by Angela Su

A sixteen-year-old girl slashed her wrists and arms and then rushed to the steps of a Roman Catholic church poking a razor to her throat while a crowd of three hundred persons cheered and screamed, “Do your thing, sister!” For forty-five minutes she held back police and priests by threatening to cut her throat. Finally she collapsed on the steps of Immaculate Conception Church because she lost so much blood. Three bottles were thrown by the crowd which hooted as the girl staggered on the steps of the church. One bottle struck the girl and the others smashed against the church and the street curb. While the girl bled profusely, one man jumped up on the sidewalk and recited a brief couplet of doggerel verse. Three more times she cut her arms with the razor and each time the crowd applauded. A cheer rose from the mob when the girl finally fainted and collapsed from loss of blood. Police took her to the hospital. A dozen persons went to look at the pools of blood that had dripped from the girl’s arms after she was taken away. - August 1976, Hartford.  

There is a strangely archaic beauty that belongs almost exclusively to the wound. What idea of beauty is it, we must ask, which coincides with the image of a dazed, bleeding, suicidal girl frozen in fear before a crowd excited - even slightly maddened - with blood lust? Certainly it is a beauty that cannot be disjoined from terror and from the darker truths of the human psyche.  

She comes out of her room with bruises on her chest, that look like patches of dirty yellowish iodine stains. Iodine is needed for the normal metabolism of cells. Humans need iodine for normal thyroid function, and for the production of thyroid hormones. No one knows what the link between bipolar disorder and thyroid disorder is, but there may be several different relationships, including one in which thyroid hormone is used as a treatment. We are using iodine in science class for testing the presence of starch. The patches do not look like bruises. Bruises are supposed to be blue and purple.  

The seven o’clock news is on.  

She comes out of her room with bruises on her chest. Very quietly, she floats across the living room as if there is no motion of walking. Her eyes are dark and hollow. Darker than space without stars, like an abyss with neither hope nor salvation. She hasn’t eaten for two days. She is a staggering corpse, indifferent to everything happening around her. She excludes herself from all relations to her environment and lives to prove that death can be lived. She still moves around, but does so in slow motion, without bending her knees.  She sits on the toilet, bends forward, her pale white feet floating on the jammy floor. “Don’t come in! Stay out!” Nearby, a razor blade drops from one painted hand. The other hand can not be seen; it is sunk to the wrist within the incision in her abdomen. Bits of black silk,  still knotted bestrew the floor about her feet. They are like the corpses of slain insects. The elbow which points out from her body moves in answer to those hidden fingers which are working... working.   

She likes the thought that it is her causing the pain for once, not someone else. She needs to be in control of her life. But she doesn’t always know why she hurts herself. Sometimes it is used as a distraction from the pain or anxiety she is feeling. She uses it as a way of saying with her body what she cannot say with words. It is a way of releasing her anxiety and panic. It grounds her and it makes her feel whole. She feels a sense of relief and calmness.  

The seven o’clock news is on.  

Kim Schumer is one of the voices we’re hearing today, and her experience is not uncommon. It’s estimated that two million Americans practice some form of self-injury, and self-mutilation has been around for centuries. Connie Chan reports the disorder is best understood as an attempt to relieve pain rather than to inflict it. 

Connie Chan reporting: In the late 19th century, two American doctors—George Gould and Walter Pyle—documented something they saw as a strange medical phenomenon. They reported that women all over Europe were puncturing themselves with sewing needles. In fact, this practice was common enough that European doctors had developed a name for the supposedly hysterical women who practiced this form of self-torture. They were called needle girls. However, according to psychiatry professor Armando Favazza, this was not the first time or place that the behavior had surfaced.  The most common form of self-harm is skin-cutting but self-harm also covers a wide range of behaviors including, but not limited to, burning, scratching, banging or hitting body parts, interfering with wound healing, hair-pulling and the ingestion of toxic substances or objects.  

Now, she comes into the living room and put on The Platters which she can listen to for hours and hours.  

Only you can make this world seem right.  
Only you can make the darkness bright.  

The Platters were formed in Los Angeles in 1953 and were initially managed by Ralph Bass. The original group managed to land a contract with Federal Records, but found little success before meeting music entrepreneur and songwriter Buck Ram. Under Ram’s guidance, the Platters recorded seven singles for Federal in the R&B/gospel style, scoring a few minor regional hits on the West Coast. One song recorded during their Federal tenure, “Only You (And You Alone)”, originally written by Ram for the Ink Spots was deemed unreleasable by the label. Convinced by Jean Bennett and Tony Williams that “Only You” had potential, Ram had the Platters re-record the song during their first session for Mercury. Released in the summer of 1955, it became the group’s first Top Ten hit on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The follow-up, “The Great Pretender”, with lyrics written in the washroom of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by Buck Ram, exceeded the success of their debut and became the Platters’ first national #1 hit. “The Great Pretender” was also the act’s biggest R&B hit, with an 11-week run atop that chart. In 1956, The Platters appeared in the first major motion picture based around rock and roll, Rock Around the Clock, and performed both “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”.  

Pluck, Pinch, Pull, Punch, Penetrate  
Panic, Puke, Pus, Putrid, Pleasure  
Pinion, Plug, Pump, Pulsate, Penitence  

She gets all her supplies: razor, towel (so blood does not get on the furniture). She lies down on the sofa and begins. Even though she knows no one can hear her, she stays as quiet as possible. She makes a couple “test cuts” to get herself into it; slashes that aren’t very long, but a little deep. Then she carefully carves a “V” into her stomach, she does not feel pain. Her body goes numb from the emotions. An “I”. there is an overwhelming peacefulness and silence. “L” She can feel the blade. She looks at the shiny ruby beads and wonders why it doesn’t hurt. It will hurt the next day. “E” She is sweating now. Her heart is racing and pounding. She looks up, focuses again and re-carves the word to make sure that each  alphabet is visible and equally deep. She closes her eyes, feeling the endorphin wearing out and the adrenaline kicking in. She takes a deep breath as if this is the first breath in her life and lets out a scream. She cuts a few more straight lines frantically until she feels the wounds are just about to warrant medical attention. She runs out of her house, and runs in the  general direction towards the nearest church. 

Text reference: Confessions of a Knife by Richard Selzer 
Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive by Giorgio Agamben 
The Culture of Pain by David B. Morris