Capitalism & Spirituality, Part 2

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Tue Jan 2 20:10:24 MST 2001

Wall Street Journal - December 28, 2000

'Intactivists' Seek to Undo
A Long-Practiced Ritual


CONCORD, Calif. -- For over a century, in the belief that nature can
be improved upon, Americans have circumcised their baby boys. Today,
the value of circumcision as a health measure is in doubt in some
quarters at a time when face lifts, tummy tucks and breast implants
have lost their ability to shock us.

Should it come as any surprise, then, that some men would try to
regain what circumcision took away?

"If you're willing to walk around with a pin through your tongue,"
says R. Wayne Griffiths, one of the principal founders of the
foreskin-restoration movement, "this is not absurd at all."

It is Sunday morning, and Mr. Griffiths is driving to church. His
car's license plate reads "NORM.ORG," ( Web site of the
National Organization of Restoring Men, the fraternity he formed in
1989. Mr. Griffiths is 67 years old and works at a local sanitation
district. He has white hair, a brush moustache, a voice like a creaky
gate, and three matched pens in his shirt pocket. He's a Mormon.

At church, he greets the bishop and takes a pew with his sister and
brother-in-law. He joins in the opening hymn: "As I search the holy
scriptures, may thy mercy be revealed. Soothe my troubled heart and
spirit; may my unseen wounds be healed." He closes his eyes and
prays. And during a baby blessing, when a mother sheds a tear, he
leans over and whispers, "Sometimes you get emotional with children."

Mr. Griffiths was married for 30 years before he got divorced. He has
had six children; he has 21 grandchildren. That might be reason
enough to get emotional about them, and about their unseen wounds. On
the way home from church, driving past Pixi Land amusement park, he
says, "Do you realize that the first sexual experience you ever had
was also the worst trauma you've ever experienced? Maybe that went to
the back of your mind and stayed there, just maybe."

He parks outside a complex of tree-shaded apartments; his own is on
the second floor, an American flag flying from its balcony. Inside,
file boxes fill a small front room. Family snapshots cover the top of
an upright piano. Above the couch hang four artful pictures of naked
couples, clipped from a magazine and framed. The men in the pictures
are all "intact" -- uncircumcised. Taking his Book of Mormon from a
shelf, Mr. Griffiths reads: "Wherefore, little children are whole,
for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of
Adam is taken from them in me and ... the law of circumcision is done
away in me."

As Mr. Griffiths sees it, circumcision falls morally into the same
category as abortion: Don't unless you must. Nothing beyond the
fringe in that. Jews circumcise their boys to signify a covenant with
God; Mormons don't, nor do many other Christians. Circumcision may
still be the surgery performed most frequently in the U.S., but in
other countries, far from it. And although many American doctors
still insist it reduces urinary infections and a rare form of cancer,
among other things, the practice is on the decline. Health
authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, no longer
deem routine circumcision of baby boys a medical necessity.

That said, grown-up boys who try to undo their own circumcisions
might well be deemed beyond the fringe, if not around the bend. Yet,
in the multifarious firmament of lonely causes, foreskin restoration
shines out as the purest Americana. In a new book on circumcision,
David Gollaher, president of the California Healthcare Institute,
calls it "the kind of enterprise that draws together far-flung
individuals who share a narrow preoccupation." But they also share
that overarching American belief that anyone can right any wrong.

Of that, Wayne Griffiths is living proof. Religion didn't save him
from an unkind cut, so he healed himself. It was no quick fix; he
abhors scalpels. Instead, he adapted the standard tools of epidermal
expansion to his anatomical circumstances: With surgical tape and
weights, he stretched what he had left. Pacing himself between
periods of rest and steady pressure, it took years. Along the way, he
has helped thousands of men attempt the same, and put up with a
quantity of ridicule. Mr. Griffiths' penile personal portraits have
appeared in Bennetton's magazine (next to a facelift device and an
artificial ear) as well as the British Journal of Sexual Medicine.

"Finally, a year or so ago," he says, "I was there." He rises from
his couch, and proudly unbuckles his belt.

Thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus, ancient Egypt had
already been circumcising its boys for millennia. Tribes in Africa,
the Americas, Australia and Indonesia had, too, just as some cut off
fingertips, pulled earlobes or yanked teeth. Circumcision, for Jews,
was an act of faith, but perhaps also a badge of affiliation. Islam
saw it as a means of moral purification. Freud called it a castration
substitute, other psychoanalysts a fertility symbol. In his studies,
Dr. Gollaher found "no theory" to fit "the myriad facts."

It was America, however, that lent circumcision its renown for
preventing disease on a mass scale. Beginning in the 1870s, it was
touted as a cure for ailments from hernia to imbecility. Before the
advent of antibiotics, public-health doctors presented it to parents
of newborns as vital to personal cleanliness and as a guard against
syphilis. By 1985, despite huge medical advances, 85% of baby boys in
America had their foreskins cut; 60% still do.

A Personal Journey

Mormonism never stopped the U.S. Army from circumcising Wayne
Griffiths' father, nor a San Francisco doctor from circumcising the
father's newborn son. But at age 12, Mr. Griffiths vividly remembers,
he went to a fathers-and-sons chicken banquet in the church hall. One
father, whose sons were intact, talked of circumcision and "how we
shouldn't do it," he recalls. "From that time on, I suppose, I had a
wonderment in my mind of what it would be like to be intact."

He didn't dwell on it. Life was moving quickly: junior college, four
years in the Navy, a sociology degree from Brigham Young University,
a year as a San Quentin guard, back to school for a masters degree in
criminology, four years in the Air Force, a masters in education, to
Oregon for the Teachers Corps, and to Georgia as an assistant
sociology professor at Armstrong State University.

At 21, in the Navy, he married. In 1956, his wife gave birth to twin
boys, one stillborn. Was the other to be circumcised?

"They brought the child to my wife," says Mr. Griffiths. "I went out
and walked in front of the hospital, thinking: Why am I doing this to
him? But I did do it -- out of fear the hospital would call me some
kind of pervert. I was in the military. I didn't want to jeopardize
my children or my marriage by doing something heinous."

With the birth of another boy three years later, he made the same
choice. "In the 1950s," he says, "you didn't tell doctors not to do
something. The power was theirs. You didn't buck it."

Yet he couldn't shake the idea. In 1971, his brother Keith went into
business as a construction consultant and asked him to come home to
join in. Fate had its cue. Keith and Mr. Griffiths' 17-year-old son,
Brett, died in a Piper Cub crash two years later. Mr. Griffiths'
marriage soon died, too. By 1981, he was alone in Concord, working
free-lance, seeing a therapist. "I felt diminished," he says. "You
might say I felt emasculated." And then, in a fluke reflecting modern
America's engines of social change, he watched a talk show.

A Pivotal Moment

Phil Donahue, that day in 1987, had as his guests a syndicated radio
doctor, Dean Edell, and a nurse named Marilyn Milos, both early and
impassioned "intactivists." With them was a man who had tried to have
a new foreskin surgically attached. "It was the first time I saw my
inner thoughts expressed by someone else," says Mr. Griffiths. He
called Ms. Milos, who sent him the name of a New Orleans dentist, who
referred him to a Seattle engineer who was toying with nonsurgical
foreskin restoration, using tape.

Mr. Griffiths went for it -- and went a step further. He phoned
Bearing Engineering in Emeryville, Calif., purchased a set of
stainless-steel bearings, welded them together and created a
"tandem-bearing device." It looked like a barbell, two inches long.
Deploying tape and the bearings in a manner best described as
inspired, he achieved ideal tension for tissue expansion. It worked.
The patent is pending.

"To feel whole again, that was the motive for me," Mr. Griffiths
says. "Everyone should feel good about their body. I wanted something
more -- to have what might have been. I really felt I wanted to be
covered, and I am. That's happened."

The accuracy of this claim, as Wayne Griffiths buckles up his belt,
is hereby confirmed.

In the 1980s, a grass-roots attack on circumcision was gaining
ground. Medical arguments aside, opponents compared it with genital
mutilation of girls by other cultures. In the midst of his personal
toils, Mr. Griffiths went to anticircumcision events and, at one, he
met a man named Tim Hammond, who turned out to be absorbed in the
same isolated pursuit. Swapping notes, they agreed it would be nice
to start a support group -- and the foreskin-restoration movement was

To announce a first meeting, in February of 1990, the two took out
ads in San Francisco's alternative press; if guys are squeamish about
discussing their privates in public, they thought, gay guys might be
less so. Two dozen men showed up that first time. Then 60. Meetings
moved from apartments to a church. The gay-straight mix of the
participants soon mirrored those of males in general.

In 1992, Jim Bigelow, a psychologist who had also seen the Donahue
show, published a book called "The Joy of Uncircumcising." In its
third printing today, it has sold 18,000 copies. While Mr. Hammond
resumed the circumcision fight, Mr. Griffiths built NORM, his
organization, into a network. It now has 27 U.S. chapters, plus five
overseas. The Web, at last count, had 16 foreskin-restoration sites.

A popular fervor for human rights, frankly, didn't spark this
response. Sex did. The natural foreskin is ingrained with nerves,
like any erogenous zone. In the past, some justified clipping it off
to suppress sexuality. Whether that works, or works the opposite way,
is an unanswered question. Mr. Griffiths and his friends promise that
restoration heightens sensitivity. A number of them were circumcised
later in life and know those nerves never grow back; all they can
really promise is a faux skin. Yet Mr. Griffiths believes men seek
him out, deep down, for reasons less physical than psychological, and
maybe a little political.

"They come for personal reasons, and then they get enlightened about
the broader issue," he says. "It clicks immediately." When he takes
off his hard hat and comes home after a day inspecting sewerage
projects, Mr. Griffiths often finds 100 e-mails on his computer. He
tries to answer each one. "Many are angry at doctors and parents. I
tell them, if you start restoration, maybe you can do something with
that anger, something constructive."

Marilyn Milos, who has led circumcision protests for years, says this
about Wayne Griffiths and the foreskin restorers: "They are men
willing to declare: We've been wounded. It's affected our sexuality
and our minds, and we're doing something about it. And Wayne is
willing to lead that movement, writing long letters, week after week,
with the gentleness of a father."

"I applaud their courage," says Ms. Milos. "These aren't kooks.
They're just different from others backing the cause. I mean, wearing
weights on the end of their penises -- this isn't lobbying, is it?"

Meeting the Faithful

Another Sunday. Mr. Griffiths has skipped church to put in an
appearance at NORM's chapter in Los Angeles. Gary Harryman, who sells
home sites in Topanga Canyon, picks him up at the airport. Mr.
Harryman has been restoring for a few years. They drive to Culver
City, discussing raccoon traps, and park at a powder-blue cube where
support groups meet. Today's calendar also lists Survivors of Child
Abuse, Anger Release and Co-Dependents Anonymous.

A room of couches and soft chairs has filled with 25 men from their
late teens to early 70s. Mr. Harryman presents the guest of honor:
"This is our grand pere," he says.

"Happy to be here," says Mr. Griffiths. "Men all over the world want
to know what they can do to restore. We're happy to help."

In turn, the men give first names and, later, occupations: locksmith,
longshoreman, hairdresser, machinist, locomotive engineer, set
designer, film producer, dentist, doctor, college professor.

"I'm Vincent, and I've been restoring for three years, thanks in good
part to Wayne," says one. Bruce says, "I've been restoring for 28
months. I called you, Wayne. I remember our whole conversation." And
Bill: "I've been at it for two months. This is the first program of
personal growth where I've actually seen some personal growth!"

Everyone laughs, and then settles down for a two-hour session on
foreskin-stretching mechanics, aided by charts, plastic models and
exhibitions. A loud banging intrudes from somewhere; it sounds like
construction, but no one seems distracted. Mr. Griffiths talks of
Meissner's corpuscles and somatosensory receptors. And he says:

"You can restore if you want, but you can also educate others not to
circumcise their boys." That still isn't easy in America: Of Mr.
Griffiths' own 11 grandsons, five have been cut. "We need to make our
voices heard," he says. "All of us should do whatever we can that
feels comfortable. I'm not trying to get you to do anything wild."

When the meeting closes, Mr. Griffiths shakes hands all around,
listens to more personal stories, and finally heads for the airport.
The men stick around, discussing foreskin-restoration gear the way
some guys discuss fishing tackle. One of them, Richard Zerla,
circulates an album of his personal penile portraits.

"That banging next door, you hear it?" he says as the others flip
through it. "It's the anger-release group. They beat on pillows! You
can't imagine what people get up to on this earth."

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