Richard got a face transplant, a new life, and a new set of burdens too strange to predict. What’s it like to live with a face that wasn’t yours—and that may never quite be?

GQ\Dan Winters

GQ/Dan Winters
Before we bring him in, maybe we can open the floor to some questions. This will be your first time meeting him. He’s very comfortable with people evaluating him. Because right now he’s being looked at almost as an experiment. Which he is. He’s a human-subjects experiment.

Richard Norris was 22 when he shot himself in the face. This was back in 1997. He doesn’t remember how or why it happened, but his mom, who was three feet away, said it was an accident. She remembers pieces of Richard’s face showering her body. This was in the living room. The gunshot had blown off his nose, cheekbones, lips, tongue, teeth, jaw, and chin, leaving just his wide brown eyes and a swirl of nameless twisted flesh.

The miracle that would come to define Richard’s life begins with these tragic details. Like most miracles, with each retelling, the edges of the story sharpen, the colors become more vibrant, and the shadows disappear. Ashamed of his appearance, Richard became a hermit, living for nearly a decade on a foggy mountaintop in rural Virginia with his parents.

They covered the mirrors in the house so Richard wouldn’t have to look at his hideous face. He stayed in his room even to eat, wore a black mask on the rare occasions he came out. According to legend, one time the cops stopped him at gunpoint, mistaking him for a robber

Then one day, searching on the Internet, his mom found Eduardo Rodriguez, a Baltimore reconstructive facial surgeon. He promised Richard he would make him normal…