«ROBERT F. MULLEN HOLY STIGMATA, ANOREXIA AND SELF-MUTILATION: PARALLELS IN PAIN AND IMAGINING Robert F. Mullen Philosophy and Religion Program, ...»
To recapitulate an earlier statement, while acknowledging the possibility of the deific as the agent for some stigmatics, it is beyond the scope of this paper (and the current ability of this writer) to ascertain specific knowledge of such events when and if they occur(red). To state such a dogmatic belief is foolhardy. What cannot be proven cannot be disproven when one is not the cutter, the saint, or especially the witness.
All beliefs are acceptable, and all agencies have their place in one’s imaginations. William James was even more secure in his beliefs. He firmly believed that religious leaders are creatures of enhanced sensitivity, often subject to “abnormal psychical visitations” and other peculiarities which could be classified as “pathological.” His pragmatic response to the scientific skeptics: “Medical materialism finishes up St. Paul by calling his visit on the Road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out St. Theresa as a hysteric, St. Francis of Assisi as a hereditary degenerate.”53 Not consciously subject to psychical visitations, this author accepts what is caused by and causal to the imagination—a phenomenon called believing.
Pain as Healing
“And while I was cutting it’s like there’s nothing else. There’s just me and this blade and the whole world. Nothing else is happening. There’s no time, there is no place … You take the blade and put it against your skin, and your skin just opens and the blood comes, it’s so clean, so pure.”54 Elaine Scarry has produced vast research regarding the subjectivity of pain in The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. Her political observations, which formulate a bulk of her argument, are not as appropriate to this paper as is her creative genius in discussing how a person can use pain within a concept of imagining as a crucial element in retreating or shutting down a numbing, unspeakable, or strangling psychological void by self-inflicting, or manufacturing a physical alternate process as a means of transcending beyond—by consciously and willingly using pain as a healing process. Scarry argues that pain can never be articulated, not even imagined, without the instruments that inflict it,55 while this author believes that the imagination and subsequent belief can supersede and even over-speculate imagined pain. The imagination is the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation formidable power with no near equivalency. Though one may posit that it is then nothing but mental aberration, anticipation, or even imagination, the fact that a cutter has gotten us to analyze her interiority means that the wound is real, externalizable, and sharable: “she has made visible to those outside her own physical boundaries the therefore no longer wholly private and invisible content of her mind.”56 While recent scientific research may seem “overly behavioristic or materialistic” it is essential to discuss “patterns in perceptions,” and behavior. Case studies are certainly appropriate for understanding voluntary pain, the toll that pain accomplishes, and the “basic levels of embodied experience”57 that influence the urge to self-mutilate.
As indicated earlier, self-mutilation in contemporary young women does exhibit “co-morbidity with anorexia nervosa.” Anorexia nervosa is “often co-morbid with depression.”58 According to the DSM-IV-TR, Personality Disorders (OCD, Borderline, Substance-Related Disorders) which accompany Anxiety Disorders “may also coexist with Depersonalization Disorder.” Depersonalization Disorder is an essential feature of Dissociative Disorder. Anorexia “may also aggravate dissociative experiences “since food deprivation induces depersonalization and dissociation,” according to an article described by Fessler by Drs. Shalom Robinson and Heinrich Winnick59 on psychotic disturbances following severe weight loss in a 1973 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
To simplify the difference, “depersonalization occurs when an individual experiences her body or parts of her body as not her own, not belonging to her.” With acceptable gender bias in her article, Psychiatrist Rameswari Rao defines “disassociation” as a state in which the individual feels separate from her body, generating an out-of-body-experience as if she is “floating” or “observing herself” from a distance.60 Self-cutting can begin when an individual is confronted with the recollection of an experience of a painful interpersonal threat, such as the invalidation from a loved one. It can occur from a state of low self-esteem, existent for a number of reasons including rejection, physical or sexual abuse, disappointment in oneself or another, or dishonesty from a close affiliate.
The resultant self-mutilation can serve to help reinstate a boundary between the self as non-existent or non-viable, and an imagined self of authority and self-confidence. Self-cutting is “violent self-touch and an attempt at self-location,”61 replacing the voiceless and inferior self with one of “autonomy and even empowerment.”62 Janice McLane, Philosopher in Religious Studies at Morgan State University, explains: “…if I know that as a toucher I am touched, as a seer I am also seen, and sense that this reversibility is within me … then I may understand that flesh, sensations and consciousness double upon themselves for other people as well as myself.”63 In relationship to stigmatics, holy or otherwise, Fessler argues that these individuals exhibit the same states as the self-cutter including a Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation “propensity” for anorexia or, at the very least, “extreme dietary constriction,” dissociation and self mutilation because of “culturallyconstituted understandings” of extreme religiosity, and the fasting, transcendence, and obsession with the suffering and wounding of Jesus.64 It is important to remember that in the earlier centuries, women, especially young girls, were dehumanized by the patriarchy, and as a result, “one might argue that [stigmatic] women had to stress the experience of Christ and manifest it outwardly in their flesh, because they did not have clerical office or approval as an authorization for speaking.”65 As previously overviewed, their individuality, if any, was determined by their fathers, brothers, and their confessors. The first son received all inheritance; marriage of a daughter or widow—unless it could bring dowry—was not much of an option; and the only way to obtain an education was at a convent where wealthier girls were taught by male ecclesiastics. Young women were considered property for barter.
Individual survival was not a choice. One need not wonder about the demise of their self-esteem, and their desire to imagine a life other than their own, which they could find through self-mortification and fasting for the love of Jesus, their best redemptive opportunity. Bynum66cites examples of religious phenomena such as starvation, discipline, sexual abstention, even torture of the flesh as medieval devotional practices.
These are, however, not so much the rejection of physicality “as the elevation of it—a horrible yet delicious elevation—into a means of access to the divine.” Self-mutilation permits the hidden self to finally emerge and express feeling. Self-cutting is “a gesture of ‘involvement.”67 Jane, another contemporary teenage self-cutter, describes slicing in the fold of a finger: “It was so sharp and smooth and so well hidden, and yet there was some sense of empowerment. If someone else is hurting me or making me bleed then I take the instrument away and I make me bleed.
It says, ‘You can’t hurt me anymore. I’m in charge of that.’”68
How do cutters integrate into an empowered wholeness?
Skeletonization is the process of peeling off of a pattern of as many pixels as possible without affecting the general shape of the pattern. In other words, after pixels have been peeled off, the pattern should still be recognizable. The skeleton hence obtained must have the following properties. It must be as thin as possible, connected, and centered. Once these properties are functional, then the algorithm is complete. Scott Littleton69 employs a similar algorithm to analogize how a damaged self, symbolically—or, in the case of the self-cutter and stigmatic, physically— strips away at the flesh, thins through fasting [or via anorexia], and through this skelotonization transcends to a new and “non-ordinary” body that brings with it a new and emboldened sense of self, as well as a Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation wholly different conception of the world and the forces and powers that rule it.
“Under extreme conditions’ the original, silent, inadequate sense of self that needs to be skeletonized, ‘can actually disappear or become transparent.” The act of mutilation or thinning away at this injured self does not “modify beliefs, memories, and cognitive functions.”70 It revisions them and there must be identity within to revise. The self is like a piece of marble, and the sculptor, the cutter, the agent slices away to get to the image she sees deep within. Out of this cutting the phenomenal sense of self evolves as envisioned, imagined, and believed—creating “the perception of basic orientation in space and in one’s body,”71 and especially the realization of the personal agency that has dominance over the creation of the new self-sculpture. With the imagined self, the cutter becomes centered in her new, perceivably better, imagined body. The only part of the algorithm that does not translate from mathematics to a revised interiority is the finality. The algebraic algorithm is complete but the individual algorithm is never fully whole. It continues to search for being. It is a process and not an end, quanta of interacting particles and waves that forever recreate towards a higher perfection. It continues to search for better and more communicative languaging to enforce its full meaning as an essential and knowing part of the whole.
Another self-cutter writes: “I did a meditation and it’s the same feeling you get from meditation. It’s the same like you’ve been taking drugs. Even if I talk about it, it just feels so nice—it’s like taking a deep breath and everything just goes shoooogh.”72 “Self-mutilation reinstates the boundary between the existence and nonexistence of self.”73 Through the cultural symbols that reside within the individual cutter—the scars, the piercings, the artistic alignment of cuts, the stigmata, the blood, wounds, the drippings, the pain—symbols become “critical elements in the formation of identity of sense of self.”74 For the religious ascetic, complex emotions like “praise, gratitude, sorrow, and joy” become spiritual designations because they are cultivated in response to symbols and practices that the subject identifies as sacred.75 And the self-cutter, and/or the stigmatic, transcends her ordinary life into one of empowerment, one that transcends the mundane, the lonely, the emotionally feeble. Being in-and-of this new world conveys the known sense of belonging. As a human-belonging-being, the individual is in a constant state of creative becoming, united with others in a wonderful “process” of growth, rather than remaining in her former stagnant nothingness of nowhere, hidden, dark, and alone.76 She has created a certain, motivating, dynamic, and embracing telos.
Voluntary pain—and this is emblematic for both the mutilator who cuts herself, and the stigmatic who welcomes a spiritual agent to inhabit her being—is an instrument of self-transcendence in a meaningful and communal context. The participant is visible, spoken of, and witnessed.
Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 8, 25 (Spring 2010) Robert F. Mullen Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation Pain is not only a foundation for language but “lies at the heart of the human ability to emphasize and share.”77 “I think seeing the blood I…hmm…sometimes it’s like I knew that I was alive, I could bleed.”78 The speaker’s blood is the signifier that she is no longer alone but has found another who validates her pain, as her dripping blood wrings some wholeness of this other self and, although this wholeness of a transcendent self may appear to some to be simply wishful thinking, it is actually more. Is not imagining, believing? Imagining comes from the Latin imago which means “image.” As an intransitive verb, the second definition of imagining is “believe” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary 2009). In the Oxford English Dictionary, the act of “imagining” is to create as a mental conception, to conceive, to assume. In the colloquial it means to believe or suppose and the word “colloquial” comes from the Latin “to speak together,” and the emotionally disenfranchised “speak together” in a languaging that is often silent but recognizable to others who seek a different self. Belief is the act of imagining. It is what the act of imagining becomes when the object thus created becomes more real (or more selfsatisfied, more empowered). “It is when the object created is in fact described as though it instead created you. It ceases to be the ‘offspring of the human being and becomes the thing from which the human being himself sprang forth.”79 And imagining one has transcended is believing one has transcended, and if it takes self-cutting to initiate that imagining then the effects are similar. The world has been altered by the imagining.