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With 'Whole,' Twin Cities-based filmaker Melody Gilbert discovers less is more

The second he felt the bullet enter his body, George Boyer knew it was going to be a good day. Or maybe he had already known from the instant he woke up. On that early September morning in 1992, Boyer had risen to find the Florida sun suspending the world in amber; his neighbors were painting fences and mowing lawns just to be illuminated by it. "There are large, beautiful, long-leaf yellow pines, gently moving their fuzzy tops against the blue of the sky, the greenness made golden by the sunlight up there," he had written in his journal that afternoon. It was beneath those same pines that his landlord eventually found him, slumped over by the grass, his left leg severed just below the hip, disappearing into a puddle of blood and bone. A shotgun was lying by his side. Boyer himself had pulled the trigger.

This was no death wish. As Boyer explains in Melody Gilbert's documentary Whole, when he aimed the loaded weapon at his own body, the act wasn't a conscious will to self-destruction, nor was it an attempt to rid himself of a weak limb. He simply wanted his healthy leg to disappear. "My only regret is that it didn't happen sooner," he admits.

Before Whole premiered at the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival in June, information about wannabe amputee syndrome--what doctors now refer to as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (B.I.I.D.)--was made available only through a handful of stories more likely to be told around the campfire than in the newspaper. In May of 1998, 79-year-old Philip Bondy paid John Ronald Brown, a former doctor who had lost his medical license because of botched sex-change operations, $10,000 to amputate his leg at a clinic in Tijuana. Brown buried the limb somewhere in the Mexican desert; Bondy later died of gangrene in a San Diego motel room. In October of 1999, an anonymous 53-year-old Milwaukee man severed his own arm with a homemade guillotine, placed it in a plastic bag, and stashed it away in his freezer. After calling an ambulance, he informed doctors that if they reattached the arm, he would just chop it off again and sue the hospital. That same month, an unnamed legal investigator in California begged doctors to surgically remove both of her legs. They refused, prompting her to tie each limb in a tourniquet, pack it in ice, and wait for the gangrene to set in. When the painful procedure failed, she told reporters that she planned to lie on a train track until the job was done.

Completist: 'Whole' director Melody Gilbert
Completist: 'Whole' director Melody Gilbert

A friend of Gilbert's read about the motel room corpse, the one-armed man, and the double amputee in Carl Elliott's Atlantic Monthly article "A New Way to Be Mad," and told the filmmaker a tale that, in its nearly archetypal depiction of bloody underground ritual, could have been an urban legend: People were hacking off their own limbs on purpose. "I couldn't believe what she said," insists Gilbert, a cheerful blonde who initially seems far too ebullient to have made a film about such a bleak topic. "But then I went onto the internet, and there were all kinds of amputee wannabes out there. I was repulsed and disgusted. I couldn't believe that people would do this, and I had to know why."

She's still trying to answer that question. "The doctors don't understand it; no one understands it," says Gilbert, whose film (premiering locally at the Heights Theater on September 18 and 20 as part of the Central Standard Film Festival) doesn't provide any easy resolutions. "What fascinates me is that none of these people know each other; some of them have never even been on the internet to see that there are other people like them out there, and yet they all say the same thing, sometimes even in the same language--that they needed to remove a leg in order to feel whole."

Even the wannabes themselves can't give a precise reason for their desires, though just watching their captivating monologues is enough to make one empathetic to their predicament. As Whole demonstrates, B.I.I.D. patients share a number of traits: Most are men (Gregg Furth and Robert Smith's Amputee Identity Disorder, the only definitive text on the subject, reports that the ratio of men to women may be as high as three to one) who knew an amputee at an early age and subsequently developed the condition in elementary school. But what little research has been conducted on the syndrome hasn't yet revealed any consensus of causality. You can draw your own conclusions from the film: For many of the men in Whole, a general perception of being unloved coincides with an admiration for an amputee who was popular with friends and family. But most of the B.I.I.D. subjects have given up on explanations. Kees, a Dutch man who bandages one leg up within his trousers in order to look like an amputee, simply says, "When you're gay, you're born gay, and I think I was born this way."

 

That statement might outrage anyone who has ever taken part in a Pride parade. How can anyone equate loving someone of the same sex with maiming your own body? Nevertheless, Gilbert often refers to her project as "a coming-out film," and there's a certain logic to her language. In Whole, identity is constructed by desire, desire prompts confession, confession breeds community, and community prevents shame. Perhaps because the documentary pulls together what initially seem like individual fetishes to highlight B.I.I.D. as an international phenomenon, some critics' reactions to Gilbert's work also mirror the hysteria that's commonly associated with homosexuality: the idea that exposure to a certain condition will make that condition spread.

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