Archive

Posts Tagged ‘self-injury’

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Ann Marie Lee)

January 11, 2016 6 comments

cover_sharpobjectsSummary:
Camille Preaker, journalist to a small Chicago newspaper, recently out of a mental institution after an in-patient stay to address her long-standing inclination to cut words into her body, has been asked by her boss to go to her hometown.  Two little girls have been found murdered–with their teeth pulled out.  Camille is not inclined to go home. She’s barely spoken to her distant, southern belle mother since moving out years ago and hardly knows her half-sister, 13-year-old Amma.  But home she goes, staying with her mother, step-father, and half-sister to save money, drinking to cope as her demons haunt her, and investigating the murders that have shaken the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.

Review:
This book hit my radar around the time there were all those articles judging Gillian Flynn for writing female characters who are bad/evil. I immediately was supportive of Gillian Flynn (bad women exist, hello) and interested in more of her writing. I started with Gone Girl so I could read it before seeing the movie, but Sharp Objects has been in my sightlines for a long time.  The mere idea of an adult self-injurer going to her hometown and facing her demons was something I would want to read even without knowing how much I enjoy Gillian Flynn’s work.  What I found was a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery with multiple complex characters and simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking lead.

I thought through most of the book that I knew the solution to the mystery. Whodunit. That didn’t bother me. I liked everything leading up to what I thought was going to be the ultimate reveal. The plot twists, though, surprising myself and characters in the book.  While part of me likes the twist, part of me felt it was more cliche than the original ending that I thought I was getting. Ultimately, while I didn’t necessarily find the resolution satisfying, I did find it surprising and something to chew on. It will stick with me in a I’m thinking about it way like eating something unusual you’re not sure if you liked, rather than in an I remember feeling so pleasantly satisfied way, like how you might look back on Thanksgiving dinner.

The pacing in the book is superb. I read it in audiobook format, and I found myself using time to listen to it as rewards for accomplishing other things. I listened to it every chance I had because the pacing was so spot on. It never felt too quick-moving or too slow.  Every scene felt like it had a reason for being there and kept me on the edge of my seat.

There is a lot of mental illness represented in this book, and that is wrapped up in the characters.  I’ll talk first about the spoiler-free mental illnesses.

Camille is a self-injurer who has had a stay in a mental hospital where her roommate managed to commit suicide.  Camille never names more of a diagnosis the doctors gave her than self-injurer.  However, much of her behavior, including her self-injury, points to PTSD from her childhood.  This includes the foreboding feeling she gets when returning to her hometown. How she feels driven to drink herself numb for dealing with certain triggering situations. Her impulse to inflict hurt on herself, etc… All of that said, the representation of Camille as a cutter is superb. This is an adult woman who still struggles with the impulse to cut. Who talks about how most people think of it as an adolescent problem. Camille manages to describe her urges to cut, what drives her to cut, without ever actually definitively saying what causes it. And this is great because we don’t actually know. Camille is nuanced. She is a woman who used to (still wants to) cut herself but that is not, not by a long-shot, all she is.

The book also secondarily depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as a self-medication technique.  Camille drinks as a lesser evil compared to cutting when she needs to relieve her stress and discomfort from dealing with terrible situations.  It shows how alcohol and cutting both can end up being used as coping mechanisms when no healthier ones are learned or taught. It also shows how stressors can impact sobriety and health.

Despite being both a self-injurer in recovery and a woman who abuses alcohol, Camille is depicted as a heroine.  Her investigative journalism helps break the case open. She exhibits care and concern for her half-sister and loyalty to her boss and career.  She is ultimately depicted as resilient in spite of her struggles, and I loved seeing that.

If you are interested in reading about other depictions of mental illness in the book, they are in the spoiler section below.

*spoilers*
It is ultimately revealed that Adora, Camille’s mother, suffers from Munchausen by Proxy (MBP). This MBP is what ultimately killed Camille’s other little sister, Marion. Camille escaped this same fate because her mother didn’t love her and thus also didn’t really enjoy caring for her or garnering attention through her in this way.  What Adora does is unforgivable and certainly causes a visceral reaction in the reader.  However, there are scenes that discuss things such as how Adora’s mother didn’t love her.  The implication is that some of the mental illness in the family is learned or a reaction to poor environment.  It manages to keep Adora human rather than monstrous.

Similarly, it is ultimately learned that Amma is a sociopath. Camille seems to be uncertain if this is just Amma’s nature or a reaction to Adora’s “mothering” or some combination of the two. I feel that not enough time is given to analyzing Amma, once Camille learns her true nature. This depiction, compared to the others in the book, is just much flatter due to the lesser amount of time Camille and other characters spend pondering Amma.

The book ends with Camille wondering if she is able to love in a healthy way or if she’s doomed to repeat her mother’s unhealthy, hurtful mothering. Essentially, she wonders if MBP is inherited or if she can escape that.  Some time is spent discussing what made Camille more resilient than either of her sisters. I think this is some of the more valuable portion of the book, as it really highlights the nuances of some of the things we still just don’t have a solid answer to about mental illness. What makes some people more resilient, more able to overcome bad childhoods and genetic tendencies than others? What makes some people better able to cope with a mental illness than others? They are important questions, and I like that they are addressed.
*end spoilers*

There are some scenes that will bother some readers. While rape is never depicted, it is discussed, as well as the idea of what counts as rape, with one female character arguing that a woman who is intoxicated is still responsible for any sexual activity that occurs.  The character saying this was a victim of rape while intoxicated herself, so readers should bare in mind that this reframing of a rape as not a rape is very normal for rape victims who have not fully addressed the rape yet.  Additionally, at one point one character has consensual sex with a character who has just barely turned 18. Also an adult partakes of illegal drugs and alcohol with characters who are extremely underage. All of these scenes work within the book and are necessary for the plot, however.

Overall, this is a fast-paced mystery with a strong yet flawed female lead and an engaging and thought-provoking plot that presents many different nuances of mental illness. Recommended to those looking for a fast-moving book with a unique depiction of self-injury who do not mind the violence or gray moral areas innate in a mystery revolving around serial killing.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Counts For:
miabadge

Advertisements

Book Review: Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #2)

June 13, 2011 2 comments

Red sword on cloudy background.Summary:
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference.  She deals with her emotions by cutting herself.  She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed.  One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option.  Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War.  Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.

Review:
Speaking as someone who knows a lot about mental illness, self-injury is one of the illnesses that people who don’t have it have the most difficulty understanding.  It seems bizarre to those who don’t self-injure, even as for the self-injurer those moments of cutting or burning or whatever chosen method are the best coping mechanism they can come up with.  It’s not easy for those who don’t self-injure to understand, which is why I am so impressed at how well Morse Kessler has grasped the inner workings of the self-injurer in order to write such a well-rounded, sympathetic character as Missy.

Missy is simultaneously relatable as a typical teenager, for instance she gets horribly embarrassed at a party one night, but she also has this deep, dark, misunderstood secret.  Gradually other teens find out and are either concerned or lash out at her due to their fear and lack of understanding, but Missy feels that she can’t confide in even the sympathetic ones.  In perhaps one of the most powerful passages, the reader gets to see exactly why Missy cuts, while she simultaneously explains why she can’t explain it to her sister.

She could tell her that she turned to the blade because she wanted to live and sometimes pain was the only thing that kept her alive. She could tell her that she was terrified of things she couldn’t even begin to name, that friends could be fickle and lovers could be false. She could try to explain all of that and more, and maybe her sister would understand. But trust was as fragile and cutting as a crystal sword. (page 100)

That is perhaps the most clear, succinct explanation of self-injury I’ve seen outside of nonfiction clinical books.  Missy’s reasons for cutting are clear, even as it becomes more and more evident to the reader that this coping mechanism is not truly addressing Missy’s real problems.

Of course, the fantasy element comes to play here again, and it works perhaps even better this time around.  Giving the fantasy personas for Missy to talk to and express herself to gives her a safe space to think out her emotions instead of cutting them out.  There are also a few cameos from Famine, which is fun to see after reading the first book.  The fantasy also works here because it  helps give the book a distance that makes it less triggering.  There are intense emotional moments, but then Death shows up with a humorous quip to lighten the situation.  It addresses the real problems without getting bogged down in over-emotionality.

This book will give self-injuring teens a way to see themselves reflected in literature and accepted and loved for who they are.  It will give them a chance to maybe address their own emotions and issues.  Similarly, non-self-injuring teens will hopefully become more empathetic to their peers who struggle with it.  It’s a book that is simultaneously enlightening but not preachy.  I highly recommend it to teens and those who work in mental health or with teenagers.

5 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
Hunger, review

Counts For:
Pile of books.

Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

July 14, 2010 8 comments

Torn notebook with blood on it.Summary:
Fifteen year old John Wayne Cleaver has an odd fascination with the bodies he helps cremate in the family mortuary.  He also has difficulty feeling any emotions.  He even has been studying serial killers for years.  He is not one, however.  At least, not yet.  His therapist believes John may have Antisocial Personality Disorder, but both he and John hope John can learn to control his illness, an illness John refers to as Mr. Monster.  However, when bodies start appearing on the streets of the town gruesomely murdered, John wonders how long he can keep Mr. Monster in check.

Review:
I originally had high expectations for this book.  Then I had to wait for it so long that they waned, and I felt that it was probably just going to be a watered down YA version of Dexter.  Then I grabbed it for my camping trip because I am insane and love to terrify myself when sleeping in the middle of nowhere in the woods with strange men with hatchets I don’t know a mere campsite away.  It didn’t turn out to be a watered down Dexter.  It also isn’t terrifying.  The best word I can think to describe this book is relatable.

Dan Wells chose to write a YA book about mental illness and couch it with some supernatural features and a premise that will appeal to any teens, not just those struggling with a mental illness themselves.  These were both smart moves as it makes I Am Not a Serial Killer more widely appealing.  However, he not only chose to depict a mental illness, he chose to depict one of the ones that is the most difficult for healthy people to sympathize with and relate to–antisocial personality disorder.  John Cleaver has no empathy, and this baffles those who naturally feel it.

Yet Wells manages to not only depict what makes John scary to those around him, but also how it feels to be John.  He simultaneously depicts the scary parts of having a mental illness with the painful parts for the one struggling with it.  John makes up rules for himself to try to control his behavior.  He has to think things through every time he interacts with people or he will do or say the wrong thing.  John is fully aware that he doesn’t fit in, but he wants to.  He wants to be healthy and normal, but he also wants to be himself, which at this point in time includes the behavior that is his illness.

Of course, this is a book about a serial killer, and it delivers there.  The death scenes hold just the right level of gruesomeness without going over the top.  Anyone with a love of the macabre will also enjoy the mortuary scenes, which depict the right combination of science and John’s morbid fascination.  There also is a tentatively forming teen dating relationship that is simultaneously sweet and bit nerve-wracking.

I feel I would be amiss not to mention that there is some self-harm in this book.  It is very brief and is clearly shown as a part of John’s illness.  In fact for the first time in reading about it in any book I can say the author handled it quite well, depicting the self-injurer and his reasons for doing so sympathetically and correctly, but without making it seem like something the reader should copy.

Overall this book delivers the thrills and chills it promises, but does so without demonizing John Cleaver.  It depicts what it feels like to have a mental illness in a powerful, relatable manner while still managing to be a fast-paced YA thriller.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA, books dealing with mental illness, or thrillers.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It

Book Review: Pretties By Scott Westerfeld (Series, #2)

August 19, 2009 3 comments

coverprettiesSummary:
Tally Youngblood lives in a dystopian society where everyone is given an operation at the age of 16 that makes them perfectly pretty.  What is not known by the general population is that during the operation lesions are put on the brain to make people dumbed down and easy to control.  A few people are selected to be “Specials.”  They don’t have the lesions and control the rest of the society.  Some people resist the operation and the control and live in the wilderness, calling themselves “Smokies.”

After being captured from The Smoke, Tally has been made pretty.  She has mostly forgotten her experiences and has a new boyfriend, Zane.  They belong to a New Pretty clique called The Crims.  The book follows what occurs after teens from the New Smoke bring Tally pills created by adults in the New Smoke that are supposed to cure the brain lesions.  She and Zane share them and begin plotting their resistance of the regime and escape from New Pretty Town.

Review:
I am quite torn about this book.

On the one hand, I like that Westerfeld is clearly gradually moving our traditional hero, Tally, toward turning into one of the bad guys in this society.  It’s a move not commonly seen in YA lit, and I think it’s a bold thing to do.  It could lead teens to question what makes people behave badly versus what makes people behave well.  It’s a bit reminiscent to me of the key question in Wicked: Are people born bad or do circumstances make them that way?

On the other hand, I am profoundly disturbed at how Westerfeld presents Shay, Tally’s one-time best friend and the one who came up with the plan to escape to The Smoke in the first book, Uglies.  Tally followed Shay there, won over the guy Shay had her eye on, and betrayed Shay to the Specials, causing her to be turned Pretty.  Oh, and in Pretties she completely leaves Shay out of the whole pills-curing-people-and-escaping-to-New-Smoke-thing.

Since Tally is leaving Shay out, Shay is left to her own devices.  These are delineated in the chapter titled “The Cutters.” In this chapter Tally and Zane discover that Shay has discovered a way to temporarily clear the fuzziness in her head caused by the operation.  She is ceremonially cutting herself and has some followers who are now doing the same.  They call their clique “The Cutters.”

Self-injury is a real element of multiple mental illnesses.  People suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder will display this symptom.  However, it is most well-known and highly associated with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the media and general population.

Westerfeld’s presentation of self-injury in his storyline reinforces multiple stereotypes regarding it.  First is the idea that self-injurers only cut.  This is not the case.  Burning, head banging, hitting things until your knuckles bleed, picking at and peeling skin, and pulling out hair are just some of the multiple methods people used.  Cutting, burning, and head banging are the most common.  Thus, showing all of The Cutters using the exact same self-injury method to clear their heads is misleading.

Second, Shay and the other Cutters proudly display their scars and make a show of the bleeding.  Self-injurers must face the prejudice that they do this for attention, that they do it in places people will notice to garner that attention.  For the vast majority of self-injurers this is not the case.  They do it in places that are easy to hide, such as upper thighs, or purposefully wear long sleeves to hide the marks.  They are usually profoundly ashamed of what they did, or at least terrified that people will find out.  It would be much more accurate to portray Shay cutting herself in a private room and have Tally accidentally see it, than to have the large ceremony in the middle of a park that is portrayed in the book.

Third, while it is true that some self-injurers say their mind feels clearer from injuring, others say it helps them shut down emotions they don’t want to feel.  It’s perfectly plausible for Shay to be in the former group, but it seems to me that at least one of her followers would be in the latter group.

My real issue though comes from the fact that Tally seeing Shay self-injuring is the final decisive straw to her.  She emphatically announces that Shay is crazy, and Zane agrees with her.  No one dissents from this viewpoint.  Shay’s scars are the markers that she’s gone off her rocker; there’s no turning back.  To top it all off, the cutting is what makes the evil Specials decide that Shay and her group should be Specials themselves, thus associating self-injury not only with “being crazy” but also with being evil.   Additionally, the ceremony in the middle of the woods is clearly connotated as being primitive.

Can you imagine what reading this portrayal would do to a teen struggling with self-injury?  She is portrayed as purely crazy, evil, and primitive.  Shay is a lost cause in the book, and clearly the teen must be too.  So little sympathy is given to Shay.  Not even a spark of goodness is visible in her.

I’m not the type to say that if you display thus-and-such group as evil you’re saying they’re all evil.  I think it’s just as discriminatory to always portray a certain group as good.  However, the portrayal of Shay turns so one-dimensional with the on-set of her self-injury.  There is zero depth to her character, zero exploration of her as a conflicted person.  She could have had rich character development.  Indeed, the entire group of “Cutters” could have been a wonderful opportunity for Westerfeld to explore more depth in his story-telling.

Yet he went the easy, sensationalist route and portrayed an evil, crazy, primitive female slashing her arms while reciting a spell, letting the blood drip down in the rain.

An incredible image to visualize? Yes.  A deep, accurate one?  No.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Previous Books in Series:
Uglies

Buy It