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January 2001

What the Mirror Sees

When was the last time you faced that dreaded three-sided mirror? You know what I mean. The fitting room, the tailor shop, going in for a few alterations.

A lot of us crips don't do well with off-the-rack-clothes. If you wheel instead of walk, sport wooden legs, or happen to own a less-than-regulation limb or two, well, Eddie Bauer and the Gap may fail to measure-up to your needs.

We all know that clothes don't make the man, but when your appearance is a source of anxiety to begin with, it's comforting to be able to forget about how you're dressed, comforting at least to feel at ease in your clothes. I've got a few crip buddies who pay attention to looking good. Working against the fashion/disability odds they manage to achieve a personal "look," but many more of my crip friends seem to have given up on any effort to feel good about how they dress. Some of them write off their shabby attire as a combination of anti-consumerism and an allowable neurosis that says, "why should I care?"

For years, sartorial anxiety has been stalking me like the Fashion Police. Since I work at home these days, I can get away with a wardrobe consisting of T-shirts and an array of jeans faded beyond name-brand recognition. For important public occasions I've been squeaking by with a tweed jacket bought ten years ago at a thrift shop, the single pair of grownup slacks I can still squeeze into and a black turtleneck I insist is "slimming." But I knew that sooner or later someone was going to have the bad taste to die—and then what would I wear to the funeral? Well, somebody did die, and I ended up attending the obsequies looking, in the unforgettable words of my grandmother, "like the ragpicker's daughter."

Am I exaggerating? Am I acting Crip Paranoid? Probably nobody noticed but me. I mean, do you really need to "dress" for a funeral these days? In California? Instead of functioning as the shove I needed to solve things, the funeral incident merely drove me deeper into the glums. Finally, my long-suffering partner announced, "Enough. We're going to find a tailor. I know the idea of a custom-made suit offends your sense of thrift, but you'll have something that will really fit for the first time ever. It'll be more comfortable. It will wear better. And maybe if you're lucky it'll last you till your own funeral . . ."

OK. Black humor's always calculated to get me moving, so off to a tailor we went, a really nice, low-key guy, as it turned out, who didn't even rise to the bait of my defensive sallies ("Think you can do anything with this body?"). The preliminaries were easy (charcoal or navy, pleats or plain), little rituals of manhood that almost made me feel like one of the guys. (Fashion? Some guys really enjoy this?) The tailor was marvelously efficient with his tape and chalk, but inevitably the time came for me to stand and face the music or, in this case, the three-sided mirror.

There I stood, frozen in front of that mirror, facing a truth that gabardine and brass buttons can't disguise. It was then that my partner did one of the sweetest things he's done in years of thoughtful acts. Without a word, he stepped in front of the mirror, interposing himself between me and the image of me I could no longer assimilate, replacing my mirrored frown with his smile.

Are you bored yet, patient reader, with this self-indulgent recitation of personal neuroses? Well, I was. I was ready to abandon it, to search for a different editorial topic, when a larger subject began begging for a hearing, begging me to make a connection. A scary phenomenon has been nosing its way into the mainstream news lately, stories about "wannabes," those ablebodied guys (it seems to be guys almost entirely) who identify so strongly with disability, who see themselves as wrongly inhabiting healthy bodies, that they seek to make themselves whole by being made "unwhole" through surgery. Alright, let's not mince words. These are men so unhappy with their bodies that they look for someone to lop off healthy limbs. How about the term "voluntary amputation?"

In Scotland last year a hospital came under fire when one of its surgeons performed single-leg amputations on two physically healthy men who believed themselves to be "incomplete with four limbs" and had threatened extreme self-harm in an attempt to precipitate amputation. In the USA a man died in a motel room the morning after he'd paid a quack surgeon $10,000 to amputate one of his legs.

To most of us, this is an unsettling psychosexual byway, made more unsettling by the revelation that its incidence appears to be greater than we imagined. Some observers have classed it as an extreme form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which in milder forms persuades its sufferers to seek nose jobs or breast enlargement or hair implants, sometimes doing and undoing alterations repeatedly, because they can never remain satisfied with their "improved" appearances. But self-demanded amputation of a healthy limb? This is the Big Time and it's acquired a name of its own, Apotemnophilia.

As an involuntary amputee, my gut reaction was revulsion. Why would anyone . . . ? How could anyone . . . ? Etc. etc. Then three things occurred that began to turn my reaction from viscera to brain. First, I heard a radio documentary by Kath Duncan (whose review of the "Sexual Politics of Disability" you'll find in BENT). Kath lets us hear the authentic voices of men so deeply unhappy they are convinced that only amputation will give them the selves they see themselves to be. Then, inspired to read further, I came across the name of someone I had met. For the first time a clinical "condition" acquired a familiar face. It was growing more difficult to be repulsed by what I learned and, like the first time someone I knew chose to undergo gender reassignment surgery, it became impossible for me to dismiss a brand of unhappiness both foreign and frightening to me.

Finally, intrigued by the obvious parallels between transsexuals and wannabes, I spoke to a psychotherapist about my misgivings, not just any psychotherapist, but a friend whose wisdom and humanity I've learned to trust. Instead of lecturing about possible causes and treatment modalities, she answered me with convincing simplicity. If, on our way to understanding some of the most perplexing mysteries of being human, she argued, we are equipped to relieve suffering, then we are obliged to do so in any way we can.

The wannabe seeks to relieve his suffering by finding a surgeon willing to cut away offending flesh and bone. Most of us crips are not so "lucky." If we are the owners of bodies that make us turn away from the mirror, we must learn to face them without hope of remedy. We must find a way to relieve our own suffering.

My suit's not finished yet. I'll let you know if it helps.

Bob Guter

Bob Guter has been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result of multiple birth defects. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Stagebill, and other publications. He lives in San Francisco.

© 2001 BENT

Don't go yet!!
It's CALLAHAN time . . .


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2001