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Wannabes On Television

Warning: Paul really exists but under a different name and is not to be confused with Paul, the present editor of OverGround

The discontinued BBC series "Over the edge" started with a programme entitled The Wannabees. Appearing on the programme were George Boyer, who is an elective amputee, and Paul, not further identified, a member of OverGround, (I noticed copies of the magazine lying on the table beside his computer.) The programme began with Boyer talking about the origins of his desire to become an amputee.

'I first became aware of this unusual wish, to be an amputee, when I was about 13. I knew that I wanted to be like this boy whom I knew at school, who used a peg-leg.' The accompanying visuals, slow tracking shots over unidentified pieces of translucent plastic, the components, presumably, of artificial limbs, faint music: muted trumpets, (Not, in my view, very illuminating, padding for a programme already short of relevant visual material).

Cut to Paul, tracking shot to his feet. We never see Paul's face properly; I suppose that this is one of the key differences between the two men in the programme: after achieving his desire late in life, at the cost of considerable personal danger, faced with, perhaps misplaced, courage, Boyer is open about what he has achieved and appears to be happy with the result. Paul, in contrast, is very unhappy, tortured even, and elected to remain in the shadows. He described a variety of attempts, all of them failures, to injure his leg sufficiently to make its amputation necessary. He said that he had abandoned self-injury and now sought surgical amputation of his healthy left leg above the knee. The programme cut between Boyer and Paul and back to Boyer. Attempts to palliate Paul's desire included the provision of a kind of close-fitting plastic brace that covers his left leg and restricts the movements of his leg and foot.There were shots of him using this.

A consultation between Paul and his psychiatrist was shown next. Paul's relationship with his psychiatrist was surprisingly ambiguous. I found this the most disturbing aspect of the whole programme. The patient who presents himself to a psychiatrist is tacitly applying to himself a medical model of the mental state he is concerned to alter. The implication therefore is that the psychiatrist, the professional expert is the person qualified to make judgements about what constitutes the appropriate treatment necessary to alter the patient's mental state. The patient is not qualified to do this, nor is he capable of doing this, because if he were he would never have needed to consult the psychiatrist in the first place.

From the point of view of almost any healing professional the desire to cut off a healthy member would be ipso facto evidence of severe mental illness. It could be argued that to collude with a patient's pathological state would be to act unethically, but equally, to consult a psychiatrist, in order to support a particular state of mind is equally unethical. The psychiatrist apparently provided psychological support and a surgeon was approached to amputate the leg. He refused to do so. My first response to this was whole-hearted agreement: I believed that it would be unethical for a surgeon to amputate a healthy limb. I believed that the request confused two different aspects of life, happiness and health. It seems to me that there is no reason to expect health and happiness to be linked necessarily together, and that therefore it is perfectly possible to be healthy and miserable, a state of being that I am not unfamiliar with, and my immediate conclusion followed from the recognition of the facts that Paul believed that the amputation would make him happier, and the surgeon refused to amputate his healthy limb to make him happier; but surgeons perform elective operations daily: men obtain vasectomies, women sterilizations, and abortions. It is true that the magnitude of such surgical procedures is much smaller than an amputation, but this is in part due to the frequency with which the operations are requested, and the consequent need for carrying them out as quickly and efficiently as possible has led to the development of minimally invasive methods to achieve the desired outcome. The amputation of a limb is a larger scale operation and is therefore more expensive than a vasectomy; but the practicalities of the operation should not obscure the fact that in terms of their effects, the amputation of a limb is a less fundamental functional modification of the body than sterilization: the amputee can, after all, walk to some degree, the vasectomee is permanently sterile. (None of these arguments was explored. What a wasted opportunity!)

Back to the programme: more tracking shots of artificial limbs - Bloody hell, this sort of stuff went out with Scandinavian-factory documentaries in the 'fifties - and nasty portentous disco-music to bridge the gap back to Boyer, who is at least, interesting to look at, with a jowly face, glasses, a walrus moustache, and to listen to, a quiet twanging American accent.

Boyer described how decided to shoot himself to make the amputation necessary. He planned the act in great detail using a shoulder of pork as a model of his leg, in order to discover the likely effect the gunshot wound would have. He discovered that it would not be wise to shoot himself from too close a range. He said that he planned the act carefully, but it was amazing what he left to chance. He ordered the events of the shooting just as they would have happened if it had taken place by accident. He shot himself first, then applied the tourniquet, and was almost passing out, when with bloody fingers slipping off the key pad of his telephone, he called the emergency services. (It would have been much more sensible to apply the tourniquet first, then telephone for help, and then wait until the ambulance was at the door before firing - but don't try this trick at home, children.) He went on to say 'I'm really pleased with the outcome!!!'

More of the same grim filling-in visuals, the same minimalistic music - despite the fact that this is the visual generation there is no text, nothing iconic, just minute after tedious minute of stupefyingly slow tracking over the shapes of Barbie-doll coloured plastic. Television ought to be dense, overloading the senses with torrents of pictures, text, and sound, not underloading us with wallpaper.

The programme went on to show Boyer displaying his modified body, just an old man's body with a leg missing, not a particularly agreeable spectacle from an Šsthetic point of view, though it was further confirmation that Boyer is remarkably pleased with himself.

There was a scene where Paul had just received the news that the surgeon approached to amputate his limb had refused to agree to do so. Paul was very unhappy, and on the brink of tears. Boyer said the usual comforting platitudes that you expect to make when confronted with someone else's obvious distress.

What was missing from the programme? There was nothing at all about the reactions of the people close to Boyer to what he had done to himself, no reactions from those close to Paul about what he desired to do. Likewise there was no exploration about what the wannabes wanted to do with their modified bodies. From Boyer's comments and body language there seemed to be an element of exhibitionism, a satisfaction in displaying himself in public, and a minute interest in the responses of other people to his modified body.

A technical issue that was completely ignored was Boyer's physiological response to the amputation. Most amputees perceive phantom limb phenomena, and some suffer phantom pain for years. The loss of a limb normally leads to severe unhappiness, or clinical depression, as well as physical disability. Phantom pain may be in part a psychological response to the unhappiness. It would have been interesting to compare Boyer's experiences of phantom phenomena arising as a result of an elective amputation he was happy to have undergone, with the experiences of others whose amputations were undesired.

In conclusion, the programme achieved very little. It brought the existence of wannabes to public attention, but it failed to say anything about the origins of the desire, or about the ethics of satisfying, or failing to satisfy the desire, or about the the social impact of the phenomenon either to the wannabe's immediate circle or to the wider society.

Post-scriptum: Since the program was made Paul has received an elective amputation of his leg. He now lives a peacefull and happy life as an amputee with his supporting wife and family.
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