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The Tender Cut

The Tender Cut: Inside the Hidden World of Self-Injury

Patricia A. Adler
Peter Adler
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Tender Cut
    Book Description:

    Cutting, burning, branding, and bone-breaking are all types of self-injury, or the deliberate, non-suicidal destruction of one's own body tissue, a practice that emerged from obscurity in the 1990s and spread dramatically as a typical behavior among adolescents. Long considered a suicidal gesture, The Tender Cut argues instead that self-injury is often a coping mechanism, a form of teenage angst, an expression of group membership, and a type of rebellion, converting unbearable emotional pain into manageable physical pain. Based on the largest, qualitative, non-clinical population of self-injurers ever gathered, noted ethnographers Patricia and Peter Adler draw on 150 interviews with self-injurers from all over the world, along with 30,000-40,000 internet posts in chat rooms and communiques. Their 10-year longitudinal research follows the practice of self-injury from its early days when people engaged in it alone and did not know others, to the present, where a subculture has formed via cyberspace that shares similar norms, values, lore, vocabulary, and interests. An important portrait of a troubling behavior, The Tender Cut illuminates the meaning of self-injury in the 21st century, its effects on current and former users, and its future as a practice for self-discovery or a cry for help.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0541-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    Self-injury has existed for nearly all of recorded history. Although it has been defined and regarded in various ways over time, its rise in the 1990s and early 2000s has taken a specific, although contested, form and meaning. We focus in this book on the deliberate, nonsuicidal destruction of one’s own body tissue, incorporating practices such as self-cutting, burning, branding, scratching, picking at skin (also called acne mutilation, psychogenic or neurotic excoriation, self-inflicted dermatosis or dermatillomania), reopening wounds, biting, head banging, hair pulling (trichotillomania), hitting (with a hammer or other object), swallowing or embedding objects, breaking bones or teeth, tearing...

  5. 2 Literature and Population
    (pp. 22-37)

    This book highlights the sociological nature of self-injury in several ways, two of which are profiled in this chapter. First, we discuss the contribution we make to a sociological analysis of the data on self-injury, expanding the understanding of self-injury beyond the way it has traditionally been conceptualized by the psycho-medical establishment with a new, sociological lens. Second, and perhaps more important, we show how the population of self-injurers has spread from a narrow, clinically conceptualized base into the broader reaches of the mainstream. These discussions lay a foundation for the examination of the development of new empirical conceptions and...

  6. 3 Studying Self-Injury
    (pp. 38-52)

    The germ of an idea for this study began in the spring of 1982 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Peter, shortly into his first teaching job, met with a student in his office who came to tell him about an odd practice of hers: she intentionally cut herself. Intrigued and sympathetic, he listened to her story, looked at the small cuts on her legs that she took great pains to hide, and asked questions, with curiosity, about her motivations and sensations from it.

    Over subsequent years we both caught further glimpses of similar behavior. As interested and “cool” professors who taught courses...

  7. 4 Becoming a Self-Injurer
    (pp. 53-65)

    In this chapter we begin our exploration of the details of self-injury. As we noted in chapter 1, some of the chapters are tied to historical periods, with earlier times preceding later ones. This chapter examines people’s entry into self-injurious behavior in the earlier years of our study. We begin by looking at some of the types of factors that led people to self-injure, then we move to a consideration of the pathways that they followed into the behavior, and then we look at some of the typical patterns of progression that most people followed.

    In discussing some of the...

  8. 5 The Phenomenology of the Cut
    (pp. 66-93)

    Many scholarly portraits of self-injury are analytical, detached, and impersonal. They objectify and externalize an act that is, at its essence, about feelings. Yet at its core, self-injury is about the pain that drives people and the feelings of relief that they get from it. Comprehending self-injury requires a close, densely textured examination of how this act is carried out, felt, and interpreted by the people who perform it. It requires particular attention to the accompanying range of emotions. Clearly there are different sensations people experience from self-injuring, just as there are different reasons why they do it, so this...

  9. 6 Loners in the Social World
    (pp. 94-107)

    During the early years of self-injury’s rise, in the 1990s and early 2000s, people who self-injured were often isolated from other self-injurers. The behavior was either unknown by much of the public or misunderstood. As a result, practitioners had little or no interaction with others like themselves. This chapter focuses on this period and describes the way self-injuring was affected by the social and historical context of that time.

    Sociological categories exist that describe individuals who have similar kinds of relationships and associations with other deviants as self-injurers. Although these analytical types may not fit self-injurers perfectly, they shed insight...

  10. 7 Colleagues in the Cyber World
    (pp. 108-127)

    As we noted in the preceding chapter, most of the people we encountered in our early face-to-face interviews worked hard to hide their self-injury and felt the sting of social condemnation and shame. It was only by 2003 or 2004 (and later for many) that the opportunity to meet and talk to other self-injurers online presented itself. As information on this topic began to appear on the Internet, we expected to encounter more subjects who had ventured into the self-injury cyber world, especially since the people we interviewed, as college students, had computer access and literacy. The majority of our...

  11. 8 Self-Injury Communities
    (pp. 128-143)

    Once self-injurers ventured into the postmodern world of cyberspace, they found an arena that mirrored their solid world in many ways but had more ephemeral features. In this chapter we examine the characteristics of self-injury cyber communities and the people who inhabited them. Participation in social communities such as these can be very beneficial, offering individuals who join them multiple resources. They give members increased value, or social capital, by enhancing their social networks, offering social norms that govern how members interact, and providing sanctions that ensure members adhere to these norms. It took a while for the self-injurers in...

  12. 9 Self-Injury Relationships
    (pp. 144-166)

    One of the key byproducts of entering the cyber world and participating in groups or chat rooms is forming relationships with other cyber denizens. These relationships constitute the types of associations that differentiate deviant loners from deviant colleagues, even if they only (or primarily) exist in cyberspace. In this chapter we examine the nature of the relationships self-injurers formed online, how these compared to their solid-world relationships, the effects these had on their solid-world relationships and lives, and how these affected their self-injury.

    Relationships that were formed in online venues differed significantly from those made in the solid world. They...

  13. 10 The Social Transformation of Self-Injury
    (pp. 167-180)

    In this book we have highlighted the evolution of self-injury. We argued in chapter 2 that whereas the behavior was for a long time defined and treated by the psycho-medical community according to their clinical view of its cause and population, things changed significantly over the course of our research. In this chapter we extend our discussion of these ongoing developments in self-injury’s practice that took it further beyond the psychomedical bounds and established it more firmly as a sociological phenomenon. Self-injury has become demedicalized in its practice, changing from being primarily a mental disorder, or a disease, into a...

  14. 11 Careers in Self-Injury
    (pp. 181-198)

    One of the most fascinating ways to analyze people’s involvement with self-injury is to look at it as acareer.Individual testimonials, postings, or blogs can offer only a frozen snapshot in time that fails to capture the typical patterns that commonly evolve over the stages of people’s involvement. Yet through our in-depth life-history interviews and the longitudinal nature of our research design we were able to trace individuals’ transformations over their years of self-injuring. Whereas the psycho-medical community tends to focus on the traumas or disorders that lead individuals to self-injure and the treatments available for desistence, sociologists have...

  15. 12 Understanding Self-Injury
    (pp. 199-218)

    In this book, we have charted the rise and evolution of self-injury since the early 1990s to the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade. Our research makes a rare contribution to the literature on this topic because it is the first in-depth, sociological, longitudinal study of self-injurers living in their natural worlds, neither in psychiatric treatment nor in institutional settings. We add here to empirical knowledge about noninpatient groups alternative youth movements, adolescents, adults, and cyber populations, a previously untapped mass of individuals who manage their self-injury on their own, largely without recourse to clinical observation.

    We gathered life...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 219-230)
  17. References
    (pp. 231-249)
  18. Index
    (pp. 250-251)
  19. About the Authors
    (pp. 252-252)