Needles 'R' Us


The urge to self-mutilation is ancient; we know this, because the Hebrew Bible forbids it, and cannily sees it as a response to the loss of a love.

The girl at the cash in the health food store smiles overly sweetly, in a way that betrays more absence than presence. She opens her mouth and displays a stud in her tongue. She lisps, thickly. There's a safety pin through her upper lip, and a ring through her lower. She's got quite a spout.

She's selling chelating agents, to help rid the body of traces of bad metals, but she can't get enough metal into her soft flesh. She sells only all-natural foods and soap, but her hair is neon purple, and looks as natural as candy floss. What forces are at war within her?

If you shudder, and turn away when she displays her ornaments, it's because she intended it. She's apotropaic, that is, designed to turn a threatening spirit away. Ancient seamen placed a carved model of her on the hulls of their ships, to avert evil spirits. In Renaissance Florence, she surfaced as Medusa's severed head on armoured shields. She was last seen as Scary Spice, sticking out her studded tongue.

The girl in the health-food store is hardcore, but oral piercing, which poses a risk of nerve damage, spreading HIV and hepatitis, is going more mainstream. Kids in the suburbs are getting into softcore, somewhat reversible, mutilations. Intimidated and impressed by the seeming courage of street kids who are into heavy piercing, they get pierced themselves so as to say, “I'm no wimp!” Earlier this year, even Barbie was marketed with a tattoo — a new fashion statement. But fashion, by definition, comes and goes; mutilations and tattoos are permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Hardcore piercers are just the latest of a new type of addict to be glorified by crazed social science and greedy marketers both. Marti Blose is writing her sociology PhD on tattooing, and recently told the Ottawa Citizen, “I just knew I had to have a tattoo.” (Is that the language of freedom, or compulsion?) “It was something that made me unique.” (But she is already unique. Why can't she feel that?) Piling on cliches, Blose voiced how “empowering” tattoos are.

In fact, hardcore piercers are extremely disturbed. Many have had nightmarish childhoods, filled with severe neglect, savage physical and sexual abuse, and now are locked into repeating the abuse, turning sadistic urges on themselves. Feeling ever fearful, unlovable and certain they will be rejected, they pre-emptively drive others away, by becoming apotropaic.

But what about the pain? A nightmarish childhood teaches one to deaden one's feelings. “I feel numb and empty all the time, and can't feel anything,” said one kid. The deadening numbness itself becomes disturbing. These kids feel empty, like the living dead (hence the interest in “Gothic” horror themes). By cutting themselves, and feeling their warm blood come to the surface, their anaemic souls feel alive after all. They long for something solid. Bolts and needles are attempts to fill their emptiness. Needles 'R' Us.

Chronic psychic deadening makes it impossible to get a continuous sense of oneself over time, or an identity. This is no mere psychobabble, but a description of a catastrophic psychological state. Psychic deadening also interrupts normal symbol formation. Consider how child-like many of the images adults have tattooed on them are — fire-breathing dragons, monsters, skulls — or opposite syrupy ones — Mickey Mouse, Mom, flowers, hearts and butterflies.

Worse still, psychic deadening interferes with the very process of symbol formation. In ordinary symbolic activity, as seen in dreams or art, symbols stand for, or represent, something else. An evil character can stand for an evil urge. But, as British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal has shown, when symbol formation is disturbed, a symbol is actually taken for the thing it is supposed to stand for or represent. Those who believe in voodoo literally identify the doll with the person they are trying to kill. Segal calls this process “symbolic equation.”

Self-mutilators are so stultified in normal symbolization, that they use the theatre of their bodies, instead of the theatre of their minds, to express their emotions, in symbolic equations. Lacking a developed sense of identity, self and body are equated. When they hurt someone they love, instead of feeling guilt, they literally punish themselves by a mutilation. Instead of feeling grief at a loss, they gash themselves; in lieu of a memory of their lost loved one, they get a permanent tattoo with that person's name on it, or a stud. Rather than voicing conflicts about sexual longings, they pierce their genitals or erogenous zones. When they feel bad about themselves, they take purgatives; when they feel good, they may eat healthily.

The growth in self-mutilation, in both its softcore and hardcore version, is a sign that many among us simply cannot articulate the most important things human beings must to survive emotionally. A stud in the tongue is the perfect symbol for this crisis, this loss for words.

But, you say, aren't “mutilations” just a new form of “cosmetic” surgery, and isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Their ends are different, even if the means are similar. Cosmetic surgery seeks to alter the body without calling attention to the artifice involved. With cosmetics, we cheat a little, and flatter ourselves. Silicone passes for flesh. But metal inserts emphasize their very foreignness to flesh; with apotropaic self-mutilation we negatively exhibit how damaged we feel, saying, “Look, look how I can suffer!”

The urge to self-mutilation is ancient; we know this, because the Hebrew Bible forbids it, and cannily sees it as a response to the loss of a love. Unlike many parents of today, Leviticus takes self-mutilation very seriously and draws a line, by commanding, “You shall not make any cutting in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Sorry Jews, but no tattoos; that's for pagans. The piercing of the flesh? Crucifixion is a Roman sport. In the Bible the human body is not to be mutilated, because it is sacred; and, it is sacred, because man and woman are made in the image of God. The rejection of divine sacredness undermines human sacredness, and has led to a rapid and inevitable re-profanation of the human body. With the decline of the body's sacredness, we see, too, the re-emergence, now, in children, of a temptation to self-destruction that sacredness kept somewhat under control. And it is a sign of the neglect that follows these kids around, that they have no Leviticus to dissuade them.


Doidge, Norman. “Needles 'R' Us,” National Post, (Canada) 23 June, 1999.

Reprinted with permission of Norman Doidge.


Dr. Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. His column appears every other Wednesday in the Life Section of the National Post.

Copyright © 1999 Norman Doidge

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