Sunday, 4 February 2007


I've been fretting about an article I read a few days ago, written by a woman with something now known as body identity integrity disorder (BIID). This is apparently short-hand, if that isn't too loaded a term, for the overwhelming and obsessive need to amputate a healthy limb in order to feel 'whole'.

Susan Smith, the name given the woman, has already managed to 'kill' a leg and have it surgically removed, with the complicity of her husband, long-suffering as she is. I don't want to attack the woman in question, who clearly has sufficient problems of her own to address, but I'm disturbed by the conviction she holds that she has somehow been denied her right to a normal life by the medical establishment's refusal to amputate her legs for no good reason.

The arguments she uses aren't really arguments at all. She works by analogy. "A hundred years ago, it was taboo to be gay in many societies, and 50 years ago the idea of transsexuals was abhorrent to most." She might as well have said that five hundred years ago tomatoes were considered poisonous and women with third nipples were drowned as witches. What she means, of course, is that she can't have what she wants and these two categories, gays and transsexuals, can. And it isn't fair. She hates her legs and she wants them amputated and her need, no doubt sincerely felt, has been defined as a syndrome, which makes it objective and transactional in the market place of human rights, so why can't she have them cut off?

But she's optimistic:

I think BIID will stay taboo until people get together and bring it out. I have tried to make the condition more understood but it is difficult to get a case out in the open by yourself. My psychiatrist went to a meeting last year in Paris, and many doctors there told her that they had operated on people who needed an amputation under mysterious circumstances, and how happy the person was when they woke up. It led them to believe that perhaps BIID is more prevalent than people think.


Vanessa G said...

Thank you for posting this most wierd story, Charles.

It made me shiver.

I'm mulling whether this extraordinary 'syndrome' is the product of a mix of attention-seeking and a deep need to be dependent on others.

Why on earth go to the media with the story if it is not in part attention seeking?

What's next to go? The other leg. Then what? Right arm first, or left? Then...the mind boggles.

And they say the NHS is strapped for cash.

I give up. No wonder you moved to Italy.

However.... as fodder for short story writers, this has to be the best I've read recently.



Charles Lambert said...

I think it's chilling, above all for its slightly piqued tone. A friend of mine suggested the woman's next amputation should be at the neck and I couldn't help smiling.

I think you're right about the idea of dependence. She certainly doesn't seem worried that her children might suffer as a result of having a legless mother.

Material for a short story? Hmm. After writing about a man who dies after being taken over by a numerate parasitic worm, I think I'll stick to slightly less bizarre scenarios for a while. It's all yours, Vanessa!