Posted by: Vanessa Barneveld | October 29, 2009

Pleasure and Pain

In “The Big Issue” week at WLYA, we’re putting issue books under the microscope—stories that are as far from vamps, killer unicorns and faeries as you can get. In other words, books about reality that not only bites, but kicks, punches and scratches as well—teen pregnancy, dysfunctional families, addictions, death, weight battles, bullying. Novels about these issues and more have the power to help others reconcile their own similar problems, help them feel less alienated and alone.

Chicago author (and my brill CP) Stephanie Kuehnert is known for her raw, meaty stories about real life and tough choices. She recently mined her teenage past during the genesis of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA (MTV Books). In the novel, Kara’s fractured friendships and her parents’ imminent divorce send her into a tailspin. The façade of her normal suburban life slips, exposing unfathomable grief. It’s a theme that’s echoed in the real lives of countless people the world over. Everyone finds their own way, good or bad, of coping. For Kara, her deep sense of panic and pain is numbed by one thing—cutting. The act of scoring her flesh and seeing thick red blood ooze gives her a sense of calm and control. Emotional Novocaine, if you will.

Kara rationalises, “One more cut would cut would give me strength. It would drain the bad feelings… I knew it wasn’t a good thing, but I could cope.”

“Self-harm” and “suicide” are often linked, but cutting isn’t always about wanting to die. Not everyone cuts for the same reason or results. Ironically, some people do it to feel alive, or at the very least feel something other than emotional pain. Bloodletting can be a pressure release valve, an escape, a way to express anger. And it can become addictive. I get why some readers might be confused by the urge to cut, burn or mark your own skin. It’s even more confusing for those who do it. They might feel ashamed and freakish because cutting is their best coping mechanism. In BALLADS, Kara eventually turns to other mechanisms that almost lead to her destruction. It’s a powerful, moving novel that’s ultimately about survival.

Books, like music, can reach people emotionally. Have you ever read a story and related to it so well you thought the author could’ve written the book just for you? That it felt like they’d peeked into your diary and described every dark feeling you’ve ever had?



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