The novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote an (incredibly harrowing!) essay in the New Yorker about his experience of a botched late-childhood circumcision and its (vividly described and really quite distressing to read about!) consequences. The procedure left him with what seems reasonable to call a moderately misshapen appendage, and then, later in life, how an ingrown—you know what? Just go read it. If you dare. It’s good.
Here’s just a little sample:
The months passed. I got better, I got worse, I got better. I had seen so many doctors that my urine was now infected with klebsiella, a bacteria commonly found in hospital settings. A nurse who was present during an examination of my genitalia fainted on the spot, which did not improve my hopes for recovery or my self-esteem.New Yorker
Circumcision is a rich and fascinating (and at many points in this case super duper uncomfortable!) subject for examination: ancient religious and social custom, ideas about community and belonging and masculinity and sex, totalitarianism and antisemitism and possibly misdirected beliefs about cleanliness and hygiene, and surgical tools, oh God, all coming to bear on the funniest part of the human anatomy, the penis. Shteyngart gives all of this sensitive, thoughtful, and superheroically good-humored treatment, considering he was pretty well mangled by the process as a vulnerable child who wanted to please his parents and probably will spend the rest of his life in at least some amount of pain, both psychological and physical, because of it.
I am not the only person who enjoyed this essay, and my reasons for enjoying it may not be everyone else’s. Art can reach different people in wildly different ways! For example, American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher likewise appreciated Shteyngart’s work, but seemingly for different reasons from mine, or to very different effect. Whereas it prompted me to think about all the myriad deeply fraught choices each generation makes for the next, out of tradition or necessity or fear or love or ignorance, and all the various lifelong pains and (in most cases metaphorical) disfigurements these can impose upon their children, it reminded Dreher, somehow racistly, of an elementary schooler he used to know whose dick was weird.
I have never given circumcision a single thought, other than to consent to my sons’ circumcision. Europeans think its [sic] weird for American Gentiles to be circumcised, and I think they’re right … but I remember the one kid we had in my elementary school class, a black boy who had been born at home, and who was not circumcised. All us boys wanted to stare at his primitive root wiener when we were at the urinal during recess, because it was monstrous. Nobody told us that wieners could look like that. The kid didn’t know why his penis was so strange looking, and neither did we. Third grade, man.American Conservative
I am going to have the phrase “all us boys wanted to stare at his primitive root wiener” echoing around in my ruined slurpee brain for the rest of my life, now. What is this guy’s deal, man. Great story. You know what it reminds me of? An eight-year-old whose “monstrous” dick my friends and I used to stare at while he was just trying to use the damn toilet.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this deeply haunted paragraph is that last bit. “Third grade, man.” What this anecdote primarily serves to illustrate is not the peculiarities of third-graders, my friend! It’s the peculiarities of a 54-year-old professional writer whose takeaway from Shteyngart’s work of painful self-revelation was I should tell the entire readership of the magazine I write for about some little kid’s horrible dick that freaked me out. In fact I should call it a primitive root wiener. For all the world!
Maybe I am the oddball, here. Maybe this was a normal train of thought for a person to have! Let’s find out. Do a thought exercise for me. Odds are, as a reader of this website, you are an adult. How many of your elementary school classmates’ genitals can you remember? How many times, in the past year, have you read an article online and had the thought “You know what, this reminds me of a particular eight-year-old’s awful genitals”? How often do you find yourself responding to another person’s story of their life by bringing up, unprompted, your vivid memories of a little kid’s dick?
If your answer to any or all of these questions was “more than one”—or for that matter if it was “zero” or literally anything else—please do not let me or anyone else know, at all, ever, no matter what. Thank you!