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Re(dis)membering Aron Ralston June 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in society, weird.
Tags: , ,

Bluejay is mostly for political, social, and environmental rants. But that’s not all it’s for. Those of you who know me personally—and I apologize—also know that I am a junkie for all things … “unusual.” Warning: this post is not for the feint of stomach. Safta Bluejay, stop reading now!

Remember Aron Ralston? The Colorado mountain climber who in 2003 got trapped by an 800 pound boulder while hiking alone in Utah and had to amputate his own arm to escape? I do. Well, I didn’t actively remember him until I saw this story. Not to make light of the situation, but I don’t think Danny Boyle will be making a movie about this one. And no, I will not be going to see “127 hours”—I only enjoy reading about these things, not actually watching them.

The story about Aron Ralston 2.0—or maybe Aron Ralston 0.9—made me wonder. And wonder some more. First, I wondered how and what Aron is doing these days. I knew he went back to climbing, wrote the book, was on the “Man Law Program Committee,” and is “working” on this movie—but what else is going on? Has he amputated any other body parts? Sorry, that’s the dark underbelly of Philly Bluejay. Second, I wondered how many more Aron Ralstons there are out there. And what is the most extreme story in this “genre.” Figuring that Bluejay’s three readers must be as curious as I, I decided to do a little WWW research. Here’s what I found. No need to thank me.

Aron is doing fine, thanks. He’s married now and has a child. He makes up to $37,000 an hour giving inspirational talks at corporate gatherings and Bar Mitzvahs—Aron Ralston lights the menorah? I knew it! Other pre-fame facts you and I didn’t know about Aron? He went to Carnegie Mellon University—I went to CMU for geek summer camp back in the day! He graduated from CMU Phi Beta Kappa—I graduated Phi Beta Kappa! He worked at Intel as a mechanical engineer—I worked at Intel in microarchitecture reserach! Jewish? CMU? PBK? Intel? Wife? Child? The initials AR? Could Aron Ralston and Philly Bluejay have more in common? In fact, they could! The accident happened in Bluejohn canyon! Aron, text me! Actually, aside from these superficial similarities, Bluejay and Aron could not be more different. Bluejay has never been mountain climbing—in fact, he’s never even read about mountain climbing except in that it pertains to Aron or to that 13-year old kid who just climbed Mt. Everest. And Bluejay doesn’t have the stomach to sever a shoelace—much less an arm—in order to escape certain death. And Bluejay is overly fond of m-dashes and third-person self-reference!

But enough about Aron. And Bluejay. Let’s get to the real business of this post. How many Arons are there out there? And how many of them have out-Aron’ed Aron? Disclaimer: I have only superficially fact-checked many of these stories, for all I know they may all be apocryphal. And also, I only included stories about intentional amputation. There are many stories out there about accidents—including an especially nasty one about a carpenter, a saw, and a bathtub—which I am not counting.

In June 2007, a 66-year old California man amputated his own leg to escape from a fallen tree. Ironically, he screamed so loud during the procedure that a neighbor heard and came to his rescue! This immediately brings up memories of this Onion parody. More seriously, it begs the question—would he have thought of such a thing if this happened in June 2002?

In January 2008, an Idaho man, believing that his hand bore the “mark of the beast,” cut it off with a circular saw and microwaved it. I hope he didn’t leave his wedding ring on! Imagine the sparks!

In January 2009, a Portugese man cut off his own finger in court to prostest an unfavorable ruling. Just three months later, a Serbian man cut off his own finger and then ate it to protest overdue wages.

Then there are any number of stories about men cutting off their own genitals, either in a drunken stupor, in sober stupor, for love unrequited, or for love requited.

Finally, there is the ultimate amputation. In May 2007, a 24-year old German man cut off his own head with a chainsaw in the back-end of a murder-suicide. In November, 2008 a 50-year old British man did the same thing to avoid having his home repossessed.

Notice some themes? Here’s one—all of these stories are about men. And this isn’t because I only searched for “man cuts off own hand.” I searched for “woman cuts off own hand” too. I just didn’t find anything. One possible explanation—women don’t know how to work power tools! Another—women are less likely to be power tools themselves! Another theme, all of these stories post-date Ralston. Maybe 2003 was a tipping point for the Internet. Maybe pre-2003 only “important” stories were on the internet, and post-2003 every story was. Or maybe the Ralston story set a precedent, planted a cultural seed, and spawned copycats. The way a suicide tragically can. Maybe before Aron Ralston, self-amputation was the last thing you would think of doing in a given situation. After Ralston—and maybe the Saw movies have something to do with this also—it’s the fourth-from-last thing. Of course, the sequel is almost always less than the original. Ralston’s amputation was somewhere between heroism and hubris. It reminds me of the (Peanuts) baseball phrase “a spectacular catch of a routine fly ball” which implies that the outfielder had to make the spectacular catch because he was originally out of position or misread the ball off the bat. Ralston had to resort to spectacularly heroic measures because he took what an unnecessary risk—climbing alone. But that’s just him. This is the same man who gave up a job at Intel to pursue mountain climbing after all—an act which to me is actually more impressive. The sequels are somewhere between hubris and Darwin Award.

However, by far the creepiest/saddest thing I discovered during my research is Body Identity Integrity Disorder. People with BIID are physically healthy people who feel that being an amputee is their “true” identity—much like people with “Gender Identity Disorder” feel that their true identity is the opposite than their phenotype biological gender. And much like people with GID sometimes have surgery to actualize their true identity, people with BIID sometimes—although much more rarely and sometimes by their own hands—have healthy limbs amputated in order to actualize their true identity. There is a 2005 documentary about BIID called Whole.

Anyways, the thoughts of GID and BIID got me wondering. What kind of identity disorders are there? Look for a post soon!

P.S. If you search for “woman cuts off,” the Google auto-completion feature gives you a short list starting with “husband’s penis.” There are at least two pages worth of different stories here, and all of them post-date the John and Lorena Wayne Bobbitt story. Of course, that story is pre-Internet. Which begs the question—how is it that I know about it?

P.P.S. And speaking of hubris and unnecessary risk. All’s well that ends well, but … I wouldn’t have let my child do this. Then again, as my friend Jim once said to me: “What do you mean ‘let’? Obviously, you don’t have any children.”



1. eema - June 12, 2010

Thanks for the warning, Amir. I stopped right there.

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