Face Transplants, Domestic Violence, & Identity

In September of last year I wrote a post about meeting the mother of Carmen Tarleton in Thetford, Vermont. I relayed how while in line for a barbecue on a holiday weekend we began talking and she shared with me the story of her daughter. Her daughter was a victim of a vicious domestic violence attack. Her ex-husband assaulted her one night and after beating her senseless, sprayed industrial strength lye all over her body.

I wrote these words:

“I learned what living hell on earth was” said the mom, shaking her head.Her voice trailed off  “But I also learned what Heaven was. Seeing her walk through the door when she came home from the hospital? That was Heaven.” I looked at her and had nothing to say. All I could think was how little I understand of the resilience of the human spirit – that spirit that reflects the image of God.

Into this unimaginable story of living through abuse, living through the healing and scars of burns that cover your entire body, living through the moment by moment nightmare that is survival, comes a will and a strength that can’t be stopped. Blind, disfigured in a way that makes people recoil, but facing this with courage and resilience. This is the wild grace and spirit of God. from In a Few Short Moments


On Valentine’s day this past year, Carmen Tarleton received a new face. She underwent a transplant surgery that was 15 hours long and is now one of the few people worldwide who have had face transplants. It was, and continues to be, an enormous risk — but Carmen was taking on this face for good reason. The residual effects of the attack included scars that caused much pain, inability to blink, and inability to express emotions because of the scar tissue.  A face transplant is not only a physical procedure, but one that is deeply personal and psychological.  For better or worse, our faces are uniquely ‘us’. We have had them since we were in the womb. To take on the face of another, even though in Carmen’s case this is a gift, is to think about the heart of where our identity lies.

I felt many emotions as I read the follow-up of Carmen’s ongoing journey. Emotions about strength, about love, about resilience. But perhaps the most significant is what I felt, indeed feel, about identity. Because Carmen has not ceased being who she is with a new face, she still has the same personality, the same wit, the same disposition. The core of her, the part that matters, is still unique to her.

And this is the part that her abuser couldn’t touch. He wanted to “steal, kill, and destroy” – but she lived. She defied what he wanted, what he tried to do.

October is Domestic Violence month. Unfortunately it has to vie with the pink of breast cancer to make the headlines, so it often ends up on the back page when it should scream from the front page of every journal, every paper, every magazine.

My heart hurts when I read the statistics on this issue. One in Three women, yes 1 out of 3, one-third, have experienced some form of domestic violence from someone they are intimate with. Behind every statistic is a real person, a real story. This is control and manipulation masquerading as ‘love’ – the worst kind of betrayal. The profound impact of these statistics shows in many ways beyond bruises or scars – headaches, difficulty sleeping, chronic pain, and emotional pain to name a few. But the biggest impact is on the sense of self — for abusers never honor the word ‘no’, the word ‘stop’, the words ‘you’re hurting me.’.

Domestic Violence crosses all class, religious, and cultural boundaries. Make no mistake, you could on any given Sunday be sitting in church next to a friend who is being abused. And this can be the hardest – because what good, believing woman wants to accuse her man of abuse? And so she cries soundlessly late into the night, praying for strength to confront her abuser or to leave the relationship.

Yet Carmen’s case shows that the abuser doesn’t have to win, doesn’t get to win.

The heart of where our identity lies is deep within our skin. Others may curse the outside, hurt it, betray it, but ultimately we don’t have to let them win. We may dress the outside, paint it, primp it, and dye it, but our identity is our core. You can paint mean all you want — it’s still mean. You can primp insecure – it’s still insecure. All of us have to face our true identity and it goes way beyond the surface.

Beyond Carmen’s new face lies a strength and a will that make her a true hero. She’s learned to live with stares in grocery stores, with disfigurement that to most of us feels unthinkable, with constant pain and daily therapy. But she no longer lives with an abuser, she no longer has the daily trauma of someone trying to rob her of self.

Face Transplants. Domestic violence. Abuse. All this would try to take away Imago Dei, would rob the victim of who she is created to be. But the strength of this image lives; lives in a true identity through strength,resilience, and love. It’s the wild grace of God. 


  • Telling you that you can never do anything right
  • Showing jealousy of your friends and time spent away
  • Keeping you or discouraging you from seeing friends or family members
  • Embarrassing or shaming you with put-downs
  • Controlling every penny spent in the household
  • Taking your money or refusing to give you money for expenses
  • Looking at you or acting in ways that scare you
  • Controlling who you see, where you go, or what you do
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions
  • Destroying your property or threatening to hurt or kill your pets

Weeping for the Kids

Just down the road from us on Memorial Drive is a big apartment complex. It’s one of the tallest buildings in that area and is flanked on one side by the Marriott and another by a gas station. It’s steps away from RiteAid Pharmacy and Whole Foods; just across from the river.

I don’t know how many families it houses but my guess is it houses a lot — a diverse group that includes immigrants, refugees, and those who have lived in the area a long time.

Last night the 11 pm News focused on the building and the Mobil gas station beside it. Another young man from my kids’ high school was arrested in connection to the Boston bombing and he lives in this building.

This kid is also 19. This kid is also an immigrant, this time coming from Ethiopia. This kid is also an American citizen. This kid is also a kid. 

He tampered with evidence and now faces jail time for up to eight years.

And I can’t get over the fact that all of those involved who are still alive are 19 years old. I can’t wrap my head around this.

Think about the ages of the victims and the folks involved in the activity: 8 year-old, 23 year-old, 29 year-old for victims;19 year-old, 27 year-old – alleged bombers. And then another three 19 year-olds arrested last night for tampering with evidence.

My heart weeps for a generation. They were too young too die – and the others are too young to lose their lives through these horrific choices.

Never has there been more money and time put into anti-violence programs in this country. Anti-bullying campaigns have sprung up across the country. People are begging for a stop to violence, whether it be bombings, shootings, or bullies. Yet never have we seen so much sustained violent activity.

And this is only Boston – a safe and wealthy city.

My mind and heart move on to Syria where war has created an environment where children grow up too soon; where young kids sit on street corners trimming vegetables to make some hard-earned pennies, where little girls stand in bread lines, lucky if they are not raped in the process.

And so I weep for a generation that feels unfairly lost, unfairly violated, unfairly portrayed.

What can I do to change that? I’m one person! I can barely handle my stuff, let alone the stuff that, in the big scheme of things, is so much more serious.

But the sun still came up today and we are seeing our fifth day of sunshine in a row. Birds are chirping and a bright red cardinal sits in the tree that is blossoming purple down the road (Whoever said red and purple can’t go together?!) The river is alive with sail boats, the walk beside the river equally alive with people. Beauty is all around us – spring has entered with as much gusto and strength as winter ever had. During those cold days of dark, spring was moving underneath the cold and dark – change was coming.

So in the midst of this I proclaim the goodness of God, a God who cares about kids, who said “Bring the kids! Let them hear!” Who told us we too should become like children, who said “Let the little children come unto me – do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”*

A God who loves kids, who weeps for a generation, who refuses to give up but continues His redemptive work even though I can’t always see it.

In the midst of my cries to God for the kids I remember a passage – from one of my most favorite books on ever earth: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps he has already landed,” [said Beaver].

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different…. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.” 

My heart overflows with irrational joy for indeed – Aslan is on the Move.

*Matthew 19:14

Bearing Witness

English: The Witness Cairn The Witness Cairn.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about surviving these past weeks. The blind rage I have felt for victims who haven’t survived, the incredible respect I have for those that survive and enter into healing – they have occupied my mind, my heart.

And though I have never been raped or attacked, though I can’t begin to understand that deep agony of body and soul – I have learned one thing. When we bear witness to the stories of those who have experienced the wounds of rape and violence, we help in the healing process.

Conversely, when we dismiss them, we become part of the attack, part of the abuse.

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, not in facts.

Bearing witness means that we are showing by our existence that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost”. To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering in, and in our entering offering hope and healing.

Bearing witness is a good phrase.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Who has walked beside you as a witness to your stories, so that you can move forward with purpose and hope?

Blogger’s note: Might I suggest this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times: After Being Raped, I Was Wounded – My Honor Wasn’t