Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Disintegration, or I Broke My Dick Once, Part I

I broke my dick once.

It was the swampy summer of 2003 and one morning in August, I woke up already frying in the heat, cringing under the air-conditioner, with a broken dick.

To be more accurate, I woke up one morning and found my penis dislocated. The penis-entity could be found at the usual place on my body, but the organ itself was distorted. Unerect, it was a tiny bulbous mass pulling into body for shelter. Erect… let’s just say that two heads were forming. Peeing was a trial as the pee-hole leading out of my penis was no longer directly connected to the “inner tube” from whence water issued.

As calmly as possible, I assessed the injury and called Michael (we were still together) who was in Michigan working on the hardwood floors for the house or something. I have no idea what he was up to. All I know is that I didn’t want to spend time with his cult-like family and had proffered one of my panoply of ready excuses to avoid the visit. But I needed him with me now. Moving across the apartment with painstaking care, my penis was clasped in my hands gently – as I would carry a bird with a broken wing. It wasn’t a bird that was broken, though. It was me. I needed care. To Michael, I explained that my penis was broken or dislocated. I described what was happening. He laughed. He told me “your penis isn’t broken. It will go away. Cancel your tutoring appointments. Just take it easy for the day.”

Bar none, it was the most shattering moment of my life. I was not going to “take it easy.” My mind ran through the possibilities at the speed of paranoia. Thomas Laquer had written about cases in the eighteenth century where clitorises “descended,” dropping out into full-grown penis and testes. Was the opposite happening? Making matters worse, I’d recently been reading about eighteenth century medical debates about “spermism” and preformation, giving my mind material to introject the moral into my medical concerns. I’d read about people who were born hermaphrodites and whose doctors had sewn up the vagina or snipped off nascent penises. Not knowing much about female anatomy, I wondered if perhaps I was one of those cases. Had a doctor (my own father, the Obstetrician who delivered me) stitched up my vagina, and was it now opening up causing my penis to cave in? I cursed him. In my panicked, paranoid rage, I cursed my dead father. Better he had drowned me in a tub after I was born, then risk a life of hermaphroditism for his own “son.”

Or maybe an erection had come upon me at night, and in an effort to avoid sleeping on our cat, (and to hide the shameful erection from her), had I rolled over onto the erection and broken the shaft of my penis? Was the bulbous entity pulsing on the shattered remains of my groin now filling with pus and blood?

Three months before I would begin to find myself in total therapy meltdown, I was already exhibiting symptoms of several kinds of madness. Some of my eccentricity had always been part of my cultivation of personality, but I look back at my cover story and know it wasn’t all act. Was this the tipping point? That period of time moved so quickly; I’m grateful that it remains a blur. I know that my life would soon completely change. Veering from one scenario to another, one thing was certain: the Cronenbergesque mass on my groin was no hallucination.

Coincidentally, this development occurred just as campus graduate students were furiously debating the issue of health insurance — the university provided it to some incoming students, but not universally. The thought that someone would not only go into debt for graduate education (understandable if you are talking about a technical school such as law, medicine or social work), appalled me. That anyone would accept a funding package without tuition coverage or even mere health care included convinced me that there truly were people who would sell their souls to a faculty and administration of Caligula-level sadists for a chance to frolic for a few more years in, what Jerome McGann once called, America’s “retirement homes for the young.”

Remember that it wasn’t simply the desperation of students to get into graduate school at work in the mind-set of my colleagues that led to a “debate” about the advisability of pressuring the university to provide basic health care for all its working teachers (at a university that was famed for driving students insane), the debate was also riven by the cronyism of graduate students who would never EVER stand up to the administration for fear of being black-listed.

Given the events of the years prior, fear of the academic black-list was not baseless. Following the strikes of their teaching assistants, Yale University actually compiled a list. Everyone in the field knew whose names were on the list — they were the applicants whose letters of recommendation were unusually cruel, even for Yale. Tenure was infamously denied to professors who openly encouraged the graduate student union’s strikes. At my university, I sat through a job talk from one of the strike organizers — a sensitive, intelligent, man who worked on 20th Century working-class literature and who had fascinating ideas about how the genres of the picaresque and picturesque worked. He was one of the few job candidates with whom I’d ever had as candid a conversation about my work and his – he seemed genuinely engaged in what other people had to say. At the time, I knew nothing about the politics of his job-talk but I did notice that some of the more advanced students in my program treated him with an unremitting smugness. I wondered if there was a “class” thing going on since this guy was clearly from a blue-collar background. Was Sam, one of my nemeses, smirking at the heavy arm hair emerging from this guy’s shirt sleeve? At his job talk, two of the most senior professors in the department sat in the back loudly gossiping while the the applicant lectured without notes. An assistant professor curried favor with her seniors by attacking his thesis like a rabid dog. You could probably still find her dental records by referring to the bite marks on his leg.

Like Yale, my university was deeply hostile to student organizing. The journal where I worked was directly across the hall from the Romance Languages department. Their department had posted on their bulletin board a photocopy of a story that ran in the undergraduate paper about the proposed Graduate Student Union. It explained that the main organizers behind such a union had taken their degrees and gone on to the job market. Administration officials forecast no imminent organizing on the horizon. Someone had ominously underlined, prior to the photocopying, a chilling quote from a dean mentioning that the university “discourages” any new graduate students to follow the lead of their predecessors. The Department of Romance Languages would not brook a repeat of the Revolutions of 1848!

As I was nursing my broken penis with tender strokes, emails from the graduate student list-serve were flashing across my computer screen, debating a meeting that had been scheduled where we were to consider approaching the university about providing the “basic” insurance plan to all its graduate student employees. That we were asked to live on a pittance of $4,000 to $12,000 depending on the grade of one’s fellowship – plus $1,500 a course for every quarter’s teaching ($1,500 over two and a half months of work, facing the impudence of entitled little undergraduates who constantly liked to remind us that their parents were generously paying our salaries) – was not up for discussion. Rather, we were far more abject: we simply wanted the university to pay for part of our anti-depressant prescriptions. Dissent came from a contingent that opposed any body that would organize such a demand on their behalf.

I remember one particularly noxious character who I’ll call “Matt.” Matt entered the program a year before I did with his future girlfriend, “Scarlet.” Quickly they began to date. Soon they were engaged. Even sooner, Scarlet would take all her classroom queues from Matt. If she was about to make a point, not only would she need a nod from the professor to speak, she’d also look for one from Matt. He completely dominated her. A once beautiful young woman turned into a crony of a crony. Matt cronied himself to the Modern poetry professor. A man with a Germanic name who had added a “Von” to his name in order to feel more legitimate teaching about the importance of Rilke. “Von” was a strange guy on his own; his second wife was a young black Classics Professor a quarter of his age. When teaching Othello to freshman, he would stop at Iago’s inflammatory line, ‘An old black ram is tupping your white ewe,’ and not ask the students to meditate on race relations; instead he asked them consider Iago’s disdain for inter-generational relationships. “Von” is a consummate name-dropper. One of my fellow students reports to me on the condition of anonymity, “The best part of his class was the literary gossip he would gift us with, always being sure to lay out each of the degrees of separation that tied him to some woman who had the dorm room across the hall from Elizabeth Bishop.”

But I digress. Matt was one of those douche-bags with an electric socket tattooed on his ankle. His favorite band was probably Everclear; no, the Foo Fighters. We all hoped that Scarlet tied him to the bed at home and whipped him every night to compensate for his obnoxious extroversion and her invisibility in his company. In a seminar, I once debated a question about the Protestant Reformation with one of his professors when Matt was not even present, and based on hearsay he sent me an email about the importance of knowing “one’s place” in the university system.

Matt was opposed to our attempts to “socialize” health care. When I weighed in on the list-serve about the matter, he referred to my thoughts as “spam” and rattled on about “rocking the boat.” A few nights prior to the broken penis, Matt had personally called me out on the issue even though I wasn’t one of the organizers of the meeting and wasn’t very invested in the issue. I think my stance boiled down to “of course all of us should get health insurance.” Lately, he had taken to sending me messages directly from a non-university account, arguing with me on a one-on-one basis. I asked him several times who his pseudonym stood for (“You seem to know me. Do you want to tell me who I’m conversing with?”), but he steadfastly refused to name himself not realizing that I already had him pegged from a signature on a previous mass-email exchange. I respected his need to imagine up some privacy in order to have a discussion. It fit his profile of someone trying to climb out of his social rank through a Ph.D. program.

Matt’s emails consisted of impassioned bullet-points that spilled out over several lines. I’ve never understood people who write paragraphs in a bullet-point form. Either make your point quickly and get out, or write an essay. The bullet-point disorder probably has a similar aetiology to whatever disease causes people to write long, manic, emails without ever using single a paragraph break. He wanted me to “see reason.” Me, personally. Not everyone else. I had taken on meme-like status for him. I represented the idea of the impudent student, the malcontent. His emails impicitly proselytized the Virtues of Cronyism as a way of life. Matt believed that graduate education was a benefaction upon us, not a full-time job. He discussed Marcel Mauss’s essay,”The Gift,” claiming education as a gift given with the expectation of reciprocity. Was Matt’s cocksucker’s position his counter-gift to the university? I found all this funny as I’d seen him walk Von’s wife’s dog on campus as part of his editorial duties at Von’s poetry magazine. Had he never read Derrida’s response to Mauss? to “Matt”
Subject: RE – The Gift

Dear Interoluctor,

A true gift is given without the demand for reciprocity. Derrida says: “For there to be a gift, il faut that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt.”

Don’t give anything back during these apprenticeship years other than labor, time, sanity and intelligence, of course. Those are merely “symbolic equivalences” for him. Not the real thing. So of course, those things don’t matter.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a deconstructionist? I am not a commodity fundamentalist, but my political affiliations are Marxist.

Sincerely yours,

A Vizier of bullshit, Matt had a list of words such as “hegemony” and “episteme” he’d kept since before I’d known him that he felt needed to be used in his dissertation. I speak of Matt with contempt because he is a contemptible person who bullied his students, his girlfriend and his peers, but I really did feel sadly towards him. I had come to realize that replying to his emails constituted a form of medical relief for the overbearing egomania and tension that built up in him daily. I once asked him, “How shall I bill you for our sessions? I take it you’re not covered, so will I send the invoice directly to your home? What is your address?”

As I said earlier, I couldn’t just sit around taking it easy. I was not going to spend this day waiting to see if my penis would put itself back together while I discussed trade unionism with Matt who violently opposed me with his jargon. The only course of action would be to somehow get to the hospital. I couldn’t ride my bike there, could I? …

Coming Soon in I Broke my Dick Once!

darknessatnoon worries about penis theft! He confronts Judge Schreber and a doctor with long fingernails asks to stick her fingers up his ass! All this and more in the finale to I Broke My Dick Once!


4 Responses to “Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Disintegration, or I Broke My Dick Once, Part I”

  1. Zed Says:

    That is the politics of academics in a nutshell: Breaking unions while declaring oneself “a Marxist.”

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Penis parts – horrifyingMatt parts – also horrifying, but in an amusing way that didn’t have me squirmingJAU

  3. sona Says:

    ahhh university narcissism, class-war vitriol, and the Kafkaesque horrors of phallic there a ‘best american web stories’ yet? i’d nominate this one, i’m on the edge of my seat for part deux…

  4. Mi Kyung Says:

    3 thoughts:- why are you so willing to be a douche-magnet?- i really really need to finish my dissertation.- i can’t believe your “boyfriend” trivialized your penis problem. but then again, it’s poetic, in light of the relationship.

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