Self-harm is thought by many to be a modern epidemic: a phenomenon of the late twentieth century, a symptom of extreme emotional turmoil in young people, particularly young women. Yet it was 150 years ago, within early asylum psychiatry, that self-mutilation was first codified as a category of behaviour, and explanations for a variety of self-injurious acts were conceived very differently.
Psyche on the Skin charts the secret history of self-harm. The book describes its many forms, from sexual self-mutilation and hysterical malingering in the late Victorian period, to self-castrating religious sects, to self-mutilation and self-destruction in art, music and popular culture. Sarah Chaney’s refreshing historical approach refutes the notion that self-harm has any universal meaning – that it necessarily says something specific about an individual or group, or that it can ever be understood outside the historical and cultural context of a particular era.
Drawing on her personal experiences, written in an engaging style and containing many powerful images, Psyche on the Skin challenges the misconceptions and controversies surrounding self-harm. The book is crucial reading for professionals in the field as well as all those affected by this act.
Listen to Sarah Chaney discuss the book and some of her own experiences of self-harm on Woman's Hour, BBC Radio 4 here.
Read an interview with the author on the Queen Mary University of London website.
‘a valuable contribution . . . Chaney insightfully highlights the gender biases that have pervaded the discourse from the start: the way self-harmers were caricatured in gendered terms as deceitful and devious; the habit among some researchers of excluding men or older women from sample groups (on grounds of being “atypical”) in order to reinforce the assumption that the typical cutter was a young woman; and the tendency of practitioners to overlook sexual abuse – marginalized under the euphemistic purview of “family troubles” if mentioned at all – as a possible causative factor when considering a patient’s motives for self-harming . . . Chaney’s emphasis on the importance of communities and mutual support groups is especially apposite in the wake of last year’s closures of a number of state-funded Crisis Recovery Unit centres across the UK, in the name of fiscal austerity. The human cost of this penny-pinching will be impossible to quantify; but we can say with some certainty that it will prove a false economy.’ – TLS
'[Sarah Chaney] 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 . . . 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 . . . She is a diligent and extensive researcher . . . The impressively amassed sources and the sensitivity behind it suggest that there is more to discover and understand in the history of self-harm.’ – Times Higher Education
'Self-harm is a crucially important topic for understanding psychology and culture in general and, often, religion in particular. For that reason, Sarah Chaney’s Psyche on the Skin is a welcome contribution.’ – Anthropology Review
‘Eloquent, awe-inspiring, and sassy. This book will captivate anyone curious about the body and pain.’ – Joanna Bourke
‘A remarkable account from the pen of a young and brilliant scholar of the history and meaning of self-harm. Insightful and immensely readable.’ – Sander L. Gilman, Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University and author of Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery
Sarah Chaney is a Research Associate at UCL Health Humanities Centre, and Research Project Manager at Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, University of London.