Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt, Lecturer in 20th-century French history at the University of Reading, tells us more about the reasons that led her to research facial difference and her current and future plans. Marjorie will be presenting at our Effaced From History conference.
Where are you from?
I moved from France to the UK in 2009. Initially it was going to be for just a year, as I was carrying out research for my dissertation, but I enjoyed the culture and the people so much that I stayed. I completed a second Master’s degree, then a PhD, at the University of Exeter. Before taking up a lectureship at the University of Reading in 2015 I taught and held a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Exeter.
What is your current topic of research?
I work primarily on 20th century history, especially the cultural history of the First World War and its aftermath. I am particularly interested in disability and memory studies, and in the history of philanthropy in France and Great Britain. I am currently developing new research-led modules for undergraduate students, including one on First World War commemorations and another one on the history of philanthropy in France.
I have just published my first monograph, which explores the destinies and representations of WWI facially wounded soldiers in France, Germany and Great Britain. Carrying out a comparative study enabled me to highlight similarities in terms of the challenges awaiting disfigured veterans upon their return, but also a great variety in the responses to facial differences in 1920s and 1930s European societies. This is particularly visible in visual and literary representations made at the time, but I also tried to uncover the ‘voices’ of the combatants themselves. Reading their letters and memoirs, listening to recorded interviews, even meeting their relatives, was not only fascinating from an academic point of view, it was also a powerful human experience.
Why did you start researching facial differences?
It is a linguistic difference that initially piqued my interest. During a conversation with a fellow student who was British and one of our German lecturers, we realized that the French term gueules cassées, which was popularized after the First World War, had no equivalent in any of these languages. I started wondering: were French soldiers particularly vulnerable to facial injuries (for example due to a lack of protective equipment)? Did more French army combatants survive their injuries and return to civilian life, when they became known as gueules cassées? Who exactly ‘qualified’ as a gueule cassée and how was disfigurement defined and indemnified in different countries? Who coined this term in the first place and did disfigured veterans embrace it despite its derogatory connotations? As I began looking for answers I realized how little research had been conducted , and how the study of the experience and perceptions of facial disfigurement in the past can inform our understanding of facial differences today.
What is the potential impact of your research on everyday life?
21st-century popular representations and perceptions of people with facial differences are still often negative, as can be seen for example in the Boardwalk Empire TV series and the Goncourt-prize winning book Au-Revoir Là-Haut. Harmful stereotypes that suggest that people with facial differences are not as capable (intellectually or physically) than others, or the idea that a visible difference or a wound is evidence of immorality, are sadly nothing new. Yet talking about what is a very personal, yet very public, physical difference still seems problematic. Social psychology studies have pointed out that more often than not, the uneasiness that can be felt in a conversation between people who have visible facial differences and people who do not, is the result of the uncertainty as to how to behave (where to look? Is it polite to ask about the visible difference or is it better to say nothing?).
Academic research into past attitudes towards, and experiences of living with, facial differences can help us challenge these stereotypes. I have run several history workshops with Year 10 students and have found that studying the journeys of WWI disfigured veterans with them often led to discussing contemporary representations of, and resposnes to, facial differences. I also really enjoyed being part of the team that curated the Faces of Conflict exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter, 2015) as part of the EU-funded 1914FACES2014 project. For me this experience highlighted the challenges related to exhibiting visual representations of facial wounds but also the willingness of the general public to engage with such representations and beyond, with issues around ‘face equality’, to quote the campaign run by Changing Faces.