Excerpt: ‘I Want to Cut Off My Leg: The Ballad of Butcher Brown’, by Amy Gray


Photo by Ben Salter. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Phillip Bondy wanted to feel whole but his brain told him his body wasn’t. It was his leg. That accursed limb was a clanging note that needed muting.

Through magazine classifieds and chance meetings and secret confessions that bring the like-minded together, Bondy found others who felt the same way about their limbs. Perhaps it was a leg, or even an arm, but they wanted to remove parts of themselves they were certain weren’t supposed to be there. That their sewn and cauterised wounds would be the full stop to perfection.

The desire to remove a limb is known as apotemnophilia, a body integrity identity disorder. It has been described as a sexual fetish, that apotemnophiliacs are turned on by the thought of their own amputated limbs. Psychiatrists have argued it is related to bisexuality, homosexuality, transsexualism and Munchausen’s Syndrome. But for people like Bondy’s friend, Gregg Furth, it’s not sexual.

A child psychologist, Furth said the obsession with that unwanted leg makes sufferers “feel there’s an alien aspect of their body.” He told lawyers that “it’s about becoming whole, not becoming disabled.” Furth doesn’t believe therapy is the cure; amputation is the only permanent relief. Since the nineties, Furth has searched for someone to remove his unwanted leg. He’s travelled the US, Mexico and the United Kingdom to find a willing and reputable surgeon. Hospitals have refused his offers.

Furth had heard of John Brown, a bumbling shuffle of a man, who would do any surgery you wanted. He advertised with flyers and hushed word of mouth.

The hush would often share his nickname: Butcher Brown, a man known for his often horrific gender reassignment surgeries throughout the seventies and eighties. Brown was banned from practicing medicine in the US when it was discovered he wasn’t a licensed surgeon. (He had tried but failed the oral exam.) He repeatedly botched complicated surgeries he desperately wished to pioneer. Brown spent some time in the US prison system when it was discovered he was operating in garages, basements and hotel rooms, falsifying insurance forms and using untrained staff in his operations.

But by 1984, Butcher Brown was cheap and operating in Tijuana, Mexico, an easy 30 minutes from San Diego. He offered two-for-one deals for anyone looking for an array of plastic surgeries. Gender reassignment surgeries done at discount rates—$2,000 instead of $12,000 or more, with no psychiatric, financial or administrative hurdles. Sometimes he didn’t even charge people for their surgery, instead encouraging them to barter their untrained ‘medical assistance’ during other’s surgeries as payment.

For Butcher Brown, removing a healthy limb was just another day in the makeshift operating room. Stacey Running, a San Diego deputy district attorney, believes Brown didn’t care about the ethics of any operation. “He saw it as all the same. You cut off a boob, you cut off a penis, you cut off a leg.”

Such lack of concern spread to his soiled and fetid Mexico surgery. Rather than a traditional operating room, he operated from a bedroom equipped with an obstetric chair. The sewers regularly overflowed and there was never enough water. Patients often backed out of surgery once they saw the conditions. Others could look past the conditions, desperate for the bargain or even the chance to access otherwise denied surgery.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #29 — grab a copy or subscribe and we’ll post you a copy immediately. You can also read the piece online in full as part of the digital version of our magazine.

Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer. She likes black, cigarettes, coffee and clichés. She writes for The Age, The Guardian and other places.