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Cutting Close

Tween star Demi Lovato’s recent admission that she’d engaged in self-harm casts light on what may be growing problem—both in the culture at large and among Jewish girls

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A few weeks ago, the Disney tween star Demi Lovato—freshly out of rehab—told People magazine about her history of eating disorders and cutting herself. At 12, she heard a group of other girls calling her fat, so she dieted to the point of obsession. At 15, she turned to bulimia and slashing her body. Fans and gossip blogs began spotting scars on her wrists and forearms, so her publicists issued a statement blaming silicone bracelets. To tweens and teenagers, the denial was laughable. Everyone knows what cutting looks like.

“I do think cutting’s becoming more prevalent,” said therapist Jean Kunhardt, director of the Soho Parenting Center (and granddaughter of Dorothy Kunhardt, author of Pat the Bunny). “It’s a little faddish, almost a norm, like trying a cigarette or a drink. Most kids don’t keep doing it, but for some, it becomes ritualized behavior. It’s usually a kid who feels desperate, depressed, angry, and without an outlet for that anger—cutting can be a way to numb bad feelings socially, academically, or at home.” Cutting helps girls who feel agitated or deadened feel a rush. “And it creates a wound they can tend, as opposed to a psychic wound they don’t know how to deal with,” says Kunhardt. “And then there’s the fall. And they need to do it again.”

Lovato told People that she was influenced by the media. “I saw it only on TV, and I wondered what it would feel like,” she said. “Later, for me, it was a way of relieving pressure when I was stressed and had anxiety. When someone sees it, it’s terrifying, so I started doing it in areas where no one can see.”

Cutters aren’t drama queens making lame suicide attempts. They’re generally not suicidal at all, but still, they’re in genuine pain. Self-harm (the psychiatric term for this behavior) usually involves cutting—mostly stabbing or slicing the skin with a sharp object—but can also include self-burning and hair-pulling. It’s listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a symptom of borderline personality disorder, but it’s also associated with anorexia and bulimia—some sources say that 35 to 80 percent of all cutters also have eating disorders—as well as depression and anxiety. It’s most common in adolescence, but it can also plague adults. (Animals kept in zoos and cages sometimes self-injure as well.) In the United States, according to one study, up to 15 percent of teenagers and 4 percent of adults chronically self-harm.

“In my experience, cutters are 85 percent girls,” says Steven Levenkron, an New York psychotherapist and author of Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation (as well as of The Best Little Girl in the World, which became a TV movie about anorexia starring Jennifer Jason Leigh that was the a touchstone for anyone who came of age in the early ’80s). “Most are delicate cutters—they don’t need stitches. Gross cutters, who go down to an artery, tend to be males. Girls tend to make 3-inch cuts, first in the forearms, then the stomach and breasts and thighs, where it doesn’t show. It’s a ritual.” Why? Because it immediately makes the cutter feel better. “It gets rid of anxiety and depression for two, two and a half hours,” Levenkron says. “Sometimes they make what I call a ‘whoops cut’ and wind up in the hospital having cut a tendon, but usually when they’re finished they put peroxide on it and bandage it up.”

And yes, this is a problem in the Jewish community. There’s little empirical data on Jews and cutting, but anecdotally, therapists in Jewish communities tell me they see many Jewish teenagers who engage in the practice. “If I were looking for Jewish traits among cutters, I’d say that shame is one of them,” says Levenkon. “How can they tell their parents they do bad things to themselves when they’re supposed to strive to marry the accountant or the lawyer and he won’t think they’re pretty if they have scars all over their skin?” Perfectionism, endemic to high-achieving acculturated Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews alike, can also trigger cutting.

In Prozac Nation, our foremost first-person chronicler of Jewish female mental illness, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote about cutting herself while a student at the Modern Orthodox Ramaz Day School:

I took my keys out of my knapsack. On the chain was a sharp nail clipper, which had a nail file attached to it. I rolled down my knee socks (we were required to wear skirts to school) and looked at my bare white legs. I hadn’t really started shaving yet, only from time to time because my mother considered me too young, and I looked at the delicate peach fuzz, still soft and untainted. A perfect, clean canvas. So I took the nail file, found its sharp edge, and ran it across my lower leg, watching a red line of blood appear across my skin. … I did not, you see, want to kill myself. Not at that time, anyway. But I wanted to know that if need be, if the desperation got so terribly bad, I could inflict harm on my body. And I could. Knowing this gave me a sense of peace and power, so I started cutting up my legs all the time. Hiding the scars from my mother became a sport of its own. I collected razor blades, I bought a Swiss Army knife, I became fascinated with different kinds of sharp edges and the different cutting sensations they produced. I tried out different shapes—squares, triangles, pentagons, even an awkwardly carved heart, with a stab wound at its center, wanting to see if it hurt the way a real broken heart could hurt. I was amazed and pleased to find that it didn’t.

Wurtzel cut herself to soothe herself. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s true for most cutters. It’s hard growing up in a culture so focused on the body and the taming thereof. As Jews, we’re surrounded by food in all our ritual celebrations, but we’re supposed to be slender and gorgeous. Our texts talk about the soul, but our here-and-now world talks constantly about the body. Girls feel a huge amount of pressure to be all things, to please others, to get into a good college. And when they can’t express all that roiling emotion and anxiety, some let it out (in the words of one classic on self-harm), a bright red scream.

Unlike eating disorders, cutting is wrongly considered goyish because it’s so violent. (It’s mentioned in Leviticus in reference to the priests of Baal “cutting themselves with blades until blood flowed.”) Our prohibition against tattoos also covers scarification: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” To cut oneself is the ultimate transgression of the commandment of shmirat haguf (guarding the body). If your body is a gift from God, and you’re made in the divine image, how dare you slice it up? It doesn’t belong to you!

That, of course, is the problem. Girls feel alienated from their own bodies. Yet anti-depressants and cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to be very effective, if only the girl is willing to seek help (or someone close to her gently leads her to it). “Anorexia is very hard to cure, but with self-mutilation, I can generally get girls to quit in a year,” says Levenkon. “What I do is teach them a language for reflection, so that they learn to recognize ‘anxious,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘lonely,’ and can start to substitute language for cutting.”

No one should have to hurt herself in order to feel.

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There was recently an expose about the amount of anorexia in the Orthodox community among unmarried young women.It was quite eye opening. This like any other mental health issue is something that needs to be openly discussed and accepted as something that is not a shundah but an illness that needs attention.

This idea of perfection and the need to be accepted is nothing new.We live in a society that talks about inward improvement but puts an emphasis on outward appearance.If you go into any high powered community anywhere in the US you will find an excessive amount of excruciatingly thin girls and quite frankly their mothers are just as thin.This is not just a Jewish problem. Teenage health issues are not independent and do come from either home and/or a genetic predisposition.It is essential to get the entire family help and counseling if the girl is to be saved.

An addition. While it is rare, at least according to the mental health community, boys can be predisposed to anorexia and body issues as well. It is essential that parents do not miss the signs thinking that their male offspring are not at risk.A genetic predisposition is a genetic predisposition. It may just manifest itself differently in boys than girls as well as how they present the illness. Remember ADHD, aspergers and OCD presents differently in males and females as well.

Bianca says:

I work with young people in a psychiatry service. Both boys & girls engage in cutting & the vast majority talk about the relief they feel in being able to concentrate on the physical pain rather than the psychological pain.

Where does the pain come from? Pretty much all of them have come from a family that is full of conflict. So they develop maladaptive ways of coping with the distress.

I’ve never thought about it in terms of Jewish v non-Jewish. Basically- any family can be screwed up!

But a simple comment or suddenly seeing someone cutting is not going to create a cutter – the damage is done beforehand.

As I tell my patients – it takes years to develop so it will take a while to get better.

J Carpenter says:

Throw in the biblical injunction, and add on the guilt and alienation.

Cutting can also be manifest within a good healthy family—the response is not from distress or alienation at home, but within the community, within a peer group, within a culture. Not just striving for perfection within a demanding group, but also having giftedness, brilliance unrecognized or unappreciated, can be a cause. Thank God for brave friends, supportive parents and siblings, and understanding counselors.

Marjorie,
You’ve written a really important piece. Well-researched and, I imagine for many parents, eye-opening. Thank you so much for sharing a Jewish perspective to a human problem.

Steve says:

7950 The Pain Makes Her Feel
[by S. David] [art by Lavinia Young]

I didn’t realize
Really
I didn’t know
Not at first
She was weird
She was sick
More to the point
She was psycho
When we first met
I thought it was
Cat scratches
I mean my cats
Often though
Accidently
Would blood me
But no
I didn’t know
For quite awhile
Well after we were
Already involved
She was noisy and
Was it seemed so
Into me as I was her
But after awhile
The moaning
The noises began
To die then
They started up again
And the marks did too
And I caught her
And I knew
And I left
The next morning

33§ [Orig 9/05/09]
This piece was written from an artwork by Lavinia Young, from the UK, showing a young woman cutting herself. The title is hers and, I believe, represents another reason for some to self-mutilate.

Excellent summary of cutting behavior- “And it creates a wound they can tend, as opposed to a psychic wound they don’t know how to deal with,” says Kunhardt. This is serious and with treatment it can be eliminated. For a great resource addressing psychic wounds and eating disorders is the bestselling book Not Your Mother’s Diet.

Martin Ingall says:

Marjorie Ingall has a keen eye toward the world around us, blessing readers with her artful prose and eloquent insights.

And Cousin Martin Ingall is a gentleman and a scholar.

Margie D says:

I used to be a cutter. I called it the ‘identifiable pain’. When things were out of control, or when my emotions were overwhelming and I could not figure out a way to ease the pain I was feeling the way to end the suffering was to cut or even to burn myself and it would make things come into focus. Somehow it took away from the emotional pain – I didn’t let anyone know what I did, so it wasn’t getting attention from others – it just was a way to bring my focus into one area and away from all of the confusion I was feeling from what what going on in my life.

anne says:

“… cutting is wrongly considered goyish because it’s so violent.”

Stay classy, jewish supremacists.

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Cutting Close

Tween star Demi Lovato’s recent admission that she’d engaged in self-harm casts light on what may be growing problem—both in the culture at large and among Jewish girls

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