For the Bookshelf: The Tender Cut

The Tender Cut, co-authored by DU Professor Peter Adler, was published in August 2011.

The Tender Cut
By Patricia Adler and Peter Adler

New York University Press, 2011

For the past decade, DU sociology Professor Peter Adler and his wife Patti, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, have been studying self-injury.

Their book, The Tender Cut (New York University Press, August 2011), has been getting national attention. It offers new insights into people who deliberately injure themselves by cutting, burning, branding and breaking bones.

“Although self-injury continues to be an act mostly done in isolation, our research shows that an increasing number of people have formed a subculture of self-injurers through posts and blogs on the Internet,” Peter Adler says. “This behavior has emerged from the shadows and is openly frequently openly discussed online.”

The story about the book on CNN created a discussion with 273 people posting comments and nearly 800 Facebook recommendations. They’ve also been interviewed by magazine reporters, bloggers and NPR. The book has been featured on, where Mandy Van Deven interviews Patti Adler.

“Our longitudinal data show that many people who struggle with self-injury during their formative years, like those who try drugs, eating disorders or delinquency, grow out of it to live fully functioning productive lives as professionals, parents and spouses without further problems,” Patti Adler says.

Before their research, studies of self-injury had primarily been conducted by psychologists or physicians, and their research subjects came from therapeutic or hospital settings. The picture that emerged from these previous studies was one of an addictive behavior practiced mostly by privileged white teen-age girls — practically all of whom were diagnosed with severe psychiatric illnesses.

“A completely different picture emerges when a close look is taken at all self-injurers,” Patti Adler says.

The Adlers trace the evolution of societal attitudes toward a behavior that once was highly stigmatized but now is considered more of a “thing that people do.” And, rather than a suicidal gesture or an addictive behavior, they found that it is a coping mechanism for many.

“There is no question that there is still a group who do this with serious lifelong problems,” Peter Adler says. “But in contradiction to previous studies, we found that a significant number grow out, take a break, or find other means to cope as they age. They are not the ‘crazies’ that people originally thought they were.”

The majority of people involved in self-injury do it to deal with anxiety or emotional pain, the Adlers say. Self-injurers report that it “self-soothes” and gives people a sense of control. And it helps many people get over a rough patch in their lives.

“Although society was initially shocked to discover that people might harm their bodies intentionally, when compared to other ways that people seek relief from pain it offers several benefits: It’s not illegal, it’s not addictive, it doesn’t hurt others and the body eventually heals,” Adler says. “For those trapped in bad situations, it can be a way to make it through until their lives improve.”

The Adlers conclude that self-injury should not be sought as a way to get better, but that they want their work to give “voice” to a group that were silenced.

The Adlers also wrote about self-injury as part of their new blog, “The Deviance Society,” for the Psychology Today website.


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