We talked to a guy who tried to circumcise himself. It went badly

Because few men choose to undergo the procedure as adults, we rarely hear about what the procedure is like for them. Brian D. Johnson, 59, is one of these men.

Last month, Johnson made waves for an essay he wrote for the Jewish publication the Forward, in which he detailed his attempts to give himself a bris, or Jewish circumcision ceremony, as part of his conversion to Judaism, while he was living in San Francisco, CA in the 1990s. Having undergone the procedure as a child, Johnson was already circumcised, but Jewish law requires converts to symbolically extract one drop of blood from the penis. Equal parts poignant and cringe-worthy, Johnson's essay recounted his attempts to extract that drop of blood, which went horribly awry.

MensHealth.com spoke to Johnson to learn more about why he chose to circumcise himself as an adult, and what he learned from the experience (including, but not limited to, that cuticle scissors and penises are not a good combination).

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you want to have a circumcision?

[The circumcision] was presented to me by my rabbi as an optional part of the process of conversion. My first reaction was, “Well, this is ground that’s been covered before. Someone had done the deed already.” He said, “That’s commonly the case. All that’s necessary, then, is to produce a drop of blood.” It didn’t seem like too big a deal. It’s not like I’d never been caught in my zipper before. And it showed commitment. So I said, “Why not? Go big or go home.” I was that committed to the faith.

DId your rabbi give you any suggestions for how to do it?

No, he’s a very shy guy. He didn’t want to get into detail. But my friend, who is diabetic, suggested I use a lancet [a small blade that diabetics use to extract a drop of blood to test their blood sugar]. I thought it was a perfect solution.

You weren't worried about the pain at all?

I thought I would feel something, but it wouldn’t be a big deal. You’re talking about using a medical device whose only purpose is to create a drop of blood...OK, fine. Drawing a drop of blood is not so hard. Diabetics have to do this to their fingers two or three times a day.

Did it occur to you go to to a medical professional or a mohel [a Jewish person trained in the practice of circumcision, who typically oversees the practice] or anything like that?

No, it didn’t. I wanted the whole ceremony to be of one piece without any interruption, and also I wanted only people I knew involved. I thought it would be pretty difficult to find a mohel in San Francisco, and then it would be someone I hadn't met before. What would that be like? I wanted to do it with people I love and respect and handle it myself. And I didn’t think it would be a big deal. But of course, it turned out to be pretty complicated.

So the day of your conversion ceremony arrives. You go to the mikvah [a pool of water that represents purity] and submerge yourself three times and say prayers. Then it’s time to draw the drop of blood. What was your mood like?

My mood was joyous. In my mind and in my heart, I already considered myself a Jew. So I was thinking, “After all these years, I’m finally becoming a Jew." It was very much a closing moment rather than a beginning moment for me.

Then I realized I had forgotten the lancet at home, and I felt a certain amount of despair. But I knew I had to improvise a solution. So I started looking around and on the vanity, there are all these little tools that people use to clean themselves with before they go into the mikvah. There was a nail file, Q-tips, a disposable razor, and nail clippers. I thought the nail clippers were kind of scary, because you’ve got that leverage action going on with two plates at once. Then I saw the cuticle scissors. I thought I’d be able to have more direct control over the scissors. So I went with that.

So let me ask the question that I was thinking when I read your story, that I’m sure other people would want to know, too: why didn’t you just go back home and get the lancet, or come back another day?

I wanted to get it over with. I had spent a very long time reaching this moment. I didn’t want to drag it out even more. It was very important to me to get this done and close off this long prelude that I’d been living through.

OK, so you have the scissors. Walk me through your first few attempts to draw blood from your penis.

I knew I had to draw the drop of blood below the head of the penis, where the foreskin used to be. So I tried snipping once, and it didn’t work. At that point, it occurred to me to stop knowing that no one would be the wiser. But then I would’ve given up on part of the process. So I kept going. The second attempt hurt even more, but the penis is not as sensitive as the testicles are, so while the pain brought tears to my eyes, it wasn’t as bad as if someone had kicked me in the balls. Still, no blood.

After the third attempt, I still did not see any drops of blood at first, but I knew I had made my best effort. So I started getting dressed. I was knotting my tie in the mirror when I saw a wet spot in front of my khaki pants. I said to myself, “Did I dribble or something? What’s that about?” Then I discovered it was blood.

I tried to staunch it with my handkerchief, as if it were a tourniquet. But there was a lot of blood. It was trickling down my legs into my socks.

Were you scared? Did it occur to you to go to the hospital or seek medical help?

I was mentally trying to work out different scenarios: Should I go to urgent care somewhere? Should I try to explain, as calmly as I could, that I had performed this ancient religious rite on myself and needed to be repaired, hoping they wouldn’t commit me to observation for being a danger to myself? But unless I had insanely great luck and found the only Jewish doctor in East Bay, they would have trouble understanding what the heck was going on. And I didn’t want to necessarily give a bad name to the Jewish people. I was worried - not only about me being judged, but about the religion being judged.

How did your beit din [the council of rabbis that oversee a conversion to the Jewish faith] react to your injury?

I went outside wearing a towel around my waist. They asked how it went. I said, “You wanna know how it went?” I opened the towel and they could see for themselves. They were shocked, and a few of them were a little bit worried. My rabbi asked if I thought I was going to bleed out, and I said no. The other rabbi on my beit din was pretty shocked by it, too, and asked if there was any swelling, because there was a lump in my pants from the handkerchief being knotted around my [penis]. I said no. It was pretty freaking dramatic, but I played it down as much as I could with a great big stain on the front of my pants.

How bad was the wound? How did you end up treating it?

Luckily, the wound closed up in only a few days. I put hydrogen peroxide on it. It definitely hurt, and it was a tough spot to bandage because you want to restrict blood flow, but you don’t want to restrict the flow of urine. And I didn’t have a scar, though it would’ve been kind of cool if I did.

Why did you decide to write about this experience for the Forward? Were you concerned how people would react to it?

I wasn’t really concerned. There were a few people in the comments section who said I made it up, but it’s all true. My biggest concern was that people wouldn’t be amused by it, because I wrote it to be amusing. It’s a crazy thing to have happen to somebody.

How would you respond to someone who is, say, opposed to circumcision, or would question why you would do such an extreme thing for your faith?

I had a conversation about this with one of my friends recently, who launched in a diatribe about circumcision being genital mutilation. There are tons of reasons not to be circumcised, from the span and breadth of potential trauma to the fact that it might be medically unnecessary. But for me, personally, I didn’t regret it. I had performed a mitzvah[a good deed in the Jewish faith]. I had gone all the way. In my mind, that was the argument that won the day.

Is there anything that you hope people would take away from or learn from your story?

I obviously wouldn’t recommend people do what I did. But maybe my story would make some people say, “How far would I go for what I believe? The silly thing he went through - would I go through something like that?” What parts of your faith make you a little more brave? I don’t think it was the most courageous thing I’ve ever done, but it was one of the most significant moments of my life, that’s for sure.


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