“A guy walks into a bar and he loses a kidney;” this urban legend is a morality tale

April is National Donate Life month (please consider signing your donor card), when several organizations create awareness of organ donation. While trying to figure out something to write about for this occasion, I rediscovered these “urban legends” or “contemporary myths” as they are called in the academic world. One of the most well-known is about the theft of organs. Jan Brunvand and Véronique Campion-Vincent discuss this particular urban legend in various publications, and the basic story is as follows:

While traveling, a man is picked up at a bar by a beautiful woman. One thing leads to another and they go back to his hotel room. He awakens the next day lying in bloody sheets with a sewn-up incision on his torso, and the woman is gone. When he gets to a hospital, he is told his kidney has been removed.

There are many different variations of this story, such as waking in an ice-filled bathtub (having both kidneys removed), a note telling him to call 911 right away, he was drugged initially or used illegal drugs, the genders are reversed, and others. But the basic “motifs” are there — traveling victim, hotel, seduction, hospital, survival after the surgery, and so on. Also, there is a “FOAF” (friend of a friend) aspect; no one actually knows the person who experienced this.

Many of these stories serve as “morality tales,” and in this one, infidelity or drug use could lead to a nasty fate. Morality tales, or allegories, are a large part of the oral story tradition and contemporary myths. In one sense, this was reinforcement of religious teachings of morality. Instead of a reward for being good, or eternal damnation, in this case “Don’t stray or you could be injured,” is a much more concrete concept than the religious teachings provide.

These stories lead to the suspense of incredulity. We tend to forget about the fact that donors and patients need to be matched; blood type, and other medical factors could not be dealt with properly; organs need to be removed carefully so they will function properly after transplantation. Many surgeons remove organs from cadavers or brain-dead donors themselves instead of having someone else do it for them; they are assured the organ will be removed to their specifications. Also, why do we believe that the organ harvesters care so much about leaving the victim alive, suturing them up, filling a bathtub with ice, telling them to call 911 if they want to live?

There is often grain of truth to these myths. There is evidence of organ trafficking in Third World countries, but from what is known, the victims are usually murdered for their organs rather than this whole elaborate story above.

This legend has roots tied to the late 1980’s “reports” of Third World babies being kidnapped to supply body parts for wealthy Americans. Campion-Vincent published an article in Western Folklore in early 1990 showing the rise of this legend.

Many urban legends have no purported date of origin. These myths are the offshoot of the oral storytelling tradition, and as such, have been passed around, added to, have had the location changed nearby to make the story even more plausible. However, this particular story is different; we can pin-point the rise of this legend quite exactly.

According to Brunvand, the “Kidney Heist” came to his attention in March, 1991. It could not have occurred before the early 1980’s as the drugs to prevent rejection of the implanted organs had not yet been discovered and used successfully. The myth beginning around the early 1990’s would be feasible. Brunvand also points out that an episode of the television show Law & Order (“Sonata for Solo Organ,” original air date April 2, 1991) has probably led to the myth spreading wider and faster than many other contemporary myths.

All of the aspects of this contemporary myth fit the mold of a typical urban legend with exception of the date, and in this one, the timing works out perfectly. The prevalence and public awareness of transplantation in the mid 1980’s helped to create this story. The moral aspects of drug use in the 1980s (think about the creation of the Drug Czar, 1982) and infidelity give rise to a unique story that you probably will not forget.

References:

Brunvand, Jon. The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Campion-Vincent, Véronique. “Organ Theft Narratives” Western Folklore 56 (1997), 1–37.

Campion-Vincent, Véronique. “The Baby-Parts Story: A New Latin American Legend.” Western Folklore 49 (1990): 9–25.

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