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Cutting and the Pedagogy of SelfDisclosure

Cutting and the Pedagogy of SelfDisclosure

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Cutting and the Pedagogy of SelfDisclosure
    Book Description:

    Cutting, a form of selfmutilation, is a growing problem in the United States, especially among adolescent females. It is regarded as selfdestructive behavior, yet paradoxically, people who cut themselves generally do not wish to die but to find relief from unbearable psychological pain. Cutting and the Pedagogy of SelfDisclosure is the first book to explore how college students write about their experiences as cutters. The idea behind the book arose when Patricia Hatch Wallace, a high school English teacher, wrote a readerresponse diary for a graduate course taught by Professor Jeffrey Berman in which she revealed for the first time that she had cut herself twenty years earlier. At Berman's suggestion, Wallace wrote her Master's thesis on cutting. Not long after she finished her thesis, two students in Berman's expository writing course revealed their own experiences as cutters. Their disclosures encouraged several students in another writing class to share their own cutting stories with classmates. Realizing that so many students were writing about the same phenomenon, Berman and Wallace decided to write a book about a subject that is rarely discussed inside or outside the classroom. In Part 1, Wallace discusses clinical and theoretical aspects of cutting and then applies these insights to several memoirs and novels, including Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, Caroline Kettlewell's Skin Game, and Patricia McCormick's Cut. The motivation behind Wallace's research was the desire to learn more about herself, and she reads these stories through her own experience as a cutter. In Part 2, Berman focuses on the pedagogical dynamics of cutting: how undergraduate students write about cutting, how their writings affect classmates and teachers, and how students who cut themselves can educate everyone in the classroom about a problem that has personal, psychological, cultural, and educational significance.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-069-7
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION “Why Would I Have Ever Cut Myself?”
    (pp. ix-xxxii)
    Patricia Hatch Wallace

    We begin with Patty’s final reader-response diary written for Jeff Berman’s graduate English class the Age of Freud at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her entry onSurviving Literary Suicidewas the first time that she wrote about the troubled period in her life when she cut herself. The entry is a striking example of what Jeff calls “risky writing,” personal writing containing painful or shameful feelings that expose the writer’s vulnerability.

    Patty’s diary reveals many of the ambiguities of cutting, including its complex relationship to suicide. She is aware of the high incidence of suicidal...

  5. Part 1 CUTTING—A Learned Behavior

    • [Part 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      There has been much research in the past ten years into the self-injurious behavior commonly known as “cutting,” which comprises 72 percent of all self-injurious behavior, but many theories continue to attribute cutting and other forms of self-injury to psychological disorders (Engelgau 1). Certainly some who engage in cutting do have diagnosable disorders; nevertheless, I contend that for others cutting is mainly a learned behavior, at times adaptive, at other times maladaptive, and not always triggered by a psychological disorder. Since, overwhelmingly, young women engage in cutting behavior, mutilating their own skin by cutting themselves, it is this population I...

    • CHAPTER 1 Feminist Perspectives Self-Injurious Behavior among Women
      (pp. 5-12)

      Whitlock and her associates note that although self-injurious behaviors (SIBs) are “popularly assumed to represent a female phenomenon”—some studies suggest that females are up to three times more likely to cut themselves than males—this assumption “is not fully supported by existing literature” (1945). One possible explanation for this assumption, they conjecture, is that most of the research on SIBs has been conducted in clinical settings in which women are overrepresented. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that “compared with those with no SIB incidents, respondents with repeat SIB incidents were significantly more likely to be female than male” (1943). Their research...

    • CHAPTER 2 Theories and Diagnoses A Closer Look
      (pp. 13-23)

      Steven Levenkron has written about anorexia, bulimia, and self-mutilation. In his bookCutting, he fuses his own theories about the phenomenon with instances of his patients’ cutting behaviors. He believes that cutting, like phobias, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, can be traced back to one’s inability to form healthy attachments to other people (91–92). Further, forming what he describes as “unhealthy” attachments is the actual problem of which cutting is a primary symptom. He describes cutting and other symptoms of attachment disorder as disorders themselves, ones that “fill the void left by the lack of interpersonal relationships and...

    • CHAPTER 3 My History as a Cutter Losing Self-Esteem
      (pp. 24-30)

      I first cut myself when I was twelve. I did it because someone told me to. That sounds typically adolescent, I know. I used an old, dull jackknife and carved a cross into the side of my right shin. It was summertime, and I wore shorts almost every day, so I knew people would notice it—but that’s what it was about at the time—people noticing.

      I didn’t cut myself due to physical abuse by my parents, intense self-loathing, or suicidal ideations—I cut myself because a teenage boy who lived in the neighborhood told me to. Looking back...

    • CHAPTER 4 Kettlewell, OCD, and Me Keeping One’s Beasts at Bay
      (pp. 31-39)

      In her memoirThe Skin Game, Caroline Kettlewell beautifully narrates her own adolescent and young adult struggles with a razor blade. For Kettlewell, cutting was about the blood, yes, but like me, she also wanted the scars that came with the damage. “I cut to lay down a line between before and after, between self and other, chaos and clarity. I cut as an affirmation of hope, saying ‘I have drawn the line and I am still on this side of it’ ”(176). This passage, which is as eloquent as the rest of her book, uses the metaphor of a...

    • CHAPTER 5 Cutting Influences Peer Pressure and Out-of-Control Lives
      (pp. 40-60)

      “The phenomenon known as ‘contagion’ is growing. Teens are learning about the behavior from one another, from the press, and from popular culture, and it is giving them ideas. Several popular singers and rock groups portray self-injury in their lyrics and album art” (Conterio and Lader 23). The researchers add that many children and teenagers may begin self-injury by accident—literally. Following an accidental cut, however, these adolescents “were surprised when they were flooded by feelings of relief” (22). Cutting then becomes a deliberate pattern of behavior. One survey of 245 college students found that 12 percent admitted to having...

    • CHAPTER 6 Cutting Literature “High School May Not Be the Place for Books Like These”
      (pp. 61-70)

      I once used cutting as a coping mechanism. I know firsthand how powerful a device it can be, whatever the reason someone turns to it. As a teacher and as a member of our society, I have a responsibility to recognize the epidemic of cutting among teens. I want to do what I can to help decrease cutting—now and in the future.

      Nevertheless, as a high school English teacher, I would hesitate to teach works featuring cutting behavior. I teach primarily ninth grade, and I believe that my students might have a great deal of difficulty resisting the appeal...


    • [Part 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 71-76)

      If, as Patty suggests, cutting is highly contagious and likely to “infect” others who come into contact with it, how can teachers prevent students from becoming at risk when theyreadessays and stories about self-mutilation? And how can teachers prevent students from becoming at risk when theywriteabout cutting?Shouldthey be permitted to write about it? What are the educational and psychological benefits of allowing—or encouraging—college students to read stories about cutting and to write about their own experiences? Are college students susceptible to the same contagion that threatens high school students, and, if so,...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Contagion Effect “Teachers Ought to Be Careful in What They Assign”
      (pp. 77-105)

      I first encountered the contagion effect when I was teaching a graduate course called Literary Suicide in 1994, from which aroseSurviving Literary Suicidein 1999. The more I learned about the suicides of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, the more examples I discovered of copycat deaths. Hemingway, for example, never forgave his father for committing suicide. The act haunted him his entire life and compelled him to write stories in which he attempted to exorcise his own obsession with suicide. Carlos Baker quotes in his biography a revealing canceled passage ofThe Green Hills of...

    • CHAPTER 8 Minimizing the Risks of Personal Writing The Empathic Classroom
      (pp. 106-121)

      Teachers cannot eliminate the risks of personal writing, but they can minimize and manage these dangers by adopting the following classroom practices. (For an extended discussion of these protocols, seeRisky Writing29–48.) These practices help to create and maintain the “safe haven” that enables students like Patty to disclose painful or shameful experiences that are rarely discussed in the classroom.

      Empathy is the foundation of a self-disclosing classroom, and I encourage students to try to understand their classmates’ feelings and thoughts. Heinz Kohut, a leading psychoanalyst who founded a new movement, self-psychology, based on the empathic-introspective stance, argues...

    • CHAPTER 9 Attachment Theory and Self-Disclosure Strengthening the Teacher-Student Bond
      (pp. 122-138)

      The protocols described in chapter 8 help not only to lessen the possibility that students will be harmed in the self-disclosing classroom but also to strengthen their attachment to classmates and teacher. The success of any pedagogy based on self-disclosure depends on the empathic bonds that permit students to reveal painful or shameful aspects of their lives without the fear of being criticized or attacked.

      Attachment theory, formulated by the English psychoanalyst John Bowlby in his landmark three-volume workAttachment and Loss, implies that the longing for human connection is as instinctual as hunger or sexuality. Bowlby’s research focused on...

    • CHAPTER 10 Cutting in the Classroom Paula, Ralph, Judy, Christine, and Cordelia
      (pp. 139-157)

      “Suddenly[,] self-cutting, a clinical problem that evokes considerable anxiety, seems to be almost everywhere, bursting onto the cultural scene in very much the same way eating disorders exploded into our awareness twenty or thirty years ago. Both are hot topics now” (Farber xxiii). So states Sharon Klayman Farber in the introduction to her bookWhen the Body Is the Target, published in 2000. Eating disorders have long been rampant among college students, as my colleagues Mary Valentis and Anne Devane report in their 1994 bookFemale Rage. “It’s no wonder that today’s little girls are aware of body image at...

    • CHAPTER 11 “Falling in Love with Cutting” Maryann and Paige
      (pp. 158-207)

      How should a teacher react to a student’s ongoing medical or psychological problem? This question arose in an expository writing course I taught in the spring of 2005. In an effort to encourage students to write on a “light” topic that would balance the preceding darker topics, I asked them to write an essay on either falling in or out of love. The assignment came exactly at the midpoint of the semester:

      For your next assignment, please write an essay about falling in or out of love. Try to capture the experience of love: the passion, excitement, confusion, and mystery....

    • CHAPTER 12 Conclusion Writing about Cutting—Contagion or Inoculation?
      (pp. 208-250)

      After the semester ended, Maryann and Paige gave me permission to read their essays anonymously to my next section of Expository Writing, which I taught in the fall of 2005. The two essays evoked strong identificatory responses from male and female students alike. Three women and three men wrote about their own cutting experiences, and a fourth woman wrote about her sister’s cutting. Each implied that cutting was a response to low self-esteem and depression. Most of these essays were in response to the following assignment, given one week before the end of the semester:

      Many of the students in...

    • EPILOGUE “I Was Committing a Crime against My Body, against Women”
      (pp. 251-264)

      “Cutters are everywhere,” Patty concludes in her section, and we end the book with Anna’s writings to show how students can write healing narratives on self-injury. Anna was a member of Jeff’s Love and Loss course taught in the spring of 2006. Most of the texts on the reading list equated loss with death, but the final book,Empathic Teaching, explored other types of loss: the loss of one’s physical or psychological health, the breakup of a relationship, the crushing of one’s self-esteem, or the fragmentation of one’s family. The seventh and final essay asked students to discuss three of...

    (pp. 265-268)
    (pp. 269-276)
    (pp. 277-278)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 279-284)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)