Let’s take out the confusion factor right away. We’re talking MALE circumcision here. The abhorrent female clitorodectomy procedure, wrongly ascribed to that word, is not in the frame. This book, as its back cover synopsis heading states, is 'Dedicated to the education of parents of a newborn son and concerned others'.
There are probably only three types of people on this earth; lets call them A, B and C. A's are against the whole idea of circumcising babies and some even hate the thought that many males carry or choose this 'mutilation' in adulthood. The C's are convinced otherwise. For them circumcision is a procedure for which they will happily submit their sons for reasons of religion, family custom or (God bless America!) conforming to a very secular culture. In between are the B's who are indifferent to or anxious about circumcision. Through lack of information or the confusion of conflicting advice some are undecided and uncommitted. Dr Weiss’s book is written for them but it will also be a happy hunting ground for the other two groups. A's will attack it, C's will be content to have their convictions confirmed in it.
Hitherto raising this subject in mixed company has been one of the last taboos. As sex became more explicit, dinner table talk advanced to take in most of it. People have jettisoned their inhibitions to share surprising details of their sexual secrets. Just one topic seemed to remain off limits. Those bold enough to mention c**********n often found it to be a real conversation stopper and to enquire after someone’s circ status can still cause surprising embarrassment. People can be very coy about this particular aspect of themselves, their partners or their sons. In such a climate ignorance thrives and I believe the good doctor sets out to dispel it.
Alongside this, the more passionate of the A's have an agenda in trying to prevent C's from following their wish and custom to circumcise. A's are to thank for getting this matter aired on radio and TV chat shows, forums and websites. They are calling for an end to what they deem to be a mutilating and cruel practice that has no medical merit. Nowadays whenever a new book comes out with 'circumcision' writ large in the title we expect it will run over the reasons why we shouldn’t do this terrible thing to our sons.
However, here at last is a worthy 95 pages which redress the balance. It’s a reasoned book, well chaptered and easy to read. Dr Weiss is clear, calm and polite. He doesn’t duck any of the issues, indeed his opening sentence reminds readers that making this decision on behalf of your son can be a sobering experience. He then takes all who care to follow him through every aspect, every issue, steadily building up the information into a powerful pile. Each time a point is made he leaves the reader to decide. Nowhere does he push or harangue; the choice is still yours.
After the introduction Dr Weiss takes his readers on a quick tour of the medical reasons that support circumcision; cleanliness cancer prevention etc. Then goes on to quote case histories which demonstrate how most people are unaware of these issues and circumcise their boys for cultural reasons of family conformity outside of a religious contex it’s just something middle America feels they need to do. They don’t ask why, they just do it.
We canoe up the river of history to find the source of this, one of the world’s oldest operations. There are backwaters briefly explored but the main tributary is undoubtedly Judaism and the navigating handbook is the Bible.
The Jewish people are the religious guardians of this surgery who have preserved, perfected and spread it ever since the diaspora. As with their faith, there has been no great missionary zeal to draw in converts, just a willingness to explain, advise and assist those who are curiously drawn to it. Thus by a process of osmosis the operation has transferred to other faiths and countries. It’s greatest manifestations are in the world of Islam and by contrast, also across the great swathe of modern, middle class America.
It’s likely that Dr Weiss could promote his reasoning from a Jewish perspective but he makes no mention of this and rests his good authority on his 50 plus years as an eminent surgeon. He concludes this chapter with a brief mention of instruments invented to facilitate the procedure.
This leads us nicely into his next detailed discourse called 'anatomy of a circumcision' which is the meat of the book. It should serve to acquaint parents with several methods by which circumcision may be performed, including that of a Jewish Mohel. Not for the squeamish perhaps although a clinical description is not nearly so chilling as the real thing.
Many parents who would otherwise be prepared to circumcise their son sometimes shrink from doing so because they don’t wish to put their baby through any pain. This is natural enough as maternal and paternal instincts are first to protect. The thought of having their baby taken away to inflict this pain upon him is too much for some so they opt out. Others say better a few minutes of hurting now when he won’t remember it, than several days of it in the total awareness of child or adulthood. Dr Weiss addresses this issue square on and doesn’t pretend that babies don’t feel pain. His most reassuring contribution is to point out that pain in adult experience is a conditioned reflex. We react to what we expect or are told about, or see coming or know. A baby doesn’t know or anticipate and doesn’t feel in quite this way. The question of anaesthetics is explored with a strong hint at caution.
One of the big arguments of the protagonists in this eternal circumcision debate is 'Does it prevent cancer?' A chapter is devoted to a convincing argument that it does. Many opponents of circumcision who concede this, simply dismiss the prophylactic solution by pointing at the low incidence of penile cancer. To them the statistics are so small as to be of little consequence! I’ve always thought those 'insignificant' few who suffer should be invited to have the last word. Here Doctor Weiss says it for them in a powerful three word sentence: 'Cancer is cancer'.
In the sexual arena in recent years, AIDS has certainly deposed cancer, syphilis and other venereal diseases as a major concern. These and other health issues in the context of the circumcision argument are given a good airing. Dr Weiss fairly pauses to include a dissenting view from his conclusions. If by now you are confused, you’ll find this section ends with his evaluations neatly listed under headings; 'To C or not to C'.
Obviously he feels the medical argument is good enough on it’s own, because at the end of this chapter he steps aside from the sexual dimension, explaining it is too personal and multi-faceted. I would certainly like to have seen an expansion of his book into this field. Perhaps here he could have drawn on more input from his co-author Angela Harter as she in turn could have trawled for other female testimony which favours the circumcised state in their menfolk. It’s not hard to find.
'Money talks' is a short account of circumcision costs then and now. It ranges from the 35c 'cut' done on cowboys at the turn of the century (so that’s how the West was won!) to present day fees and insurance coverage.
Those who take the decision to circumcise their son soon realise another hurdle presents itself; when and how to tell him. Some have anxieties about this. The book gives a resumé of how growing boys relate and react right through to adulthood. It suggests that parents be prepared and secure in their answers to questions which may come from both sides of the family on this issue. Little boys and girls are going to spot the difference and ask about it. Dr Weiss suggests the emphasis be on your own reassuring rationale and not to enter into speculation on the motives of those who left their sons 'intact'.
Dr Weiss signs off his section in this book with a splendid chapter titled ‛What’s natural?’ It is a common sense philosophy and draws together the religious, sexual and physical strands for us. Alone, it is worth buying this book. I’ll leave those who do so to enjoy reading it without further comment.
The concluding corollary comes from Angela Harter who is as frank as Dr Weiss as she relates her own personal experiences in circumcising two sons. It is a journey in which she admits to going along with the procedure through instinct and in ignorance . Her education is in that experience - which doesn’t end once the boys have been cut. As a journalist she is ever questioning and passes through belts of doubt and guilt as she explores the motives of her decision to submit her sons to this. Like most parents of circumcised boys she rests happy with her rationale in the end and is well able to share her story as an endorsement.
Don’t buy a copy of this book - BUY TWO. One to pass on to friends after you’ve read it and become better informed, the other to stay on your shelf until that day when your son asks ‛Why am I circumcised?’ If your son can read, Dr Weiss will do a great job answering that question.
The book (ISBN: 0-9667219-0-X) is available direct from Wiser Publications, PO Box 273085, Ft Collins, CO 80527, USA at $12.95 plus $1.50 P&P, or through booksellers, or online from http://www.amazon.com
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