Roy Dennis: The rare disease of the ‘masked boy’ who was treated as a ‘monster’

*Written by Ilda Toska

When Roy “Rocky” Dennis was born in 1961 he was a normal kid, just like the rest. But at the age of two, the lives of his entire family would change forever. Rocky was suffering from an extremely rare disease.

During a routine exam for the tonsils, an X-ray technician spotted abnormalities in Rocky’s skull. Tests showed he suffered from a genetic disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia in which calcium builds up too much in the bones.

Abnormal calcium deposits were pushing his eyes to the sides of his head, while also changing the shape of his nose. The disease severely disfigured his facial features, making his head twice its normal size.

Predictions indicated that Rocky would not live past his seventh birthday. The little boy, however, beat the odds, becoming a huge inspiration to many along the way. This is the amazing life of the boy, who became world famous through the 1985 film “Mask” with Cher, thanks to a hospital nurse who was being treated.

Roy’s illness and course

Once the tests were completed, the doctors told Rocky’s mother, Rusty, that he would gradually become deaf and blind. Furthermore, he would be severely mentally retarded before the weight of his skull destroyed his brain. And all this until he was seven years old.

But she was determined not to deprive her child of a normal life. He wanted to have the same experiences as all the other children. So, he decided to enroll him in school at the age of six.

“They tried to tell me he was mentally retarded, but it wasn’t true. I just think they wanted to keep him out of the classroom because [νόμιζαν] that it would disturb the other children’s parents,” Rusty said in an interview.

First, you started being treated as a “monster” by the rest of the kids. In fact, some of the parents requested his transfer to a school for children with special needs because their children were afraid. Roy’s mother sued the school because the child had no mental difference from the other children.

Despite his condition, Rocky Dennis proved to be one of the best students in his class. He was also popular with the other children as according to his mother, he had a great sense of humor. In fact, he often made fun of his appearance whenever the other kids pointed it out to him.

“One time he came home from the playground crying because the kids were calling him ugly… I told him when they laugh at you, you laugh at you. “If you act nice, you’ll be nice, they’ll see it and they’ll love you… I believe the universe will support whatever you want to believe,” Rusty told her son.

When Dennis was a teenager, a plastic surgeon offered to operate on him to make him look more “normal”. But he refused.

On October 3, 1978, Dennis felt a very bad headache and his mother sent him to his room to rest. It was the last day she would see him alive.

His mother donated his body to UCLA’s genetics department for research. It was the university that Rocky had just managed to get through.

The movie “Mask” and Ser

The story of Rocky moved all of America and was transferred to the big screen with Cher, who managed to win the best performance award at Cannes for her role. Rocky’s life, however, would not have been known without Anna Hamilton Phelan.

Anna was working at the hospital where Rocky was being treated when she first met him. He sat down with him and said, “I bet you have a story to tell?” He smiled somewhat, looked up briefly and replied “I guess I have.”

Phelan never saw Rocky again but wanted to know everything about him. She did her research, met with people who knew him and later talked to his mother. Her work resulted in a screenplay for the 1985 film Mask, starring Ser.

For Cher, the film was a truly special experience. Not only because she learned about Rocky’s story, but also because she was deeply moved by the situation. He decided he wanted to do something.

After wrapping up filming for ‘Mask’, Cher pledged to help craniofacial deformities across the country. In 1989 she was named honorary president of the International Craniofacial Foundation.

“You know, if Rocky Dennis were alive today, doctors might be able to help him,” Sher said in an interview in 1994. “All a craniofacial person wants is to not be different,” she added.

Finally, Cher had mentioned: “You know, they just want to walk around and not be looked at. People are always attracted to what they think is beautiful and tend to think that beautiful people are nice people. One has nothing to do with the other. Everything is so packaged now that there’s an orientation to perfection that we don’t want to look at people who aren’t completely beautiful.”

*Ilda Tosca studies in New media Studies


The article is in Greek

Tags: Roy Dennis rare disease masked boy treated monster

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