My National Review column today is on Snopes, the indispensable urban legends debunker site. I became interested in urban legends several years ago, when for a while it seemed like that terrible tale of Richard Gere and the gerbil was all anyone was talking about. Gerbils aren't actually in the habit of burrowing up the rectums of movie stars — or anyone else, for that matter; I mean, what's in it for the gerbil? — but just try explaining that to the dozens of people here in Hollywood who kept insisting that their sister's/cousin's/uncle's friend worked at some local hospital and — swear to God! — had seen the gerbil X-rays.
People became very heated if you questioned the truth of their story. But gerbils, an exotic desert species that would wreak havoc on California agriculture if they were to get loose and breed, have always been banned as pets here. I remembered this fact from my pet-obsessed childhood, when I checked out every animal book in the library. So where would Gere have found that gerbil? Presumably a hamster or mouse would have served just as well. Obviously the story originated in some cold-weather state where gerbils are legal and migrated to California. And indeed it did: I tracked down a 30-year-old version about Jim Nabors.
And why would a celebrity go to an emergency room with such an awkward problem instead of calling a private doctor? These stories reveal as much about the personal frames of reference of the tale-teller as they do about anything else. Folklorists found the story fascinating: Norine Dresser wrote an article called "The Case of the Missing Gerbil" for the academic journal Western Folklore, which cited a piece I wrote about the story at the time for the gay magazine The Advocate.
"In my favorite version [Gere] went to Kaiser," Dresser told me. "And I just had to scream at the vision of him pulling out his Kaiser card."