Crossing St. Marks Place, David seems like a fairly ordinary veteran of the East Village, with several visible tattoos and a backpack slung across his shoulders. In conversation, he is gentle, thoughtful, and clearly well-read; many of his sentences start with, “There was an article in the
Atlantic . . . ” He enjoys modern classical music, and has a particular liking for the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He also has a fondness for disposing of his fingers and toes, most of which he has removed himself, unaided by doctors or friends. A closer look at his hands reveals stumps of varying length where his fingers belong, with only his thumbs and right index finger left intact. Most of his toes, except for the two big ones he needs to walk, are cut down to stubby knobs. And his perfect pearly whites aren’t God-given—he wears dentures, having yanked out his real teeth with pliers several years ago.
David’s predilection for amputation is an occurrence of a well-documented condition to which the medical and psychiatric establishment has applied several labels, including apotemnophilia, amelo- tasis, and body integrity identity disorder. However, David and many like him don’t feel they suffer from a disorder at all.
Over a bowl of lamb soup, David calmly recounts the first time he chopped off a toe. After icing his foot, he placed it in the bathtub. He positioned a chisel over a joint in his toe with one hand, and used the other to strike the chisel with a hammer. “It was so painless that I went ahead and took off more of the toe, at the next joint closer to my foot,” he recalls fondly. “It bled more than I thought it would, though.” He says he dealt with the ensuing shock by returning to bed and “sleeping it off.” It took almost two months for the self-inflicted wound to heal.
For a long time he saved the severed body parts in his freezer, where they slowly shriveled, until a girlfriend made him throw them out.
Most of David’s amputations healed by a process called granulation, the body’s natural, unaided response to injury. Lately, though, he has started suturing the wounds, which can cut the healing time from eight weeks to two, but requires the assistance of someone with some surgical training. He is reluctant to identify his helpers, but implies that piercing artists have sewn him up in the past.
Most people who voluntarily remove body parts have longed for the separation since childhood. David, who asked that only his first name be used in this article, is not one of them. He says the desire was born in the 1990s after he read a couple of articles about the phenomenon in men’s magazines like Penthouse and Nugget.
David first removed a toe in 2000, five years after he separated from his wife of 25 years. He says that their relationship started to fall apart when he first took an interest in body modification, which started with tattoos and piercings. (The two share a daughter who believes that David’s missing digits are the outcome of peripheral artery disease, a fiction that he promulgated so as not to disturb her.)
David performed his first few amputations without anesthetic, but has since relied on lidocaine to help numb the target areas.
Though he admits that he finds amputation sexually arousing, his overall rationale for parting ways with his fingers and toes is artistic. A longtime painter, he conveys the joy he feels on sunny days when he looks at the shadow cast on the sidewalk by his hand and admires it for its incompleteness. “This is an aesthetic pursuit,” he says. “I see myself as a sculptor.” He equates his incomplete physique to that of an excavated, limbless Roman statue, an image he finds beautiful.
Now that David has severed most of his fingers and toes, he is looking to the future. He has been told that there are doctors in the Philippines and in India who will sever healthy limbs for about $10,000, and says he might be interested in removing his legs and maybe even a hand.
David acknowledges that most consider his habit bizarre. “When people ask me about my fingers, I never tell them it’s voluntary,” he says. “They would be horrified. I mean, little children stare at me already. Big deal.”
Though he acknowledges that most people are repulsed by his practices, David is hopeful that he might still find a companion. “Tomorrow I’m meeting a woman I found on Craigslist,” he says. “We haven’t actually met in person yet. Who knows? Maybe she’ll put up with my nonconformity.”