They gave their consent

By Noel

I’m sitting, unable to sleep, in a darkened room at three in the morning wondering how I am going to write about this subject. You know the one. It’s that subject nobody talks about, mentioned occasionally in hushed tones while parents’ faces glow with excitement for the new life that is about to see this world for the very first time. Names are chosen. Baby showers are planned. Oh my goodness, we cannot wait for Mom and Dad to see their new grandchild. It’s a boy, and he is going to be amazing.

Noel (before being circumcised)

Noel (before being circumcised)

That’s how I think I came into this world. Not all of us are so fortunate, and I consider myself blessed. My father and mother, ages 30 and 29, respectively, were brand new parents at the time. Living in a small village in Oklahoma, they were honest folks. A Christian minister and his wife, working hard to build a life for themselves and the life about to join them.

I showed up a month ahead of time, in November of 1973. Believe it or not, I was supposed to wait until Christmas to make my entrance. Yeah, I’ve never been particularly good about keeping appointments. My parents hopped into the car, drove to the hospital nearby, and along I came. All six pounds and change of me.

That’s when the big question came along. And you can probably guess which way it went. We’ll get to that soon enough. The decision made on that fateful day has been seared into my very being every second of my life since, but I want you to somewhat experience my story in much the same way I did.

Once my memory started to really develop, it became very clear to me at an early age that something about me was… off. Even today, people look at me funny. Something about my body language throws them, as though I were some sort of alien trying to pass for human. You see, my parents didn’t know it at the time, and I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2006, but I was suffering from a mental health issue called social anxiety disorder. People would try to talk to me as a kid and I would hide from them or refuse to talk to them. Rare was the occasion when I could actually say something back. I could not stand being touched by anyone, and hugs were strictly forbidden. They were like electric shocks to me. Thoroughly unpleasant and almost painful.

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Other strange behaviors followed me around during childhood. Profoundly afraid of the dark, I could not fall asleep unless a parent was in the room. But that’s a normal fear, isn’t it? Well… is it also normal to not be able to fall asleep on one’s back? To instead be filled with a paralyzing terror that something absolutely awful is going to happen? I tried, of course. Quite a few times. I would fall asleep, then my brain would kick me awake barely fifteen minutes later full of panic and fear. I’m in my mid forties now, and this is still a problem for me.

There’s one particular incident I need to tell you about. It’s hard for me to talk about, but highly relevant. The one biggest mystery of my childhood I could never unravel. I was in a Canadian hospital around age ten, having immigrated to Canada three years before. Diagnosed with a retractile testicle, I had just had successful surgery to the affected body part and was spending my first night scared and alone in a dark hospital room as I recovered.

Remember how I said I’ve never been able to sleep on my back? Well, it was a problem that day, too. But I had to conquer it, because I had too much pain in my groin area to sleep any other way. And so, I just lay there until I finally went to sleep.

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At some point in the night, a nurse came into my hospital room to give me a needle, waking me up to ask me to roll onto my side so she could give me the shot. I remember what came next with all the vividness of anything else I’ve experienced before or since. When I woke up, within a split second, my lizard brain saw the needle and told me a few key things:

Not at home. Hospital. No parents. Nurse. Needle. Pain in groin. Fight! RUN!

I have no words for the depth of the terror that was running through my body once these thoughts came into my head. I have never experienced, to my recollection, that level of fear before or since. It was right out of the most primitive part of my brain. I remember everything from that night, but had control over nothing. My body was on autopilot, fighting the nurse with everything I had in me, and I had a lot in me despite where I was and the reason I was there.

Another nurse came. The two of them couldn’t handle ten-year-old me. They tried in vain to soothe me, calm me down, but there was no reasoning with a part of my mind over which I had no control. I dragged them both out of my room and into the hall, trying to get away. A third nurse arrived. At long last, the three of them were able to restrain me enough to give me the shot, which felt like nothing at all, and I eventually calmed down enough to go back to bed. From then on, they were able to give me my shots without a fight, because I had finally seen it was safe.

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But from where had that bottomless well of pure terror come from? I wouldn’t figure it out for years. I would remember the incident and wonder for decades, but never know why. Over time, my curiosity dulled and the significance of that night faded away among thousands of other memories created before and since.

The first time I heard anything about circumcision, it was a passing comment about it being a Jewish tradition. I remember thinking, “Okay, then, I don’t have to worry about it. I’m Christian, not Jewish, so it doesn’t apply to me.” It slipped out of mind, and I kept on living. Well, if you can call not being able to talk to strangers “living,” that is.

My twenties came, and with those years a sense of not having any idea of what I was going to do with my life. Still unable to talk to people, I found myself on welfare quickly while I blew every job interview I ever tried. I made some progress with the anxiety disorder when I got into computer programming school where I learned how to make friends from an awesome guy named Dave.

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One day, I sat down to watch TV. I was a massive fan of Penn & Teller, and they had a show running dedicated to debunking popular myths. This particular episode was about circumcision. I started the show only with the knowledge that it involved cutting something off, and with a conviction that cutting things off of people was wrong to do to someone who could not consent. But even so, I still didn’t think it was a big deal. After all, I was intact, wasn’t I? Everything worked, didn’t it?

After twenty or so minutes of that TV show, with me feeling an increasing sense of unease since it started, they showed a brief clip of an actual circumcision. Something in my mind snapped. I don’t remember much after that part except for a voice in my head yelling, “This doesn’t apply to you! You’re intact! Don’t you dare check, you’re fine!” And then I forgot all about it.

Let’s fast forward now. Twelve years, with me not thinking about circumcision a single time. Not one time. It never came up in conversation or anywhere else that I remember in that time. I was just about to celebrate my forty-third birthday, and, having made a ton of progress (at last) on my social anxiety disorder, I was considering getting into the dating game for the very first time.

Like a goof, I got bored one day and started to revisit the old Penn & Teller show, starting a marathon I was sure would last days. That episode came back to my eyeballs, because of course it did. This time, my mind reacted differently. The little voice in my head came back and repeated like a mantra: “I don’t think I’m circumcised. I don’t think I’m circumcised. I don’t think I’m circumcised.” And then, “Wait… am I circumcised? Nobody ever told me, but what if I am? What if that little voice is denial?”

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I put the episode on pause, went over to the bed, took a look, and… the room spun around me. That faint line right there was a scar. Worse, I realized I no longer had much feeling left anywhere in the appendage. How could this have happened to me without me knowing? Without being able to feel anything, would I ever be able to make a woman happy? I’d just made so much progress on my mental health, and one simple truth about myself was now threatening to undo all that progress. Feeling like a complete fool, I spent the rest of the day crying.

The sadness didn’t last long. It did pass eventually. Something else replaced it: pure, concentrated rage. Rage to a level I had never felt before, even for the preschool assistant who hit me that one time… the kind of rage that made me want to go break something expensive, like a doctor’s face. I wanted to crush, kill, destroy. And because I am physically a giant of a man, all three were very possible if I didn’t do something about this rage.

It knew no bounds or reason, what I was feeling. In those early days, the doctor was on the end of half of it, the other half went to my parents. I fought as hard as I could to put a lid on it until I could get the real story from my parents. Somehow, I knew they’d never do something like this to me without one hell of a good reason. They simply are not the kind of people who just do things like this.

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And so I waited, biding my time until the rage declined enough to go talk to the folks. Until then, I used the emotional control I developed from years of bullying in school to hide what I was feeling. But life can be especially cruel, sometimes. My niece gave birth to a boy while I was wrestling with my rage and grief. I learned I was a grand uncle in the same conversation I learned that he had been circumcised, too. The “C” word was dropped right in there casually by my mother. No big deal. I felt like I’d just been hit by lightning.

Oh boy, did the rage beast roar inside my head that day! I barely held my composure, but somehow that day passed without me doing or saying something regrettable. I knew I could no longer put off talking to my parents, so the next time I was able to get a handle on what I was feeling, I went to talk to them.

First and only question from my lips: Why? I wanted to blow the roof off the house with that one word shouted at a thousand decibels, but held my anger in check and moderated my tone. The answer came, and that was the day my rage redirected fully at the doctor, and my parents were immediately forgiven. In 1973, it was just what was done and the doctor had pushed it like a life-or-death surgery. I needed this surgery to live. It’s going to get infected. Do it now. Do it now. Do it NOW. He could die.

So… they gave their consent. I was early, remember, and my parents were fresh off the memory of one of their nephews dying at birth. They were scared, and doctors know best, don’t they? But then they regretted it, deciding to never do it again. My younger sisters, had they been born male, would have been able to keep their whole bodies. They had also tried to talk my niece and her boyfriend out of doing it to their newborn son.

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Since then, some time has passed and I have been restoring my birthright through stretching exercises. These will never give me back everything that was so casually chopped off in the name of a doctor’s paycheck, but should help the mental side of things. I have regained all of my age 20 sensitivity and then some. You’d think that would make me less angry, and it likely will in time, but as of right now I am reminded of what happened to me every single time I look at the scar. Sometimes I feel like restoration is sticking it to the monster that did this to me; other times I get so incandescent with rage I have to stop for the day. Sometimes I even wish I were born female, so I could have my whole body. But I think it will get better in time.

Even so, I want to make it perfectly clear where I stand, even if you don’t believe a word of my own story. Consent and bodily autonomy have always been important to me. I was brought up Christian, to respect the rights of other people. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

We tell our children to be careful. Don’t take candy from strangers. That’s your private area, nobody should ever touch you there. Don’t get in that van, he isn’t looking to show you his new puppy. And yet, what was my first life lesson? “Your body isn’t actually yours. Your private parts are broken, you need fixing. Your body is here to make this doctor money, nothing more. You won’t remember anyway, so it doesn’t even matter what we cut off of you right now. Your future opinion... just doesn’t matter.”

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A profound sense of loss will always be with me. I consider my circumcision fully responsible for causing my anxiety disorder, but it is not wholly responsible for its severity. A psychopath daycare assistant I once met deserves some blame there, too. My loss of sensitivity after age 40 is an emphatic fact which cannot be argued. And yet I still think I got off lucky compared to those who had even more penile skin taken, or worse. Some lose the whole body part. Some get infected during the butchering. Some infants die from this routine cosmetic procedure. Most baffling to me: some get it done outside a medical setting by people with no medical training at all. It is as blatant a human rights violation as any other I can think of, and yet it’s done thousands of times a day almost unopposed in the U.S. and Canada.

At the very least, you can rest assured that I will never do unto others that which has been done to me. Nobody deserves such casual, flippant disregard of his or her right to a whole body.

The cutting cycle stops with me.