Friday, April 15, 2011

Willow: When One Kind of Pain Replaces Another

Willow, by Julia Hoban, is about a seventeen-year-old girl who is grieving. A few months ago, Willow's parents died in a car accident--Willow was driving the car. Now she lives with her older brother and his young family. She has started her senior year at a new school. And she has found a way to cope with her pain.

But it's not a good way.

When Willow starts to feel overwhelmed, she finds a solitary place, and she cuts her arms, legs, or stomach with a razor.

Self-injury is defined as intentional infliction of self-harm to the body for purposes not socially recognized or sanctioned (in other words, under most circumstances, piercing your nose or getting a tattoo is not considered self-injury). Self-injury can encompass lots of different behaviors, including cutting, burning, scratching, or bruising the skin, ripping or pulling out hair, or even swallowing toxic substances.  Like Willow, folks who self-injure do not intend to kill themselves.

Now, get ready. Here are some scary stats: Some large studies indicate that somewhere between 10-24% of adolescents self-injure. One study indicated about 11% self-injure repeatedly. The rates are highest in adolescent females. Keep in mind, though, it's hard to know for sure because most people do this behavior in secret and conceal it from others. But you've probably seen some of them around--sometimes those scars are hard to cover up. Just the other day, the cashier who scanned my groceries had rows of telltale pink-and-silver scars up and down her arms.

Until relatively recently, it was believed that self-injurious behaviors almost always occurred in the context of some identifiable mental illness, like depression or borderline personality disorder. But newer research challenges that assumption--and again, it's hard to know, because many people who self-injure never get care.

People self-harm for LOTS of different reasons. Yes, some do it for attention. But most don't. More often, it's a way to do one of two things: either numb emotional pain OR to feel something in the face of emotional numbness. Some do it to feel some control over themselves, to cope with anxiety, to relieve stress or pressure, or to re-enact a trauma. In other words, there is no one reason why a person would harm themselves like this. But generally, you can think of self-injury as a coping mechanism--one that works in the short-term but is extremely maladaptive.

Willow cuts to avoid emotional pain, to bury it beneath the physical pain. She goes through her days hoping to stay numb to everyone around her and to the deep well of grief inside of her. But she's not just avoiding emotional pain--she's avoiding ALL feelings. So what does she do when she meets Guy, an intelligent and sensitive dude who shares her literary interests and is eager to get to know her?

You should read this book and find out. The characters and the relationships among them are really well done. In fact, hands down, this is the sweetest romance between two teen characters I've ever read. The way they get to know each other, and the way Willow copes with all of it, is pretty riveting (Guy is also adorable and utterly swoonworthy). Her journey is not easy or trite; it's heart-rending and genuine.

Have you read this book? I know there are other books that include characters who self-injure--have you read any of them? There's some debate over whether books like this are "triggering", meaning they might make a vulnerable teen want to engage in the behavior portrayed in the book. What do you think about that?

For tons of information and resources on the nature self-injury (and how to identify, prevent, and treat it), check out the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults.


  1. I've read a few books that have involved this and I've even written one that touched upon it. I don't necessarily think bringing the behavior up in a novel will trigger it for a teen. My opinion is that if a teen is already at the point where they could be influenced like that, they've probably already thought about it themselves. And if they have already thought about it (or started doing it), it's extremely helpful to know they aren't alone. It's so easy to get lost in this idea that we are the only ones who've experienced a certain amount of pain.

    Great post, Sarah!

  2. I know it's not a condition, but I do feel "numbing" should be. It's coping method that may include other disorders like "cutting." I believe there are a lot of "numb" people/teens who are easily disregarded because they're considered to be shy. I don't believe reading a book could cause a teen to try something. but it may validate what they're already feeling or doing.

  3. I don't think reading a book would encourage anyone to attempt self-harming. It would certainly help someone already embarked on this to understand that others do it, too.

  4. I haven't read this book. Willow encapsulates the theme, I think. while reading your post, my heart sped up and my eyes glazed over. This is such a painful way to gain control.

  5. Wow - sounds like a good book, but a tough one too. As for self harm/cutting/etc., I have noticed is SOOOOO much in YA fiction over the last year. It really opened my eyes to how much this must be happening since so many authors are tackling it as a topic. Really interesting (and scary) stats you posted!

  6. How do you find the time to do everything you do and still read? Crazies!

    This book sounds great, though. The concept touches home a little, so it would probably be too emotional for me to read. Happy ending? Then maybe.


  7. sometimes i think things like this occur in trends. there is a certain amount of impressionability in young adults that should be taken into consideration. while i wouldn't blame a book for a reader taking up self-injury. i believe that if a book (i'm not saying this is the case with this book at all) glorified the practice, and didn't include a rounded expression of the experience to show the bad parts, i believe a teen in certain preconsisting mental states could think that it sounded like a good idea to do.

    i love how you made sure to explain that self-injury is not just cutting, but can come in many forms for many different reasons. i think that's a popular misconception.

  8. I have CUT but I haven't read it. I'll definitely be reading this one. I'm interested in what it has to say, and how it deals with the issue.

  9. This looks like a great book. Thanks for alerting us to such a dangerous and self-destructive issue.

  10. This is terrifying, but I'm glad someone is writing about it. I wish I had time to say more.

  11. I have seen this disgused in books and television, movies ect...I always associated it with depression and pain in general- when the pain inside is too overwhelming. It sounds like a really sad story...

  12. I'm going to echo Justine's comments...where do you get the time?

    This subject matter is hard to read but important, nonetheless. Thanks for bringing it up and discussing the book so thoughtfully.

  13. I read stuff that touches on the subject, but nothing specifically addressing it. Libba Bray has a character in Great and Terrible Beauty who cuts. Right now I'm reading City of Bones and the burn-some-runes-in-your-skin & don't-worry-it-looks-awesome ideas aren't exactly what I'd like to see. I understand where she's going with the idea, I just wish you could paint them on...

  14. I've had my eye on this one for a while, but haven't read it yet *sigh*

    I love it when books that deal with similar problems stay true to what it's like to live with them, instead of misconstruing them, or not delving deep enough. A must-read for sure :)

  15. I think the triggering argument is pretty condescending toward teens, implying a 'monkey see, monkey do' attitude that, for the most part, is inaccurate. When parents ask their kids if all their friends jumped off a bridge would they do it, too, I don't think the majority really expect the answer to be yes. Why would a book that handled these topics authentically -- showing the good and the bad and the reasons why -- be any different? And for the teens affected by these issues, it could only be a good thing for them to see that 1) they're not alone, and 2) there's a way to get past this.
    - Sophia.

  16. Excellent review, Sarah.

    I am going completely off-topic, by wondering about the names of fictional characters. "Willow" is a great and memorable name (there seem to be a lot of unusual names around in fiction!) but how many real-life Willows are out there? I'm sure the name is way down in the Social Security names list, even here in slightly hippy Oregon.

    My point about this is that I think the name serves to distance the teen reader who, judging from a sampling of my son's 8th grade class is more likely to be named Emily, Taylor, or Madison, from themselves and from their contemporaries. Willow may cut herself, but surely Emily wouldn't. So, the majority of teens would continue to see it as an "other" behavior. Do you get what I'm fumbling to say?

    I really would like to know how many teens actually do cut themselves. It is such a taboo subject that I doubt we can get accurate figures. There's quite a disparity between 10% and 24%. I'd love for current teens to speak out about this.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  17. That's a high percentage even if it's at the lower end of the range. I do think it's important to address the issue and no I don't think books like this one are a trigger.

  18. Oh, yes, I know cutting well. Often I need to send kids to the counselors/psychs to help them.

    The common misconception among my students is that the they (the cutters) are "emo." Even though "emo" means something totally different, they categorize the cutters into this group. Students think this means they listen to depressing music and watch depressing movies. Ugh.

    How do we help a kiddo to STOP cutting? There are many books about cutting, but there are none about kids who were able to stop (where they do it for themselves and not some romance, extrinsic factor). Now THAT would be a book for someone with YOUR knowledge base to write. Should I send a petition on behalf of my school district to Ms. Ortiz? LOL!

  19. I wouldn't be able to read a book about cutting. When I read the fourth book in the Uglies series, Specials by Scott Westerfeld, it surprised me by having cutting in it. It freaks me out.

  20. I was scared to read this book, but 2 of my crit partners urged me to try, and I'm glad they did. While I thought it had some pacing issues, I agree that the characters were very real and enjoyable, and the issue of Willow's grief and self-injury were handled well.

    Personally I do not believe that books (or TV or movies or even video games) will CAUSE people to do anything that wasn't in them already. For example, I played tons of violent video games as a child, but I would never do those things in real life. And especially in books, I feel there is a tendency for the authors to show how these bad behaviors lead to even worse consequences -- in other words, books often *discourage* the acts.

    Bottom line: a book might give someone "dangerous" ideas, but you can't live in a bubble. You can only try to nurture and educate kids to prevent the root causes.