When Robert Hoge’s mother first saw his severely deformed face, she wished he would die. Through her brutally honest diary, in fact, Mrs. Hoge documented her initial feelings of rejection – before deciding to leave the fate of her baby up to a family vote. When his siblings wanted their brother to come home, however, the family embraced him. And undergoing surgery was just the beginning for Robert; what follows is a candid account of self-acceptance and overcoming disability.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1972, Robert Hoge was the fifth child of Mary and Vince Hoge. And before his arrival into the world, his parents had no reason to believe that their baby wouldn’t follow in his siblings’ footsteps and enter the world healthy and fully developed.
Straight after the birth, however, Mary Hoge’s first question was, “Is my baby okay?” Reflecting in her diary at the time, Mrs. Hoge noted, “The doctor kept asking me how I knew. My only reply was, how does any mother know when her child is in trouble? Instinct, perhaps.”
And her intuition proved to be right. Commenting on his condition at birth in a September 2016 essay for Good Housekeeping, Hoge matter-of-factly wrote, “I was born with a huge tumor in the center of my face and mangled legs. The tumor – a tennis-ball-sized, bulbous growth – pushed my eyes to the side of my head.”
Now after a week of being separated from her newborn baby in the hospital, Hoge’s mother reluctantly went to see him; however, it wasn’t the maternal reunion you’d expect. “She decided then and there that she couldn’t connect with this face,” Hoge told the audience at his TEDxTalk in February 2015.
Much of Hoge’s insight into his mother’s turmoil at the time has been gleaned from the diary she kept – and it makes for difficult reading. Certainly, it can’t have been easy for him to read statements on himself such as “I wished he would go away or die or something. I told the hospital staff I didn’t want my baby.”
After seemingly being rejected by his mother, then, baby Hoge remained in hospital while she returned home. This separation lasted for at least four weeks; and Hoge would later acknowledge, “For the first month of my life she was making every effort she could to not bring me home.”
With four other children to consider, one of his mother’s main reservations about bringing her baby home was the impact it would have on his siblings. And when faced with making a final decision about the fate of their new son, the parents called a family meeting that was to prove pivotal.
Yet Robert’s siblings were unanimous in their decision. Writing in her diary about the joint decision that was made, Mrs. Hoge stated, “Not one of the children hesitated. Each of them was quite definite that we should bring him home. Unlike me, their decision was without reservation.”
And Hoge being embraced by his siblings seemingly changed his mother’s attitude. With the support of her husband, then, focus shifted for the parents to the surgical options that were available back in the early ’70s.
Still, that choice wasn’t going to be an easy road for any of the family. While still just an infant, then, Hoge underwent surgery to remove the tumor from between his eyes. He was left with, in his own words, “just a flat face and a couple of nostrils… My eyes were still at the side of my head.”
At four years old, moreover, the young Hoge had his second surgery; this time, it was a reconstructive procedure performed by Dr. Leigh Atkinson, a specialist neurosurgeon. Speaking of the technique involved, Hoge told ABC Australia’s Australian Story, “They took two of the toes from my right leg, and the cartilage out of that, and built a nose.”
With his face effectively rebuilt, and with the support of his family, then, Hoge became resilient beyond his years. At school, however, his differences put set apart from others – and he endured bullying.
When recalling some of the names he was called at school, Hoge actually looks back with good humor. He has, however, admitted that taunts about his reconstructed nose hit hard. “There were some low points,” he explained in a 2013 piece for writer Carly Findlay’s blog, “but luckily I had a great family and a good set of buddies around me.”
At 14, meanwhile, Hoge had the option of cosmetic surgery, but a risk of blindness was high; unsure about the procedure, then, his parents allowed him to decide for himself. The teenager chose to stay as he was, however, and now credits his older brother with the line that defined his decision-making: “What use is it being pretty if he can’t even see himself?”
This self-acceptance, coupled with fierce determination, is probably what ultimately led to Hoge making such a success of his life. Indeed, he was the first person within his family to take a place at college, and he went on to get a job as a politician’s spokesperson.
Hoge has taken to documenting his experiences in life, too, learning from his mother’s cathartic diary that “there’s an awful lot of power in writing things down.” And as a result, he has since written a compelling memoir – one which he playfully entitled Ugly.
Hoge also went on to marry – although finding out that his wife was pregnant caused him a lot of anxiety. But while he was worried that his daughter would inherit his deformities, his mother’s own experiences of raising him assured him that he could cope if it happened. In the end, though, Hoge’s first daughter, Imogen, was born perfectly healthy. And he has since remarried and had a second child – another daughter, named Eva.
As for his own success in life, Hoge credits his mom and dad for raising him with a can-do attitude despite his disabilities. “I can’t repay to my parents the tremendous love and support they showed me, but what I can do is maybe share their story and maybe help some other parents,” he would go on to tell ABC North Coast NSW in July 2014.
It’s clear that Hoge is a man on a mission to encourage difference as something to be celebrated, then. And given that he’s since shared his own inspiring story with adults and children alike, perhaps he’s changing some minds in the process, too.