A documentary about people obsessed with amputation.

Health and medicine explained.
July 10 2003 1:15 PM

Costing an Arm and a Leg

The victims of a growing mental disorder are obsessed with amputation.

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Perhaps, but this can only be determined through careful study. What needs particular attention are the reasons why some people come to be sexually attracted to amputees or to the image of themselves as amputees. The form paraphilias take differs not merely among individuals, but from one culture and historical period to another. When Richard von Krafft-Ebing was writing about paraphilias in 19th-century Vienna, he described men who were sexually obsessed with handkerchiefs. That paraphilia has largely disappeared. Yet many others have emerged. What is it about our own time and place that has helped create an obsession with amputees?

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By all indications, the number of people identifying themselves as wannabes is growing. Robert Smith, the Scottish surgeon, has six more acceptable candidates for amputation. A popular wannabe listserv, whose membership was 1,400 two and a half years ago, has 3,670 subscribers today. A group of clinicians at Columbia University has set up a Web site to provide information about the condition. They are redefining it as "Body Integrity Identity Disorder." In the meantime, psychiatrists are no closer to understanding the condition, and they are proposing no therapy other than amputation.

Carl Elliott is a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota and author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine.