And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that the whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.
He doesn’t seem crazy. Not at all. There’s no muttering, no matted hair, no tics, no eyes that are keyholes into rooms where the worst things happen.
He’s twenty-two, with sandy hair, a turned-up nose, limpid eyes, and a healthy body. He could be a farm boy who got his hand caught in the threshing machine, but he’s not. The ace-bandaged stump that he holds to his chest like a small, cherished pet is his own handiwork. The aides who pass out the dinner trays look at the stump as they set down his meal. They pause for a moment, then begin to open his carton of milk, saying heartily, “I’ll just help you get set up here. . . .”
Whenever we get someone on the psychiatric unit who has managed to do something spectacularly bad to his or her body on purpose, the other nurses and I groan and shake our heads. We murmur, “How sad,” but the truth is that we are fascinated by such people. We swap stories: the man who cut off his penis because God told him it would grow back bigger; the man who cut his throat and lay in the woods for three days before he was found; the girl who set her face on fire with lighter fluid. And when the mood becomes too grim, we make jokes.
So it is with this young man. While we are talking about him one day, the janitor starts up an imaginary chain saw, complete with a few stalls. I nickname the young man Jonsared, a joke which only the janitor and the older aides get. The younger nurses don’t know that Jonsared is the best saw you can buy.
The team of doctors, of course, asked for a detailed medical history. Perhaps they had missed something. Perhaps some fossil had eluded their trusty tools. But this man — let’s call him Jon — has no history of abuse, no evidence of prodromal schizophrenia, no family history of madness. The best the doctors could come up with was a tentative diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder and a previous drug addiction.
It’s true Jon lost his way at some point in his life. When he got out of rehab, he wasn’t sure what to do. His future loomed before him, replete with choices, but what was there to guide him? Greed? Lust? Sloth? He was deep enough to flounder, and shallow enough to grasp at rules.
So he came up north to join some kind of Christian community. He lived in a mansion on a hill, a big house full of born-again Christians. There were the usual sermons, Bible-study groups, and times for private prayer. And then there was bedtime.
Jon had been good all day, pure and clean as the snow that muffled the hill. His thoughts had been fluffy white clouds floating above the rank needs of his body. But at night it started: the images. A lush set of breasts in a Victoria’s Secret bra. A pair of black underwear cut high on a flawless hip. The smooth pudendum with its thin strip of dark hair. They scampered across his brain like squirrels dashing across the street. They were fast, at first, and flickered like a squirrel’s tail. Then they lingered on the trunk of a tree, scolding him, their tails thick, soft, and supple. Flick, flick.
What was human will? Was he evil? Was his right hand under his control? Why did that hand creep down, down, till it lay carelessly between his legs? (Just checking.) Why did this feel better than prayer and fervent thoughts? There was a hot cord between his legs; all he had to do was pull it a few times and his body hummed with a strong, purring life of its own.
He commanded his right hand to remain still. His right hand obeyed, momentarily, like a whipped dog, then groveled forward again, begging.
Jon hinted to his Christian counselor that he had “impure thoughts.” The counselor, who probably masturbated on a regular basis, gave some regulation advice — something lame, like “Pray,” or “Think of Jesus,” or “Read the bible.”
Jon read the Bible. He opened it to Matthew: “And if thy right eye offend thee . . .”
The team presumes that Jon was psychotic. They are of the opinion that it is impossible to cut off your right hand with a chain saw unless you are psychotic. They speculate that Jon was dissociated when he did it and could not feel the pain. But there is a whisper of doubt in my mind.
I want to know more about Jon, to study him up close. “I’ll take him,” I say during nurses’ report. Afterward, I go straight to his room and look at him. He’s sleeping peacefully, with his bandaged stump held lightly at his side. I do not wake him right away. I wait until eight. When I do wake him, he comes to easily. Some patients, the really crazy or troubled ones, awaken like someone breaking the surface of a lake after a long dive. They burst into awareness, flailing and sucking air. Not Jon. He smiles up at me softly. He is polite.
Does he want something for the pain? I ask.
No, it doesn’t hurt.
Does he need help with his breakfast?
No, he’s already learned to do everything with his left hand.
I leave a urine cup, with the cap barely screwed down. (The lab will test his sample for drugs.) I tell him all he has to do is lift the top off.
He can unscrew it, he says proudly.
“I guess you’ve adjusted pretty well,” I say.
What he really wants is a shower, but he can’t have one, because the surgeons don’t want him to get his dressing wet.
“How about a bath?” I say.
Yes, he’d love a bath.
We march off to the tub room, loaded down with towels and a fresh gown and robe. I wrap the bandaged stump in plastic, just in case, then leave him to get undressed by himself, thinking he may be modest, embarrassed to undress in front of a nurse. When I come back later and call through a crack in the door, he tells me to come in. He is lying in the clear water with his penis floating at the surface like a soft, inflatable toy. He shows me that his left hand, the one he must use to wash himself, has a capped IV line that he is not supposed to get wet either. He’s been lying here in the water with his arms on the sides of the tub, wondering what to do.
I go away and come back with plastic to wrap the other hand. He is polite and grateful, not the least bit uncomfortable about my seeing him naked. He asks me to wash his back and hair, and I do so, carefully and tenderly. When the bath is done, he dresses and returns to his room, where he helps me change the sheets on his bed.
No one is talking to him about what he did. The team of doctors merely asks if he’s had any other thoughts about hurting himself, if he feels sad about the loss of his hand, if he’s sleeping well, if he is hearing voices. But I want to know about the moment of truth. What was he thinking? Where was he? Did it hurt? Does he think he is crazy?
Jon is happy to oblige me.
The chain saw was kept in a shed. Sometimes the Christians worked together to cut wood for the stove in the common room. Jon had never used a chain saw, but it wasn’t hard to start.
What was he thinking? Does he remember?
Yes, he remembers it perfectly.
He was sinning nightly. He had talked to some other young men about this problem, but their answers were always the same: prayer, reading the Bible, distraction. But Jon got to thinking: Was he really a Christian? Did he really believe the Bible was the word of God? If so, how much was he willing to sacrifice, how far was he willing to go to live by it? That verse in Matthew: was it supposed to be a metaphor? Jon didn’t think so. It seemed pretty clear to him. And what about Abraham? He had been willing to kill his only son, Isaac, simply because God commanded it. And Jon thought this was glorious. The problem was that people today did not take the Bible seriously enough. They said they believed in God, but they cherished their bodies too much. The body was just this lump of clay, heavy and hungry. If one truly believed in God, if one truly transcended the ego, one could be careless of the flesh, disdainful even. This hairy appendage called a hand? It was simply an instrument given to him temporarily. It was not Jon.
Jon asked himself: was he just another run-of-the-mill Christian on the hill, or did he have a faith deeper than the others’, a magnificent, deep, unshakeable trust?
The shed was not locked.
The saw was gassed up and clean, the chain sharp. Behind the shed, in the snow, hidden from the house, he knelt near a stand of pines. The air was cold, clear, aromatic. What was a hand? Nothing. There was so much else with which to know the world. When he sinned nightly, he pushed God away. In the spasm of pleasure, in the dripping, hot, open-mouthed moments of hard pleasure he created with his hand, God was nowhere to be found. There was no reconciliation unless he did as he was told. And yes, he believed. He believed that his act would free him. He believed that God, presented with this dripping hand, would deliver on his promise.
The saw started up with one pull.
All he had to do was lay it on his right forearm.
Flesh and muscle are softer than wood. A little pressure was all it took. The saw went through his arm with a high, hungry sound, hesitating only when it hit bone. It was over quickly.
No one has asked him, he says. No one has asked him what he felt, right then.
Jon did not want to die. That was not his intention. He walked back up the hill to the mansion, leaving a red, steaming trail in the snow. The hand had written its story in blood and signed it for the last time. It lay, open palmed, in farewell and surrender.
The Christians screamed and cried at the sight of him. It was clear they had no faith at all. It was clear they thought the body was sacrosanct, precious, and theirs forever. They didn’t scream like this about sin or blasphemy, which mutilate the soul.
They rushed and sweated, and the next thing he knew, he was in a helicopter flying to Porter Hospital with men in uniforms beside him and his severed hand in a box, packed in snow. He could tell by the way they treated him that he had done something brave and irrevocable. At the hospital, they wanted to reattach his hand, but he told them not to. He told them he would just cut it off again.
He now says he will get a prosthetic arm. He will undergo physical therapy; he will work with doctors, nurses, caseworkers. He will suffer and struggle. He will see doubt in the eyes of all who know him. But still he has faith that whatever happens was meant to happen, and that he will become someone better than the two-handed person he was and would have remained.
The doctors and residents and nurses don’t believe this, of course. They do not think that what Jon did has anything to do with faith. They cling to their thoughts and theories, certified and inspected and stamped normal. I am the only one who has let him talk about his act in terms of faith. I have not condoned it, but I have let him explain it in his own words and have considered the idea that he may not be devastated by the results.
As Jon kneels by his bed and flips through his Bible to the First Epistle of Peter, I acknowledge in myself a certain respect for him. He reads well, in sonorous tones: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
All I can tell him is that I interpret “works” as acts of compassion for my fellow man. I comb hair, wipe butts, put on shoes, and change dressings. And for that I need both hands.
We are silent for a moment. I feel pleased to have made such a keen point.
His face darkens as if it has gone behind a cloud.
He hadn’t thought of it that way, he says.
In another time, long ago, there was room for mortification of the flesh. There were places for people like Jon besides group homes and hospitals. The monks might have taken him in. Perhaps he could have joined their brotherhood. Though he wouldn’t have been much help copying manuscripts, he could have lived out a peaceful life milking the goats, tending the garden, singing hymns, washing his robes, and kneeling in prayer.
Is it better to insist that he regret what he has done? Is it even possible for him to do so? Thus far, three weeks later, we have seen no tears, no lethargy or lack of appetite. He says he hears no spectral voices in his head.
Jon cannot take back his actions, but in that moment when he overcame all human instinct and bit into the unknown, in that split second, something entered him. A new power surged like a hot shot of heroin into his bleeding stump, climbed the red veins of his arm, and found a ready room in his heart. It moved into the living mansion and has not left since.