Without a Leg to Stand On

By Tim Winterstein

Puns abound in the 2015 documentary Finders Keepers (streaming on Netflix). The title is my favorite, though it is first among equals. It had been on my list to watch for a while, so I finally got around to it. I’m probably not putting it number one among my favorite documentaries, but it has a certain, uh, charm. I wasn’t sure if there would be too much to talk about (my wife was even less sure). But that’s where I am this week, so that’s what you get. (Before I recommend this one, I’d say Abducted in Plain Sight and Liberated [both on Netflix—although, avert your eyes from what else comes up when you search for Liberated] ought to be at the top of your list.)

Anyway, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never seen a documentary about a lost-then-bought-then-lost leg. (Unless you’ve seen this one, then….) It starts in absurdity and a sort of redneck weirdness (apologies to any readers in South Carolina). But the film doesn’t stay up in the stratosphere of simply laughing at its subjects. If so, it would simply be another “reality” show, as Shannon Whisnant finds out. What intrigued me was how the film manages to hit much closer to all sorts of common human problems than you might expect from meeting the main characters.

It turns out that both Whisnant (who bought the grill with the amputated leg) and John Wood (whose leg it was) are trying to work through, more or less successfully, issues they had with their fathers. Whisnant’s tough-guy, I’ll-mess-you-up front is pierced twice in the film: once when he tries to describe the attention he received from being on a reality courtroom show and once when he talks about how abusive his father was.

And nearly the entire reason Wood tried to keep the amputated leg, and tried to get it back, was because he wanted to set up a monument to his hard-to-please father, who died in a plane crash for which Wood feels himself partly responsible. Not only that, but Whisnant seems to hold a grudge against Wood because he wasn’t one of the cool kids who got to have birthday parties at the Wood estate. Whisnant isn’t ever asked directly, but maybe his desire to keep Wood’s leg stems, in part, from that childhood snub.

Wood isn’t the only one keeping memento mori. His mother, Peg, keeps her husband Tom’s ashes in a box in a cabinet, and refused to have any kind of funeral or memorial service for him. She says he wouldn’t have wanted anything like that, but her daughter and granddaughter say it was a small act of revenge for the way Tom Wood treated her throughout their marriage.

And though the daughter (John’s sister) once says that John and his mother (estranged after John’s drug abuse) are not so different because they both want to hang on to physical relics of Tom, that’s as far as the documentary goes with it. But I wonder about the way we treat bodies and the (c)remains of bodies. I wonder if the variety of traditions or, more likely, arbitrary means of disposal, indicate anything about our relationship to death.

I realize this is getting further from the point of the documentary, and you can watch it if you’re interested. But this is the trail of thought it sent me down. Because what is it with the leg? That’s the source of the conflict in the film, but how did an amputated leg come to be at the crux of news stories, reality shows, money-making schemes, and a documentary? I know the physical chain of custody, because the movie shows it. I just have trouble imagining someone actually keeping such a thing. Then again, I’ve never had my leg amputated, so I guess I can’t speak to it.

Or maybe it’s more common than it seems. We keep babies’ locks of hair or teeth. I recently found medical slides of my appendix tissue from my childhood appendectomy. What is behind the desire to keep these bodily and physical pieces of our or our kids’ former selves? Is it like a photograph or a journal?

And what about cremains on a shelf, in a box or urn? I’ve never really understood it. Not that I have a problem with it; it’s just not something I think I’d do. And it’s an interesting juxtaposition with a body in a casket. How many times have you heard someone talk about the corpse and say that the person isn’t really there? And then maybe the same people would keep an urn of ashes and talk about the person being there on the shelf?

For all our protestations to the contrary, it sure seems like we have closer connections to our bodies than we’d like to admit. And as weird as the severed leg is, soaked in formaldehyde (Whisnant keeps saying it was leaking cholesterol—huh?) or whatever, and left to dry in a tree—I mean, come on, that’s weird, right?—maybe there’s something sort of built into us that cannot simply let our physical bodies go gentle into that good ground. We know implicitly that those bodies are us. They are not just philosophical accidents attached to the “real me.” They are me, and without them, I’m less than fully me.

As easy as it is to laugh at Shannon Whisnant and John Wood in the earlier parts of the documentary (and I did, multiple times, including when Whisnant twice says “the things that have perspired,” instead of “transpired”), it becomes clear that these are wounded men, in relationships with other wounded people—wounds they themselves have inflicted.

They may have entered the public eye because of the peculiarity of their dispute, but their desires and goals are easily recognizable and familiar. It might not be a leg or running for President of the United States (as Whisnant did in 2016—not sure we got the better of that loss; President Whisnant would have been at least more humorous, if not more competent), but the desire for approval and recognition and freedom from our addictions runs deep. There is a deep sadness running underneath all the silliness.

So there is, perhaps, more to learn from a documentary about who owns a severed leg than is at first apparent. Human stories, no matter how absurd, contain human lessons.