Karen Romell is a Liar, a Sheep, and most of all,
a Poor Excuse for a Journalist.
I am unable to understand how a man of honor could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust.– Charles Baudelaire
“Journalist” — and I use the term loosely — Karen Romell is one more in a long line of authors filling the pages of the mainstream’s papers with lies and poor research masquerading as responsible journalism when they are in fact nothing more than shallowly hidden excuses to parade their personal prejudices and closed-mindedness in national and international forums. When I read
these articles so clearly distorted by personal hatred and fear, so far as to be dramatically factually incorrect it makes me doubt the veracity of anything I read in a paper so unprofessional as to not even do basic fact-checking that would instantly reveal writers like Karen Romell as the fraud that she is.
In late July of 2003, along with dozens of other interview requests (most of which were treated responsibly), I received the following note from Romell, asking for assistance in what she called a “research inquiry”:
"Would you be willing to give me some insight/ engage in dialogue? I want info and insight that's deeply thought-out and is accessible to people who are thoughtful but who aren't into the scene themselves, and that would include me."
I of course replied that I’d be glad to help, and directed her to the BME/News section of BME as well so she could get started. A few days later she emailed me eight question sets. If you’d like to see my full reply to her you can click here to see it, but from her questions it was clear that she was entering this with bias — her questions were not so much designed to research, but to find drop quotes to illustrate the assumptions that she’d already made prior to doing any research at all.
A month later the article was published in the Vancouver Sun, with the headline “This year’s modification”, accompanied by a years-old stock photo of a piercer who’d specifically demanded not to be involved in the article in any way. The second headline, screaming across the top of the second page read, “Why do they do it? ‘They’re all sick freaks’”
I think the easiest thing to do might be to break down this article start to finish, illustrating that it’s nothing but a collection of false assumptions, misquotes, and poor research… and when you strip away the lies, all you’re left with is the hatred and fear of a closed-minded and immature author: Karen Romell. What’s sad though, is in the process Romell appears to reveal the true source of her hatred for the individualism in body modification: her own pathetic inability to do so, and in recognizing her shortcomings, instead of trying to improve herself, she instead chooses to attack her betters. She writes,
Just before my 18th birthday, I almost got a tattoo ... to declare that I was unique, individual, interesting. Thinking about that close call today induces one of those brow-mopping moments when you realize how close you came to altering your destiny in potentially regrettable ways. Had I followed through on that impulse, right now I'd be just another fortysomething gal with a rose on her shoulder. Not unique, and certainly not fashionable.
The sad thing she didn’t realize at the time is that getting a tattoo doesn’t make you “unique”. You can’t just make yourself unique through a purchase — you are either capable of individual thought or you’re not. Certainly unique people do get tattoos as a symptom thereof, but her problem was that she was a “non-unique” person whose creativity ended at wanting “a rose on her shoulder”, which instead of being a mark of individuality, would have been a mark of a desperate person forever branded as a conformist. Her sadness at realizing this was her destiny shines through this article, and she takes out her anger on those who, instead of choosing the rose tattoo, instead chose custom tattoos and their own expression of self, rather than a mass-marketed one — she attempts to invalidate their successful acts of individuality by superimposing her own failed acts.
She goes on to make derisive comments about anything body modification related, referring to it as “slumming” and “unwholesome”, and attempts to illustrate it with her poorly researched (and thus incorrect) drivel, beginning with referring to Pamela Anderson’s “Celtic-armband”, which is in reality a barbed wire tattoo that she got while starring in the movie Barb Wire — not particularly “Celtic”, and not particularly difficult to confirm given its pop culture prominance. She goes on to claim that “Australian aboriginals” induced “severe nosebleeds” as a ritual act — I have no idea where she got this idea, but it’s a delusion that even the most basic of research would have discredited.
She then claims that of all human activities short of sexuality, nothing is more “fraught with cultural baggage” than body modification, a patently ludicrous statement — is she seriously suggesting that it’s a more charged issue than, say, religion? She also claims that body modification is a youth practice when in fact it thoroughly penetrates all demographics, and in the West was popularized first by older men and women and then adopted by the young. She goes on to claim that tongue splitting sources from “young adults … falling over themselves to up the ante” — a claim that’s also not backed up by any research or observation, given that in all of BME’s documentation (which the author had access to), tongue splitting is far less common in “young adults” than in mature individuals.
In fact, according to BME’s research (which has been publicly released), tongue splitting is extremely rare in young adults and is all-but limited to older, more experienced modified people. Of the 134 people BME interviewed with split tongues, only one was under eighteen (they were seventeen). Not only that, but BME’s polling showed well over 700 people who said they desired the procedure in the future, with only about 10% of these being under the age of eighteen.
She goes on to describe the procedure — punctuated by her interjection “Ick” — as being split using a tie-off method. She names no other methods even though she was informed that this method was uncommon and not recommended — it would be like saying that people get to work by electric wheelchair and not mentioning that most people are not handicapped and walk, drive, or take transit. She mentions (and misrepresents) Illinois’ recent tongue splitting legislation, and then goes on to claim that Tennessee is doing the same… At this point in the article (still on the first page), I began asking myself — is she just making this stuff up? While other states (Texas for example) have done so, Tennessee has proposed no such legislation, and again, even the most basic of fact checking would have confirmed this.
After this lie, she asks,
Why do they do it? (When I told people I was writing this article, the response of many wasn't even mild curiosity — it was "Well, they do it because they're sick freaks.")
She offers no retort to this, and the paper even runs that slander as a headline. Little attempt is made to present anything other than a biased, one-sided opinion, even though she was given volumes of information answering this question by BME. I’d like to quote from the deceitful letter she wrote me when she was looking for information:
"My intent isn't to do something superficial or sensational. I want to address the subject as intelligently and rigourously as I can, and obviously this includes communicating with people who are in the scene. My thesis isn't, 'Look at this, isn't it freaky'."
She goes on in the article to say that any attempts to speak to the modified are “to say the least, challenging”, and that the prevailing stance is a “prickly up-yours” attitude — she both characterizes us as angry freaks, while degrading us as taking part in nothing more than “a banal birthday-party activity for bored teenagers”. After describing failed attempts to find “an elusive individual named ‘Six’” (presumably also known as the easy to find individual named “Syx”, who works at the studio “Anatomic Body” in Vancouver), she describes meeting Fogg, who she clearly has more sympathy for solely due to his age… but still, she reveals her underlying prejudices in her opening statement,
"Fogg wasn't the Jim Rose Circus main-stage attraction I was expecting."
Oh, so you don’t think we’re freaks?
She goes on to describe the day as “blindingly bright” and mentions that this “blinding” light made Fogg squint — which seems rather obvious, yet she still seizes the opportunity to throw in a meaningless insult, writing, “he looks like a guy who doesn’t get a lot of UV.” Fogg tells her about his training by Fakir Musafar, who Romell describes as being to “the BM [body modification] culture what Carlos Castaneda was to peyote”. Romell seems to excel at dropping cultural references that she does not understand — given that Castaneda is largely considered to be a fraud and a con artist, this is a deeply insulting metaphor.
When Fogg tells her that fashion is of course in the eye of the beholder (which given the fact that different cultures embrace different ideals should be fairly obvious), Romell describes his reply as “disingenuous”, implying that he’s somehow hiding the truth from her. After claiming that she “pressed him”, he “admitted” that he won’t do some procedures such as tongue splitting — you know what? I’m sure he doesn’t do breast implants either, and I suspect he also doesn’t sing opera. Does that somehow invalidate those acts? Of course not.
Karen Romell goes on to tell her version of modern body modification history, a ridiculous tale without any merit or credibility. I have no idea if she just made it all up hoping no one would notice, or if she has horrible research skills, but again, basic fact-checking would have instantly debunked her story. She starts with Fakir Musafar, who she claimed “happened upon body modification in 1967″, and later wrote the book Modern Primitives. Of course, in the true version, Fakir was involved in body modification much earlier (Romell was directed by BME to photos from 1948 of Fakir with piercings) and Fakir is only interviewed in Modern Primitives along with many others — all Romell would have had to do to realize this is type the book into Amazon.com, which lists the actual author, V. Vale.
She makes the claim that body modification was earlier the realm of circus and sideshow in the West, calling this culture “grotesque”. In actual fact, body modification started in the West as an aristocratic movement due to wealthy individuals interest in the new cultures being discovered in Polynesia and so on — tattoos were popular; even Winston Churchill’s mother had a dragon tattooed around her wrist. British royalty was said to have genital piercings, and nipple rings were not uncommon for Victorian women, and before them, Germanic royalty documented as far back as the 16th century.
She then states that criminal groups co-opted body modification, taking over acts such as finger removal, establishing “the link between body modification and the shady, unsavory, and unhealthy.” Of course, again her statement has little relation to fact — finger amputation (yubitsume), practiced by the Japanese Yakuza far pre-dates any such interests from the body modification community. In fact, it dates back to a prior criminal culture, the Bakuto, in the 1700s. BME provided Romell with all of this information — apparently she chose to ignore it, instead opting to simply make stuff up, and for whatever reason the Vancouver Sun does not adequately fact check its articles.
Next Karen Romell gives her ludicrous take on what she calls the “subterranean diaspora” of online body modification, which she characterizes as being “mindnumbing” and riddled with “feral human faces” and “creepy clowns”. She follows this by making a series of medical claims which have about as much validity as her historical claims, beginning with the statement that health professionals refer to extreme body modification as “appearance anomalies” — which is neither a technical term nor one that has appeared in any volume of papers. Again, basic research easily confirms this. She goes on to make the claim that there is “much discussion in psychological and psychiatric literature” of extreme body modification (which is of course patently false), and claims that it is “symptomatic of OCD and schizophrenia” — an offensive statement that she offers no evidence for, as there never have been studies drawing such a link.
The fact that Karen Romell would fabricate claims of scientific research in order to perpetrate her hatred and fears is very sad, and it’s even sadder that a mainstream newspaper would fall prey to such an obvious deception. She implies that the modified do it to “get off on the pain” and says that studies have linked body modification to low self-esteem (when in fact the study she refers to makes the claim in reverse, suggesting that low self-esteem can draw people to body modification as a healing device, not that body modification is indicative of low self-esteem) — it’s a classic logical fallacy. She makes this error with a number of researchers, and then comes across Dr. Armando Favazza.
Favazza’s statements are brushed off, even though he is careful to point out that the problems are only in “a very small number of people” and that for the vast majority body modification is a healthy and positive activity. She then quotes an experience from BME about a man describing the role that suspension and body modification have had in his life. Even though the story is uplifting and describes immense personal growth, Romell decides to quote only a few disparaging lines, and goes on to unfairly and hatefully characterize the author as an obese man unable to maintain a personal relationship, thus driven to these rituals.
She then again claims that body modification, “particularly of the more extreme variety”, have been linked to “higher anxiety levels” and “psychopathy” such as “torturing the cat”, which, again, is simply made up on her part. She’s lying with these claims, and her occasional interjections that the links are “correlational, not casual” is no better than spending an hour misleading someone and occasionally whispering, “just so you know, I’m misrepresenting everything I’m saying.”
Romell then describes her conversation with me as “icy” (not surprising given that she asked me a series of leading questions trying to get me to comment that “pain” and “shock value” were the norms — rather than actually trying to learn something to write an accurate article), writing,
How about, how are you positioned vis-a-vis mainstream society? I assume you're not working at Starbucks. "Well," Larratt responded testily, "Starbucks won't hire people with piercings, so instead I formed my own IVR (interactive voice response) corporation. As a result, I've got a net worth in the millions and two porsches sitting in my driveway — those people at Starbucks who refuse to hire people like me can kiss my ass."
Apparently working a minimum wage service job is something to strive for? I suppose it’s better than being a professional liar, right? It is interesting to note that she has added the word “ass” when I actually wrote “a**”. It is further interesting to note that, typical to her misrepresentation, she truncated my reply, removing perhaps the most important part, as follows,
"I'd also like to point out that 60% of entrepreneurs are highschool dropouts. When you exclude people from a system, instead of becoming 'failures', many choose instead to create their own new system, and often this new system is superior to the mainstream one."
She goes on to claim that “you drastically limit your employability if your tongue is divided in two”. Now, I can’t think of any jobs that I’d want that would require my tongue to be constantly outside of my mouth — which is the only way someone will notice a split tongue. Perhaps a writer of Romell’s caliber has to use her tongue a lot more visibly than most in order to keep her job, but tongue splitting is no more going to limit one’s employability than genital piercing.
She goes to describe Eric (I guess she means Erik, but again, fact checking is just not her strong point) Sprague, as a man “obsessively pursuing his desire to become a human lizard” — again, is she just making stuff up? Does she do no research whatsoever? While this is a common misconception, Erik has published interview after interview and said on TV over and over that this simply is not the case.
This is getting long, and I’ve only touched on the surface of Romell’s irresponsible and unprofessional journalism, but I think I’ll quickly fast foward to her conclusion, where she writes that,
...in 50 years time, [this generation of pierced and tattooed "fashionistas" will] all be as hopelessly demographically branded by virtue of their various piercings and tattoos ... as I would have been had I had that rose tattooed on my shoulder.
She fails to realize (or perhaps fails to publicly admit) that there is an enormous distance from individual and unique forms of expression as compared with her desire to be “stamped” with a mass produced icon. She goes on to inaccurately (surprise, surprise) quote an I Love Lucy episode to attempt to illustrate her point.
Given the way our culture works — a kind of warp-drive factory of ideas and trends that seems to speed up faster than the cream-puff conveyor belt on that classic I Love Lucy episode — body modification may lose its cool as quickly as platform shoes did.
First of all, there never was an I Love Lucy episode with “cream-puffs” on a conveyor belt — I assume she’s thinking of Job Switching, the episode where Lucy and Ethel land jobs at Kramer’s Kandy Kitchen. Their job is not to make cream-puffs, but to package candies coming down a conveyor belt, and because they’re coming too fast they have to stuff them in their mouths. Given that this is one of Lucy’s favorite episodes and one of the most famous, it’s really just shoddy journalism to get basic facts like this wrong.
In addition, platform shoes are a trend that lasted only a few years and had virtually no cultural penetration in relative terms. Body modification on the other hand has twenty to fifty years of mainstream modern history (at least), with tens of thousands of years of larger human history behind it. Not only that, but its saturation level is hugely higher than platform shoes, and it spans all demographics. To suggest body modification is going anywhere because of an observation on platform shoes is, for lack of a better word, moronic.
Finally, she finishes her article by erroneously quoting me as saying,
"Death to body modification, long live body modification!"
Unfortunately I’ve simply never said that. It is true that the tagline on my personal email is (as many of you know), “Death to BME, Long live BME!” which obviously is a takeoff on “The king is dead, long live the king”, as a reference to BME’s roughly yearly redesigning and improvement of itself — and the need to consciously do so. It’s not as if it’s an unusual phrase. It has of course been used in Britain throughout the monarchy, and in America has been applied to all sorts of pop culture issues, most obviously Elvis.
Ignoring the strange shift in meaning she’s added to it, saying that I said that quote would be no more accurate than transliterating “the Vancouver Sun is full of morons” into “Vancouver is full of morons”. While I am beginning to believe the first statement may be true, that does not pass any validity to the second. You know, I don’t mind when an unfriendly article is published, but I’ve got a big problem with it being done to mask ignorance and poor journalism.
Karen Romell, and other reporters that use such shoddy journalism as an excuse to subvert big media into weapons of bigotry and stupidity should be ashamed of themselves, and the papers that allow it to happen need to seriously consider raising their professional standards.