Scars in the Classroom

A new book focuses on students who cut themselves -- and write about it for English class.
April 11, 2008

Midway through an intense semester, Jeffrey Berman turned to a lighter topic. Berman, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany, asked his expository writing students to write about falling in or out of love. “Try to capture the experience of love: the passion, excitement, confusion, and mystery. You may describe falling in love with a person, a pet, a religion, an ideal, or a hobby.”

Most students, Berman says, wrote about people. Not “Maryann" (a pseudonym, like all student names here).

“Cutting myself was my first love, and as the saying goes, you never forget your first love,” she wrote in her essay, included in Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self-Disclosure, a new book from the University of Massachusetts Press by Berman and a former student, Patricia Hatch Wallace. “I have gone months without cutting," Maryann writes, "only to succumb to it for a weeklong rendezvous with a pair of scissors.”

After Berman read the essay, anonymously and with Maryann's permission, aloud to the class, “Paige” presented a paper reflecting on the essay her professor had read. “Throughout the time that Jeff was reading it, my eyes looked up every once in a while to scan the class…. As I glanced from student to student I noticed something distressing. My peers were looking back at me, some of them with suspicious looks plastered on their faces. They thought I was the one who had written the essay. They had good reason to. I do cut myself. I have for over four years. I am usually very careful to wear long sleeves and never expose my arms, but there was one occasion in the beginning of the semester when it was simply too hot to keep my sleeves down, and I know for a fact that at least two students noticed my scars. I was infuriated. But that was not the only emotion that coursed rabidly through my veins.”

“Along with being incensed that I would be an immediate suspect as the writer of the essay I was jealous that I didn’t write it myself!”

Upon anonymously sharing Maryann and Paige’s essays with a subsequent expository writing class -- again with their permission -- six of 24 students in that class wrote about their own cutting experiences, Berman says. A seventh wrote about a sister’s cutting. Berman reports being stunned by the prevalence. In a study of undergraduate and graduate students at two Northeastern universities published in Pediatrics in 2006, researchers from Cornell and Princeton Universities found that 17 percent of students surveyed had engaged in self-injurious behavior -- defined as purposeful self-infliction of bodily harm, without social sanction and without suicidal intentions. Many cutters, Berman and Wallace’s book explains, “need to experience pain to feel alive.”

“This is part of my credo as a professor: Writing is one of the very best ways to confront a problem, because writing something often will allow us to see a solution to a problem that we had not seen before. Writing will allow us to identify a problem and then find ways of responding to that problem,” Berman says.

In a post-Virginia Tech era in which creative writing instructors worry about what to do and how to respond when students submit unsettling stories or essays, Berman openly welcomes -- and writes about -- self-disclosure in his classroom. His earlier books include Empathic Teaching: Education for Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom (Massachusetts, 2001), and Diaries to an English Professor: Pain and Growth in the Classroom (Massachusetts, 1994).

His newest book, Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self-Disclosure, outlines many of his principles for empathic teaching and the risks and benefits of encouraging students to delve into their deeply personal narratives in the classroom -- all in the context of cutting. That’s the second half of the book: The first, on clinical explanations of cutting and the theme of cutting in literature, is based primarily on his co-author Wallace's master thesis. Wallace, a high school English teacher, first wrote about cutting her arms and wrists in adolescence in a reader-response diary entry for Berman's graduate class on Freud -- her entry an example, the authors write, of so-called “‘risky writing,’ personal writing containing painful or shameful feelings that expose the writer’s vulnerability.”

Berman writes -- and talks -- passionately about creating classroom conditions that minimize the risks inherent in, well, risky writing. He describes how he limits his critiques to micro-level matters of grammar and style -- the basis of the students’ grades -- and avoids commenting on content. “What I grade on, are there comma splices here; are there dangling or misplaced modifiers?” he says. (His class, Berman says, is not the one to take to talk about macro-level writing issues, or how to critique an argument: Take any number of other courses for that.)

Berman also stresses, among other things, allowing anonymity and prescreening essays before they're discussed. He describes granting students the option not to write on any topic they find too personal or threatening -- offering a list of alternative topics they can choose from -- allowing students to determine how much to disclose about themselves, and maintaining professional boundaries.

“Students don’t ask me for clinical advice. I don’t offer clinical advice because I’m not trained,” Berman says. “If I read an essay or a diary in which a student said, ‘I’ve been depressed, I’ve been in therapy and nothing is making me feel any better, I can’t see a solution to this problem and I think pretty soon I’m not going to be around any more to suffer,' that would certainly compel me to call the counseling center. But those aren’t the kinds of essays and diaries I receive. The essays and diaries I receive are people in pain who are dealing with that pain, who are not asking me to make that telephone call for them.”

“I don’t feel burdened by my students’ essays. I feel strengthened, because they’re demonstrating that they have the resources to deal with their problems,” he says. Berman believes strongly in the powers of self-disclosure through writing. His 2007 book, Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning (SUNY Press) is about his wife's death from pancreatic cancer, his own reactions, as well as his students' reactions to his own self-disclosure.

But he acknowledges the risks. Acknowledging in the book, for instance, “perhaps a heightened fear of legal difficulties,” he adds that he has never found himself in legal peril. Regarding cutting, he writes extensively about the possibility of “emotional contagion,” described as “the ‘catching’ of another person’s emotions.” Given that cutting -- like suicide -- can inspire copycats, he says he presents the risk of contagion to students in his courses at the outset, and asks students to see him if they become anxious or depressed after any reading or writing assignment. "My students believe they have benefited from risky reading and risky writing," he writes. "That is why I continue to give assignments that encourage students to write about important issues in their lives, including those often deemed too personal for the classroom. One cannot prevent the possibility of contagion, but one can reassure students that its effects can be lessened when anticipated and understood."

Yet, also in the book, he wonders: “What would happen, however, if one of my students committed suicide? This is a psychotherapist’s worst nightmare -- and mine, too. Or suppose one of my students suffered a breakdown and attributed it to the course writings or readings. Or suppose other teachers who experiment with the pedagogy of self-disclosure find these chilling scenarios coming true. Would my faith in the process of self-disclosure remain unshaken? I cannot answer these questions,” Berman writes.

"A sensitive and caring man, perhaps, Berman’s flaw ... rests in the conviction that he, in the role of the writing teacher, and his course can accomplish students’ transformations in fifteen weeks that trauma therapists cannot claim for their clients over much longer periods of time," Carra Leah Hood, an assistant professor of writing at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, wrote in a 2005 article that appeared in Composition Forum (some of her criticisms are in fact rebutted in the book).

Interviewed Wednesday, Hood says that Berman’s pedagogical tactics concern her on two fronts. Although she has not read the new book on cutting, she says she wonders more generally about the common practice of using student compositions in scholarship, even with student permission, because students can't typically be part of the scholarly exchange on a subject. And she says she questions any academic situation in which students are required, or feel they are required, to write on traumatic topics. “If he gives the assignment and says [students] can opt out, I still think a student might read it as the teacher wanting it anyway. At least it’s possible the student might feel that way,” Hood says.

More broadly, Hood also wonders about the veracity of coherent narratives created out of trauma. Frequently, she says, such written narratives will “be very detailed, be able to tell everything. There are no gaps in the story, there’s no collapsing of history, there’s no remaking of history, remaking a chronology, for instance, which happens frequently in the telling of a traumatic event. There are all sorts of things that characterize the telling of a traumatic event that don't occur in writing,” Hood says.

“I can tell a perfectly coherent lie about a traumatic event. I’m not sure I can tell a perfectly coherent traumatic narrative about my own trauma.”

Berman writes that he doesn’t question the accuracy of student writing. And when students do acknowledge they weren’t entirely truthful, he writes, “This usually happens not because they wish to portray themselves as victims of trauma but because they are not yet ready to acknowledge the full extent of the trauma they experienced.”


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