Jennifer Kindelspire is 20 years old. Petite and pale. Big brown eyes. Kinda quiet.
The other Church members fear her. They call her a monster. They say Kindelspire can outpull anybody. Nobody wants to go up against Kindelspire. She's like a bull. She once pulled an armored truck across a parking lot.
Kindelspire has a pair of hooks freshly pierced through the skin of her upper back, one on either side of her spine. The eight-gauge steel hooks are made for shark fishing. Church members file off the jagged barbs before getting pierced.
Her opponent is a muscular 21-year-old named Jon Stanton. The rims of Stanton's hook piercings are redder than Kindelspire's. She's a Flesh Club veteran, her back is accustomed to the trauma, she's thick-skinned. Whereas this is Stanton's first time "taking hooks."
Their hooks are attached via carabiners to a shared rope, about nine feet long. Stanton and Kindelspire stand with their backs to each other, like two duelists about to pace, the rope hanging limp between them.
A referee yells, "Pull!"
Kindelspire and Stanton lunge forward. The rope jumps taut. The hooks yank their skin into blushing mounds.
For a moment, Kindelspire and Stanton frantically struggle against each other without relinquishing ground. They're scrambling to get a foothold, running in place and kicking dirt like some madcap cartoon version of Hellraiser.
Stanton slowly pulls Kindelspire backward a couple feet, taking the lead.
Kindelspire awkwardly hops on one foot, then the other, yanking off her shoes. She grinds her naked feet into the dirt.
All she's thinking, she says later, is pull.
Pull, pull, PULL: Her face scrunched, her snared flesh turning white as it stretches, Kindelspire suddenly jerks Stanton off balance and triumphantly hauls him across the yard until she runs face-first into the bushes.
The crowd laughs and applauds.
"Why do you do it, Jenny?" somebody asks.
"For the pain," she says.
Kindelspire's piercings look fine. Stanton's hooks have stretched their holes a bit. A few drops of blood leak down his back, mixing with sweat. He calls the contest "exhilarating, the best feeling of my entire life."
"Wanna play?" she asks.
Here's the who, what and where:
The group is the Church of Body Modification, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to increasing public understanding and acceptance of those who are modified. By "modified," the Church means people with tattoos, body piercings, implants, branding or scarification. Several Church members also participate in a performance group called Life Suspended that has appeared on Ripley's Believe It or Not!, 20/20, and Guinness World Records, at fetish balls . . . "anywhere somebody wants some freaks," as one member put it. The performance profits go to the Church.
Tonight's event is a private gathering of Church members indulging in unorthodox fleshplay. There will be hook suspensions reminiscent of Indian rite-of-passage ceremonies, as well as "Flesh Club" hook tug-o-wars inspired by the movie Fight Club. The festivities will last about 10 hours. Before the night is over, there will be several daring acts of wince-inducing hook drama. One event will end in messy regret.
The house belongs to "3-D Modification Artist" Steve Haworth, owner of HTC Body Piercing and holder of a Guinness-record title for "Most Successful Body Piercer." The record's qualifications are not defined, yet few would dispute the title. In recent years, Haworth has taken his innovative flesh artistry to shocking new extremes, creating human modifications so radical that critics accuse him of unethical home surgery. Haworth created the Church. His fiancée, fetish clothing model Beki Buelow, runs it.
That's the who, what and where.
The "why" is tricky.
Baby Fox doesn't want her boyfriend to hang from hooks. She's quite firm about this.
"I don't want to watch it," Fox pleads with him. "I don't want you to go."
Fox and her boyfriend, tattoo artist Don Gesaman, wait on Haworth's backyard patio. Gesaman has signed up for a horizontal flesh-hook suspension called The Superman. He will soon be called into Haworth's piercing studio to take 12 hooks. Gesaman has never taken hooks before. He says the suspension is a challenge he wants to conquer, a birthday present he is giving to himself.
"I'm a bit nervous," he admits. "It's fear of the unknown."
Gesaman is burly and rugged-looking. His body seems to drip with tattoo ink. Fox is young and fresh-faced, wearing a picnic-friendly blouse and blue jeans. She met her boyfriend when he did her tattoo at Outrageous Ink. As a couple, they have a beauty-and-the-beast charm.
Suspensions actually date back to religious rituals by Southern India Hindus and American Plains Indians.
The Church's suspensions are not a tribal ceremony so much as a mix-and-match hybrid of extreme sport, spiritual exercise and/or sexual fetish, depending on the participant. Church members use terms such as "endorphin rush" or "religious experience" or enthuse about the thrill of the pain.
Fox doesn't understand the appeal. She walks about the patio, openly gawking at the Mad Max assortment of assembled Church members. Fox tentatively takes a seat next to Beki Buelow, 22.
Apart from her exotic leopard-spot tattoos, Buelow seems normal-looking. She seems safe. Then Fox notices Buelow's forearms.
There's something moving under Buelow's skin.
Fox leaps out of her chair.
"They're implants," Buelow says, her face aglow at Fox's obvious horror. "You can touch them."
Fox shakes her head, staring at the alien lumps.
"They're Teflon," Buelow says, knowing all of Fox's unspoken questions.
"Why did you do that?" Fox manages.
"I like the way they look and feel. I like it when I move my arms and they shift around."
Buelow stretches her arms to demonstrate.
"Did it hurt?"
Fox edges away.
"This is fucking crazy," Fox whispers. "I just don't understand why anybody would want to do this to themselves. I feel like I'm the only person here who isn't a freak."
"Freak" is the body modification f-word.
Members in the Church of Body Modification use it to describe themselves, yet get touchy when it's said by others. They enthuse about their extreme modifications and practice exhibitionistic fleshplay that relies on shock value, yet complain they are misunderstood and labeled as freaks.
Everybody is modified, they argue. There is no such thing as a natural human form. Everybody who gets a haircut, exercises, pierces her ears, gets breast implants or is circumcised is modified to fit a Western societal image of beauty. So how is a split tongue any different? Why should penis beads seem shocking? Why should an employee be forced to wear long shirts to hide subdermal implants?
Their modifications are simply more creative and tribalistic, they say, than most.
"It's fascinating that our culture will accept people who practice extremes," Haworth says. "Some people will sit on a couch, push buttons on the TV and gain weight. Another person will spend hours upon hours in the gym building their body into massive Goliath hulk -- and nobody seems to have a problem with that."
The Church has grown to nearly 50 members since it was established last year (www.churchofbodmod.com). The Church is a literal church. Members are literally card-carrying. There is a rented Phoenix office and ministers who are licensed to perform marriages. Next month, the Church will host its first matrimonial union; a couple from Seattle wishes to be married while suspending from flesh hooks.
One member even moved to Phoenix to join the group -- 18-year-old Stacey Anderson says she left Iowa after her modification demands exceeded the talents of her local piercers. Anderson has suspended several times and has asked the Church to crucify her (presumably not fatally). The request is currently under consideration.
Church members have monthly meetings at their office. The gatherings are more like business strategizing sessions than Sunday services. The Church's doctrine is likewise the antithesis of most religions: Nobody has authority over what you can do with your body. Not God, not your family, not society. The fleshplay is part of this philosophy. Through piercings, pain and markings, members say they are reclaiming their bodies.
It's not necessarily a rejection of faith. Members are free to worship as they wish. It's more of a nondenominational benefit club, a circling of the wagons to form a support group and ideological center for the alienated.
"Body modification has been around as long as man has been around," Buelow says. "Until now, it's just been a part of many different religions."
Since Church members are not required to worship a supreme being, it is interesting that the Church of Body Modification was conceived by a man who is regularly accused of playing god.
Steve Haworth, 36, knows his friends in a unique way. He knows what their flesh feels like. He knows the measure of resistance when a hook goes into them, whether their body is tough and meaty, or loose and fluid -- the hook moving, he says, "like a hot knife through warm butter." It's an unusual sort of intimacy.
Gesaman lies face down on Haworth's padded table and prepares himself -- the best a person can prepare himself -- to have 12 hooks pushed through his body. Like everybody who lies on this table, he has signed a waiver of liability. His girlfriend says he is scared, yet trying not to show it.
Aside from the curious faces pressed against a window facing the backyard, the room looks like a typical doctor's suite. There's the padded adjustable table, cabinets of surgical accessories and hazardous waste disposal bins. The professionalism of the office makes it oddly comforting.
Everybody involved in the procedure, including the subject on the table, is sober. Haworth does not allow inebriation during the fleshplay, saying it's unprofessional for the piercers and would invalidate the challenge and, in some cases, the purpose for the participants.
Haworth takes a hollow piercing needle and slides it over the tip of a hook.
"Pain," he ceremoniously announces, "is the sensation of weakness leaving the body."
Two latex-gloved assistants grab one-inch folds of Gesaman's back, carefully aligning the pairs of pre-marked ink dots where the hooks will enter and exit.
A few cry out when pierced. Most Church members choke it down, playing it tough. Others confirm that, yes, it hurts exactly as much as you'd expect hooks going through your non-anesthetized body to hurt.
Haworth smears antibacterial gel on the hook. His voice is confident and reassuring, his face a passive expression of polite concern. It's impossible not to think "doctor."
"Okay, what you're going to do is take a very deep breath," he says. "Tell me when you're ready."
"I'm ready," Gesaman says, voice muffled from the headrest.
Haworth places the needle against Gesaman's skin, the tip poking the pen dot.
"Deep breath . . . big exhale . . . and here we go . . ."
"I don't have a problem putting people in pain," Haworth says later, "because there's a difference between hurting somebody and putting them in pain for a consensual goal."
Steve Haworth grew up around the aesthetics of surgery. He helped his father, an engineer, design medical instruments for plastic surgery. Watching surgeons try out his instruments on patients in the operating room, Haworth learned secondhand about human physiology -- and about the human desire for bodily enhancement.
In 1991, he began using his family's machine shop to manufacture stainless-steel jewelry for body piercings. It was actually a friend's idea for a business venture, but Haworth found the work artistically fulfilling as well as profitable. Soon Haworth could afford to open a handful of piercing studios and tattoo parlors of his own.
"I wasn't driven from childhood to modify my body like the vast majority of people into this," he says, noting his first modification was after he began producing jewelry. "I grew up very sheltered."
As so-called alternative culture of the 1990s became increasingly mainstream, a mere tattoo or nose ring was no longer considered shocking. Haworth's most hard-core clients would ask him for something new, something different.
The clients represented the final tumbler in Haworth's destiny. Three unique variables -- Haworth's knowledge of human physiology, the ability to custom-design medical instruments and access to willing clients -- had aligned.
In 1995, Haworth made headlines around the world when he successfully transplanted threaded implants through the scalp of Valley resident Joe Aylward. The threads support a variety of spikes that can be screwed onto his head.
Aylward's modification was billed as the world's first metal Mohawk. And Haworth's business, already resented by his body jewelry rivals, became a controversy within the modification industry.
His critics attacked. They said body piercers should not put implants into people.
Haworth agreed. So Haworth quit piercing and changed his title to "3-D Modification Artist."
Today, common client requests include implanted beads and bracelets, pointed "Vulcan" ears and genital alterations such as having a ribbed penis. One Church member recently had a doughnutlike hole cut into his scrotum because he wanted to be able to stick his finger though it.
"I am proud that these people come to me and ask me to guide their journey," Haworth says. "It's not a sadistic kind of thing."
Haworth's own modifications include extensive tattoo work, extended incisor teeth and a partially split urethra -- meaning the bottom inch or so of the penis is permanently filleted open so the urethra can rub directly against a partner and enhance Haworth's sexual pleasure (yes, Haworth can still manage to urinate standing up . . . if he just . . . well . . . let's just say a certain degree of pinching is required).
Eric Silverman, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at DePauw University who studies and writes about body modification, says Haworth's customers are an example of how certain segments of society are resisting the norms of Hollywood-endorsed beauty.
"The body is increasingly treated like any sort of commodity," Silverman says. "If a part fails, you replace it. If you don't like a part, you modify it. Which is ironic because a lot of people who have extreme forms of body modification say they're resisting the dominant norms of body beauty fueled by capitalism. But body modification is a form of hypercapitalism -- now everything can be bought and sold and replaced."
To what extent a person without a medical degree should be allowed to modify a body is another question.
Dr. Armando Favazza, a psychiatrist at the University of Missouri and author of Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, says legal constraints on body modification are inevitable.
"When is it surgery?" Favazza asks. "That's a line that society will decide. [Haworth] has been lucky so far, and it sounds like he's pretty good, but he's also been taking a lot of gambles."
Favazza notes a case in Indiana where a body modifier was charged with practicing surgery without a license after he performed a castration.
Haworth, sitting in an interview along with several other Church members, says he draws his own line.
"I love the controversy, I live for the controversy," Haworth says. "One thing I always say is, 'Let my work speak for itself.'"
What if, say, somebody wants him to cut off a finger?
"People ask me for selective digit removal all the time," he says. "But removing a finger from a hand would change somebody's ability to function."
Interjects Buelow: "Normally what they're doing is getting into the excitement of it all, the whole raw of it all. But if Steve did that, the way he would go about it would be on a totally professional basis."
Haworth tries to keep the discussion in perspective.
"This is talking about the one in 20 million who have the self-amputee fetish and acts on it," he says. "But why would I want to do something that's destructive? I draw my own line, and I don't do things that are potentially destructive."
Buelow nods. "I've asked him to remove my little toes. He doesn't have a problem with that, necessarily. But if I get it done, I want the whole joint off. And he won't do that."
Haworth grins. "Yeah, just so her feet would look cuter in smaller shoes."
The other Church members laugh at Haworth's apparent joke. But Buelow isn't laughing.
"Without the little toes," she explains, "it would be a lot easier to get into smaller shoes."
Here's how a suspension works: First you must choose to go horizontal or vertical. Horizontal is the usual choice for beginners, as going vertical tends to be more painful. Plus, depending on placement of the hooks, it is possible to suffocate during a vertical suspension.
Next you select the number of piercings. The more hooks you take, the more times you need to be pierced. On the other hand, more hooks means your weight is more evenly distributed and you feel less pull-per-hook.
The exact placement of hooks is absolutely crucial. Depending on the hook's depth and location, a minute error can make the difference between a mildly painful experience and an excruciating one.
John Gomes, 26, leads the Church's spin-off performance group, Life Suspended. He says the critical moment during a suspension is when the person first lifts into the air.
"I've seen people laugh at that moment," he says. "I've seen people cry, I've seen them pass out, vomit, orgasm -- it hits everybody a bit differently."
Gomes is a lifelong modifier and professional body piercer. He says modifications are something he needs, that modifying is not a choice for him. In fourth grade he burned his initials into his arm. In sixth grade, he pierced his nipples to emulate Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. He once carved girls' names in his skin because, he says, it was emotionally easier than telling girls that he liked them.
"Once you learn to control your pain, it becomes a valuable ally," he says. "There are a lot of different sensations out there -- pain and pleasure -- and I want to experience it all."
It's tempting to slap modification extremists with a single sweeping motivation. But both Favazza and Haworth agree the reasons vary. Most who practice extreme modification are doing it for the ornamentation or showmanship. Some, like Gesaman, do it for the challenge, or, like Kindelspire, for the pain. People like Gomes, those who need painful modifications for relief and exhilaration, are a minority in the modified community. A few, Favazza says, are also working through abuse issues -- experiencing pain in a controlled environment to reenact painful memories.
Tonight Gomes' girlfriend, Ashley Burson, is going to attempt a difficult suspension. She is going to hang upside down from her knees.
"This is my drug. I can't wait to go up," Burson says enthusiastically. "Your endorphins and adrenaline kick in and it becomes like a pure natural ecstasy."
Burson is 18, attractive and fit, and works as a hostess at Spaghetti Factory. Recently Burson got a tattoo. In the tattoo parlor she saw pictures from one of the Church's flesh-hook suspensions. She wanted to try it herself, and she contacted the Church.
Burson met Gomes at her debut suspension. He did her hook piercings, and they began dating. This will be her fourth suspension.
"Afterward I feel so strong," she says. "Afterward I feel like if I were to get hit by a truck, then the truck would fall apart. Because after I've done this, I can do anything. It's something special to me."
No female Church member has ever attempted to hang from her knees. Burson's previous suspensions have been difficult for her; she's struggled with the pain. She hopes this time will be easier. It won't.
Burson lies on a mat in Haworth's backyard, breathing deeply.
She has four hooks in her, one on either side of her legs, just shy of her knees. About 20 Church members and friends sit on the patio, watching.
Directly above Burson is "the rigging," a dangling web of rock-climbing ropes and carabiners leading to a steel pole. The pole extends over the yard to a mounting on the garage roof. It functions like a fishing reel. A Church member on the roof operates the crank, raising or lowering the person being suspended.
Gomes attaches the hanging carabiners to her hooks. Buelow sits beside her. Haworth stands nearby, keeping a supervisory eye on the proceedings.
Haworth is watching the hooks and Burson's skin. He says nobody he's ever suspended has had a hook accidentally tear out, and he wants to keep it that way. He's also watching Burson's face and eyes for signs of faintness.
Going into neurogenic shock is "always a possibility," Haworth says, and therefore he only suspends people who have had "pain conditioning" such as tattoos or multiple piercings. Symptoms of shock include fainting, vomiting, shallow breathing, trembling and clammy skin when associated with pain or extreme mental distress. The condition is usually harmless and fleeting, but in some circumstances it can segue into full-fledged circulatory collapse.
Once Burson is attached, the crank operator on the garage roof slowly turns the reel. The ropes tighten.
Burson's goal is to hang for at least five minutes. She knows the first 90 seconds are usually the most painful. Afterward the body can float along on an endorphin high. That's where she wants to be.
As her knees gradually rise off the mat, Burson begins to protest. Quietly at first, then . . .
"Oh, wait. Oh, fuck. Ow-ow-ow. Fuck! STOP!"
"Hold it!" Haworth says.
One of Burson's hooks has partially come out and is digging into her leg. The hole looks violent. Burson begins to tremble.
Gomes takes out his girlfriend's errant hook, then pushes the steel back through the gore. He urges her not to quit.
"You already have double [knee] piercings," he reminds her.
Burson asks for somebody to play her Tool CD on a nearby portable stereo. As the song begins, she closes her eyes and mouths the lyrics: It took so long to remember just what happened. I was so young and vestal then . . .
"C'mon, get through it," Gomes urges. "You can do this."
As they begin to hoist once again, Burson winces and breathes rapidly. Her legs are parted and bloody with her knees raised. Buelow holds her hand for support. Her boyfriend looks on urgently. The scene is a parody of childbirth.
. . . I've got my hands bound, my head down, my eyes closed . . .
Haworth orders a nearby girl to put on a pair of protective surgical gloves, and stands up. He looks gravely down at Burson, assessing her as if she's a patient in critical condition.
. . . For one sweet moment I am whole. . . .
The reel clicks another few inches. More tension is added to Burson's hooked knees, pale white with splashes of red.
Buelow gives Burson a SweetTart. The candy is used to keep a person's blood sugar up, which reduces the risk of fainting.
"Breathe, relax, you're almost up," Buelow tells her, then noting the blood, she turns to some bystanders. "Can we get a couple of damp paper towels?" she asks.
Gomes gets up, and walks away for a moment. He's frustrated. His method of helping somebody in a suspension does not involve this sort of "petting and pampering."
"You're doing something you know is going to hurt," he explains. "Going slow isn't going to help. That's just making it worse."
On the mat, Burson mouths her favorite lyric from the song: I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this, and says something to Buelow about Gomes being disappointed.
"This is not about John," Buelow reminds her. "It's about you."
When Gomes returns, Burson announces she's ready to try again: Let's do it.
The crank operator begins to turn the reel.
Burson's knees tug upward. She clenches her teeth.
"Just keep it inside, baby," Gomes urges. "You're so tough, you're so strong . . ."
. . . I've come round full circle. My lamb and martyr, this will be over soon . . .
The crank operator, looking like some sort of sadistic fisherman, reels Burson into the air.
Burson gasps and hangs, upside down, for several seconds.
Her bloody piercings stretch, her arms dangle limply toward the ground.
A shadow of a smile creeps over her face . . .
. . . then she grimaces again.
"No. No. Sorry. I can't do it."
Burson is lowered back to the mat.
She sighs and flops back, eyes closed. Every inch of her skin twitches independently, as if she's being shocked by thousands of invisible electrodes.
"You looked beautiful," Gomes says, trying to reassure her. "Congratulations."
Burson shakes her head, no.
"You did what you set out to do," Gomes says. "It doesn't matter if you didn't enjoy it. It matters that you beat it."
Burson fingers her black pants in Haworth's office, recovering, feeling the blood seeping through. During a suspension or hook-pull, air is often sucked under your skin. Afterward you need to push the air bubbles out toward the wound. One Church member says the air bubbles have a crackly feel, "sort of like Rice Krispies."
Burson says the suspension was the most painful experience of her life. And she's angry at herself for staying up for only 30 seconds.
"I don't feel like I accomplished anything," she says. "I need to do it again. I didn't do it right."
Gomes is also disappointed. The suspension, he says, was "a fucking mess." The incident happened in front of a New Times reporter and a producer from Ripley's Believe It or Not!, camera in hand. The Ripley's producer predicted he'll have no trouble finding funding for his feature-length documentary on the Church.
Yes, it's all fun and games until an 18-year-old Spaghetti Factory hostess is strung up writhing and bleeding from the knees.
And the worst part, Gomes says, is Burson's comments about wanting to please him. It doesn't look proper in the Church community for his girlfriend, a relative newbie to fleshplay, to attribute a negative experience to him. That's not what a suspension is supposed to be like; it's not what the Church is supposed to be about.
"I don't think she should suspend anymore," Gomes concludes. "If she's saying that shit, then she's thinking it, and if she's thinking it, maybe that's the reason [she's suspending] -- and that's the wrong reason."
A couple weeks later, Gomes says Burson has moved out of his place and quit her job. She took off to find a new scene, he says.
Fakir Musafar is a practicing shaman in the Bay Area and publisher of Body Play magazine. Musafar coined the term "modern primitives" to describe the emerging body modification movement. He says negative consequences should be expected from the way the Church of Body Modification conducts its suspensions. He says Church suspensions, especially public exhibitions in clubs and on television shows, are a sort of cosmic violation and that spiritual payback is inevitable.
"I feel strongly that one must honor the traditions, spirituality and purposes of the ritual in the cultures from which they were taken, and not cheaply exploit them for exhibitionism," he says. "Suspensions and similar body rituals are not art. This is magic. . . . You don't do this to show other people how brave you are. An out-of-body experience takes 10 to 12 hours, not 30 to 60 minutes."
Musafar says Church of Body Modification leaders have been "trying to get the Fakir stamp of approval," but he disagrees with Haworth's modification business and the public display of flesh-hook suspensions. Musafar compares the suspensions to when sailors brought back the mechanics of tattooing from tribal civilizations without regard for the culture it came from.
Haworth counters that the meaning of the suspension depends on the individual, that it would be wrong for him or anybody else to force his interpretation onto somebody who is suspending.
"When you do a performance, it's not the same as what we do in our backyard," he says. "People sing in the shower -- does it cheapen it if they pick up a microphone and let other people hear it?"
Both agree that people who suspend should be prepared for the experience. But Haworth stresses "pain conditioning," whereas Musafar emphasizes spiritual readiness and the presence of a shaman like himself.
In other words, Musafar says, "Don't fuck with the medicine man."
One last thing: Gesaman's suspension.
He took the hooks like a champ. They dangle from his body, looking like painful Christmas tree ornaments.
Gesaman's hooks are fashioned to a red steel cross. He is lifted off, into the air. The whole process takes about 30 seconds, one of the quickest suspension lifts the Church has ever witnessed. There's no bleeding, no trouble. The group is impressed.
"This is Don's first suspension," Haworth announces, and witnesses applaud.
Haworth gives the cross a gentle shove, sending it and Gesaman into a gradual spin.
"The middle of his back is beautiful," Haworth says, admiringly. "It's a great stretch."
Gesaman's girlfriend Fox stares at her hanging, rotating boyfriend, wide-eyed.
She approaches him carefully, as if trying to decide what she thinks.
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"If he likes it," she says slowly, "then I love it."
"I'm glad you're here," Gesaman replies.
Fox leans up and kisses him a few times, then sits on the dirt. She smiles up at her boyfriend, watching him turn slowly in space.