In 1916 a clitoridectomy was performed on my mother, at age five, to stop her from masturbating. The surgery was done at the request of her mother, not in Africa but in a fashionable area of Manhattan where she was born, at the office of a distinguished gynecologist whose fees were consonant with his fame; I first found about it in 1944 when I was fourteen, from my father, who explained it to me in detail as the reason for her wanting a divorce. Teenagers are more curious than considerate, and I went straight to my mother to find out if it was true. I remember that day better than most days because it was the first time I’d ever seen my mother cry. She confirmed the mutilation, denied that it was the reason for the divorce, and added that we would not discuss the matter again.
At the time I believed her case was unique – that my mother had been singled out by some mysterious fate and mangled in an unthinkable way. But I was wrong, her case was far from unique, and a few years later in a fumbling effort to confront my own fear about the subject, I began to seek the truth from medical men of my grandmother’s vintage. One of them, a second-generation gynecologist then in his eighties, explained that the sexual mutilation of American women had been a lucrative industry in the United States from 1867 until at least 1927, and possibly much later – a thriving business few people spoke about afterward. In describing it, he told me more than I wanted to know at the time, and within a decade I’d mostly succeeded in putting the whole thing out of my mind.
Yet now – over forty years after I first found out – people who express such tender outrage at the practice of clitoridectomy in Africa still reject out of hand the mere suggestion that the custom was once popular in our own country. At a party some time ago, when the dinner guests began referring to the “barbaric” quality of clitoridectomy in Islamic cultures, I asked whether they used the same term to describe gynecological practices in nineteenth century America, but nobody at the table knew what I was talking about, and having dismissed it, they drifted back to their talk of Muslims. The next day, fed up with listening to them, I decided to be armed for the next argument on the subject and went to the public library, sure that all the facts must, by then, be available to anyone. But the results were disappointing; the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, had no female members till 1915, and a quick look at its reports didn’t reveal very much. What is obsolete or has become disreputable in medical practice tends to be omitted from history, and doctors congregate to record their successes, not their mistakes. Once more I forgot about it until something happened that had more effect on me than a casual conversation at a dinner party.
The first Sunday after Christmas of that year, my mother made a serious attempt at suicide – her second in a decade – one that would have succeeded, as would the first, save for Louise George, a woman who worked for her as a personal maid and housekeeper since I was born. Louise came to work in the morning as usual and found a sealed letter addressed to her in my mother’s handwriting, propped up on the dining room table; she panicked, ignored the instructions in the letter, and called the doorman, who phoned an ambulance. Nearly dead, my mother was rushed to New York Hospital, where the detoxification was slow because of the number of pills she had swallowed (sixty milligrams of Phenobarbital, more than the requisite lethal dosage), but within two weeks she’d been brought back to consciousness, examined by a faintly slaphappy psychiatrist who told her that suicide was an indication of low self-esteem, and sent home. …
The author is a writer by trade but this is not fiction. This was originally published in 2003 on compleatmother.com but is no longer available there.
The war on sex and family emotional ties is older than the crusades and more foundational to state power than real or concocted external enemies. It’s all about diverting human energies to the pursuit of emergent state interests.