"There was very fine, an elegant pain, hardly a pain at all, like the swift and fleeting burn of a drop of hot candle wax...Then the blood welled up and began to distort the pure, stark edges of my delicately wrought wound.
"The chaos in my head spun itself into a silk of silence. I had distilled myself to the immediacy of hand, blade, blood, flesh."
There are an estimated two to three million "cutters" in America, but experts warn that, as with anorexia, this could be just the tip of the iceberg of those affected by this little-known disorder. Cutting has only just begun to enter public consciousness as a dangerous affliction that tends to take hold of adolescent girls and can last, hidden and untreated, well into adulthood.
Caroline Kettlewell is an intelligent woman with a promising career and a family. She is also a former cutter, and the first person to tell her own story about living with and overcoming the disorder. She grew up on the campus of a boys' boarding school where her father taught. As she entered adolescence, the combination of a family where frank discussion was avoided and life in what seemed like a fishbowl, where she and her sister were practically the only girls the students ever saw, became unbearable for Caroline. She discovered that the only way to find relief from overpowering feelings of self-consciousness, discomfort, and alienation was to physically hurt herself. She began cutting her arms and legs in the seventh grade, and continued into her twenties.
Why would a rational person resort to such extreme measures? How did she recognize and overcome her problem? In a memoir startling for its honesty, humor, and poignancy, Caroline Kettlewell offers a clear-eyed account of her own struggle to survive this debilitating affliction.
Following last year's A Bright Red Scream by journalist Marilee Strong, Cutting by psychotherapist Steven Levenkron and Bodily Harm by self-injury treatment program directors Karen Conterio, Wendy Lader and Jennifer Kingson Bloom, this memoir is touted as the first personal account of compulsive self-mutilation. However, Kettlewell's story leaves more questions unaddressed than it answers. Having regularly cut her body with razor blades for most of her life, at age 36 she does not seem to have enough distance from her actions to fully understand them. Searching for a reason for her behavior, she writes about the distress and anxiety she felt during most of her childhood in rural Virginia, where her educated Northern parents were rarities. Unsure if her misery was justified, Kettlewell never talked about it, instead escaping by cutting her arms and legs, which allowed her to focus only on the present moment, the certainty of blood and pain. She still doesn't know whether she is entitled to the mental anguish she continues to suffer, and the bulk of the book, by detailing her misery, simply begs the question.We learn surprisingly few details about her life--a first marriage is summarized in a few sentences; her eating disorder in a few pages; her parents, second husband and child are never fully characterized. The text jumps repetitively and illogically between episodes, occasionally registering confusion at the level of the sentence structure ("Which one of us did I lie to protect?" is typical), and rife with maudlin metaphors and similes ("summer fell across my lap like a corpse"). Although Kettlewell's story shows courage in the writing, it will make most readers feel like voyeurs.