"Symbolic Wounds. Puberty Rites and The Envious Male"
New, Revised Edition, Collier Books, New York. (1968)
Bettelheim's "Symbolic Wounds" argues menstruation/vagina envy
as the original motivation behind routine male circumcision. This
replaced the classical psychological interpretation of circumcision
as a cultural expression of castration
fears and the oedipal complex. Bettelheim immerses his reader
in psychological anthropology, fascinating stuff, well written and
well worth reading. It is an enjoyable book well researched with
much common sense ... except for the passages which discuss a boy
with adhesions. Here Bettelheim demonstrates a problem which the psychological profession clearly misunderstand. The entire story of this boy is related on four pages
(p.32-33, 50 and 53).
It must be the psychologists preoccupation with unconscious motives
which leads Bettelheim to demonstrate that this boy's "painful adhesions"
were of a symbolic or psychological nature.
Bettelheim suggests the newly freed glans merely represented his masculinity and served as a symbol of maturity: "the freed
glans represented a newly won masculinity" - "the now permanently freed
glans may have served ... to assure him that his sexual maturity had
been attained", and even though the
boy's glans was anatomically hidden Bettelheim suggests it is the penis "he had always tried to hide".
Bettelheim says "painful adhesions interfered with full functioning of the penis" - surely then any speculation about symbolic
meanings should be founded on the obvious fact that the boy would enjoy first and foremost
a physically enjoyable erection.
(Pages 32 and 33)
At the Orthogenic School, a ten year old uncircumcised boy, living
with a group who had been circumcised in infancy, wanted the operation
Eventually we had to arrange for his circumcision because of adhesions.
When told about it he was happy but anxious, as was to be expected.
He spoke at great length about his fear of the pain of the operation.
But after it was over he also admitted that he had feared the doctor
would make a mistake and cut off too much or all of his penis. He told
us anxiously that he thought he had heard, about persons born "a
girl and a boy at the same time," and how the "doctor had
to cut it off" to make the person a girl. Thus he showed his great
But powerful as his fears were, still more impressive were first
his wish for the operation and afterward his pride in what he called
his "new penis." This emotion overshadowed his castration anxiety throughout.
As soon as the wound was healed he displayed to everybody the penis he had always tried to hide. As soon as the bandage was
taken off he declared, "I think my penis is very handsome and elegant
now." With great pride he told how much better it functioned, how when
urinating he could make a bigger and better stream and direct it wherever
he chose. Now he fully enjoyed masturbation, which before because of
adhesions, had been partly painful. He summed up his feelings by saying,
"Boy, I can do anything now." Circumcision showed him the organ's importance. the freed glans represented a newly won masculinity.
Circumcision had indeed provided him with a better penis and with sexual
pleasures not available before.
His case does not permit unequivocal inferences, because first he was
living among boys who had been circumcised since infancy, and second, painful adhesions interfered with full functioning of the penis. from this we cannot draw conclusions about the emotions of boys in
preliterate societies toward circumcision, if they are not suffering
from adhesions. What his behaviour does show is that living among circumcised
men may make circumcision appear very desirable,
For the boy who wished circumcision, the circumcised penis with the
now permanently freed glans may have served as well as menstruation to assure him that his sexual maturity had been attained.
Bettelheim says "From this we cannot draw conclusions about
the emotions of boys in pre literate societies toward circumcision,
if they are not suffering from adhesions." He never follows up
this idea, did he not realise that practically all infants suffer adhesions?,
he could feasably have discussed the memory of this pain motivating
an adult rejection of the foreskin.
Throughout the book there is no mention of the tearing of the frenulum.
It is an astonishing omission for any book discussing menstruation
envy in relation to the origin of routine male circumcision. The
tearing of the frenulum of the male foreskin is an event often accompanied
by pain and intense bleeding. As Grewel says: (82) "That excoriation of the frenum praeputii has also been neglected
by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts is ... remarkable. The parallelism
with the defloration of the female is too obvious to be ignored."
Such an occurrence must have stimulated awe and amazement and been
seen as a great mystery among our forefathers in much the same way
aa men these days. Here is something to parallel any envy or astonishment
at women's mysterious menstruation. Added to this, at least three ancient cultures perform an operation related to circumcision:
an incision of the frenulum.
It seems a great shame that Bettelheim's thinking was so clouded
by psychology without any actual information on the anatomical problems with