The Unkindest Cut

My daughter, who is six, has an eye infection. Unlike other eye infections she’s had, this one is under her upper eye-lid. The doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics for her and she’ll be grand in a few days. It never occurred to me to ask to have her eye-lid sliced off. That would be beyond barbaric, and totally unnecessary, right?

Yet, millions of parents throughout the world choose to have an equally barbaric and unnecessary procedure performed on their children – circumcision.  Specifically, male infant circumcision – a procedure that removes a piece of skin, one of whose functions is to protect the organ beneath it. In much the same way as an eye-lid protects and lubricates the organ beneath it.

For some reason, while many people are appalled by the notion of female genital mutilation, its male counterpart raises not nearly as many eyebrows. Circumcision is routinely carried out on millions of little boys worldwide and it truly is the unkindest cut. Unkind not just because it is medically unnecessary in the vast majority of cases, but also because it ‘removes one-third to one-half of the skin on the penile shaft,’  according to Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. ‘The average circumcision cuts off what would grow into about 12 square inches of sexually sensitive skin.’ According to Canadian pathologist John Taylor, M.B., the foreskin is one of the key erogenous zones of the male body. Its 240 feet of nerves and 1,000 nerve endings are similar to those on the fingers and lips.

Douglas MacArthur, a 55-year-old  who was circumcised as an adult has this to say about his pre- and post- circumcision sexual experiences: ‘Sex before circumcision was like driving a luxury car with automatic transmission,’ he explains. ‘I used to just glide along. Sex now is like driving a tiny, powerless compact with a manual transmission. It takes a lot of work to get anywhere. My penis has lost 90 percent of its sensitivity.’

Some people use religion – whether it’s Judaism or Islam – as an argument for circumcision. That argument makes my head spin. Mutilating the genitals of a baby or young boy on religious grounds would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If we take that argument apart, what it says is ‘I believe in God. I believe in God as a supreme being who never makes a mistake. Yet I believe that I know better than God how a male human body should be constructed.’ Wow. That’s some powerful arrogance.

As it happens, neither Judaism nor Islam prescribes circumcision. If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself here and here. Circumcision is not even mentioned in the Qura’an and both religions expressly forbid disfiguring the body. Can anyone honestly say that mutilating a penis is not disfiguring it?

No medical argument for routine circumcision is valid, either. There have been plenty of them, mind you, and all of them equally bizarre; from the notion that circumcising black men would prevent them raping white women to the belief that it cures all manner of ailments from epilepsy to mental illness. In the 1940s, circumcision of males was recommended to eliminate sensitivity of the penis and prevent boys and men from masturbating!

Some doctors have had the balls – if you’ll pardon the dreadful pun that I should have been able to resist – to recant their early espousal of circumcision. Most notably, Dr Benjamin Spock now holds the position that ‘My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone.’

I’m not saying that circumcision is never medically necessary; congenital phimosis – a condition where the foreskin cannot be fully retracted from the head of the penis – is not always treatable by measures other than circumcision. It’s a rare occurrence though, and to remove a foreskin prophalactically is akin to removing the breast buds of a newborn girl in order to prevent her from getting breast cancer.

Some advocates of MGM say that babies don’t feel pain and that they don’t remember the procedure, in order to justify the fact that day old babies are subjected to this brutal abuse which is usually performed without anaesthetic (a graphic account of what exactly happens to these baby boys can be found here). Those babies are  screaming in agony – making an absolute mockery of Hippocrates’s  primum non nocere (first do no harm). And I find it an insult to my intelligence to suggest that such a traumatic experience does not imprint itself on the brain of a young baby. Think, for a moment, how awful it must be to have your first sexual experience such a sadistic one.

So, who benefits from routine male genital mutilation? Not the boys and men it’s done to, that’s for sure. Not their sexual partners, either. At the risk of sounding cynical, only those who are paid to carry out the procedure benefit. Oh! And the manufacturers of lubricants, gels and ointments that there would be no need for if penises were left intact.

Contrary to what circumcised men will try to tell you – their penises are not more sensitive than their uncut brothers’; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. A penis without the protection of a foreskin needs to toughen up, which results in diminished sensitivity. At the risk of imparting too much information, I can tell you that men who are circumcised tend to use their penises as pestles (because they need to pound more in order to orgasm). Also, as far as foreplay is concerned, there’s a huge amount more you can do with a complete penis. A huge amount.

My basic point is this: I believe – passionately – in genital integrity. That is the principle that all human beings—whether male, female or intersexed—have a right to the genitalia they were born with.  If an adult decides they would like to chop off a perfectly functioning and important part of their anatomy and they can find a doctor to oblige – then fair play to them. But it is not fair to do the same to a defenceless baby.

(Thanks to  @janetravers, @Chadwickauthor and @Danoosha for our conversation on Twitter this morning which prompted this post)


Baby Dearest

This is my second attempt at #Fridayflash. My own feeling is that there is still something lacking in this – but I was so keen to continue being part of the ‘gang’, that I was eager to post anyway. As John Connolly said recently ‘part of the joy of writing is getting it nearly right, so you can do better next time.’

Anyway, here it is – I appreciate the time you’re taking to read it:

I don’t love you. I know I have responsibilities towards you and I carry them out with impeccable attention to detail. But it’s performed, with complete detachment and dispassion.

Is it terrible of me to wish that you had never been born? I resent that you have arrived and taken over my life. Tom gets to go to work – to escape. I don’t. I’m stuck here with you. Just the two of us. All day every day.

What have I become that the highlight of my existence is going to the supermarket? In fact, it’s more than that; going to the supermarket is an achievement. I have to have us both up and dressed appropriately for the weather. Then, I have to make sure I’ve got all the paraphernalia with me – nappies, wipes, a spare set of clothes, a clean bottle, cooled boiled water and the formula. Oh! I tried to breastfeed. It was a bloody nightmare. The nurses in the hospital didn’t know one end of a tit from the other. And they kept scaring me by telling me that you were starving to death while I was busy trying to get it right. It was a relief to give it up.

Inevitably, I forget to pick something up in the supermarket. Even if it’s on my shopping list. This makes me feel like a failure and can reduce me to tears. I am used to being competent, in control, capable. I am used to being looked up to as a remarkable woman with drive and ambition. Now, I can’t manage to get the grocery shopping done.

I have become a frightened person. A wave of fear washes over me when Tom leaves for work in the morning. I am afraid something will happen that I won’t be able to cope with. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the day that yawns ahead of me. I know it’s ridiculous. That’s why I can’t tell him. What would he think of me if I told him I was engulfed by fear every time he walks out the door?

I turn on the cooker to heat some soup for my lunch, and the image of me sitting you on the hotplate flashes through my mind – terrifying me. I know I wouldn’t do it, but the fact that I can see myself doing it means that I might, doesn’t it? I put you in another room before I turn the cooker on, in case I’m tempted. I’m afraid to tell anyone in case they take you away from me. Isn’t that farcical? I don’t want you, but I don’t want you to be taken from me.

Have I lost myself? If I have, where have I gone? Will I ever come back? When I return to work, will I be able to do my job?

Maybe it would be different if you were pretty. I can’t quite understand why you’re not. There is no one in my family or your father’s who looks like ET. Yet you do. Look at you – a big fat head on your long, wobbly neck. You’re supposed to be a little girl, yet anything less feminine I have never seen in my life. You’re all blubbery limbs with no hair and muddy brown eyes.

‘Oh! She’s so beautiful!’ strangers exclaim. I look at them like they’re nuts. Do they think that I don’t have eyes in my head? Do they think that I can’t see how un-beautiful you are? I suppose no one is going to come right out and say ‘Here, Missus – your kid is dog-ugly’ but they could say things like……… well, I don’t know. They could comment on how happy you are or something.

‘Is she good for you?’ they ask. It’s a stupid question, but I know what they mean. They mean ‘Does she disrupt your life as little as possible?’ So my answer, almost grudgingly, is ‘yes’. You’re probably a dream baby. That, too, terrifies me. I remember hearing how babies who die of  SIDS are ‘mail order’ babies. What would I do if I woke up one morning and you didn’t?

Tom gets in from work and scoops you up into his strong, capable arms. He coos at you and tells you he’s missed you. He asks me for updates. I tell him that you spend much of the day sleeping, a good part of it feeding and some part of it shitting.

Tom is a marvellous man – which is why I can’t tell him that I don’t love you. You’re his child as well, and Tom deserves to have his child loved by the mother of his child. I am filled with sorrow at my further failure – this inability to love Tom’s child. Sometimes I think the two of you would be better off without me. Tom could remarry. She – his second wife – would be vivacious, witty, sexy and a great mother to you. Maybe your new mother would even give you siblings.

Some days I think about leaving you and driving into the sea. I am filled with a jittery feeling that is edged with power. I know I am capable of it. Then I think of Tom and I know I probably won’t. I love him too much to hurt him.

I feel sorry for you because you have done nothing wrong and yet you don’t have the love of your mother. I know you’re entitled to it, but I can’t give it to you. That adds to my resentment. It’s like, by your very existence, you are pointing out a glaring failure on my part.

Maybe you’ll grow on me. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and adore you. I hope so. I suppose, for now, it’s enough that I’m doing my best for you. Even though it’s my perfunctory – rather than my heartfelt – best.


#FridayFlash – ‘Frank’s Legacy’

This is my first attempt at #Friday Flash – an initiative which encourages writers to post their fiction for others to read and comment on. I have been meaning to do it for about a month now and have realised that if I don’t just take the plunge today, I may never do so!

I hope you enjoy reading the piece and if you feel like leaving a little comment, I’d be delighted.

Frank’s Legacy

Siobhán has always remembered the first time she saw her mother cry. She was about three and it must have been winter because there was a fire going in the kitchen.

She remembers looking up in alarm at the raised pitch and the snuffly sounds that her mammy was making. She remembers, too, looking in astonishment as Josie reached for the yellow and white tea-towel that hung on the back of the chair to dry her eyes with.

Siobhán was astonished because, to the best of her knowledge, mammies didn’t cry. Only little girls like Siobhán cried. Brian, who would have been about six, wouldn’t look at Mammy. He was opposite Siobhán on the rug in front of the fire. His face wore a mixture of embarrassment and guilt as his eyes warned Siobhán not to be looking at Mammy. Although it didn’t register with her at the time, Siobhán knew, from the look on Brian’s face, that he had seen Mammy crying before.

Siobhán doesn’t remember what happened after that. She thinks her daddy was shouting, and he probably was because Frank Flaherty always seemed to be shouting at someone for something. Or nothing.

Frank was a difficult man. He’d grown up in the Curragh. That flat, flat place in the middle of nowhere where fine racehorses were bred for rich Sheikhs. Apart from stud farms, the Curragh was famous for two things – sheep and soldiers. Naturally, this gave rise to plenty of crude jokes. And Frank Flaherty was a crude, cruel man both in his speech and his manner.

Frank’s wife and children all thought they loved him. They didn’t. They were terrified of him. It would be years before they figured that out, though.

Now, twenty-six years after that first time, Siobhán listened again to her mother crying. She was equally bewildered by it this time as she had been that first time – even though she wasn’t in the same room watching in amazement as the tears coursed down Josie’s face.

Siobhán felt impatience bubble up inside her, but managed to quell it before it frothed up her throat, out her mouth and down the phone-line.

‘Mam,’ she said quietly. ‘Why are you crying? Surely you’re not grieving for him?’

‘No,’ Josie answered, her voice thick with tears. ‘I think it must be the shock. You know – even though I had a barring order, I used to worry that he’d come back and cause trouble for me – for us, I mean.’ Josie amended her statement quickly. ‘Now he’s gone. I suppose I’m just relieved.’

‘Are you going to the funeral?’ Siobhán enquired.

‘I don’t know,’ her mother answered, struggling to get her tears under control. ‘Do you think I should?’

Siobhán gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes.

‘It’s up to you, Mam. It’s whatever you want to do that matters.’

‘I suppose I’ll be expected to,’ Josie continued as though her daughter had never spoken.

Doing her best to be gentle, Siobhán tried again.

‘Mam, it’s up to you. Do you what you want to do – not what you think you should.’ Even as she spoke the words, she knew they were wasted on her mother. Josie spent her life trying to figure out what other people expected of her and then trying to fulfil their expectations.

‘Are you going?’ Josie asked.

‘Absolutely not!’

‘Well, that’s a matter for yourself,’ Josie sniffed, her tears finally under control.

‘I don’t see the point in my going to be honest.’

‘Yes, you were always honest, Siobhán,’ her mother’s tone was snitty.

‘Even if you didn’t always believe me,’ Siobhán screamed at her silently.

Five minutes later, the two women had finished their conversation. Siobhán went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of red wine. If she’d had champagne, she’d have opened that instead. Siobhán thought about her old man. Then she tried to stop. She was done with that, done with remembering his foul mouth, his rudeness, his brutality.

In the living room, Siobhán sat on the floor, her back against the cream-coloured sofa. She clicked on the television and Oprah at her incredulous best filled the room. Siobhán sipped her wine. It was warm and slightly peppery. Frank, she remembered, had been a Pioneer. That peculiar breed of Irish teetotaller who offers up their abstinence as penance for the sins of those who drank. Siobhán snorted out loud at the hypocrisy. Damn! She cursed herself. What was she doing thinking about him? Quickly, she tried to change the topic in her head, tried to drag her awareness back to Oprah.

But it was no good. Even after all this time, she could still hear the way his breath whistled down the nose he’d broken when he was sixteen, and which had never set properly. She could smell the stink of stale cigarettes that came off him, off his clothes, off his hands, off the fuggy air around him. Major. That had been his brand. A real hard man’s cigarette.

She could hear his voice, issuing commands, reminding his children that they were his slaves and they existed purely to do his bidding. Rebellion was dealt with swiftly and absolutely. The rebel would think long and hard before trying to stand up for him – or her – self again. ‘Defying’ as Frank called it.

Then, there came a day when Frank’s abuse could no longer be hidden. The head nun at school called the parish priest. He called the Gardaí. They called a social worker. People were in and out of the house. Josie cried. Frank swore and shouted. Siobhán felt as though her insides were frozen solid.

‘So this is what it feels like to be dead,’ she thought.

Except she knew she wasn’t dead because there was life inside her.

She was fifteen.

‘You broke up this family – and don’t you ever forget it,’ Josie had yelled in her face, her Kildare accent softening her ‘ts’ so that is sounded like ‘forgesh ish’.

Siobhán liked to think she had forgiven her mother, but she knew she would never forget.

For years, Siobhán had thought about this day. Waited for it. Imagined herself going back to Ireland and standing up at the funeral to deliver his eulogy. Except that hers would be a eulogy with a difference. It would be honest. She would speak the truth about Frank. The truth they all knew, the truth that most of them denied. After a while, she’d decided against going back for the funeral at all. Frank had been dead to her for a long, long time and going home to watch him be lowered into a hole in the ground wasn’t worth the airfare. Not even on Ryanair.

The phone rang. It was her brother, Rory.

‘Have you heard?’

‘I have.’

‘You going to the funeral?’

‘No. Are you?’

‘Am I fuck!’

There was a slight pause before Rory spoke again.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Of course I am,’ Siobhán replied as light-heartedly as she could.

‘How’s Seán? And the Big Fella?’

‘Grand. They’re both fine, thanks. How’s Fiona?’

‘Yeah. She’s fine.’

‘Good. Tell her I was asking for her.’

‘Will do.’

Another pause. Broken again by Rory.

‘Right. Well, I’ll let you go, so.’

‘Okay. Thanks for ringing.’

The clock in the kitchen declared the hour with an electronic pip. Siobhán started to think about what to do for the dinner. Seán would be in from football practice any minute. She decided to wait and ask him what he wanted. At fourteen, he was getting finicky about what he would and wouldn’t eat.

The phone rang again. Siobhán groaned and wondered which of her siblings it was this time. It was none of them. It was Michael. He sounded tired as he told her that it would be another hour before he was home and suggested that they eat without him. She didn’t tell him that Frank was dead. There was no point. Not until he got home anyway.

She smiled as she remembered the night, eight years previously, when she had bumped – almost literally – into Michael. She had been startled and had gasped in fear. He had thought it was because he was Black. It took a while before he realised it was because he was a man. They worked at the same hospital and saw a lot of each other at work. Eventually, Michael had persuaded her to see him outside of work. Over the months that followed, she’d told him about herself. About Seán. He had accepted her and her son without reservation. Siobhán could no longer imagine life without him. She smiled as the thought of him warmed her more than the wine had.

The door opened and Seán clumped in. Siobhán looked at him and her heart swelled. She was so proud of him. He was bright and his kindness and good humour ensured that he was popular. Siobhán knew she was biased, but she thought he was gorgeous; green-eyes and skin tanned from the amount of time he spent outdoors. Most striking, though, was his copper-coloured hair. The same colour as her own. The same colour as her father’s. The same colour as his father’s.