Rusty Dennis learned that her seemly healthy baby boy Rocky Dennis had an extremely rare medical condition called Craniodiaphyseal Dysplasia, more commonly known as Lionitis. It can only be described as every new mom's worst nightmare since the condition would result in her boy's appearance being severely deformed, her son would not live past the age of 7, and would suffer mental disorders.
Rocky Dennis proved doctors wrong and lived until he was 16. He was a bright child, and his short life was filled with joy, kindness, and love. In his 16 years, he became an inspiration to the world, so much so that a movie Mask was made telling his story with the iconic singer and actress Cher playing the role of Rocky's devoted mother, Rusty Dennis.
Who Was Rocky Dennis?
On the 14th of December 1961, Florence Rusty Dennis gave birth to a healthy little boy named Roy Lee Dennis - nicknamed Rocky. In his early days, Rocky Dennis was a healthy and happy baby. However, this was all going to change for him.
Rocky was only a toddler when the doctors started noticing irregularities in his medical exams. During some X-rays, a doctor noticed that Rockys skull development showed slight variations, especially when compared to the growth and development of other children his age.
Rocky underwent a series of tests that got sent to the UCLA medical center for analysis. It was the specialties at UCLA medical center that discovered that Rocky had Craniodiaphyseal Dysplasia - CDD.
There is no cure for this condition, and only one in one million children are diagnosed with it.
Rocky was that one in a million. It was Rocky's tenacious and gifted character that also made him a one in a million child. Doctors told Rusty that it was unlikely for Rocky to live past the age of 7. Rocky proved all doctors wrong and lived to be a teenager.
What Is Craniodiaphyseal Dysplasia - CDD?
Because this condition is so rare, it goes unheard of for many people. More common forms of Dysplasia affect the hips, and it is only in the rarest of cases that it affects the development of the skull.
CDD affects the development of the skull. It is caused by abnormal calcium deposits in the skull. The result is that bones that make up the structure start to grow rapidly and abnormally, causing severe facial deformation. In the case of Rocky Dennis, his skull grew so rapidly it became twice its average size.
To accommodate his head's rapid growth, Rocky's eyes were pushed toward the edges of his face, making his face severely disfigured. Rusty was informed that her son would become progressively deaf and blind. She could also expect him to have severe mental disabilities as the weight of his growing skull would put extreme pressure on his brain, ultimately crushing it.
Specialists were basing all this on information they had gathered from only six other cases of this condition. However, Rocky indeed was one in a million people, and he beat all the odds. Despite living with severe facial deformities, Rocky was an intelligent, bright child and lived to his mid-teens with 20/20 vision and healthy hearing.
A Mother's Love
Rocky Dennis was blessed with a headstrong mother who firmly believed in her son's capabilities. Rusty was a biker and fit the stereotype. She was a tough, self-assured, determined woman with a no-nonsense attitude.
Rusty had two sons, Rocky and a child from a previous relationship - Joshua. Rusty was extremely close with both her children; however she had a unique relationship with Rocky. Perhaps it was her motherly instinct to protect her child from the stares of society that drew the two of them even closer.
Doctors advised Rusty to enroll Rocky in a school for disabled children. However, she ignored this advice. Rusty knew that she had an extraordinary child, and when Rocky was six years old, she enrolled him in Public School. Rusty raised both her sons equally and firmly believed in raising Rocky as any other average child.
Rusty would tell her young son that he had Lionitis, which is why he had the look of a lion, and that she believed he was a lion in a past life. She encouraged Rocky to be greater than his condition, to be strong and brave like a lion. This is a small example of how Rusty taught her son not to let his deformed features define him.
Rusty Dennis believed in natural remedies in treating her son's condition. There was no cure, and his condition would cause him a great deal of pain due to the rapid growth rate of his skull and the pressure that his skull was putting on his brain. Rusty would treat her son with vitamins and alfalfa sprouts. She was a firm believer in the philosophy of self-healing through the power of one's mind and belief.
Whenever Rocky suffered from a headache, his mother would send him to his room to rest, telling him that only he could make himself feel better.
These methods resulted in Rocky Dennis having a solid sense of self. Rusty never wanted to raise a child with a victim mentality. Rocky, as a result, never saw himself as a victim and took control of his life.
Rusty Dennis used the same sort of tough love when her son, on one occasion he came home from school crying, telling his mother how he had been bullied in the playground by other children who were laughing at him and calling him ugly.
Rusty told her son:
"When they laugh at you, you laugh at you. If you act beautiful, you'll be beautiful, and they'll see that and love you… I believe the universe will support anything you want to believe."
Rocky Dennis never allowed himself to be defined by his appearance and developed a sense of humor around his looks. He would often joke about his condition when both adults and children would point it out. Rusty recalled how Halloween was Rocky's favorite holiday. He loved to dress up and go Trick or Treating. When he got to someone's house, he would pretend to be wearing more than one mask. He would remove the face mask and then try to take off the "second" mask by pulling at his face and pretending to be surprised when it wouldn't come off.
Even with this severe facial deformity, Rocky Dennis remained self-confident. He knew he was more than his deformed appearance. Rocky even turned down offers by plastic surgeons that wanted to operate on him to make him look more ordinary.
The courage that Rusty instilled in her son can be one of the reasons why he beat all the odds and survived until he was a teenager.
Big Head And Big Brains
Rocky Dennis proved that his mother was right in sending him to a public school as he never suffered from mental disabilities. His large head held within it a healthy and capable brain.
Rocky was an outstanding student. He was at the top of his class and excelled in various subjects, from English and Math to Science and Theater. He was not only brilliant but also had high emotional intelligence. He was kind and compassionate with his classmates, even those who weren't so kind toward him.
Rocky still had to spend a great deal of his time in doctors' rooms undergoing numerous tests to monitor his condition. When he was only seven years old, he had already done 42 eye tests alone. Doctors were convinced that the pressure his skull was putting on his optic nerve would impair his sight. However, according to Rusty, Rocky had told his doctors that he did not believe in going blind.
Rocky Dennis defied all the odds and read an entire book out loud in front of the very doctor, who said he would be blind and unable to read and write. This was a defining moment in both Rusty's and Rocky's life.
Although it was medically proven that Rocky had no mental disabilities, doctors and teachers still encouraged Rusty to hold Rocky back in school or transfer him to special needs school.
Rusty believed that this advice was not based on her son's intelligence but rather on his appearance. She felt that teachers were uncomfortable having him in their classrooms and that her son's appearance would bother the other children's parents.
Once again, Rusty stood by her son and kept him in school. This proved to be the right decision when Rocky graduated junior high with honors and was top of his class.
The Legacy Of Rocky Dennis Lives On
On the 4th of October 1974, at the age of 16, Rocky Dennis passed away. Rusty knew that her son would not live a long life. Each year with him was a blessing.
Leading up to the day Rocky Dennis died, Rusty had noticed his health rapidly declining. His headaches were getting more frequent and more severe. He was physically weak and tired, and his usually cheerful demeanor became more subdued. It was a sad day when Rocky finally succumbed to his condition. However, his story has lived on.
During one of his many visits to UCLA's Center for Genetic Research, Rocky Dennis and his mom met a screenwriter named Anna Hamilton Phelan by chance. Anna observed Rocky and the strong bond he shared with his mother and was inspired by his charismatic personality. His deformed face did not scare her, it drew her in, and she became curious to learn more about Rocky and his life, ultimately writing a screenplay on his life.
Film Based On The Life Of Rocky Dennis
Producers picked up this screenplay, and seven years after Rocky Dennis had passed away, the film Mask premiered. The film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starred the iconic Cher as Rusty with Eric Stoltz playing Rocky Dennis.
The costume and make-up department had their work cut out for them, creating prosthetics to be placed on Stoltz when playing Rocky. This was done so that the film could accurately capture Rocky's deformed face.
Stoltz would often leave his makeup on in-between scenes and during breaks due to how long it took for the costume department to get him ready. He would walk around Rocky's old neighborhood during set breaks and noticed how people would stop to stare at him. Stoltz recalls how he felt that he got a glimpse into how challenging it might have been for Rocky Dennis to face the stares of society each day.
Although the directors and writers of Mask did take some liberties in adjusting Rocky's story for a more dramatic and cinematic effect, the overall film is an accurate depiction of Rocky's life with only a few inconsistencies.
Some of these inconsistencies between the film and Rocky's real-life include excluding Rockys half brother Joshua. The film does not ever indicate that Rocky had an older brother.
Rocky's death in the film is depicted somewhat differently from how it happened in real life. Rocky's mother and her sober biker friends, whom Rocky Dennis often spent time with, did throw Rocky a party on the eve of his death.
The film shows Rusty finding her son's lifeless body lying in bed. However, in real life, Rusty had been at her lawyer's office when Bernie, her boyfriend, called her to tell her the tragic news that Rocky had passed.
The film also shows Rocky being buried with his baseball cards and flowers when in life, Rocky's body was donated to UCLA for medical research and then cremated.
These are only minor differences between the real story of Rocky Dennis and the film based on his life.
The release of Mask has allowed the life of Rocky Dennis to live on. He may not have had a long life, but his story has touched people's hearts worldwide.
The film was well-received by critics and audiences, and one can only hope that it helps people learn not to judge someone based on their appearance.