Musings on why we do bad things to ourselves.

Portmann (When Bad Things Happen to Other People, not reviewed, etc.) approaches the problem of self-harm by looking first at how much we really know about what is good for us. Prevailing social attitudes, he asserts, are the means by which we determine what acts, whether to ourselves or others, are harmful. He examines several specific kinds of self-harm that he says one might want or need to do at least on occasion, based on society’s current moral expectations. These are masturbation, sadomasochism and voluntary slavery, prostitution, humiliating oneself on a talk show, posing naked in front of a camera, not striving to reach one’s potential, drug abuse, and self-neglect. All are illustrated with examples from literature or life. Next he considers briefly four ways in which self-harm can be inflicted: physically, spiritually, socially, and emotionally. In the second part, he turns to self-control, focusing first on the phenomenon of unnecessary self-control. He illustrates this idea by describing at considerable length the present-day behavior of undergraduate men in the locker room at the University of Virginia, where he finds that they hide themselves from the view of other men to protect their sexual reputation. He then considers the limits of self-control, as, for example, in clinical depression. In the final section, Portmann gets down to his central thesis, the paradox that both a sense of self-control and loss of self-control are essential. He uses the word “raving” to designate an intentional leap into rebellion, an act by which one throws off self-control in order to find one’s true self. From the point of view of an observer, the one raving is harming himself, but from the raver’s point of view, he is trying out a new identity. The danger, of course, is that the raver who has little self-control may put himself on a self-destructive path. However, says Portmann, those with adequate self-control have the ability to cut their raving short and pull back from the brink of disaster. In essence, raving is a mark of strength, the act of an individual consciously liberating himself from a restrictive culture. Self-harm is its risk.

Earnest and drawn-out.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-8070-1618-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 18

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller


Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

Did you like this book?


For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

Did you like this book?