I don’t think I learned that Carmen Tarleton was a potential client until the day of our kickoff call in November 2011. Erin and Corey were brimming with excitement, full of giddy apologies that they hadn’t told me sooner, but, “We didn’t want to disappoint you if it didn’t happen.” When they told me who Carmen was, what she had been through, and that she had chosen us to help tell her story, I understood their sweet-spirited secrecy. And I was quick to (greedily) proclaim, “I want to do it. I want to write it!”
For those of you who haven’t seen any of RTC’s million status updates today, read any form of the news, or turned on your TV, Carmen has just undergone the fifth full face transplant in the U.S., a fifteen-hour surgery fourteen months in the making and involving a team of thirty physicians. Five and a half years ago, her estranged husband broke into her house, beat her with a baseball bat while Carmen’s two daughters holed up in the bathroom, calling 9-1-1, and then doused her with industrial-strength lye. After a three-month coma, Carmen woke up disfigured from burns spanning 80 percent of her body, and she was blind.
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But none of this tells you who Carmen is. She is light. She is the beauty of possibility—the beauty of impossibility—and utterly human. She is a woman who can recount harsh words spit in moments of anger and joke about sex and conjure the nameless yearning of a younger self to matter in the world. Carmen is not a saint, impossible to reach or understand. Yet, she is transcendent.
The day Carmen told me about her attack, I had to mute myself so she wouldn’t hear me crying. She cried, too, neither disparaging herself for the emotion nor dramatically lingering in it. Her tears, I could sense, were residual, a kind of muscle memory as she recounted the night in the kind of detail that left me feeling shaky and raw, outraged for Carmen and at humanity for the horror we are capable of inflicting on one another. Carmen’s tears, though, were peaceful. There was no anger in them, no hate or self-pity. They simply were.
Later, I sat at my turquoise desk and stared at my beautiful antique typewriter, the raw transcript from that call covering fifteen single-spaced pages on my computer. The responsibility of what I was doing, attempting to tell Carmen’s story in a way that would do it—and her—justice made my heart pound. I’ve always let the swift up-tempo shift in my heartbeat guide my actions—“I want to do it! I want to write it!”—and it set the pace for the next four hours as I closed my eyes and typed, remembering Carmen’s voice. Her spirit. Above all, that was what I wanted to capture.
Because of Carmen’s eyesight, we couldn’t do the usual “Track your changes with Word” editing I normally do with clients. Instead, each time a chapter was completed, I read it to Carmen over the phone. Sometimes she listened straight through before guiding me back with startling memory to exact lines—sometimes words—that needed to be changed. Other times, she gently interrupted. “It wasn’t me who said that,” or, “That was actually the following week.” But the day I read the chapter of her attack, I could hardly speak. What right did I have to be telling her story like this? How would she feel, hearing it come out of my mouth? My voice shook, and I was afraid I would cry.
“It’s okay,” Carmen said warmly, almost maternally. Afterwards, very professionally, she addressed the details that needed to be changed.
The entire process of writing her book, from the daily interviews to the daily hours spent locked before my computer, was an exercise in joy. Carmen shifted the way I looked at the world, the way I experienced the world. Nothing was insurmountable, no one unforgivable—even myself. Because aren’t we, ourselves, the people we find most difficult to forgive, to love?
Yesterday, as my team sat before our computers, video conferencing as we watched a live stream of Carmen’s post-surgery press conference, a balloon of extreme joy expanded in my chest until it was hard for me to breathe. Everyone else felt the same. For an hour—indeed, all day long—we reveled in such communal joy for another human being that I am convinced Carmen’s mission has already been achieved. At least, within RTC.
Carmen, you have changed us all in unique and precise and unexpected ways.
And you are only just beginning. We love you.