In becoming a eunuch, I became a better man

April 27, 2007

The once exalted status of castrati helped Richard Wassersug accept the changes caused by his cancer treatment

My daughter and I were talking about outing oneself - the act of disclosing one's inner identity. The discussion was not purely academic.

"Dad, when most people out themselves, they open the closet door and just come out," she said. "You, Dad, you went through the wall."

I had just told my daughter that I was a eunuch.

It started with a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1998 when I was 52. Two years later, after failed surgery and radiation, I started hormonal therapy. This meant taking chemicals that slow the growth of prostate cancer cells by depriving them of androgen - in effect, castrating the patient.

Chemical castration is a common treatment for advanced prostate cancer, and more than 250,000 American men are taking these drugs. But few people know of any men taking them, simply because we hide. It is shameful to be castrated.

My initial response to the therapy was typical. My mood plummeted along with my testosterone level. Hair vanished from my arms and legs. Muscle disappeared, fat appeared. My memory suffered. Not only was I now more likely to lose my car keys, I occasionally couldn't remember where I left the car.

"Eunuch" simply means a castrated man. Given the pervasive stereotype of eunuchs as ineffective wimps, it is no surprise that men dread this label.

I became curious about whether the stereotype was true and how eunuchs functioned in the past.

The first thing I discovered was that they were anything but mindless, cowardly automatons. There were philosophers (Abelard, Origen of Alexandria), saints (Ignatius of Constantinople), military leaders (Cheng Ho, Narses) and even assassins. They were the chamberlains, diplomats and senior government officials in the major long-lasting, dynastic governments across Asia for 3,000 years. Furthermore, descriptions of eunuchs' physique and psychology mirrored many of the anatomical and emotional changes I experienced.

Then I discovered the classicists' hypothesis that the eunuchs of antiquity were models for our depiction of angels. God is thought to surround Himself with angels as advisers and emissaries who are identical in appearance to males castrated before puberty: tall, beardless non-sexual beings with voices like the legendary castrati.

It appears that from the Judeo-Christian standpoint, the occupants of heaven were exalted eunuchs. In turn, earthly rulers aspired to reach this divine ideal. In The Perfect Servant (University of Chicago Press, 2003), historian Kathryn Ringrose notes that by the 10th century the Byzantine court was "perceived to be an earthly replica of the court of heaven where the emperor functioned as Christ's representative on Earth and was attended by an 'angelic' corps of eunuchs".

This eunuch-angel connection has helped me understand and adapt to the side-effects of androgen deprivation. When I was stoked up on testosterone in the old days, for example, I would obsess about exacting revenge on those who offended me. Now I see the foolishness in such macho fury. Rather than trying to undo others, I can now wilfully exercise restraint. It's not that I'm never pugnacious anymore, for I'm no perfect angel, but I realise it's better to maintain a higher mission than to fight petty battles.

I don't recall crying much as an adult, but since my castration I'll weep while watching road safety commercials. At first I feared that my tears would be perceived as maudlin self-pity. But the truth is that I've become more sensitive to the trials and tribulations of others. I am thus no longer embarrassed by my tears. I consider them humanising, just as they are for angels. The link to my chemical castration is obvious: testosterone fuels aggression but suppresses empathy and the ability to cry.

Understanding angel (and eunuch) psychology has even helped me overcome the cognitive side-effects of hormonal therapy. Angels may be omnipotent, but they undertake just one task at a time. According to the Talmud, they are not permitted to attempt more. Biblical angels blessed, cursed, relayed messages and even killed, but they were never on two missions at once. It seems that thousands of years ago it was already recognised that androgen deprivation makes multitasking difficult - but doesn't prevent one from accomplishing a single task well. This realisation has helped me maintain a productive academic life.

I still have a beard and sing bass: androgen deprivation in adulthood doesn't change those male features. Singing in a group never appealed to me before my castration because it offered little opportunity for individual advancement. But recently I joined a choir, where I now enjoy the richness of the collective sound born of collaboration - and how much I've gained by accepting how much I've changed.

Angels cry. So do I. They also sing, and so do I.

Richard Wassersug is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments