Columnists > Judgment Calls

The real me

Self-obsessed madness is becoming more and more extreme

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

These days, anyone who says "nothing can shock me" is asking for it; a recent Atlantic Monthly article might test the shock meter of the most jaded world observer. "A New Way to Be Mad," by Carl Elliott, explores the world of "apotemnophilia," or the desire to have one's own limbs amputated. In most cases the pathology doesn't progress beyond an obsession with the idea of being an amputee, but some outwardly healthy individuals have actually followed through on it, via black-market providers, renegade surgeons, or homemade guillotines.

Since professional documentation is scarce, many psychiatrists and psychologists have never heard of apotemnophilia, but the Internet provides plenty of anecdotal evidence. In various websites and chat rooms, apotemnophiles (informally known as "wannabes") sell photographs of amputees, review books and movies on the subject, share recollections and stories and deep longings-chiefly for the kind of "completeness" to be found only by severing.

The understandable reaction to such a mindset is revulsion: Why would anyone, sick or whole, desire to do without a hand or a leg? What sort of self-hatred would lead an otherwise sound individual to willingly do away with any part of his body? Though apotemnophilia is classified as a psychosexual disorder, Mr. Elliott discovered that the driving force is not primarily sexual. Over and over, in personal testimony and conversation, one theme emerged: an image of the self that clashed with objective fact. The typical wannabe just didn't feel "right" with both legs or a full complement of fingers. The unwanted limbs were seen as alien to the person he or she truly was.

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Voluntary amputation will probably never hit the mainstream: More likely it will remain a remote island in cyberspace where relatively few pilgrims make their way. But at its heart the condition is similar to transgenderism and such eating disorders as anorexia and bulimia, all of which were unheard-of 50 years ago. All are driven by a profound dissatisfaction with what one sees in the mirror. "I know I look like a woman, but I've always felt like a man." "It doesn't matter what the bathroom scale says-I'm fat!" The "real me" is trapped within an uncooperative body. Happiness is impossible without the operation or the purge. Becoming whole, at least in one's own mind, requires making the self less.

But such people are only acting out, within their own bodies, what society has practiced for the last couple of generations. Once we perceive (through the illusion of technology) that we no longer need each other, we begin severing: Abort the child, dump the spouse, lop off all attachments except those which we freely choose. Self-image pops up again and again as a justification: "I just don't see myself as a mother right now"; "I can't be fully myself as long as I'm tied down to her"; "I'll never reach my potential unless I break our agreement."

All these new ways to be mad are variations, more and more extreme, of the oldest way of all-going back to the garden, when Adam and Eve first perceived themselves as being like God. Ever since then the world has been a vast lunatic asylum, with inmates operating according to a distorted vision of themselves. That's the pathological description of madness, and it's never been so obvious as it is today. The self-obsessed body builder, though more socially acceptable, is no healthier than the wannabe who envisions himself without arms. Both have limited themselves to interior walls, where the horizon is foreshortened and the only distraction is rearranging furniture. As the walls close in, a few of us turn on our own bodies, but most are content to slowly eat away the soul.

The antidote to this poison is an escape from the prison of self-image altogether. The "real me" is a mystery I can't solve. And praise God for that, for who knows down what twisted paths that search would lead me? The saints of God share one attribute (see Hebrews 11): Their eyes are turned outward, not in. Their expanded vision makes them more, not less. Rather than master of a small, distorted domain they become citizens of a limitless kingdom-and ultimately know themselves as truly and fully they are known.

Who am I? What a relief to say that I don't really know. At some time in the past I died, and my resurrected life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is my life, appears, I shall appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). Knowing my Redeemer, I can wait to know the real me.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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