Following the Fear

Posted by Robert C Johnson, 66 years-old, male, living in United States

In August, 2002, my wife and I, then ages 57 and 56, left our daughter at a freshman orientation session at her college and drove off into an uncertain future. I had planned numerous fossil-collecting excursions for our trip home, because collecting fossils had long been one of our favorite mutual activities, something boring to our daughter whose lack of interest was no longer a problem. This newfound freedom to do as we pleased was in many ways a delightful prospect, though edged with a familiar and disturbing fear. For the next three years, we mined several mutually enjoyable and engaging interests, including trips to historic places, household renovations, gardening, fossil-collecting, and hiking. I resurrected my long-latent interest in golf during those years and spent many hours on the golf course, but generally did this with annual leave while my wife was at work, not wanting to make her a “golf widow.”

Although we had sex occasionally during our time together, it had become clear to both of us over the years that for me, the desire to have sex was always at war with an inexplicable fear that often invaded our intimacy, stopping my excitement, leaving us both disappointed. I had gone to a urologist several years earlier with this concern and he had assured me that nothing was wrong with my genitals, hinting that I might have a psychological problem. I asked him what other men did about such problems and he said most men didn’t wish to discuss psychological issues related to sex. As I look back at this experience, the most remarkable thing to me is that the urologist could see nothing wrong with my penis, even though my foreskin, including more than two-thirds of my erogenous nerve endings, was completely gone, leaving the dry, dulled glans unnaturally exposed and keratinized. At that time and for years afterward, it never occurred to me that there was anything unnatural about my genitals.

It had occurred to me, however, that I had long had a psychological problem. When I was thirteen and people began to hint to me that I ought to be taking notice of and pursuing girls, I wondered why this in many ways enticing prospect filled me with a vague terror that caused me to blush and want to hide whenever in the presence of an attractive girl. For me there was never any doubt which gender I found sexually interesting, but the prospect of doing something about it made me feel not only afraid, but helpless as well… as helpless as an infant in some nameless, agonizing situation. The astonishing power of this feeling finally provoked me, at the age of eighteen, to ask my parents if I could see a psychiatrist. They were quite distraught over this and wondered if they had done anything wrong. I assured them they had not, though, in retrospect, I now see this was not entirely true.

The psychiatrist I first saw assessed that I was a “big sissy” who needed to grow up. To his credit, he did at one point ask me if “everything is okay down there” pointing at my genitals. I said “yes,” because it had never occurred to me that my genitals were unusual, since the few I’d seen in camp or swimming pool showers were generally like mine. This psychiatrist, and a subsequent one, took the course for the next several years of encouraging me to venture forth, dating and exploring the world of sex, in spite of whatever fears I might have.

I read Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” and many books by Albert Ellis about getting your head on straight about sex. I read books about self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden and other authors. And I did eventually meet and marry a woman I met at graduate school where we were both English majors. Our first experiences of intercourse were during the year and a half we were married, and all-in-all we were indeed able to function sexually, but the woman I’d married was also quite shy about sex and continued to feel ambivalent about it. My concerns were that I continued to feel that I was suppressing fear in order to have sex. When my wife asked for a divorce, I was devastated, but in some ways relieved to be free for a while of this fear.

Several years later, while I was teaching English in high school, I met an attractive woman who seemed interested in having a sexual adventure with me. I remember pacing back and forth in the living room of my apartment for hours before our first scheduled rendezvous, psyching myself up for making the “move” on her I sensed she wanted. This did happen, but nervousness prevented me from being able to follow through until I finally relaxed enough to genuinely have sex with her three days later. This affair continued off and on for a year or so, but she ultimately chose someone else for a sex partner… someone less nervous. She gave me a book this other fellow had given to her, called “The Primal Scream,” by Arthur Janov. She said she knew of a place in Washington, D.C. where people were going “primal.” She thought it might help me to think about how I could solve my problem.

Within a month I was signed up for a three-week intensive of primal, gestalt, bioenergetic therapy at the Community of the Whole Person in Washington. The Center was different from Janov’s, I have learned, in that it borrowed from various related disciplines. I discovered that I could cry very easily, particularly when women in my group cried. I spent much of my time “getting into my anger,” often pounding mattresses and saying “I am a MAN!!” in defiance of whatever force it was that seemed to contradict my assertion. In the third week of this intensive, I was encouraged to make the movements a baby makes when having a tantrum. To everyone’s astonishment, I proceeded to have a full-throttle baby tantrum that ended with a wonderful sensation of having expressed a long inhibited feeling of rage at some unknown assault. No one ever suggested what this assault might have been, and I now suspect none of the therapists actually knew or even guessed that it might be something like circumcision. That awareness would only come to me thirty years later.

My first primal therapy experience gave me a degree of energy and confidence that helped me move forward in new directions socially and professionally. I began to date more frequently and developed a degree of sexual confidence in casual relationships that was new to me. During this time I introduced myself to the woman who is now my wife. A couple of years after we met, she and I got married and settled down in an apartment in Washington, D.C.

I was surprised by how frightened I was as the marriage date arrived. After our small, private courthouse wedding I sat on a curb and wept, much to my wife’s embarrassment and chagrin. I discovered that I was still unequipped for a long-term intimate relationship. Our sexual relationship seemed to awaken all the demons I’d feared in adolescence, and my uncorked anger led to episodes of violence. I sought help and got back into psychological counseling which helped me steady myself enough to pursue a good job as an editor and to behave decently toward my wife. Eventually she got pregnant and our focus shifted toward our wonderful daughter… the one who is now in college.

While on one of our fossil-collecting trips, I was resting on a bed in a motel when my wife came over to speak to me affectionately. I was astonished as I looked up at her by a profound sensation of being a baby in pain, looking up pleadingly at my mother. I hid this feeling from my wife, but the experience started a train of thought leading back through a lifetime of inexplicable fear. As we drove home from that trip, I realized that my brief experience with primal therapy had just scratched the surface. I needed more.

It turned out that the Washington, D.C. area was no longer a haven for primal or bioenergetic therapists. Determined to face my fear, I found an online guide to how to do primal therapy by Paul Vereshack, called “Help Me, I’m Tired of Feeling Bad” (the printed version has the title “The Psychology of the Deepest Self”). This guide enabled me to do what is called “self primalling,” which I began to do during long lunch breaks, driving home from work, primalling, then returning to work. I did this routine because my wife—though supportive of whatever I needed to do—was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of my doing primal therapy while we both were at home.

In a nutshell, primal therapy involves steps one can take to recall and even relive, in a therapeutic context, unresolved or otherwise forgotten traumatic experiences. Reconnecting to these early experiences helps a person become fully aware of memories underlying current reactions to experiences that are difficult to understand in any other context. Reconnecting to an early trauma turns out to be a step-by-step process over a long period of time, because assimilating the intense pain of these traumas usually cannot occur with a single episode of reexperiencing. The process involves developing a sensitivity to areas of feeling that we ordinarily are obliged to ignore. Tensions we try to disregard at work become, in primal therapy, the focus of our attention.

My experience was that my earliest years involved much crying and pleading for help, usually aimed at my mother. Although I found the experience alarming, it was enlightening to realize the extent to which, as an infant, I was desperate for my mother’s help to ease my suffering. Part of this that I could distinctly remember related to the pain of eczema, which led to scratching and bleeding at night, and pleas that my mother come to help ease the pain. My early recollections of my father were of an angry, impatient, disapproving person.

One day I decided to try to relive an episode of my reactions to my father’s angry disapproval. He once told me that he had found me at home one time in a puddle of urine I had peed onto the floor. He said he’d given me “living hell.” I didn’t consciously remember this, but I tried to establish in my mind a congruency with the situation and to react defensively to whatever his “living hell” must have been. Part of what I did to recreate this involved a flailing of my arms and legs, as if I were trying to deflect his blows. Much to my surprise, this effort immediately triggered a long series of sharp pains in a circle around the shaft of my penis. The sensations were so specific and intense that I immediately stopped my flailing in order to try to assimilate what I was experiencing. The word “circumcision” popped immediately into my mind.

Although I was 60 years old at the time, I knew next to nothing about circumcision and had always vaguely assumed that something may have been done down there when I was little but it must have been a necessary thing like severing the umbilical cord. I knew my father surely wasn’t the person who would have done this, but something about the impulse to fight back, flailing arms and legs, must have brought back the memory. I didn’t realize immediately, but soon figured out, that flailing arms and legs in an effort to ward off circumcisers is precisely what is prevented by the plastic circumstraint boards designed to restrain baby boys while doctors do their work. My effort to fight back freed feelings of rage that had been suppressed for 60 years.

I drove back to work to look up circumcision on the Internet to learn about why this is done and its value or rationale. You can imagine my astonishment upon discovering website after website decrying the barbaric practice of circumcision and its effects on male sexuality. A lifetime of inexplicable, humiliating reactions to the opportunity of sex suddenly became understandable. My genital integrity had been brutally and agonizingly violated the day of my birth. Most of my erogenous nerves and the sensitive sheathe that protected the mucous membrane of the glans had been severed and ripped from my remnant penis. I had deliberately been deprived of much of my sexual capacity because men like John Harvey Kellogg believed male sexuality was wicked and excessive and needed to be tamed or muted by medical procedures. Moses Maimonides similarly believed the love bond between men and women would be too intense if men were allowed to have all their natural genital equipment. Both men believed the weakening of the male sexual organ was a great benefit to civilization.

I would like to say that this knowledge has made me immensely happier, but in fact I have been seriously disillusioned by what I have learned. I have discovered that my parents did not do all they could have done to protect this important part of my life. In fact, I’m angry that they never owned up to or apologized for what they had allowed to happen to me. I have learned that the doctors who oversaw my birth did not care about my eventual sexual happiness and may have performed this procedure out of revenge for similar treatment they had received as babies. I have shed many tears over these betrayals of my best interests and the interests of the women I have known and the woman I am married to.

I have taken up the task of stretching my existing shaft skin to create a new foreskin and am hopeful that this will help as time goes by. But meanwhile I and my wife are growing older and our days are limited and there is much that has been lost irretrievably.

I would like to think that modern times would bring enlightenment and the practice of circumcision would seem certain to end in light of so much suffering as others besides myself must have experienced. But the daily news of studies purporting that circumcision is a cure for AIDS and the way these studies are heeded and used to justify genital mutilation makes me very angry and sad. I would like to think that my own story might make some difference, but I am doubtful that many (except my friends in ICGI, NOCIRC, SICsociety, and really will care. I am glad, nevertheless, that there are organizations of like-minded men who are helping me to see that my objections to this practice are not crazy and that it is justified to do whatever one can to alert those who can read and feel that circumcision is an act of criminal violence on the bodily integrity of a human being. In the name of humaneness and human rights, this practice must end.