New Book Explores the ‘Hidden World’ of Self-Injury

Whether it’s used as a coping strategy, an attention-grabbing behavior, self-therapy, or is the symptom of a psychiatric disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), self-injury is experienced by people in all walks and in all stages of life. In their book The Tender Cut: Inside the Hidden World of Self-Injury, ethnographers Patricia and Peter Adler aimed to go beyond people who had been in treatment or hospitalized for their self-harmful behaviors and explore the “hidden population” of people who self-injure in their natural settings.

The Adlers, both sociology professors at Colorado universities, brought together 10 years of research on self-injurers from all over the world to represent their unique perspectives and share their experiences. As they explained in the book’s introduction:

Many recent works address the explosion of self-injury in the teenage population. We discuss this group but also focus on several more hidden groups: longer-term, middle-aged and older participants who support each other and have ambivalent feelings about stopping, more men and people of color, more disadvantaged populations who lack control over themselves, such as fostered or homeless street youth and incarcerated and military populations.

The Adlers interviewed nearly 150 people who engage in self-harmful behaviors and followed 30,000 to 40,000 Internet posts in chat rooms and communiqués to write their book. “We consider how self-injurers’ lives and experiences are shaped through the cultural and structural forces that surround them and, at the same time, how they view and use their bodies, including offering a temporal understanding of how this may change over the course of their self-injurious careers,” the authors wrote.

The book explores the history and social transformation of self-injury, including the Internet subculture of people who engage in self-harmful behaviors. It also details the various types of self-injury, with real-life stories of both women and men who have engaged in those behaviors.

Conveying Acceptance of Self-Injury

“The Tender Cut” may be considered a curious title for a book that details many forms of self-harmful behaviors, including cutting, burning, bone breaking, and self-hitting. But the authors say they had a distinct reason for choosing to use the word “tender” in their title:

Previous treatments have often used harsher words, such as “mutilation,” “scarred souls,” and “a bright red scream.” It may seem oxymoronic to refer to cutting oneself intentionally as tender. By this term we intend to convey what the individuals we studied thought about this behavior, which was accepting.

The introduction and table of contents for “The Tender Cut,” released this month, is available online.

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