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Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self-Disclosure

Jeffrey Berman and Patricia H. Wallace

Publication Year: 2007

Cutting, a form of self-mutilation, is a growing problem in the United States, especially among adolescent females. It is regarded as self-destructive behavior, yet paradoxically, people who cut themselves generally do not wish to die but to find relief from unbearable psychological pain. Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self-Disclosure is the first book to explore how college students write about their experiences as cutters. The idea behind the book arose when Patricia Hatch Wallace, a high school English teacher, wrote a reader-response diary for a graduate course taught by Professor Jeffrey Berman in which she revealed for the first time that she had cut herself twenty years earlier. At Berman's suggestion, Wallace wrote her Master's thesis on cutting. Not long after she finished her thesis, two students in Berman's expository writing course revealed their own experiences as cutters. Their disclosures encouraged several students in another writing class to share their own cutting stories with classmates. Realizing that so many students were writing about the same phenomenon, Berman and Wallace decided to write a book about a subject that is rarely discussed inside or outside the classroom. In Part 1, Wallace discusses clinical and theoretical aspects of cutting and then applies these insights to several memoirs and novels, including Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, Caroline Kettlewell's Skin Game, and Patricia McCormick's Cut. The motivation behind Wallace's research was the desire to learn more about herself, and she reads these stories through her own experience as a cutter. In Part 2, Berman focuses on the pedagogical dynamics of cutting: how undergraduate students write about cutting, how their writings affect classmates and teachers, and how students who cut themselves can educate everyone in the classroom about a problem that has personal, psychological, cultural, and educational significance.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv

Tables of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Jeff’s greatest debt of thanks is to his coauthor, Patricia Hatch Wallace, who was the inspiration behind this book. Part 1 of Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self- Disclosure is based largely on Patty’s 2004 master’s thesis at the University at Albany, “Contagion in Cutting.” It was a joy to watch Patty develop from an outstanding master’s student to a scholar...

Introduction: “Why Would I Have Ever Cut Myself?”

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pp. ix-xxix

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Part 1: Cutting—A Learned Behavior

There has been much research in the past ten years into the self- injurious behavior commonly known as “cutting,” which comprises 72 percent of all self- injurious behavior, but many theories continue to attribute cutting and other forms of self- injury to psychological disorders (Engelgau 1). Certainly some who engage in cutting do have diagnosable disorders...

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Chapter 1- Feminist Perspectives: Self-Injurious Behavior among Women

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pp. 5-12

Whitlock and her associates note that although self- injurious behaviors (SIBs) are “popularly assumed to represent a female phenomenon”— some studies suggest that females are up to three times more likely to cut themselves than males—this assumption “is not fully supported by existing literature” (1945). One possible explanation for this assumption, they conjecture, is that most of the research on SIBs has been conducted...

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Chapter 2- Theories and Diagnoses: A Closer Look

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pp. 13-23

Steven Levenkron has written about anorexia, bulimia, and self- mutilation. In his book Cutting, he fuses his own theories about the phenomenon with instances of his patients’ cutting behaviors. He believes that cutting, like phobias, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive- compulsive behavior, can be traced back to one’s inability to form healthy attachments to other people (91–92). Further, forming what he describes as

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Chapter 3- My History as a Cutter: Losing Self-Esteem

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pp. 24-30

I first cut myself when I was twelve. I did it because someone told me to. That sounds typically adolescent, I know. I used an old, dull jackknife and carved a cross into the side of my right shin. It was summertime, and I wore shorts almost every day, so I knew people would notice it—but that’s what it was about at the time—people noticing...

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Chapter 4- Kettlewell, OCD, and Me: Keeping One’s Beasts at Bay

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pp. 31-39

In her memoir The Skin Game, Caroline Kettlewell beautifully narrates her own adolescent and young adult struggles with a razor blade. For Kettlewell, cutting was about the blood, yes, but like me, she also wanted the scars that came with the damage. “I cut to lay down a line between before and after, between self and other, chaos and clarity. I cut as an...

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Chapter 5- Cutting Influences: Peer Pressure and Out-of-Control Lives

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pp. 40-60

“The phenomenon known as ‘contagion’ is growing. Teens are learning about the behavior from one another, from the press, and from popular culture, and it is giving them ideas. Several popular singers and rock groups portray self- injury in their lyrics and album art” (Conterio and Lader 23). The researchers add that many children and teenagers may begin self- injury by accident—literally. Following an accidental cut...

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Chapter 6- Cutting Literature: “High School May Not Be the Place for Books Like These”

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pp. 61-69

I once used cutting as a coping mechanism. I know firsthand how powerful a device it can be, whatever the reason someone turns to it. As a teacher and as a member of our society, I have a responsibility to recognize the epidemic of cutting among teens. I want to do what I can to help Nevertheless, as a high school English teacher, I would hesitate to ...

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Part 2: Student-Centered Teaching

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pp. 73-76

If, as Patty suggests, cutting is highly contagious and likely to “infect” others who come into contact with it, how can teachers prevent students from becoming at risk when they read essays and stories about selfmutilation? And how can teachers prevent students from becoming at risk when they write about cutting? Should they be permitted to write about it? What are the educational and psychological benefits of...

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Chapter 7- The Contagion Effect: “Teachers Ought to Be Careful in What They Assign”

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pp. 77-105

I first encountered the contagion effect when I was teaching a graduate course called Literary Suicide in 1994, from which arose Surviving Literary Suicide in 1999. The more I learned about the suicides of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, the more examples I discovered of copycat deaths. Hemingway, for example, never...

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Chapter 8- Minimizing the Risks of Personal Writing: The Empathic Classroom

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pp. 106-121

Teachers cannot eliminate the risks of personal writing, but they can minimize and manage these dangers by adopting the following classroom practices. (For an extended discussion of these protocols, see Risky Writing 29–48.) These practices help to create and maintain the “safe haven” that enables students like Patty to disclose painful or shameful experiences that are rarely discussed in the classroom...

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Chapter 9- Attachment Theory and Self-Disclosure: Strengthening the Teacher-Student Bond

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pp. 122-138

The protocols described in chapter 8 help not only to lessen the possibility that students will be harmed in the self- disclosing classroom but also to strengthen their attachment to classmates and teacher. The success of any pedagogy based on self- disclosure depends on the empathic bonds that permit students to reveal painful or shameful aspects of their lives without the fear of being criticized or attacked...

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Chapter 10- Cutting in the Classroom: Paula, Ralph, Judy, Christine, and Cordelia

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pp. 139-157

“Suddenly[,] self- cutting, a clinical problem that evokes considerable anxiety, seems to be almost everywhere, bursting onto the cultural scene in very much the same way eating disorders exploded into our awareness twenty or thirty years ago. Both are hot topics now” (Farber xxiii). So states Sharon Klayman Farber in the introduction to her book...

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Chapter 11- “Falling in Love with Cutting”: Maryann and Paige

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pp. 158-207

How should a teacher react to a student’s ongoing medical or psychological problem? This question arose in an expository writing course I taught in the spring of 2005. In an effort to encourage students to write on a “light” topic that would balance the preceding darker topics, I asked them to write an essay on either falling in or out of love. The assignment came exactly at the midpoint of the semester...

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Chapter 12- Conclusion: Writing about Cutting—Contagion or Inoculation?

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pp. 208-250

After the semester ended, Maryann and Paige gave me permission to read their essays anonymously to my next section of Expository Writing, which I taught in the fall of 2005. The two essays evoked strong identificatory responses from male and female students alike. Three women and three men wrote about their own cutting experiences, and a fourth...

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Epilogue: “I Was Committing a Crime against My Body, against Women”

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pp. 251-264

“Cutters are everywhere,” Patty concludes in her section, and we end the book with Anna’s writings to show how students can write healing narratives on self- injury. Anna was a member of Jeff’s Love and Loss course taught in the spring of 2006. Most of the texts on the reading list equated loss with death, but the final book..


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pp. 265-267

Works Cited

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pp. 269-275

Student Writers

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p. 277-277


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pp. 279-284

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760697
E-ISBN-10: 1613760698
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496149
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496149

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Self-injurious behavior.
  • College students -- Mental health.
  • College students' writings.
  • Mental illness in literature.
  • Self-disclosure.
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