Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Were You Thinking?

The latest seven-day wonder of a non-political variety is the story of a woman who threw acid in her own face and told police that she had been attacked by a black woman. I was torn between disgust and ho-hum in my reaction until this morning when one of the ‘news’ shows broadcast an interview with an ‘expert’ (expert in what, I didn’t notice), who placed this episode within the context of people hurting themselves to get attention and also within the context of self-mutilation, in general. By far the most common recognized form of this mutilation is the phenomenon of ‘cutting’ whereby people, mostly young, mostly female, cut themselves with razor blades or knives. This, too, I have heard about and I have been mostly irritated by the topic. “Screw ‘em,” has largely been my attitude, although I know if it were a girl I cared about - a niece of mine, say, or a daughter of someone I liked, I would probably be more concerned in that specific incidence.

This expert said that quite a number - I think he said eight percent, but I could be wrong - of people, or young people or of some population like that actually did things like this - he mentioned cutting and other forms of self-injury that I have forgotten already. And all of a sudden I realized that I was, when I was young, one of those people. It is kind of annoying to be contemptuous of a set of people, and then to realize that you are one of them.

When I was in college, there was a small spate of self-mutilation among a loosely defined group of my friends, and I would say that only one of the guys involved (it was a men-only phenomenon) was as deeply involved as I was myself. This took the form of challenging each other to an endurance contest where two guys put their forearms together and lay a lit cigarette between them to see who would move first. Most of the guys only tried this once or twice, and most of the guys were more than willing to be the first to pull away rather quickly. But if I recall, I always won (except when it was a tie by mutual agreement) and I was one of the contestants far more often than anyone else. The only guy who equaled me in this regard was a friend of mine who was one of the more unusual of my college friends, whom I will call Grady.

Grady came to NPU two years after I did, and we became friends rather quickly. He usually had to be the wildest guy in the crowd - something that always attracts me. His older sister was a year ahead of me, a pretty girl who was fairly popular, particularly with the guys in my fraternity. I hasten to say that popularity, even with a fraternity, at NPU in the early 60s had nothing to do with promiscuity or sexual availability - but had to do with attractiveness and personality. I didn’t know Yvette well; I probably never had a one-to-one conversation with her beyond a greeting or farewell. I heard later that Yvette had been born with a club foot (whatever that is) that had been surgically corrected. I never noticed anything unusual about her, however.

Grady, however, was afflicted from birth by a far greater burden: both his hands were deformed. His left hand had a single thick finger replacing what should have been his left index and middle fingers. This was, in the scheme of things, not that much of a handicap. However what should have been his right hand consisted of just two fingers, one of which probably was a malformed thumb and the other longer one probably was the entirety of what would have been his palm and four fingers. The whole looked vaguely like a lobster claw, and when he held something, the first impression was that he was holding it between his index and middle fingers until one noticed that these were all that he had. By the time I met Grady he was a master of somehow minimizing the appearance of deformity; my recollection is that I did not even notice his hands the first time I met him. I would like to say that deformity did not faze me, but the truth is that I had a severe and deep revulsion for physical imperfection - especially amputations or deformities - which I have overcome to a large extent, but which I still have to fight against to this very day. I don’t even really like ‘normal’ bodies all that much, I prefer not to touch others unless I am attracted to them. I am the last to hug or shake hands in any given group of people. And I cannot look at any open wound where the underlying flesh or bone is visible; I cannot watch NCIS or Bones or ER or any of the TV shows which make a fetish of showing close-ups of decayed flesh or open wounds. I hate even seeing unattractive people - old or wrinkly or fat or saggy - on the beach. The movie Cocoon was not a happy experience for me. And I loathe having my shirt off in public.

Grady overcompensated for his physical shortcomings in a big way. One might say that he overcame them and point to him as a shining example, like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder or Stephen Hawking. One might find it hard to believe but he was an accomplished musician - he played trumpet and guitar well, and he played the piano so well that he actually got a part time job playing lounge-style music thereon at a local Holiday Inn’s lounge. Anything that required finger work was a challenge which attracted him. I never really watched his hands play closely, but I can affirm that if I didn’t know of his problems I would not have guessed from what I heard that he was different from any other pianist in any way. I suspect that to a person more versed in piano music there were some interesting substitutions in harmonies, but it sounded good to me. I know that he played notes quickly in succession; since he could press only a limited number of keys at once, I’d guess he compensated by breaking chord harmonies into their component notes and played the individual keys in rapid succession, but that is just my guess. Grady was quite good looking in that curly-haired Eddie Fisher/Cornel Wilde way that was popular in the 50s. In fact Grady, now that I think of it, looked like a paler slimmer Eddie Fisher. He tended to keep his right hand pushed into his back pocket, but upon being introduced to someone would quickly offer it for a hand shake. When we were better friends, I asked him once if he preferred that I prepare people for this before I made an introduction. He told me no, he liked seeing the look on their faces, but I don’t think this was true. I think he was determined to be defiant about his situation in this as in all things. Unfortunately, the impulse that made him challenge himself to become proficient at music, also led him to try to be the wildest of the wild, and to strive to outdo all others in anything that was self-destructive. In this, he was often joined by me; I realize, looking back, how vastly self-destructive I was in my younger days. I think both Grady and I were saved from involvement in drugs only by the times we lived in. I am almost certain that both of us would have jumped in with a glad cry had we been born a mere ten years later.

I really don’t know who was the first to think of the cigarette game; it may have been Grady himself, or it may have been my friend Tony who spent that week in the DC jail with me, or it may have been another of the gang that usually wound up at the local bar when finances permitted. And, as I say, most of the guys tried it once, and briefly, but Grady and I once let a whole cigarette burn its entire length as it lay between our arms because neither of us would back down. I have quite a number of burn scars on my forearms, as well as one or two on my calves and I even had one once, which has disappeared over time, on my forehead. I actually never, until this morning, equated this to the current teen fad of cutting, and even less so to the more dramatic forms of self-mutilation. For one thing, I never did any of this burning when I was alone - there was always some element of public spectacle; the actual appearance of mutilation was beside the point, except in that the effect was not reversible. But I realize that my curled lip when I read of these things occurring was a lip that would do well to uncurl itself and take a look within. So why, as any adult at the time would ask me, would anyone do something like this?

I wish I could say why I did this with any clarity or degree of certainty. There were a whole raft of feelings involved. Am I sorry now? Absolutely. I do not like being marked with scars. I did not really like the blisters and scars back then, especially when my peers looked at me like I was weird. The rewards, whatever they were, were in the moments of doing the burning. I was slightly shamefaced and defiant in the aftermath. It was an easy way of appearing brave to myself, and in my mind, to others. There was an element of control in a sense, I think. I know I thought of those of my peers who were critical of this practice as being more ‘grown up’ than me, although I might have denied this at the time and certainly framed their greater maturity in unflattering ways. I thought, in the moment, that I was somehow cool although I didn’t feel afterward that I was so cool. Among the loosely defined and inchoate group that also participated, I was one of the insiders because I always ‘won’ the challenge. The fact that we usually did the burning in a bar and were usually drinking had nothing to do with the activity; we were not drunk when we did it, or if we were, that was not really relevant to the ‘why’ issue.  At most it removed that tiny hesitation at doing what we wanted to do anyway.  "In vino veritas" is something I do believe.  You may do something you would not do otherwise or may not think of otherwise, but you never do something that you do not want to to do on some level, in some way. 

I think I always felt that there was an invisible barrier, thin but impermeable like cellophane, between me and other people, between me and what mattered, between me and what was ‘real’. I always felt like a wannabe, even though I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to be. Part of me wanted to be admired and noticed by others, but I never wanted to be like others. I never felt that anything that I read or heard really applied to me. This was not because I felt I was better, although sometimes that was the case, but because I never felt that anything fully covered all the facts as I knew them or felt them to be true. When I was burning myself in one of these contests, for that one moment that was the only thing that was happening, it was the full focus - it was completely and describably real. There was the fact of burning myself and nothing else had any relevance in that moment. It was a moment of complete clarity.  It was something that could not be undone or explained away later.  When someone says or thinks, "I'll show them!" it is really, "I'll show me!"  or "Then I'll know."

I can figure a lot of things out; I have always been good at seeing patterns, but there is always a grey area that I can’t entirely erase. I do not have the gift of being absolutely certain about anything. This has kept me from ever finding a cause or career or religion or purpose or hobby or even life partner to which I can fully commit myself. Even if I find something to be completely true, I have a horror of someone responding, "But wait a minute.  What about such-and-such?"  When I was young this feeling was more pronounced; now it is a dull reality that forms the background of everything I think or do or feel. There seems to be a dictionary full of words that never quite mean the thing that I am seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. I believe I know exactly what most words mean, and they never seem to cover the topic under discussion. Adolescents, by definition are in a state of becoming adults; that is the actual etymological meaning of the word. But in the eyes of the world at large, that word describes people of a certain age range. When applied to someone older than that age range, it is an insult. But I wonder: has anyone arrived? Is anyone sure of who he is exactly? It seems that most people have found something that describes them satisfactorily - it might be a racial description, or a gender description or a political label or a religious conviction or a career choice, or something else, but it is a final destination; they have become something and are happy (or unhappy) to have arrived. I certainly don’t think I am youthful, but I do still feel adolescent. I feel like I am still in the darkness of my cocoon waiting to see what kind of butterfly I’ll be. I am indehiscent, and it looks like I’ll stay that way. I am the fruit that never ripens, an apple still green on the leafless bough already covered by snow.

But I don’t cut myself or burn myself or throw acid in my own face now. So what is the difference? I don’t know. The only thing I know is that now that I have seen the acid thing in this context I get it. That the woman in the news accused a black of doing the throwing is harmful and unforgivable, but I kind of get the acid itself. There is the momentary throwing of the future to the winds. There is a certain glee in inflicting the scar, a glee that will not outlast the act itself. It is like getting drunk on Sunday night; you know you will be sorry tomorrow, but... I wonder if anyone has considered that tattoos and piercing are part of the same scenario. Those moments of sheer relief (which may include such things as accepting Jesus or Islam or coming out of the closet or whatever) which are crystalline in their clarity at the moment and which can never entirely be undone. It is like assuming your position onstage and seeing the curtains open, the moment that you do this thing which will mark you forever; the flood of feeling that you have finally done SOMETHING in all this vague unclear messy stew of facts that aren’t always true and words that don’t quite mean what you want to say - this is a split second of rest in the hurtle toward the end of a game that it looks like you will neither win nor receive honorable mention. And then your whole life will be some kind of defense of why you were such an ass, but at least it won’t be the same as it was before.  You are forcing the issue, and hope that by doing so you will finally know what the issue is.

There are so few things that one can do and then say to oneself, “There! That’s done!” and know that what is being done is exactly that thing and nothing else. It is like a mini-suicide. Whatever was wrong, whatever was pushing at you, that may not have been gotten rid of but it has unalterably changed. The focus has been shifted, at least for a while, to something else. It never works, really; or at least not for very long. But that is tomorrow’s worry. For the moment, this is it.


  1. THANK YOU for leaving a trail in breadcrumbs! I haven't had a chance to read any entries yet (and it's making me wish I hadn't just picked up that Tutankamon book at Barnes & Noble), it's Saturday, and I can't sit on the computer in my pyjamas for another minute while it's so beautiful out. I will be back, though, and look forward to catching up.

  2. Interesting take on self-mutilation. I often think my "inability" to stay on a diet is a form of self-punishment for what I can't figure out to save my soul. By our combined reasoning you could say that every athlete, every alcoholic, every overweight person, everyone who drives too fast, every circus act, etc, could be "a cutter." Then, by that realization, you would have to deduce that all of us do something at some point in our lives that puts us at some risk which, by conclusion, means that we're all crazy. As long as I'm not the only crazy one, I feel better...

  3. Your take is interesting as usual, although I do think, in general that the 'cigarette game' is different than the cutting or acid throwing as the burns are an end product, not the game itself.
    MizAngie makes a great point.
    And thanks for the comment on my blog. You have great insight, as always!!!

  4. ColleenQ - Glad to leave a trail of any sort, so long as it leads to me. Odd you should mention breadcrumbs, though - For several days a song has been stuck in my mind that my brother Liam wrote about the self-doubt of parenting which begins, "I can see the breadcrumbs that you left to mark your trail". I, like you, love archaeology, so I am with you in spirit as you take on Tutankhamen (or as he was called, before he caved into the prevailing religious winds, Tutankhaton). See, I know my Tuts.

    MizAngie: You cite a number of risky or self-harming behaviors which do not meet the cutting criteria about which I was thinking. The behavior I speak of is quick, painful, ALWAYS leaves permanent marks and has a negative image for society at large (the public response must be a form of, "What a freak!") Perhaps my cigarette burning differs from cutting in that cutting is almost invariably private and hidden, but I suggest that is more a difference between boys and girls, boys are more likely to do these things as part of an 'outlaw' duo or small group, whereas I think girls in this area are more singular. Addiction is something different (although there is some evidence that cutting can be addictive, that is not the key element), and life-risking behavior is also difference. Life-risking is usually sort of admired - certainly in sports and the circus, and the point is to achieve without the scarring; to 'get away with it'. The cutter/burner emphatically NEVER gets away with it, by design - they MUST suffer the consequences. Your weight thing may have some commonality with cutting in that it is probably physically harmful and it is controlling: if you perceive yourself as unattractively fat, you are controlling (explaining)your perception of people's reaction to you, and probably to some extent shape the actual reaction. You can attribute negative responses as 'because I am fat'. And by channelling all failures into one you can live with (I can't stay on my diet), you can redefine failures (e.g. to get chosen) as because of your weight, and even can excuse not trying ("If I weren't so fat, I would..."). Better the devil you know.

    Shana - Your distinction is insightful. I think, now that you mention it, that the cigarette game had added issues as well as some sort of approval from a tiny group of people, which cutting and private mutilations do not. Still, I'd say it should give me pause when my kneejerk reaction is to shout, "Asshole!" at the cutters, and at acid gal. Glad to visit you - been coming there for years. I hope we agree that insight is better than incision. Although I guess insight is incisive, isn't it - and that brings us full circle to cutting...

  5. I've always thought that cutters do it because at least for awhile, the physical pain interrupts the mental anguish they're feeling. In 7th grade, somebody showed us how to faint (hyperventilate for a couple minutes, then push as if trying to exhale but not allowing air to escape). It works and I discovered I liked the momentary oblivion. We stopped it when one of us had convulsions while she was out. Not because we recognized danger but we didn't want to be seen having convulsions. We replaced that with knock-out drinking over the next few years. It's a miracle any of us made it to old age.

  6. Flooz - I agree that the mental interruption is an important part. But you stopped when faced with a more permanent consequence. I think the permanence of the scars is a crucial part of the equation. You stopped to avoid, at least, humiliation - a permanent scar is a badge, not of honor, but of humiliation - I think it is a part of the whole scenario - or else, as MizAngie observes, nearly everything would fall into the cutting category. I have read that people who attempt suicide and fail, but who lose a body part in the process almost usually don't try again. I know that was true of a local farmer here, who tried several times and years ago blew his ear off in the final attempt and who, I hear, never tried again, whereas you'd THINK that being permanently a freak (to phrase it unkindly) would make one try HARDER. It would be an interesting line of thought that people who are intolerably unhappy actually survive by behavior like that which you describe and that those who do not make it to old age failed to find the momentary respite that hard drinking or passing out or cutting provide.