The Impact of Neonatal Circumcision:
Implications for Doctors of Men’s Experiences
In Regressive Therapy
By Robert Clover Johnson
in Genital Autonomy: Protecting Personal
Choice. Denniston, George C.;
Hodges, Frederick M.; Milos, Marilyn Fayre, Eds., (pp. 149-166)
2010 Springer Science and Business Media, ISBN: 978-90-481-9445-2
Website for the book:
Many observers of routine medical newborn male circumcision in America have reported being alarmed by the agony of the baby and astonished that the doctors involved seem completely unaffected by the infant’s screams and clear signs of shock (Romberg, 1985; Milos, 1989; O’Mara, 1993; Lewis, 2006). Although the importance of focusing on the technical aspects of this surgery might partially explain doctors’ indifference to baby boys’ protests, literature on reasons commonly cited to justify neonatal circumcision suggests that acceptance of some or all of the following beliefs may also play a role:
(1) Having a foreskin greatly increases the likelihood of contracting HIV, cancer of the penis (and of the cervix of a partner via intercourse), or other diseases, so its removal is important for health and longevity.
(2) Parents, accustomed to circumcision as the norm in their society, often say “yes” when asked if their sons should be circumcised, and doctors must comply with their wishes.
(3) A circumcised penis is just as sensitive and effective for sexual purposes as an uncircumcised penis, so the amputation of the foreskin is no great loss.
(4) The procedure has moral benefits in that removal of the foreskin makes masturbation and sexual excess more difficult.
(5) The infant mind is incapable of registering pain; or, alternatively, the pain experienced will be quickly, completely, and permanently forgotten without causing trauma-related complications.
Diehard beliefs that amputation of the foreskin prevents a range of serious diseases have been widely and seriously challenged (Weiss, 1964; Preston, 1970; Wallerstein, 1980; Boyd, 1998; Sidler, Smith, and Rode, 2008). The notion that doctors must be beholden to the wishes of parents overlooks the fact that parents are often ill prepared to make fully informed, wise judgments about whether or not their baby should be circumcised. Such parents may rely on the doctor to help make the decision, even though the doctor stands to profit from performing the surgery and is quite likely to be ill-informed himself about the damaging immediate and long-range effects of circumcision (Goldman, 1997, pp.29-56). The notion that circumcision brings about no adverse sexual effects later in life has been discredited scientifically as well as anecdotally (Taylor, Lockwood, and Taylor, 1996; O’Hara, 2002; Sorrells, Snyder, Reiss, Eden, Milos, et al., 2007). Although circumcision does make masturbation and sexual excess more difficult and less pleasurable, the “moral” issues mentioned seem oddly anachronistic in most modern, cosmopolitan cultures. It is therefore important to remember that the primary reason for excising the richly innervated, erogenous tissue of the foreskin has historically been to reduce sexual excitability, thus diminishing instances of masturbation and/or promiscuity (Kellogg, 1888; Maimonides, [tr.] 1963).
Those issues, though extremely important, are somewhat outside the scope of this paper, which focuses on the discovery by many men in various forms of regressive psychotherapy that the intense genital pain and terror suffered during circumcision have never been forgotten by the unconscious mind, the source―as has been understood since Freud―of most psychological problems. These men’s unanticipated re-experiencing of that trauma and subsequent awareness of the trauma’s negative impact on their lives suggest that, whether consciously remembered or not, circumcision can have lasting, damaging effects on men’s emotional and psychological, as well as sexual, development.
In this paper, based on experiences described in the literature as well as on my own experiences during regressive therapy, I will argue that revisiting infant circumcision and expressing rage at or fight/flight reactions against the perpetrators in a regressed state, combined with efforts to create an ersatz foreskin, can have therapeutic psychological and sexual benefits for circumcised men. I will mention some hazards associated with re-experiencing circumcision in regressive therapy and caveats related to using this approach for resolving circumcision-related emotional and sexual issues. Implications for circumcising doctors will also be discussed.
Memory in Infancy
Since few people have conscious memories of experiences that occurred before the ages of 2 or 3, some readers of this paper may be skeptical of reports that men in various forms of regressive therapy have remembered or re-experienced aspects of their infant circumcisions. Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream (1970) and inventor of Primal Therapy, has written that he similarly was doubtful when many of his clients in the late 1960s began having experiences that looked and reportedly felt like “re-living” their births. When Janov asked neurologists if brain science at that time could substantiate such claims, they replied that they were also doubtful because the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, known to be primary support systems for the formation of conscious memories, were not sufficiently developed in prenates or newborns to formulate detailed records of experience (Janov, 1983; Janov, 2007).
Since then, however, the dynamic field of neuroscience has made many discoveries that seem to explain and support the validity of neonatal memories being experienced in regressive therapy. The principal corroborative discovery is that certain parts of the “lower” human brain—most notably the twin amygdala in the limbic system—have the function of recording experiences of intense pain and such emotions as terror and rage, associating these feelings with specific external stimuli. Neuroscientists now theorize that the amygdala evolved among mammals as a warning system capable of provoking fight or flight reactions to stimuli associated with previous experiences of harm. These memories tend to be more visceral and reactive emotionally than the explicit conscious memories we generally experience in a more emotionally detached way, as if watching movies in our minds. Also, memories as recorded in the amygdala appear not to depend on the level of neurological maturity required for the creation of most conscious memories. Contrary to the long-held notion that “babies do not feel pain” (still a frequently cited excuse for performing surgery on babies with no or minimal anesthesia), it appears that extremely painful (i.e. traumatic) experiences are not only felt but are stored in all their intensity within the amygdala (Schore, 1994; Phelps, & Anderson, 1997; Siegel, 1999).
Although the emotional and sensory memories stored in the amygdala are usually kept out of the reach of consciousness through the protective mechanism of “dissociation” or amnesia, these unconscious memories can nevertheless have a profound, lifelong effect on an individual, damaging his or her ability to respond in an optimally healthful way to sexual and other stimuli. Regressive therapies generally aim to create a safe, supportive setting in which people suffering from an overload of repressed or dissociated pain can gain enough access to the traumas involved to be able to diminish their damaging impact. Various techniques, including bioenergetic exercises, hypnosis, massage, breathwork, and focused exploration of the emotions underlying anxiety may be used to help clients break through the conscious mind’s habit of recycling familiar, comfortable thoughts that promote avoidance of pain and detachment from the suffering they wish to alleviate. Persistence in regressive therapy can help clients re-experience enough traumatic or highly charged unconscious, emotional material to assimilate and come to terms with the experiential sources of their anxieties. The fact that individuals pursuing regressive therapy for many years often re-experience birth or neonatal circumcision traumas testifies to the validity of the following observation by David Chamberlain (1989):
Instead of responding to [baby] cries as authentic communication, birth professionals have proceeded to cause pain with the conviction that the pain is merely reflexive and that owing to the immaturity of the infant brain, the pain could not really matter. From the perspective of present knowledge, these key 19th Century beliefs are only myths, but tragically, they are mega myths still influencing mainstream psychology and obstetrics today.
Regressive psychotherapy is a broad term referring to a variety of therapeutic practices that help individuals discover and come to terms with the traumatic origins of inhibitions, anxieties, depression, projected rage, obsessive-compulsive disorders, substance abuse, suicidal impulses, and other tendencies. In spite of quicker, less painful, more popular approaches that describe such leanings as symptoms of chemical imbalances best treated with medications or as results of self-defeating thought patterns that need to be replaced with more constructive ideas, a number of psychological disciplines have moved in the direction of exploring and releasing deeply repressed pain and gradually integrating the memory and significance of this pain into consciousness. These include Reichian Therapy (Reich, 1949), Bioenergetic Analysis (Lowen, 1967, 1975), Primal Therapy (Janov, 1991), Primal Integration (Rowan, 2000), Deep Feeling Therapy (Vereshack, 2001), Hypnotherapy (Hartman & Zimberoff, 2004), Re-evaluation Co-counseling (Jackins, 1970), Holotropic Breathwork (Holmes, Morris, Clance, & Putney, 1996), EMDR (Shapiro & Forrest, 1997), Somatic Experiencing (Levine, 1999), and others.
This development was presaged by Freud and Breuer who discovered in the 1890s that hysteric symptoms appeared to be associated with early traumas and could be significantly relieved if patients were helped to re-experience painful, formerly repressed memories and react to them with a cathartic discharge of suppressed feeling. Freud later shied away from accepting as real many of the memories of child abuse and other traumas brought forth by his patients. He concluded that these individuals were recalling their own troubling childhood fantasies, which should be approached critically through a combination of free association and analysis in what is now often called “the talking cure.” It should be added that although Freud thereby created a framework through which patients could be “talked out of” accepting as literally true some of their emerging memories of abuse as infants or young children, he saw literal rather than fanciful significance in the belief sometimes expressed by circumcised men that they had been in some way emasculated very early in life (Freud, 1916-1917/ [tr.] 1933). Perhaps the reason for this was that — for anyone aware of normal male anatomy — the evidence of a physical trauma is unmistakable on the circumcised penis.
Freud’s disciple, Wilhelm Reich, and many other psychologists later rejected his verbal-analytical approach and returned to the idea that neurotic symptoms in general were results of genuine early traumas and could not be alleviated without re-experiencing the pain, even if not a complete multi-sensory replay, of those events. Regressive re-experiencing of repressed painful memories is described by Janov, the creator of Primal Therapy, as the essential component of psychological healing (Janov, 1991). Some life-threatening or extremely painful traumas can be so agonizing to re-live, however, that most regressive therapists recommend experiencing small doses intermittently so the client can assimilate the memories gradually while also pursuing countervailing, life-affirming expressions of self. Many regressive therapies, in fact, emphasize the exploration of new patterns of reaction to trauma, such as bioenergetic discharge, primal integration, sublime release of shame, repatterning, somatic redecision, corrective emotional experience, survival (fight/flight) discharge, etc. Some of these new experiences may consist of expressing feelings that were deliberately inhibited during the original traumatic event (or events).
Tom Golden (1999), a psychotherapist who uses a variety of regressive techniques to help men deal with grief and other issues, discusses in a website how many of his clients have unexpectedly re-experienced aspects of circumcision:
I began to see that one of the experiences that was not uncommon for men to "re-experience" within a cluster of old traumas was the pain and trauma related to being circumcised. When I first noticed this I was amazed and shocked . . . I hadn't thought of the experience of circumcision as being anything but a routine medical procedure. The men who re-lived these things were usually just as startled. They were expecting other issues to surface and were surprised to see circumcision as one of them. We were . . . shocked at the intensity of the related pain. I started looking into the medical aspects and was completely blown away to find that doctors didn't use any anesthetic . . . the assumption being that babies don't feel pain.
In his article, “Neonatal Circumcision Reconsidered,” John Rhinehart (1999) describes several case histories of men who discovered in the course of regressive therapy that circumcision had set in motion various lifelong, self-defeating patterns. These men entered therapy because of such tendencies as avoidance of intimate relationships, feelings of inferiority to other men, fear of authority figures (or doctors), shyness or panic attacks in unfamiliar circumstances, and other related feelings. In the course of regressive explorations of the origins of these tendencies, these men were astonished to find themselves re-experiencing their own neonatal circumcisions. Some of Rhinehart’s clients reported distinct sensations of being cut in the genitals. All described feeling overpowered, helpless, and victimized. Rhinehart reports that, once his clients became deeply aware of the impact circumcision had on their lives, he was able to help them “repattern” their emotional responses to this event and to the challenges of adult life, exchanging feelings of helplessness in the face of overwhelming force, personal violation, and intense pain for new feelings of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-determination.
How is such repatterning accomplished? Another term that amounts to the same thing is “corrective emotional experience,” this wording introduced by Franz Alexander, a disciple of Freud who left Europe during World War II and spent most of his career in Chicago. In the abstract of an article on corrective emotional experience, hypnotherapists Hartman and Zimberoff (2004) summarize how regressive recall of traumatic experiences can lead to healing:
Healing unresolved traumas from early life requires accessing the events that produced the trauma, re-experiencing them cathartically in the original ego state, and reframing the meaning of the experience through corrective emotional experiences. We identify [numerous] types of corrective experiences and suggest that they all fit into one of three categories: (1) building ego strength through release of shame and reclaiming worthiness; (2) building agency through release of helplessness and reclaiming personal power; and (3) building authenticity through release of dissociation and identification and reclaiming self-reflective identity.
In what follows, I will use terms from the Hartman-Zimberoff abstract to outline a narrative describing my own process of discovering and endeavoring to “heal” the trauma of circumcision.
Re-experiencing the Trauma
In my experience, the discovery that circumcision had something to do with anxieties related to intimacy that had bothered me since my teens did not become clear until I was sixty years of age. A year earlier, I had reached a point in my marriage in which I faced the fact that in spite of decades of self-coaching in an effort to sustain a healthy and sophisticated attitude toward sex, all of my intimate relationships had required a struggle to subdue an inexplicable fear that often interfered with or stopped sexual excitement. I had dealt with this feeling thirty years earlier in an intense group therapy experience built around Reichian, Primal, and Bioenergetic Analysis concepts. At that time, I participated in exercises aimed at releasing muscular tensions that Reich and the co-creator of Bioenergetic Analysis, Alexander Lowen, described as chronic reactions to trauma that had the effect of simultaneously keeping painful memories out of consciousness and inhibiting the free flow of emotional and sexual energy (Reich, 1949; Lowen, 1967, 1975).
Leaning backwards over a rolled-up towel strapped to a kitchen stool (a device called “The Rack” by Bioenergetic Analysis therapists [see Figure 1]), an exercise that forcibly relaxed the ordinarily tense muscles in the solar plexus region, released feelings of fear, much yelling and crying, but no clear indicators of the exact nature of the experience my body/mind was remembering. Shortly after that experience, I was permitted to pursue an unanticipated and, until then, deeply repressed inclination to have a full-blown, wordless temper tantrum (see Figure 2). This tantrum, which took place on a king-sized mattress, my fists, feet, and head moving like pistons, my voice emitting high-pitched baby cries, seemed to be my reaction to some terrible physical offense experienced when I was a baby. Once I was finished, feeling enormous relief and a surge of joy, neither my therapists nor I could guess what these seemingly related episodes were all about except that I must have been terrified of something in infancy and appeared to need to react to that event with explosive rage.
Figure 1. “The Rack” used for Figure 2. Tantrum (Lowen, 1975).
emotional release (Lowen, 1967).
Though I knew I was far from having resolved the painful emotional issues that led to that radical therapy experience, my next thirty years were devoted to the pursuit of a conventional life: getting married, getting a good job, having and raising a child, etc. But after my daughter went to college, the old feelings of unease and fear associated with intimacy recaptured my attention. I knew from years of experience with traditional psychotherapy that antidepressant medications and talk therapy did little to unearth or resolve deeply repressed, painful memories. I decided I must return to regressive therapy to find and — if possible — quell the sources of my anxiety. For various reasons, I chose to do this work on my own. I used some techniques recalled from my earlier experience, but also made use of suggestions discovered in certain printed and online documents, especially the work of Paul Vereshack, a Canadian practitioner of Deep Feeling Therapy, who offers detailed practical advice online (free) and in print (Vereshack, 2001).
As most individuals pursuing regressive therapy would attest, it is difficult to find physical or interpersonal circumstances in which it feels safe or appropriate to release the powerful feelings associated with early traumatic memories. Not wishing to disturb my wife or neighbors, I most often primalled at home when those people were away. (Some primallers play recorded music to obscure sounds of crying; others cry or yell into pillows. Some soundproof a room in their homes or are lucky enough to find an understanding therapist with soundproof facilities. Many join groups of primallers at retreats in remote locations.)
At home, alone, lying on my back on a mattress, I began by focusing on tensions I sometimes experienced in response to intimate situations then allowed deeper, related feelings to surface. Exploring the emotions associated with these tensions transported me eventually to painful, extremely early experiences. Beneath my adult persona with its pretense of calm self-assurance, I discovered first a toddler, then an infant, crying in pain for his mother. It might seem that such an experience would be embarrassing, but great relief is usually felt when profound feelings — repressed but continually asserting themselves with troubling, enigmatic effects — finally emerge in sessions of weeping or rage. For me, the effort led to my first prolonged, conscious immersion in what I believe was my state of mind and feeling as an infant and toddler, endlessly seeking comfort and healing from a weary, overwhelmed mother.
After several months of exploring mother-related emotions, I began to sense that underlying my cries for her help was some terrifying earlier experience increasingly nudging the edges of consciousness, my long-repressed reactions to that event pressing for release. My father once told a friend of his, in my presence, about an occasion in which he gave me “hell” when I was a baby upon discovering that I had done something inappropriate on the living room floor. I couldn't remember this event (which still remains buried in my unconscious), but sensing that something frightening like my father’s brief and vague description had indeed occurred and following Vereshack's theory that in regressive therapy we position ourselves, move, and vocalize in ways that — through trial and error — feel increasingly "congruent" with a painful memory ready to surface, I lay on my back, regressed to my now-familiar, whining-for-mother state, then — imagining her complete absence — kicked and flailed defensively as someone or something very powerful began to wrestle with my arms and legs. While struggling to push the strong being away, I suddenly felt sharp, very distinct cutting pains progressing from right to left over the shaft of my penis.
I immediately stopped the regression, at once shocked by the unexpected body memory of being cut in a very sensitive, private part and energized by the realization that I had finally identified the trauma I’d endured on the “rack” and subsequently had a tantrum about thirty years earlier. The word “circumcision” came to mind immediately; a surgery certainly performed by a doctor, not my father. Whatever “hell” my father had given me, as far as my unconscious mind was concerned, clearly paled by comparison with this earlier experience. But like Golden, I had never sought to learn about circumcision, thinking of it (as I assume most American men must) as simply a routine medical procedure performed on baby boys for important reasons understood by doctors — analogous, I’d unthinkingly supposed, to severing the umbilical cord. The surprise of discovering that circumcision had been an excruciating, terrifying experience and that the repressed memory of it, combined with the physical harm it caused, might have played a damaging role throughout my life aroused a strong intellectual curiosity that sent me quickly to a computer.
I did an Internet search for the word “circumcision,” half-hoping I would find a reasonable explanation as to why this surgery had been performed and how (if at all) I had benefited from it. I was willing to “take my medicine,” in other words, if it were generally agreed and easy to understand how beneficial it is for personal happiness to have one’s foreskin removed in infancy. What I learned instead — from countless reliable websites and eventually from many books and articles on the subject — was that no reputable medical organization in the world currently recommends routine infant circumcision as a prophylactic against disease. I learned that circumcision causes the keratinization and desensitization of the glans, a part of the male body that is normally moist and protected by the foreskin (as the tongue is by cheeks and eyes by eyelids) from the daily abrasions that cause it to lose sensitivity. I learned that the foreskin I lost during circumcision contained some three-fourths of my erogenous nerves (most notably the “ridged band” at the aperture), and that this highly sensitive tissue plays important mechanical as well as sensual functions during normal intercourse. The amputation of my foreskin, in other words, had deprived me of certain joyous and joy-giving aspects of sexual experience well-known by the vast majority of men who are not circumcised.
I learned that highly influential doctors such as John Harvey Kellogg (who also invented cornflakes) promoted universal circumcision of newborn boys largely to stamp out masturbation, an activity that more than a century ago was erroneously believed to cause insanity and many diseases. I learned that Kellogg, who trained thousands of doctors concerning circumcision techniques — directly or in books — was extremely squeamish about sexual intercourse and was not dissuaded from his determination to stamp out masturbation by the realization that circumcision would also hamper or prevent sex as nature intended it. I learned, in other words, that my circumcision was one aspect of a larger effort in America and elsewhere to reduce the pleasure in one of life’s most enjoyable and important experiences and to instill feelings of shame and dread about sex into the minds of men. More importantly, I learned that in spite of this wealth of information suggesting that the practice of circumcision should have been outlawed decades ago, approximately 3,000 routine infant circumcisions of baby boys are still performed daily in the United States alone.
When a particular trauma has clearly had a major damaging effect on an individual, most regressive therapies advise clients to relive the traumatic experience in digestible portions often enough to “see it for what it is,” to objectify it, and eventually to allow the individual to dilute the impact this formerly repressed memory has had on his or her ability to enjoy new experiences free of the trauma’s dire influence. A major difficulty in endeavoring to heal the psychological wound of circumcision, however, is the simple fact that the wound is physical as well as emotional. The impact of circumcision has been to terrify an infant, to subject him to excruciating pain that is not brief, to alter his sexual nature, to reduce his sexual capabilities, and to inject feelings of shame, fear, and self-doubt into his personality. In my case, the discovery of the psychological damage of circumcision coincided with my first keen awareness of the physical and sensory damage this practice had inflicted on me. In America, we call this a “double whammy.” The overall effect of this knowledge, combined with continual regressive immersions in the now very accessible memory of circumcision, was that I experienced about a year of seldom interrupted suffering, followed by a general sense of sadness, resignation to my own diminished state, and determination to do what I could to end this practice by persuading doctors and parents of its many harms.
During that time and to varying degrees ever since, the agony of circumcision became largely unrepressed for me. In the many primals I had subsequent to that first one, I felt I had opened Pandora’s Box, re-experiencing again and again the pain I first experienced during and after circumcision, relinquishing all possibility of ever completely shutting those feelings away. Part of the price I paid for gaining intimate knowledge of an experience my repressive mechanisms had striven for 60 years to protect me from was that, even when I was not explicitly primaling, I often felt keenly as if I had just been circumcised, my penis the site of intense phantom pain.
In addition to re-experiencing circumcision as a traumatic memory, my mind raced as I dealt with feelings of betrayal by the people responsible for my well being during infancy. Why would anyone do such a thing to an innocent baby? Could the doctor who circumcised me in 1945 possibly still be living? (Not likely.) What would I say to him if I were to confront him? More important and puzzling to me personally was the question: What role did my parents play regarding my circumcision? Since both had died by the time of my discovery, there was no way to directly ask them how the decision was made or how they felt about the decision, so my mind has jumped from clue to clue in search of the never-to-be-fully-known story. The only details I had learned about my birth from my parents included that my mother was anesthetized when I was born at 3:45 a.m. and slept for many hours thereafter. She had never forgiven my father for “being away on a business trip” at the time; and neither parent met me face-to-face until my father finally arrived at the hospital sometime that afternoon and a “search” was undertaken in the maternity ward.
I have learned that American doctors were not required by law to ask parents’ permission to circumcise in 1945, so I have imagined that the deed was already done by that afternoon meeting, but since my older brother was circumcised in 1941, it seems that my parents must have known that I was likely to undergo the same procedure unless they took steps to prevent it. Could it be that my father, who was not circumcised, wished to be away so he would not be blamed for whatever happened? He had been a first-born son. Could it be that the thought of giving a second-born son an advantage over his own first-born son was unendurable, prompting him to flee rather than intervene on my behalf? I’ll never know. I often imagine and re-imagine how these events might have unfolded and how confusion, blame, recriminations, and guilt all led ultimately to the complete silence concerning my circumcision that is so typical and so very American a way of dealing with irremediable family traumas.
Since the storylines I have spun in my mind cannot be verified, they must be relegated to the realm of fiction, but what is pertinent here is that once a man becomes aware that his circumcision was painful and debilitating and someone else’s choice, innocence is permanently lost. Cynicism and an anguished sense of having been a helpless victim may erase for a long time all hope of any sanguine resolution to this personal tragedy.
Several months after my first distinct circumcision-related primal, it occurred to me that something about my actions during that regression may have made it seem safe or conceivably beneficial for my unconscious mind to release the unmistakable, identifying signal of genital cutting sensations. My physical and mental attitude at that point must have been remarkably similar to that of a newborn baby boy about to be circumcised — except that I was allowing myself to defend my body with my arms and legs, actions that would have been attempted but prevented by restraints during the original event. Although it is seldom described as such, the Circumstraint used in routine infant circumcision provides a striking example of forcibly inhibited defensive reactions to this trauma. The limbs of baby boys are strapped down to prevent them from using their hands, knees, or feet, or their ability to assume a self-protective “cannonball” or “roly-poly” posture to interfere with or thwart the violence being perpetrated (see Figure 3). Defeating the baby’s only defense mechanisms in this way adds to the repressed memory of genital pain, a profound sense of helplessness, and ineffectuality. My unimpeded, baby-like, defensive actions during that regression appear to have been the key that unlocked the somatic memory of my life’s worst experience (see Figure 4).
Figure 3. Forced inhibition of defensive reactions. (Goldman, 1997, p.96)
Figure 4. Release of repressed anger and defensive reactions
to circumcision decades after the original, forced inhibition.
(Modified from Lowen, 1975)
Now, with the benefit of three years’ hindsight, I can also see that the defensive actions of my arms and legs during that regression constituted a first step toward dismantling a timid, defeated attitude that had plagued me throughout my life, in spite of the calm, confident manner I had developed as a façade to obscure those feelings. To use a term from Transactional Analysis, the feeling of inevitable defeat associated with circumcision may become the entire “lifescript” of a man. However, allowing a grown man in the course of a regression to this buried memory to express his infant self’s rage with the power of his adult male body, can contribute to the rewriting of this script and the emergence of a new pattern of feeling, outlook, and behavior.
Hartman and Zimberoff point out that “There is sublime release of shame when one is able to experience in the original regressed ego state overcoming what was inhibited, forbidden, or impossible in the past experience, and expressing it in the present situation” (p. 9). By revisiting the source of their chronic, defeated attitudes toward experience and discovering within themselves a new, self-affirming response to the initially agonizing experience, victims of early trauma are able to gain a new sense of power and effectiveness.
A word should be said here about the circumstances in which anger can help heal trauma. Many men habitually express anger or aggression as a way of asserting their masculinity and may do so reflexively when hurt — partly to hide from themselves or others their feelings of being a victim or “loser.” This is one form of what psychologists call “dissociation.” When we imagine the feelings most men would naturally have if they faced the facts of what was done to their genitals in infancy, it becomes immediately clear why most men, including circumcised doctors, are in denial about anything “bad” ever having happened down there. They are, in other words, dissociated from their authentic selves. I would go so far as to assert that on some level such men have always been aware that something is wrong — something is missing. In the most blatant sense, of course, what is missing for circumcised men is their foreskins. In a deeper sense, however, what is missing is awareness of any feelings whatever about missing a foreskin. When Hartman and Zimberoff speak of “building authenticity through release of dissociation and identification and reclaiming self-reflective identity” they are pointing out that regressive therapy, though admittedly painful in many respects, is extremely beneficial in that it can introduce people to their true selves. Circumcised men, for instance, can discover that they were “robbed” as infants. This discovery, combined with experiencing the sorrow and grief that go along with it and the expression of reactions “in the original regressed ego state” to the violence perpetrated on their genitals are essential aspects of healing the trauma.
It may be true that many men, upon realizing that they lost part of their sexual birthright as a result of surgery by some known or anonymous doctor, can gain momentary satisfaction by expressing rage toward the individual or the medical profession at large that they now perceive as having betrayed them. This anger can have great benefit if it leads to the release — as it often does — of tears of grief. This grief, in turn, once deeply felt and identified with, can eventually enable the authentic individual to pursue regressive therapy and discover the benefits of expressing the anger that was repressed at the time of violation. Hartman and Zimberoff state that releasing this repressed anger “fosters an empowering cognitive-emotional shift.” They cite Van Velsor and Cox (2001) who describe how the expression of repressed anger toward a rapist by a female rape victim can lead to healing. For the purposes of this paper, I will exchange “she” for “he” and “her” for “his” in the following quote without changing the basic meaning:
When the client experiences the healthy unleashing of repressed anger toward [his] perpetrators . . . [he] claims a boundary, or a piece of personal entitlement to certain rights involving safety and protection, personal integrity, emotional reality, and the outward expression thereof, and reinstitutes feelings of personal efficacy and power.
This is not to say, however, that adult, objective rage, properly channeled, should never be used in the campaign against circumcision. Rage against a system collectively ignorant of the consequences of its routines can be legitimately channeled into peaceful anti-circumcision gatherings, editorials, and demonstrations. System-wide revolts also can be useful, such as the refusal of nurses to participate in circumcisions in a particular hospital.
To the victims of this practice, many of whom are themselves medical interns or doctors, I would urge that you seek psychological healing by returning to the state that formed your personality . . . the innocent state of being a newborn baby boy with a foreskin. Recalling then how it felt to be bound, clamped, and circumcised, express your rage as you wish you could have then. Lift your knees until the leg restraints snap! Push away the doctor who approaches you with misleading smiles, scalpels, and a Gomco clamp! Assert your right to be left alone! Say “Leave me alone!” if that helps, but above all, keep those sharp instruments away from your body. Protect yourself! Be victorious! Even if this be fantasy only, exult in this moment of triumph over those intent on damaging you! Trust that you are right and they are wrong!
Not everyone is able to access what Goldman (1997) describes as the “hidden trauma” of circumcision, but if anyone reading this — including a male doctor — feels the need to heal his own circumcision-related trauma and is unsure how to proceed, I advise starting by reading some of the therapy-related documents and Internet resources listed at the end of this article.
Restoring a Foreskin
There is an additional way that victims of circumcision can regain some of the capability denied them by this surgical procedure: restoring a foreskin. An excellent resource on this subject is a book by Jim Bigelow (1992), called The Joy of Uncircumcising: Exploring Circumcision: History, Myths, Psychology, Restoration, Sexual Pleasure, and Human Rights. This volume discusses the history of circumcision and practices that can facilitate restoration of foreskin. Today, thousands of men around the globe are using one or another technique proven to cause new skin cells to develop in the remaining shaft skin of their circumcised penises. The process is slow, but patience and diligence can enable a person to develop a foreskin that will cover the glans, protecting it from further abrasion, enabling it to shed keratinized cells and restore its sensitivity. A restored foreskin lacks the erogenous nerves of the original, lost foreskin, but it greatly facilitates intercourse and, according to many reports, greatly increases sexual pleasure for both the restored man and his partner. In light of the fact that Bigelow’s volume is no longer new, it would also be wise to consult websites for one of the many national branches of NORM (National Organization of Restoring Men) that usually contain contact information for individuals who can provide information over the phone, in emails, or through group or individual meetings. These websites also generally contain links to countless articles, books, and online discussions concerning circumcision and restoring. The papers by Ron Low and Wayne Griffiths in this volume also provide useful historical and current information on restoring devices.
I should add that, in my opinion, the best way to overcome a significant amount of the damage of circumcision is to combine regressive therapy with restoration. The more aware a person becomes of the psychological trauma, the more keenly he will be aware of the physical and sexual loss. Restoring augments the psychological healing process with a physical process that may help a person to gain new confidence in his sexual equipment, even if circumcision has dealt a heavy blow.
Words of Caution
In case my story inspires anyone to pursue some form of regressive therapy in hopes of resolving emotional issues associated with circumcision, I should add a few cautionary comments. In my view, no amount of re-experiencing, catharsis, corrective emotional experience, or restoring can entirely remove from circumcision its inherently tragic nature. Even if a person were to become one of the few who are able to access feelings experienced in infancy, let alone those feelings associated with circumcision itself, please don’t expect any powerful connection to those feelings to miraculously provide long-term happiness or to quickly eliminate all the problems this surgery has caused. All I can guarantee for those determined to pursue regressive therapy is that this endeavor has the capacity to present, over time, a completely new, more accurate grasp of personal history. If a person happens to be circumcised, the probability is that somewhere in the unconscious mind is the repressed memory of that event. Painful and saddening though it almost certainly would be to re-experience that particular memory (or some other, unanticipated traumatic memory), doing so can be extremely rewarding for truth-seekers, whether or not the truths that emerge bring happiness. Also, many will testify that the cognitive dissonance resulting from the continual sabotage of efforts to enjoy life and love brought on by repressed, unfelt pain begins to resolve itself once a person starts having connected regressions. Feeling and owning those long-dissociated pains can eventually enable the conscious mind to make peace with the unconscious mind, leaving one sadder but wiser, and freer to chart one’s own future.
Advice for Doctors
If you are convinced that circumcising a baby boy’s penis does no harm, please think again. Read carefully the Taylor, et al., study on the anatomy of the foreskin (1996) and the Sorrels, et al., study (2007) comparing the sexual sensitivity of the intact versus the circumcised penis. Also, find on the Internet a video of a medical circumcision (e.g., www.nocirc.org.) Watch it carefully, but listen to the sounds produced by the baby. Imagine that you are the baby rather than the surgeon. This exercise, if pursued objectively, should help provide a new perspective.
I would like to quote from a personal communication from Gabriela Monasterio, a practitioner of deep feeling therapy in Mexico, who believes that unresolved inner pain is what prevents individuals from feeling the natural joy of being alive. In the following response to a video of a routine medical circumcision of a newborn male, Monasterio offers some additional possible explanations for a circumcising doctor’s apparent indifference to the baby boy’s suffering:
Watching this video of a baby boy being circumcised, I wondered how on earth this doctor or anyone who witnessed the circumcision could be deaf to the sound of the baby’s cries and the evident fact that he was in shock. The doctor continued to describe the process as if he were talking about a cooking recipe. I feel that this kind of reaction reveals an emotional numbness and deafness in the doctor that can only come from denying and stuffing up his own pain . . . and possibly from a deep “acting out” of that denied pain evident in the fact that he could circumcise that poor baby as if he were just following instructions in a manual.
Torturing babies through circumcision is plain torture and we are not here to sugarcoat, justify, or hide this fact. The younger the victims are the worse they are harmed. Facing this truth is the only way we can change what needs to be changed. All that is needed is that we change the way we treat children. If we would stop needlessly torturing them, we could undoubtedly change the world in profound ways. If children grow up accepted as they are, they will become humane and compassionate. If they are not, then humankind will be condemned to repeat its mistakes over and over, till we destroy ourselves (Monasterio, 2007).
Fully realizing that doctors perform miracles of healing daily through the removal of malignant tumors and the mending of broken bodies, my final word of advice is simply that physicians remember the first part of the Hippocratic Oath taken upon entering this profession: “..never do harm to anyone.” If there is nothing malignant or broken about a newborn boy’s foreskin, what could be simpler and more wonderful than to let it be? If, on the other hand, you choose to circumcise a baby’s healthy foreskin, please remember: he will never forget and likely will never forgive the harm you have needlessly done.
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 It has been argued that Freud moved in this direction because of intense criticism by shocked Victorian readers of reports suggesting that childhood sexual abuse may have led to hysterical symptoms of many of his patients. In the 1990s, some regressive therapists caused a scandal by planting suggestions regarding the possibility of such abuse in their patients’ minds. Responsible regressive therapists are scrupulous about avoiding such suggestions.
 For simplicity’s sake, I choose to use the word “primal” in this paper to refer to all forms of regressive re-experiencing, not just those that occur specifically within Primal Therapy or Primal Integration contexts.
 A well-known Kellogg quote supports my assertion: “The operation [circumcision] should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment” (Kellogg, 1888).
 Peter Levine, the inventor of Somatic Experiencing, reduces the re-experiencing component of regression to tiny “titration” drops of recollection—just enough to provoke a rebounding reaction that can “shake off” the trauma. Levine goes so far as to advise against “reliving the trauma,” asserting that awareness of its symptoms should be sufficient to enable the traumatized individual to shake it off (Levine, 1999).
Golden (1999) supplies the following statement by nurses at an American hospital who refused to participate in neonatal circumcisions: "Our medical position was that neonatal circumcision was unjustifiable. Our ethical position was that it violated a newborn's right to a whole, intact body. As patient advocates and nurse-educators working in maternal-child health, we believed that we had a professional duty to dispel myths and offer parents factual information about circumcision, and that we had a duty not to participate in a procedure that surgically altered the normal genitalia of unconsenting minors."