A Piece of
An Essay on Desire
Howard L. Harrod, PhD Nashville,
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
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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