Kirkus Reviews QR Code


An Ethnography of Self-Harm

by Terry Williams

Pub Date: Feb. 21st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-231-17790-0
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

A sociologist collects candid, pain-drenched statements from teens who have attempted suicide and offers suggestions on how to help them.

Teenage suicide is extremely difficult to discuss, but Williams (Sociology/New School of Social Research; The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, 2015, etc.), no stranger to tough subjects, jumps headfirst into the task, talking to teens and reading their journals, notes, and letters to comprehend why they attempt to take their own lives. Based on his interviews and the excerpts from the personal journals, readers will acknowledge the many deep and painful secrets that teens often hide. Most of these secrets involve bullying, physical and verbal abuse, drug abuse, incest by one or both parents, or rape by other family members and/or strangers, issues that all lead to isolation, loneliness, and despair on the part of the teen. The more they feel separated from their peers, parents, and other adults, the more they turn to drinking, drugging, cutting, and risky sexual behaviors—anything in order to “get the hurt out on their own,” writes Williams. “They cut their skin. They smoke, snort, drink every day. And when things seem like they are going nowhere, they kill themselves and leave letters behind to remind us they once lived.” The author lets these girls and boys from a variety of backgrounds speak for themselves, making no attempt to correct them in their speech or writing, which lends a power to their voices, including those who sadly succeeded in their suicides. Their testimonies are not easy to confront, but the honesty with which they share their stories far outweighs the readers’ discomfort. “What separates the kids in this book from the rest,” writes the author, “is that they have nowhere to go; no one to talk with; no emotional sustenance, attention, or caring; no direction to turn.”

Unquestionably hard to read but an important, veil-lifting book.