his disability, achieving.

Hoge got his own chance to carry the torch as it passed through Ipswich in 2000. He felt that pride, too, and he cherished the opportunity to show – if not an audience of billions, then at least his local community – that “disability can build you up or push you down”, and that he had made his choice.

“There’s power in the corridors of the ugly club,” Hoge tells us in the opening pages. And it’s in the final chapters of this sometimes overwrought memoir, when Hoge leaves behind the weaker anecdotes of growing up and gets to the heart of the matter – what looking different on the outside does to you inside – that he shows us this, and in doing so realises the potential in his story.

There will always be afflictions in life: physical, mental or otherwise. It’s what you make of them that counts.

Published in The Australian, August 31, 2013.