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Completist: 'Whole' director Melody Gilbert

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.

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.

"When I talked to Carl Elliott about this film," says Gilbert of the professor who helped inspire the idea for her film, "he kind of discouraged me from talking about the subject at all." A certain fear of epidemic is palpable in Elliott's review of Whole: Writing for Slate, he warns, "[Certain conditions] were once seen as rare or nonexistent, then suddenly they ballooned in popularity. This is not simply because people decided to 'come out' rather than suffer alone. It is because all mental disorders, even those with biological roots, have a social component... Patients begin to reinterpret their own psychological histories in light of what they hear, and their behavior changes to match what is expected of people with the condition they believe they have."

Gilbert doesn't see the danger. "I've seen amputees when I was younger, and I still have both my legs," she says, laughing. "Just because you see my film doesn't mean you're going to want to cut your legs off. It's like saying that just because you see a gay movie, you're going to be gay."

In reality, B.I.I.D. seems to have more parallels with issues of sexual identity than sexual preference. Gilbert draws comparisons between B.I.I.D. and transsexuality, noting that both conditions are fueled by a need to alter the body in order to more accurately represent one's "true" identity: "It's that feeling of being trapped in a body that you weren't meant to be born in," she says. When Dan Cooper, an American outdoorsman featured in Whole, explains why he feels compelled to amputate one leg, he describes the sensation in the way that a sex-change patient might view his own anatomy: "When I see myself as a four-limbed person," he says, "I don't feel incomplete. It's more a matter of feeling that my body doesn't entirely belong to me."

Perhaps Western culture's aversion to B.I.I.D doesn't lie in our objection to the surgical transformation of the body, or even in a distrust of the notion that the body can adequately represent identity. Maybe our discomfort stems from the moral worth we assign to that identity in the first place. Dr. Michael First, a B.I.I.D. specialist featured in Whole, compares B.I.I.D. to the desire for plastic surgery, a largely socially acceptable practice despite the fact that people have their skin stretched, their fat sucked out, and the ends of their noses shaved off just to feel more like themselves. Though First's analogy seems a bit oversimplified, it demonstrates that every act of body modification assigns a certain value to each option--a choice between looking old and young, fat and thin, "good" and "bad." In a sense, transsexuals switch their anatomies in order to better reflect society's vision of what a certain gender should look like--and because male and female genders arguably have neutral value, changing from one to the other is a choice that many people can more easily sympathize with than B.I.I.D. But being an amputee is generally perceived to be negative, even though Kees insists in Whole that walking with one leg "is the same or easier" than walking with two. More than questioning the limits of power we should yield over our bodies, Whole asks, Can you still call a physical defect a handicap if it helps someone function on a higher level? And does the answer to that question ultimately redefine what disability means?

It's likely that such thoughts were running through the head of Scottish surgeon Robert Smith back in 1997 when he amputated a healthy leg from a patient for the first time at the Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary. Smith may have rewritten the Hippocratic oath that day, though from his quiet demeanor during his interview in Whole, you'd never realize it. Reading his commentary in Amputee Identity Disorder, it's easier to understand what compelled his actions. "Perhaps a saying of Jesus may be of some help [in understanding B.I.I.D.]," he wrote with co-author Gregg Furth. "'If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell...' The church has never favored a literalistic interpretation of these verses, but seeking to kill the worm and quench the fire which keeps people in psychic hell may allow them to enter life maimed, but be at peace physically."

 

Once, George Boyer asked Jesus to amputate his leg. Eventually, he answered his own prayer with a shotgun. Ten years later in Whole, he seems at peace. "I've finally realized myself," he says, having gone through his own psychic hell. He's lucky that the afterlife still awaits him.


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