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Epiphanies

by J.

The following series of quotations from personal accounts indicates that each writer has experienced the same epiphany:

... we turned a corner and ahead of us was the woman in the blue coat: she had one leg, her right, and she walked with a single crutch, which she held inside the coat, her left hand holding it through her pocket. She had shoulder-length dark curly hair, and she walked beautifully with a natural swinging gait. I was enraptured. I can see her now, small, distant, bright, swinging elegantly in the blue coat. She has stepped through my mind so often that I have tried to analyse what it was that made her gait so elegant. She took all her weight on her left arm and shoulder through her crutch, and swung her leg forward, without any suggestion of hopping, swaying a little to the left, her centre of gravity passing, quite deliberately, over the point where the crutch touched the ground, then stepping forward and a little to the right, the centre of gravity shifted over her right foot, the weight of her body supported by her leg as she moved the crutch forward for the next step. I don't suppose that she analysed how she did it, and after the learning phase, constant practice had polished the gait, making it efficient, and through its efficiency quite beautiful, the elegance coming from the repeating combination of the two slow swings, one in the direction of travel, the other at rightangles to it, superimposing to form a delicate rolling sinuosity that seemed not in the least disabled.
... I remember her distinctly ... in a crocodile with twenty or thirty other girls dressed in the blue uniform of the local convent school, and no different except that she had only one leg, and used a pair of aluminium elbow-crutches. I was six at the time, but I knew immediately that she and other women like her would hold some deep fascination for me. Decades later I'm just as interested, but no nearer to understanding why.
... one Sunday, at some grand Scout and Guide parade, I caught a glimpse of a girl in guide's uniform, wearing an old-fashioned peg-leg. The effect on me was explosive. I was overwhelmed with a sense of tragedy and horror coupled with excitement and fascination. Although she was some distance off the adrenalin now coursing through me must have heightened my senses and I took in an image which is with me to this day. Tall and slim, laughing face, black hair, badges galore, and marching along in exemplary style.
... How did all this devoteeism begin? Classically, I guess, when I was five or six, and living by the seaside. Walking along with my aunt one day, a girl,ten years old or so, came along the promenade with her family. She wore a Summer frock and polished leather pegleg. Later we saw her sitting in a deckchair, her pegleg propped on the promenade rail. It was not a sexual encounter as I was too young - What caused it? I do not remember any events prior to that, which might have influenced me, but on that day something happened to me which has been with me ever since.
... I had a teacher who was an amputee. As some boys do I fell in love with my teacher ... I remember her as being about as old as my mother ... she did something to me that raised my adrenalin, whenever I saw her crutching along ... I think it was the first erotic stimulus that I had ever felt. It was not pity at all, but the feelings that a man has when he is attracted to a woman.

These accounts have much in common. Perhaps the most intriguing feature is that all the authors were very young boys when they experienced the pivotal encounter. With the exception of the last of the accounts, the feelings elicited were not so much erotic as attractive: the little boys all fell in love-at-first-sight. There is no suggestion of prurience, or perversion, and the experiences described have an almost mystical intensity.

I believe that this devotion is nothing more than imprinting. Perhaps the best known example of imprinting is the following-behaviour of newly hatched goslings. It was well known that newly hatched goslings follow their mother. Konrad Lorenz discovered that they did not in fact identify their mother because she was a goose. The goslings followed the first moving thing they saw after they had hatched. As this was almost always their mother who had been brooding the eggs from which they hatched, the rule, 'Follow the first moving object you see', usually resulted in their following their mother. They did the right thing, keeping close to Mummy, but they did it for the wrong reason. However, accidents and experiments can intervene and a family of goslings became imprinted on Lorenz, followed him wherever he went, and became distressed when he left them behind.

One crucial aspect of the behaviour of the goslings is that it is irreversible: no matter how inappropriate the moving object is, once the goslings have become imprinted on it, they remain imprinted on it; another is that there is a limited period in the gosling's life when it is susceptible to imprinting. I suggest that for a period when they are very young, children are predisposed instinctively to identify physically different people as being appropriate sexual partners, that this process takes place in the early part of life, that the identification is like a key in a lock, and that it is a process of imprinting. I believe that, as with the goslings, once the sexual imprinting has taken place it is irreversible. All that is lacking to complete this explanation is an account of the nature of the imprinting stimulus.

The ideas that lead to the second part of the explanation derive from work by another ethologist, Tinbergen, who was interested in understanding the behaviour of herring gulls brooding eggs. He discovered that the brooding behaviour of the gulls could be elicited by objects which to our eyes were very different from eggs. He discovered that the colour and marking of eggs was important, but that the shape was not. He also discovered that the birds preferred large eggs to small ones. This makes sense because large healthy chicks are likely to come out of large eggs. As a result of his experiments he found that the gulls preferred to try to brood large cardboard cubes in preference to eggs, provided that the cubes were painted with the same colours and patterns as are found on the shells of gulls' eggs. For the gulls, the painted cardboard cubes were more egg-like than real eggs. They were super-stimuli that elicited the brooding behaviour that was normally elicited by eggs in nature.

If the imprinting stimulus for sexual partners is physical difference from the self, the more physically different a person is from oneself the more likely it is that that person belongs to a different sex. Women are different from men, and women lacking limbs are even more different. I suggest that a women who was an amputee, encountered by a young boy during period when he was susceptible to sexual imprinting, would form the pattern of the type of woman to whom the young boy would be most strongly attracted later in life, after puberty, when he becomes sexually active. I believe that this is also the key to a variety of other sexual preferences for people who are physically different from the average. For me the super-stimulus was the sight of a one-legged woman walking with a single crutch. What I remember about her was that she walked very gracefully and didn't seem physically disabled, and she was uniquely attractive.

That's how I think it happens: just an accident, like becoming an amputee.

I don't think that understanding the causes of the attraction is all that important. What is important is to recognize that these accidents that have befallen two communities have the potentiality for allowing the development of uniquely intense loving relationships.

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