In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) admitted for the first time the category of “non-suicidal self-injury”. It is listed, tentatively, “as one of a number of conditions for further study”. In Psyche on the Skin, Sarah Chaney hails this as a breakthrough moment in the history of self-harm, while issuing a note of caution about the continuing difficulties faced by those seeking medical attention. She candidly acknowledges that the book’s subject is personal, and reasons that there can be no true objectivity in academic research in any case. It’s a puzzlingly defensive starting position because her historical survey manages a decent and dignified arm’s-length analysis. This history of self-harm, she argues, offers insight into modern medicine and cultural ideals.
The skill of this book is that it understands self-harm so broadly, sweeping within its remit a range of other forms of injury, including bloodletting, castration and flagellation. This is also its danger, in so far as it appropriates the practices of those who might not identify their acts in quite the way Chaney does. But she is a diligent and extensive researcher. She provides a potted history of bloodletting, tracks the transition of flagellation from act of private devotion to group ritual, and deduces the phenomena of self-harm in asylums by examining the techniques of restraint used to prevent them.
Chaney outlines a prehistory of self-harm and reaches towards the modern psychoanalytical modes by which it is understood, but the picture she pieces together remains fragmented. No great argument or insight reveals itself here. Instead, Chaney offers up a history, compiled with great kindness and understanding, that invites us only to broaden our conception of self-harm. If there is a commendable kind of restraint here, there is also the sense of something wanting.
One of the book’s pleasures, though, is its array of unusual sources, such as that of Peter Damian (an 11th-century Benedictine monk and saint), who powerfully illuminates the piety found in public flogging, and the way it mutates from act of punishment to expression of asceticism. “When I freely scourge myself with my own hands in the sight of God,” he exclaims passionately, “I demonstrate the same genuine and devout desire as if the executioner were here in all his fury”. Chaney latches on to John Marten’s winningly titled 1712 pamphlet, Onania: or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, to suggest how masturbation could be figured as a loss of self-control close to self-injury. She only glosses the ritual castration practices of the Skoptsy, a breakaway sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it’s a glimpse into a jaw-droppingly arcane and fascinating world.
Chaney is less effective with the familiar sources: poet Sylvia Plath and musician Richey Edwards (pictured above) are discussed as visible modern examples of self-harm without much more insight. Psyche on the Skin bears the ungainly signposts of a hastily remodelled PhD (“I begin with a brief background…”; “In this chapter, I have drawn together…”). But the impressively amassed sources and the sensitivity behind it suggest that there is more to discover and understand in the history of self-harm.
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London.
Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm
By Sarah Chaney
Reaktion Books, 320pp, £20.00
Published 23 February 2017