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June 2003

A Piece of My Mind
An Essay on Desire

Howard L. Harrod, PhD Nashville, Tennessee
Reprinted from the Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA), Feb 19, 2003.

The fall and winter of 1993 were among the best times of my life. I was 62 years old and working on a book about Native American animal rituals; my wife, Annemarie, was preparing a paper in environmental sociology. Our intellectual lives were full. And since we were living in a remote area near the Canadian border and Glacier National Park, spectacular beauty surrounded us. During the fall, we laid in firewood, took long hikes, and fed our souls on the gorgeous crispness and solitude that fall on the land in anticipation of winter. After the main range of the Rocky Mountains was covered with snow, we spent long evenings reading. During that part of the day not given over to writing and research, we ventured forth on cross-country skis.

We returned to Nashville in December to spend Christmas with our children, grandchildren, and extended families. On the drive back, I experienced an urgency to urinate that would not be denied. Fortunately, a deserted cornfield just off the freeway provided me with sufficient cover and blessed relief. Reassured by previously normal PSA tests, I was certain the possibility of infection was high and made an appointment with a urologist.

Infection was not detected, but my PSA level had risen significantly. My urologist strongly suggested an ultrasound biopsy. The results: a fast-growing, probably very aggressive cancer. I spent much of January anxiously reviewing options, spending as much time as possible in the medical school library at Vanderbilt. Alternatives were murky. I gradually became more deeply aware that significant risks and uncertain benefits accompanied each therapy and that alternate paths were contested.

After reviewing research, further consultation with my physicians, long conversations with my wife, and listening to my own body, we decided that surgery was the best option for me at that time. So in early 1994 I entered Vanderbilt Medical Center and underwent surgery for the removal of my prostate. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes but, thankfully, had not metastasized to my bones.

Hormone therapy was the recommended course of treatment, so I began monthly injections of Lupron. Every month upon entering the Vanderbilt clinic, a flood of memories swept over me as I relived aspects of the operation and despaired of what had happened to me. Finally, after a year of treatment, I decided to give up my testicles.

After the orchiectomy I was still physically able to do almost all that I wanted. But I was impotent, and despite considering all the possibilities, from penile implants to pumps, I remained in a state of despair. As a consequence of trying to sort out this complex emotional tangle, I gradually became aware of how deep my gender socialization had been. Not only had I a sense of having been mutilated, I had also lost the very capacities that were symbolically associated with manhood in American society. I no longer had a prostate, I was incapable of an erection, and I had no testicles. More fundamentally, I had lost the capacity to experience desire.

The sudden loss of libido produced forms of suffering I had not anticipated. The initial forms were stimulated by my context: I taught at a university each day; on campus and elsewhere, I encountered young people caught in the throes of raging hormones. Because I had lost the capacity to experience desire did not mean that I was not tormented by memories of desire. Surrounded by the presence of youthful Eros, expressed in forms of touching or longing looks, I began to feel a crushing weight of loss. Why was this happening? After all, mine was a mature sexuality fully integrated, I thought, into my personality.

But such experiences continued and they produced increased suffering. The sight of young males walking across the campus tormented me. I began to envy their capacities and, most fundamentally, their possession of what I had lost. I hated these feelings; and sometimes I hated myself for having them. But they were difficult to suppress, and they continued to break into ugly blooms in my experience. As I endured the suffering produced by unwanted fantasies, I finally began to see what was producing them. Like a range of mountains that appears in the distance, those structures of meaning that had formed the capacities for my erotic responses came gradually into focus.

When these meanings became clearer, I confronted an idea that I had read about in literature by feminist scholars: male sexuality was excessively genital in its focus. Confronting this idea at a deep emotional level was shattering; and allowing it to have an affective impact on my experience began to deconstruct my previously taken-for-granted expressions of erotic pleasure. As a consequence of my male socialization, how restricted these “pleasures” now appeared, and, more painfully, I began to sense how much I had missed.

All of this was not new to my wife. She had been saying many of these things for years, but I was not listening. The loss of capacities, body parts, and what I thought of as my essential maleness was less important to her than the intimacy that accompanied other forms of reciprocal communication: touching, holding, sharing feelings, and being deeply present to one another. As a consequence of these insights, a surprising disgust arose in me, and now I began to hate my previous sexual responses: how insensitive, narrow, and compulsive they had been. And, in a phrase that seemed to summarize all that I was feeling, how goatish!

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