Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma

Author: Ronald Goldman, Ph.D.

Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. By Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. Boston: Vanguard Publications, 1997. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Once in a very great while, a reader will have the great fortune of coming across a truly remarkable book. A book which may treat a specialized subject but which is so beautifully written, so meticulously reasoned, so broad in the compass of its grasp of its subject as to transcend the specificity of its topic, and yet at the same time so tightly focused on each specific aspect it discusses, in short, so superb that it stands out head and shoulders above the mass of books being published today.

Ronald Goldman’s book Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma is such a book. Opening with a compelling forward by famed anthropologist Ashley Montagu, Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma leaps headfirst into some controversial questions in the introduction and does not let up until it ends more than 200 pages later with a stirring series of closing meditations.

Any reader may expect to be struck in the early pages by Goldman’s effective blend of emotional insight and objective fact, the latter documented throughout the book by hundreds of footnotes. As Goldman continues, he effortlessly distills and integrates decades of research on infants and children. I appreciated his excellent summaries at the end of each chapter. Particularly valuable was the list on page 74 of the many similarities and the few differences between circumcision and female genital mutilation.

Have you ever wondered whether America’s high rates of violence may be related to our high circumcision rates? Goldman has done more than wonder; he has extensively researched the possibility, although he is always careful to add cautionary statements that at most, circumcision is one of several factors affecting American men’s (and women’s) lives.

Goldman has an impressive ability to continue to generate and synthesize new insights and questions throughout the book. Although circumcision is often done so that the child does not have a different genital status from his father, is it actually the PARENT’S fear of difference which is apparent here? Is it possible that sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is actually infant suicide? Goldman relates circumcision to other problematic American birth practices such as birth with the mother on her back, use of drugs, forceps deliveries, routine episiotomy, and cesarian births. He includes an admirable short section addressing the interrelationship of social problems and noting the possible connection of circumcision trauma to the epidemic divorce rates. Equally unforgettable are sections in which men circumcised as adults speak about their incalculable loss and in which Goldman addresses the disruption of the infant/mother bond.

Goldman concludes his masterful work with a truly stunning series of innovative meditations, each three or four insight-filled pages long. These address 1) the American motivation to circumcise (our lack of awareness is alarming; the use and exclusion of certain words helps to maintain support for circumcision); 2) science and medicine (flawed studies are the rule not the exception, and doctors tend to MEASURE rather than to FEEL pain); 3) ethics and medicine (isn’t it the medical profession’s responsibility to LEAD rather than FOLLOW community health care standards?; since when does a trained surgeon take the advice of laypeople as to whether he or she should operate?); 4) cultural and social perspectives (we can circumcise our sons because we are so alienated from each other); 5) hope for healing (no matter how “bad” our feelings are, expressing them feels good); 6) preventing future harm (taking action to prevent others from being victimized aids one’s own recovery). Goldman closes his book by reminding us that to think that newborn infants can be subjected to circumcision without an impact on them or others ignores the interconnnectedness of all life. When a baby’s sexuality is not safe, no one’s sexuality is safe.

As awe-inspiring an achievement as it is, Goldman’s work is not without flaws. He sometimes forgets that not everyone reading his book will be a heterosexual American. Readers will wonder why Goldman does not attempt to compare Americans with Europeans to dispose of certain possibilities he raises–does circumcision contribute to impotence? to sadomasochistic behavior?

Most sadly, Goldman unfortunately fails to extend his understanding of male oppression beyond circumcision, and fails to transcend the comfortably unnuanced views of “patriarchy” which are so popular nowadays. This leads him into inevitable contradictions; he claims that men are primarily responsible for circumcision on page 197 and then four short pages later acknowledges that “circumcision is a social problem in which the whole society is complicit.” If, as Goldman correctly notes at page 171, most circumcised and intact men are not perpetrators of child abuse, how can it possibly be true, as he somewhat wildly speculates two short pages earlier, that “a CONSERVATIVE adjusted rate [of women who suffer child abuse at the hands of men] would be about 60 percent”? (emphasis added) Goldman also demonstrates his ignorance of the fact that roughly equal levels of domestic violence are committed by women and men, as well as his unawareness that women commit the majority of parental violence against children. Nevertheless, Goldman’s conclusions and speculations regarding the possible connection of circumcision to high levels of American violence remain compellingly plausible.

Small publisher Vanguard Publications has done a beautiful job with the physical layout of the book. Wide margins, attractive typeface, high quality paper, and readily usable supplementary matter all combine in an extremely appealing package.

Despite its imperfections, Ronald Goldman’s book is certain to become an instant classic in the growing field of books about male circumcision. By the very depth of its commitment to the truth about this issue, and the logic and poetry of its presentation, it should appeal to anyone with any interest in children, men, or American society.