Before I read his story, Seth Dombach was just a guy with a funny Twitter handle: @kloipy. Then I published “Guts,” his story of a lifetime of pain and starvation, in Cameron Conaway’s series, “What’s Your Fight?” He has Short Bowel Syndrome, a condition I was already familiar with, because my father-in-law suffered with it. Dombach also has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. My dear friend and old neighbor was disabled for years with IBS. Unlike Dombach, my father-in-law, and others with related conditions, my neighbor was not made thin by her disease. The same way we call a skinny person “anorexic” as synonymous with “extremely skinny,” there are so many conditions we think we know from the outside, we casual and untrained physicians, that we don’t mind diagnosing and prescribing from the sidelines. “That guy needs to go on a diet,” or “that lady needs to eat something,” brown teeth or a ruined nose equaling meth addiction, and so on. So smart we are from watching TV, police procedurals. But we don’t know. Not just don’t we know how a person came to look the way we do, but we don’t know how long they have suffered or the ways they have changed.
One of my neighbors (at least one) is a poet. I found this one neighbor-poet in front of my house this past summer. I couldn’t tell from looking at him that he was a poet (though he has a white, Hemingway-like beard). He was standing in front of my house, he told me, because he was adjusting after eye surgery. We fell into conversation, and along the wayI told him that I was an editor of The Good Men Project and described the Project to him. He was intrigued and we exchanged email addresses. The following week, he took me out for lunch in the dining hall of the nearby women’s college and we talked about politics and other subjects. Apart from the strangeness of how we met, what I remember most about that lunch is how we argued about circumcision.
I’d just published Chuck Ross’ article on neonatal circumcision, questioning why we still perform this as a standard practice. I came to my own “intactivist” conclusion more than 20 years ago. I learned about female circumcision at a summer job, before my high school senior year. Someone had requested articles on the subject through interlibrary loan, and we three staffers read them together in horrified amazement. None of us had ever heard of such a thing. After that, when it was published I read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, and my horror of genital mutilation was entrenched. I had a son and argued strenuously to keep him intact. I managed to preserve him, for the time, but when his doctor recommended it four years later, his father had it performed. By then he did not live with me. I went to his house that evening to see him, and he was limp from anesthesia in the way only small children who are very sick become. I was heartbroken. I’d failed to protect him.
But I did not share any of this with the poet. Instead, I precipitated his vigorous defense by callously using the phrase “genital mutilation” to describe male circumcision. He had been a lawyer in his working life, before retiring to write poetry, working with organizations that build infrastructure in developing nations. “Why should anyone who’s been circumised complain?” he asked, and said that the health benefits must outweigh any risks. He claimed that he was not missing anything. In between emails on the importance of compassion, mentorship, and nation building, he began sending me links to articles that supported his pro-circ argument.
I would see him on occasion from my office window, walking, and surmise from the timing of his walks that he was attending services at the synagogue around the corner from here. He peers in, in a way that I also cannot help but do when I pass the houses of people I know, hoping to catch a glimpse of activity, a human being who I recognize. I think he must be lonely. One weekend morning, he came to my door and brought me his poetry chapbook. I didn’t invite him inside. Despite all that I share about us both in my writing, my husband and I require a lot of privacy, and don’t like surprises. These are very typical traits of people with PTSD. Another invisible disease, and something else I didn’t tell him about myself.
When I was an observant Jew I felt that interfaith marriage was wrong, because the parties subject to a contract must both believe in its authority, but my position on genital cutting became ambivalent. There are things we are commanded to do by G-d, and we can’t know the reasons. Keeping kosher and practicing circumcision are two of these, despite the health arguments that are raised in their defense by believers in science. Medicine has simply replaced other systems of belief as the basis for argument, for and against.
In addition to my values around public health and the American brand of freedom, my beliefs about circumcision are also tempered by my experience as a person of faith. Freedom includes freedom to conform and belong as well as to refuse and to choose something else. Another cause for my continued ambivalence, is compassion for those who have already been cut. Whether someone has been cut by choice or by force or by more complicated factors, respect for one another’s personal sovereignty must also temper these conversations.
On email, my neighbor and I continue the conversation about circumcision. I admitted to him that he has taught me a lesson in approaching delicate subjects. That the words we use, matter. This encounter also reminds me that subjective experience is everything: our whole universes. Seth Dombach has suffered his entire life from his condition: he doesn’t know another way to be but to be missing parts of his guts and to suffer the painful symptoms that come from this lack. Some of us are highly sensitive: redheads, wine tasters, the traumatized, poets. Some of us are born with more nerve endings. Some have had a few thousand of the most sensitive of those nerve endings removed at birth. Some other things happen to us, and we make some choices. We love, and are lonely. We remain sensitive, retain a sensitivity to the wholeness of our subjective universes. Not only the poets. Even cavemen, as Tom Matlack says, have souls.
Image credit: Bruce Tuten/Flickr