With permission from John Curran and the Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, we share a piece that originally appeared July 3 in that newspaper and online: 'I Look Different and That Makes Me a Target Online.'

This is a story, poignantly told by someone living it. May this kind of sharing lead to more empathy and compassion, something our society needs more of.

May this inspire us all to embrace LIP (live in peace); society says RIP (rest in peace) to the departed when they have passed; wouldn’t it be nice to get a jump-start while we’re alive?


Subtitle: 'Behind a keyboard, anyone can insult.'

By Billerica Town Manager John Curran

Many of you know me as the town manager of Billerica, or perhaps the former mayor of Woburn or the town administrator of Maynard. A smaller number of you, friends and family, know me for much more and for that I am grateful. I am a public person.

What you also know about me is that I have a very rare and significant facial abnormality. No one had to tell you this. It is very obvious when you meet me that I am different.

Why am I telling you what you already know? Over the last two years I have been personally and publicly attacked on social media solely for my appearance at least five times. Prior to this I had not been "made fun of" since I was a child or a young adult. I have served in a public position as an elected or appointed position serving over 40,000 people for the past 27 years, and have not been so overtly, personally and publicly attacked in this way until the last two years.

I am not telling you this to elicit sympathy. As a public figure I accept the fact I will be attacked from time to time. In fact, the post that precipitated this article was made on a town-sponsored Facebook page. A contributor referred to me as "a dickhead with half a face." While I'm not thrilled about the former, I have built up immunity to this kind of insult. However, the latter is so mean and hurtful that even a 53-year-old man who has learned to deal with this level of ignorance all his life can be taken back a few steps by the hurtfulness in these words.

As a young child I would often ask my mother why people did this. She would say kids can be mean and, that as I got older, this would change and people would accept me for who I am.

For the most part she was right, but over the last couple of years I have found myself with some of the same feelings I had as a child.

Why is that? What has changed? I attribute it to two things. First, the shield that social media provides to ignorant people to lash out without any consequence. However, too often there is a very real and deep consequence for the recipient of any unsolicited attack.

Second, is the general degradation of our social fabric and the notion that sowing the seeds of division and hate are OK. This includes a lack of acceptance of people who are different or that because people are different it gives others the right to criticize or attack them.

In many ways, I consider the adversities I encountered as a child a blessing that has given me strength and resilience in adulthood. But I do remember how difficult it was as a child figuring out how to fit into the world when you're different than everyone else.

I dread to think of what I would have endured as a child if Facebook existed in the 1970s and 1980s. It has painted a harsh reality for me about the plight of kids today that face this kind of torture and torment on social media. After going through this recent experience I understand why kids develop suicidal ideations in the face of this cruelty.

The notion that your faults or weaknesses are on display for all to see is difficult for an adult to cope with, never mind a young person who has not developed the experience or coping skills for a deeply personal attack on such a public scale.

I am sharing this personal experience now to appeal to people to consider the impact of their comments on all the kids out there who are different and just trying to fit into to a challenging world. They should be able to pursue all of their dreams without the fear of being made fun of for looking or being different.

Social media should not be a venue for personal attacks. We should all consider that we don't know everyone's full story; nor should we presume to understand why people are different. We should make a better attempt to understand and know people.

The best way to do that is to ask them directly.

I can tell you that as a child, and today as an adult, I find it very uncomfortable when people stare at me but if someone, child or adult, comes up to me and says, "What happened to your face," I have no problem answering the question and I am grateful that they want to know my story.

What you don't know about me is that this condition is called Hemifacial Microsomia. This is a condition in which the lower half of one side of the face is underdeveloped and does not grow normally. As a child, and into my college years, I had many surgeries (of which I lost count), to correct this condition and prevent my face from growing over to the other side of my facial orbit.

As you can imagine this is a difficult topic for me to talk about and my childhood was a challenge. There is nobody else like me, so I had no one with similar experiences to help me navigate through the challenges. However, I was very fortunate to have two loving and supportive parents and brothers and a sister who loved me and tolerated me.

I had chosen from an early age not to let my different appearance define who I am. Instead I have tried to ignore my appearance and hope that in turn would help others to see past it as well.

Most people have not given the challenge this presents to me much thought because it is not their challenge.

Every day I meet new people in my life, as we all do. Ever since I was a child I became aware that, for most people, meeting me is often accompanied by some level of shock because I am so different. Immediately questions go through their minds; what happened to him, what's wrong with him, what else is wrong with him, does he have mental issues, too?

I trained myself to pretend that this event is not occurring when I meet a new person and convey to them through my actions that it doesn't bother me, so don't let it bother you. It has worked well for me and I like to think people quickly overcome my different appearance and feel comfortable from that point forward.

Ironically, one of the reasons I got involved in politics was that, as a public figure, people would know me and not be shocked by my appearance. Whenever people walk by me and look at me, I often attribute it to the fact that they recognize me, not because I'm different, but because I am a public person and that works well for me.

I am not conveying this very personal coping mechanism to evoke sympathy or pity. I am strong person and I credit much of that to the adversity I have dealt with through the years. I have dealt with this all my life and I handle it just fine.

But what people need to know is that when they make hurtful comments like the one made on the town Facebook page, I have to reset my compass so I can get back on track and that takes time.

I had many fights as a child with kids who made fun of me. I don't remember the fights but I remember the words. Choose your words carefully — you can't take them back and the effect can be deeper and longer than any bruise or break.

It saddens me that I still have to deal with this from adults at 53 years old, but I would like to say to any young people that are different and happen to read this not to despair.

Your challenge will make you stronger, too, and you are better and wiser than anyone too ignorant to understand how to be civil and kind.

Hang in there. It gets better.

John Curran has been Billerica's town manager since January 2010.


“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” — E.B. White, writer (1899-1985)

Reade Brower is the owner of these newspapers.