Veronica Heney proposes a new methodology for understanding narratives of self-harm
The assumption that self-harm is unnatural, that it is inevitably incomprehensible to the ‘normal’ person, permeates the clinical, sociological, and even fictional literature around self-harm. Sarah Naomi Shaw’s review of the clinical literature has described clinicians’ intense distress in the face of self-harm (2002), while Armando Favazza references ‘the particularly unsettling effect self-mutilation has on others’ (1996: 251), going on to make the sweeping, and apparently self-evident, statement that ‘no one loves self-mutilators’ (1996: 288). This sense of assumed unintelligibility is present even in texts which ostensibly purport to be sympathetic to those who self-harm, to attempt to care for them and respond to their pain; otherness not only persists, but is presumed as the starting point. Kesharie Gurung, in her assessment of the way in which medical literature generally classifies self-harm as a symptom, argues that this leads to a preoccupation with the ‘reasons for’ self-harm and a focus on cessation to the detriment of other research questions or outcomes (2018).
Yet this is not the only way to think about or to understand self-harm; acknowledging the ways in which self-harm can be a difficult or upsetting experience need not require the assumption that it is fundamentally abhorrent or abnormal. Indeed, Gurung draws on Amy Chandler’s excellent work on self-harm as a method of embodied emotion work which functions to achieve a positive state of control (2012) in order to consider self-harm as a technique rather than an addiction. This not only moves away from the assumed ‘otherness’ of self-harm but also creates space to acknowledge and explore the ways in which self-harm can be experienced as meaningful for the individual. I believe that this is a vital and productive starting point for research which takes self-harm as its topic or starting point; in rejecting pathologisation and the assumption that self-harm is fundamentally inexplicable we must be alive to the complexities of experiences of self-harm, and to the ways in which the desire for a ‘solution’ might construct simplicity where there might otherwise be nuance.
Fictional narratives: a requirement of resolution
In taking this approach, I have noticed that not only fictional representations of self-harm but also the responses to those representations are frequently premised upon an assumption that self-harm is fundamentally problematic and thus must, in some way, be resolved. Jennifer Miskec and Chris McGee’s analysis of self-harm in classic young adult novels has highlighted the predominance of formulaic, melodramatic narratives, which pathologise the self-harming subject (2007). The authors emphasise that in these narratives happiness is only made possible through submission to medical authority; individuals who self-harm must recognise the error of their ways, and resolve their difficulties through diligently following the advice of doctors and therapists. This pattern is certainly evident in a wide range of young adult novels including Kelly Stoehr’s Crosses (1991), Steven Levenkron’s The Luckiest Girl in the World (1997), Melody Carlson’s Blade Silver (2005), Julia Hoban’s Scarred (2009), Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars (2010), and Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces (2016). In these texts the self-harming subject is the main character, and they open either with a portrayal of a self-harming subject in distress, or with the initial turn to self-harm, which is clearly depicted as a journey towards darkness and difficulty. This distress is resolved through successful treatment at the hands of doctors and therapists; these novels draw to a close when the subject is committed to no longer self-harming, placing the experience of self-harm firmly in their past. The ‘problem’ of self-harm has been solved, and so the narrative can be safely concluded.
This pattern is certainly not universal; in other texts such as the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted and Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon (2013) the problem of self-harm is resolved more distressingly through the death of the self-harming character. In contrast, in television shows Riviera (2017) and The Affair (2014), the act of self-harm is resolved simply through its disappearance; after being initially introduced it is rapidly forgotten and remains absent from the narrative. Alternatively some texts, I would argue, such as Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015), are more prepared to allow self-harm to exist outside of such strict narrative confines, offering interesting explorations of self-harm’s continued presence and resonance over time. However, these exceptions are rare, and perhaps seem more so because of the broader scarcity of representations of self-harm. For while self-harm is an increasingly common practice, it is not frequently found in literature, in films, or in television programs, in contrast to similar or associated topics and experiences such as eating disorders or depression.
Absence and unacceptable narratives
I would suggest that this absence, in itself, is evidence of the way in which self-harm is understood as troubling, and perhaps too troubling to represent at all. Interestingly, in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, popular and prolific children’s fiction author Jacqueline Wilson discussed her discomfort with representing self-harm in her books, saying that if she wrote that self-harm in some way relieves feelings of anger or fear ‘who knows if one child somewhere might think, well shall I try it? You’ve got to be so careful’. This articulates a much-repeated belief regarding depictions of self-harm; that such depictions have a responsibility not to be thoughtful, or to be sensitive, or to be interesting, or to be true (whatever that might mean) but rather simply have a responsibility to dissuade people from self-harming.
This view can also be found in academic analysis of such literary depictions; Rebecca Kokkola identifies a ‘responsible’ master narrative of self-harm through which self-harm is presented as comprehensible but not a solution to difficulties, medical professionals are prominently featured, and the conclusion is one of optimism and redemption (2011). Kokkola argues that this is the narrative structure which all writers should follow in order to avoid unwittingly endorsing or encouraging self-harm. For both Kokkola and Wilson their primary concern is for the reception of such texts by individuals who do not self-harm; yet I believe this begs the question of how such texts might instead be read or received by those who do have experience of self-harm, those who Kokkola insensitively and uncritically positions as in need of ‘redemption.’
Speculative practices for uncertain topics
It is this question which my PhD research seeks to explore, intertwining analysis of fictional narratives with lived experience of self-harm, and creating analytic space for the many ways in which those narratives could be interpreted or understood. Making this question the centre of my research indicates a shift from the traditional concerns of Literary Studies, which often prioritise the voice, perspective, and judgement of the literary critic. In making this shift I’m hoping to take an explicit position which affirms the importance and value of experiences of self-harm and which attempts to grapple with and hold onto the potential multiplicity and complexity of such experiences without reducing them simply as a problem to be solved. One of the ways in which I’m hoping to accomplish this is through using qualitative methodologies, and particularly interviews, in order to introduce experiential data alongside literary texts.
As I’ve explored the potential of a speculative methodological practice, of this intermingling of Social Science methods with the texts, concerns, and analysis of Literary Studies, I have realised that it might require an acknowledgement that the results may be messy or uncertain, that there are few guarantees of how such an intermingling might work in practice. And yet, more and more I am convinced that it is this very uncertainty which makes such an approach worthwhile, which makes it particularly appropriate for conducting research on the topic of self-harm in a way which is sensitive and nuanced, and which refuses simplistic assumptions about complex experiences. Embracing this uncertainty will, I hope, allow me to conduct research which works with and alongside the complexity and productivity of self-harm, rather than seeing self-harm and people with experience of self-harm simply as a difficulty in need of resolution. Perhaps we might all consider what role uncertainty plays in research, and how such uncertainty might be not simply uncomfortable but also generative.
Veronica Heney is a PhD student at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter. She was previously employed at the Social Science Applied to Healthcare Improvement Research Group at the University of Leicester and completed a Gender Studies MA at the University of Sussex.
Carlson, M. (2005). Blade silver – Color me scarred. Colorado Springs: NavPress, Think Books.
Fagan, J. (2012). The Pantopticon. London: Windmill Books.
Flynn, G. (2006). Sharp Objects. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Glasgow, K. (2016). Girl in Pieces. London: Oneworld Publications.
Hoban, J. (2009). Scarred. London: Piatkus.
Levenkron, S. ( 1998). The luckiest girl in the world. New York: Penguin Books.
Rainfield, C. (2010). Scars. New Jersey: WestSide Books.
Stoehr, S. (1991). Crosses. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2003.
Riviera (2017). Sky Atlantic.
The Affair (2014). Showtime
Girl Interrupted (1999) dir. Mangold, J.
Allardice, L. (2018). “How Tracy Beaker turned out: Jacqueline Wilson on the return of her most famous creation.” Accessed October 2019.
Chandler, A. (2012). “Self-injury as embodied emotion work: Managing rationality, emotions and bodies.” Sociology 46(3): 442-457.
Cowdy, C. (2012). “Resistant rituals: self-mutilation and the female adolescent body in fairy tales and young adult fiction.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 50(1): 42-52.
Favazza, A. R. (1996). Bodies under siege: Self-mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gurung, K. (2018). “Bodywork: Self-harm, trauma, and embodied expressions of pain.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 17(1): 32-47.
Kokkola, L. (2011). “Sparkling vampires: Valorizing self-harming behavior in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 49(3): 33-46.
Miskec, J. and C. McGee (2007). “My scars tell a story: Self-mutilation in young adult literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 32(2): 163-178.
Shaw, S. N. (2002). “Shifting conversations on girls’ and women’s self-injury: An analysis of the clinical literature in historical context.” Feminism & Psychology 12(2): 191-219.