for this month's
tasteless crip humor, don't miss the very bottom of the page . .
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 dieand 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
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?"
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
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.
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
It's CALLAHAN time . . .