Two longtime leaders of the struggle to protect children’s human rights have each written a memoir detailing their formative years and years as an activist on the front lines. Full disclosure: I am fortunate enough to count both authors, Marilyn Fayre Milos and Georganne Chapin, as close personal friends. I am mentioned in both books and appear several times including in the acknowledgments in Chapin’s book. And both books, it must be said, eminently reflect the personalities of their respective authors in a truly lovable and sometimes amusing way. (Both books are being published on February 20, 2024. I was furnished with advance reader’s copies of both books in order to be able to review them here.)
Marilyn, a former Registered Nurse who became the founder and head of NOCIRC (the National Organization of Circumcision Information Research Centers) for many years, and is now a board member and clinical consultant to Intact America, is often referred to as the mother of the intactivist movement. Georganne, a healthcare executive and lawyer holding degrees not only in law but also in anthropology and sociomedical sciences, is founding executive director of Intact America.
It is likely unprecedented to have the coordinated publication, on the same day by the same publishing company, of two memoirs by two activist authors about their lives and work in the same field of activism. Both books work admirably both as memoirs and as activist diaries, and the interconnections between Georganne’s and Marilyn’s lives and their causes are fascinating and often edifying.
The analogies don’t carry through to the specifics of Georganne’s and Marilyn’s lives and work. Georganne did have some interesting and fairly extensive childhood exposure to alternative thinking and parental figures who were unafraid to challenge the status quo. Marilyn by turn in early adulthood made connections with two pop cultural icons, Jerry Garcia and Lenny Bruce.
Georganne’s lively family of origin encompassed a sometimes almost bewildering cast of characters. Her mother Helen was a Greek woman from Hawaii who met her father, an Oklahoman of mixed European ancestry, while on vacation in California not long after World War II. It was not her biological father who was actively involved in raising her for the majority of her life, however, but her mother’s second husband, Hank Chapin, who married Helen after she left Georganne’s father, and whose name Georganne bears. Georganne (along with her co-author, Lucid Publishing CEO/Co-Founder Echo Montgomery Garrett) demonstrates an impressive ability first, to describe her complicated family with honesty about both positive and negative traits, and secondly, to draw lines between her experiences earlier in life and how they equipped her to become the powerful, committed activist that she is today. Hank was definitely a mixed bag, introducing Georganne to a whole literary and artistic world about which he was quite knowledgeable (and opinionated), and encouraging her to take flute lessons (which play a powerful role later in her life), but also dominating Georganne and other members of the family in some unpleasant ways. Hank and Helen often entertained with extended intellectual discussions that could last after midnight and in which Georganne participated from a young age. Georganne lays out how her varied family background also assisted in her work with people from multiple backgrounds, countries, and cultures.
Georganne’s family, including Hank, Helen, her sister Julia, and her half-brother Chip (whose father was Hank), lived in a variety of places, some of which accepted this crazy non-conformist non-church-going hippie family, others of which (such as Georgetown, Kentucky) absolutely did not. Helen and a Black woman named Mrs. Peters merged their two separate Brownie troops, one “Negro” and one “white,” further diminishing (or enhancing, depending on how you look at it) this odd family’s reputation among their more conformist and conservative neighbors. For the family’s friendliness to Black people, bottles were sent crashing through the front window of their house. Georganne mentions some of the blind spots her family had as well, as when shockingly a cousin of Georganne’s who had already molested his younger sister was allowed to stay with Georganne’s family and predictably molest her with no advance thought by Helen of this obvious consequence. Later in time Georganne suffered a painful rape by her “first boyfriend.” Again this variety of experiences equipped Georganne for later working with a public with a wide variety of backgrounds and responses to Intact America’s (and ARC’s) core message of respect for children’s human rights.
Next Georganne’s family moved to what became paradise for them, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Antioch College is located and where Georganne quickly underwent her “transformation into a hippie chick.” Georganne writes: “The distance from Georgetown to Yellow Springs was only 140 miles. The contrast between the two places, however, revealed in microcosm the ideological conflicts, economic and social inequities, and racial strife underlying the history of our country.” Georganne’s family chose to adopt a Black child named Nicky, further broadening her experiences growing up. “I related deeply to my two brothers. I am certain that these observations, these feelings, and these relationships are at the root of the compassion and empathy I have drawn upon to work effectively with circumcision survivors and their loved ones.”
I appreciate Georganne’s dedication to truth above political expediency, as when she related a story of a Black female student from a Black-only dorm with undercurrents of violence who, told by waitress Georganne that she had arrived at a cafeteria too late to receive dinner, “jumped up, cocked her arm, and slugged me square in my left jaw.” Her parents expressed sympathy but were not willing to file a complaint with the college or contact the police. “That would, in their book, have been racist.” Georganne was understandably incensed that she could be punched in the face with impunity. “To me, this represented not racial tolerance, but rather fear and an inability to confront on an individual level the contradictions inherent in a racist culture.” This experience helped prepare Georganne for her current work, which sometimes requires her to confront forces of convenience and political correctness and fight for the human rights of all children. “If we are to achieve justice, it can never be by favoring one class of victim or victimizer over another. These conversations all started in my head when I was a young girl and—though imperfectly—Yellow Springs began preparing me to hold and work through multiple contradictory forces and ideas in the years to come.”
Another complex example followed shortly, when Georganne had a Black boyfriend. Helen could only think of herself and her own fears that if Georganne got pregnant and had a mixed-race child, this would somehow cancel out the good deed they had done by adopting Nicky. “I knew she loved me, but her desire to convey a certain image about our family seemed a greater priority than trying to understand and support me, her adolescent daughter. Georganne attended Barnard College in New York City. Her parents discouraged her from studying geology, saying, “Honey, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You’re much stronger in the humanities.” Looking back, Georganne is sure she could have easily handled these subjects and would have found them “stimulating.”
During her senior year at Barnard, Georganne became one of the two core members of New York City’s first Andean music group, Tahuantinsuyo, playing the kena, the traditional Andean flute. Georganne was the only person not of South American origin in a community of musicians with whom she became active. “I look back now and have a hard time comprehending how I managed all my activities and obligations.” Nor was the music community without its challenges. “Tahuantinsuyo was like a multi-party marriage with exponential tensions.”
Georganne faced another challenging moment with her family when they told her she had to remove all her possessions from a new house to which they were moving, and when she learned that her parents and younger brothers had appeared in a television documentary about interracial adoption and she and her sister Julia were not invited to be part of it, nor were they mentioned as part of the family. Years later when she raised the topic her mother “gave me an infuriating non-answer: ‘It was a long time ago,’ it served no purpose to talk about it now, and I should get over my resentment.” Georganne draws a similar analogy from this event to one that immediately occurred to me: “Later, when I became involved in the intactivist movement, I began to hear from circumcision survivors whose parents or other loved ones refused to acknowledge their pain or answer their questions…. Without a doubt, this experience shaped my ability to relate to and empathize with people whose need to understand what happened and why is dismissed by those who were supposed to protect and advocate for them.” And then Georganne draws an analogy back to her life: “Had I felt more cared for, I probably would not have ended up marrying Eduardo [her musical partner] when I was just 23.”
After five years of marriage, Georganne became pregnant with her son Ernesto, and the new family moved to the hippie community of Nyack, New York. However, Georganne was learning that she could not “be fully myself in my marriage” because Eduardo “saw it all as a threat.” Predictably, Eduardo’s “hidden demons” led to the demise of the marriage, albeit after their sixteen years together.
Later Georganne fell somewhat magically, but actually appropriately given her qualifications and skills, into community health and, eventually, what became her longtime position as head of a non-profit health maintenance organization (HMO). Georganne says, “I learned more about being a leader from a local Black politician David Ford [her board chairman and mentor] than from anyone I ever worked for.” Over a quarter-century, Georganne took the company’s annual revenue from $250,000 to nearly $800 million! “What I learned starting up and running a health plan would prove invaluable to me when, a decade later, I began to focus in a systematic way on the problem of routine infant circumcision.”
Georganne ended up deciding to get a law degree, and in law school she ended up writing about “a topic I did know something about: circumcision reimbursement under state Medicaid programs.” She also began talking about her younger brother Chip’s newborn circumcision experience, which she believes played a role in his lifelong mental illness. “I’ve found that the most effective way to bring up the issue is to tell my own personal stories: how I witnessed the traumatic results from the circumcision of a baby in my family…”
Georganne discusses the three weekend-long (or so) meetings that led to the creation of Intact America. (I was present at all three of these meetings.)
Helen and Chip both passed away, and Georganne sensitively provides us with her perspectives on these losses. Looking back on her singular life (so far), Georganne reflects: “Taking on Intact America during this time, I realize now, both served to distract me from the losses and turmoil in my personal life and also deepened the meaning of those losses.”
Georganne Chapin has written a powerful, edifying, often hilarious, and at times admirably vulnerable memoir seamlessly overviewing the fascinating interconnections between her personal life and activism to protect children’s human rights and bodily integrity. Three cheers!
Marilyn probably could easily defeat John Kennedy in a contest over who can say more words per minute. She approaches protection of children’s rights to bodily integrity with what I can personally testify is a heart of legendary generosity and good will towards all (make that “almost all”).
Like Georganne, Marilyn provides us with details of her early life, helping us to understand how she came to be such a fierce, determined activist. In one event that was painful even to read, as a high school graduate arriving home ten minutes late after spending time with her fiancé Joe, “[My father] slugged me with his first, slammed me into the wall, and continued to hit me until I peed on the floor.” Marilyn and Joe ended up marrying and having three children. Hospitals in those days did not invite fathers into delivery rooms, nor were they very friendly to the mothers either. (Not that this has improved as much as it should have even today.) Like Georganne, Marilyn had music in her life and marriage for years, as Garcia (whom Marilyn had known since fourth grade) and others convened in her and Joe’s home to jam.
At age 23, she found herself working as an assistant to Bruce until he died of an overdose of drugs shortly thereafter.
Joe abandoned Marilyn and their children and years later, Marilyn married Matt Milos, whose name she adopted. Together, Marilyn and Matt and others co-founded an alternative school modeled after Summerhill, a school founded in the 1920s in England as described in a well-known book by A.S. Neill. Using lessons from this experience, in 1971, Marilyn and collaborators created an alternative classroom within the public school system, where students are allowed to move from one subject area within the classroom to another, space and their interest permitting. The Open Classroom still exists today!
Unfortunately, some very bad judgment by a brother of Matt’s led to a police drug bust despite Marilyn’s best efforts to prevent it. “As I was cooking dinner, I heard a loud knock on the door. When I opened it, I was pushed backward into the house as five or six police officers rushed in.” The police tore the place apart in front of Marilyn’s and Matt’s then two-year-old son Timothy. Marilyn then had to spent the night in prison, though she did fortuitously encounter a familiar face there (a teenage runaway she knew through Bruce who had stayed in her house) who helped her navigate the system and maintain her presence of mind. In the end, Marilyn was able to wrangle a form of apology for the police’s overreaction (to put it mildly). “The arresting officer left the police force after he realized the consequences of his actions on [Marilyn’s] family.”
The family went to Mexico to recover. “We found we loved the lightness of being of the people as well as the cultural importance of family. In fact, those four months were the closest we felt as a family.” Upon returning, they bought a house in the Bay Area, where Marilyn still lives today.
Marilyn’s intended next career move was to become a nurse-midwife. Although in other countries, midwives outnumber obstetrician-gynecologists, she had observed that ob-gyns are overrepresented in the US and a shortage of midwives existed (and still exists). It was as a student nurse, though, that she witnessed a newborn circumcision, changing the path of her life.
Marilyn appropriately repeats several times in boldface the chilling words spoken to her by the doctor performing the circumcision that led to Marilyn’s decision to devote her life to stopping this procedure: “There is no medical reason for doing this.” Marilyn reflects, “Yet when the doctor looked directly into my eyes, I knew he understood my agony, and he may even have shared it.” Later in the memoir, Marilyn discusses this important event in more detail. “It took the shock of witnessing a baby being circumcised to jolt me out of my complacency. I felt that baby’s pain in every fiber of my body and to the core of my being, and my life changed forever. I was on a mission, for myself and for that traumatized baby.” Marilyn never completed the midwife training and instead continued investigating circumcision by reading Edward Wallerstein’s influential 1980 book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy.
Given her nursing training, something was obviously amiss here, starting with the basic need for proper permission for the procedure. “In nursing school, we were taught the importance of obtaining informed consent for any surgical procedure” [italics in original]. Obviously, Marilyn immediately saw, the charade of circumcision as a surgery breaks down at this initial requirement. “The problem with informed consent is obvious when the proposed surgery is to remove a normal, healthy body part from a non-consenting baby. There is no disease and the person signing the consent form isn’t the person having the surgery, absorbing the risks, and living with the lifelong consequences.” And Marilyn went further, as she is wont to do: “The foreskin is not a birth defect.” No indeed. Later in her memoir Marilyn observes that “consent is a process, not a form…. My personal and professional position had always been that parents had the right to understand that they were signing a consent form for irreversible, medically unnecessary surgery.” [italics in original].
Marilyn observes that the stimulation of the penis of a baby about to be circumcised “is the baby’s first shared sexual experience. Sadly, in the case of circumcision, the pleasurable sensations are immediately followed by excruciating pain.” [italics in original].
A bit later in time, when a patient watched a 15-minute video Marilyn and Shelia Curran made of a horrendously painful circumcision, the patient “thanked us for sharing the video with her, saying she and her husband were grateful to have seen what happened to their baby, and happy to know it was such an easy surgery.” Marilyn’s takeaway from this seemingly preposterous (yet common) reaction: “That was when something clicked and I realized that circumcision is not an informed consent issue, it is a human rights issue.” [italics in original].
Marilyn documents how astonishingly determined the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was to block her work. Dr. George Kaplan wrote to her “that to the best of his knowledge there was no information available about the function of the foreskin” [boldface in original]. In the 2003 Flatt v. Kantak case, AAP defense “experts” said the same thing. (Reviewer’s Note: Another decade later, in 2013, at a debate held in Charleston, South Carolina between me and Michael Brady of the AAP, both Brady and the AAP’s Douglas Diekema repeated this preposterous claim to the debate audience.) Marilyn concludes, “I knew Kaplan’s answer skirted my questions but wasn’t yet aware of just how far the American Academy of Pediatrics or its representatives were willing to go to keep the truth from the public and to protect circumcision advocates and practitioners.”
Marilyn had to confront mothers who received a pamphlet about circumcision prior to their children’s birth and then, in a few cases, lodged formal complaints against her. Some of the complaints accused Marilyn of making the parents feel guilty for circumcising their baby, leading to Marilyn being forced to resign from her registered nurse job. At that point, she devoted herself to intactivism full time, founding NOCIRC in 1985.
Marilyn recounts the pertinent events in the first circumcision-related litigation, brought by Richard Morris in 1984 over a failure of proper informed consent. The case was ultimately denied. “I believe the judges simply lacked the moral courage to protect children’s rights to bodily integrity, genital autonomy, and religious freedom. The laws of our country seemed clear; however, they are not applied to all citizens equally.”
Marilyn appeared on the Phil Donahue Show on June 17, 1987. “At the end of the show George Soule stood up in the audience and said: ‘… Since our doctors are promoting it, doesn’t this make circumcision the largest medical scandal in U.S. history?’ We, of course, agreed.” NOCIRC received more than 3,000 letters over the next three weeks in response to this show. For a while, the AAP was referring people to NOCIRC! That stopped fairly soon, however.
NOCIRC sent a 26-page report to the AAP in 1988, “outlin[ing] five reasons to end newborn circumcision, including: the protective functions of the foreskin, the risks attending the surgery, the pain inflicted on the baby, the permanent scars of the operation, and the ethical questions raised by unnecessary surgery on a non-consenting infant.” In the summer of 1988, Matt Milos passed away from cancer. Although Marilyn and Matt had been separated for 18 months at that point they were able to find a harmonious and beautiful conclusion together. “He opened his eyes, looked at me, and said, ‘Didn’t we dance well together?’… ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We did love dancing and others enjoyed our dancing, too!’ Matt smiled.”
Marilyn next recounts the sordid story of the California Medical Association’s 1988 resolution in favor of circumcision, led by noted fanatic Dr. Aaron Fink, with a urologist preposterously “circumcis[ing] a banana to seal the deal before 442 delegates voted to adopt the resolution.” Marilyn recounts in detail many of the fifteen symposia she organized over the years to provide a platform for activists and academics to meet over several days, strategize, and discuss their respective work. The first symposium included luminaries Ashley Montagu and Michael Odent.
In 1992 a car repair led to Marilyn meeting her current partner, Ken Brierley. Marilyn recounts the death of her mother the following year. “Though my mother didn’t really understand my dedication to my work, she was a kind woman who supported not only me, but others who needed help, no matter who they were. Whatever resentments I may have had from growing up with an abusive father and a mother who was not equipped to defend me were resolved long before her death. I felt only gratitude that I was able to ease her journey from this world into the next.” Shortly afterwards, her brother Courtland tragically disappeared on a solo plane flight and was never found.
Marilyn Fayre Milos is one for the ages and her book is the same. Don’t miss this masterpiece memoir by the woman that is the mother of the movement to protect children’s human rights and bodily integrity. A must read that, as with Georganne’s book, earns our highest possible recommendation.