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November 2023


by Meg LeDuc

Scar Shine

       I began to help her with her homework and learned she had secrets. 

       Slim, with long brown hair and a locket face, Renee dressed in snappy skirts with a gash of lipstick—and the other kids said the police caught her giving her boyfriend a blowjob in the municipal park. Sometimes, she cried during our high school newspaper class; sometimes, she flared. I was one of the only students, besides her boyfriend, who was kind to her, and—unlike her boyfriend—I asked nothing of her. The long, monotonous days passed, the sugar maples outside blazing like scarlet houses, and then the snow beginning to fly, and she began to confide secrets, big, scary secrets—not least, that an older, male cousin raped her when she was eleven years old.

       But she kept other secrets, too. Leaning close on those days in a high-school class, her pale, heart-shaped face nearly touching my lips, Renee whispered, “You put the pain where you can see it, where you can control it.” She paused, murmuring, “Cutting is like writing out your pain on your skin.”

       I inhaled sharply, a whoosh of air, then exhaled slowly: a key to the gilt door, my left ventricle. I stared at her arms, shimmering with precise, pallid lines. The scars—they were scars, I realized—shone. 

       I knew what it was like to huddle on the floor of my bedroom closet, sobbing, as if a Molotov cocktail had shattered in my stomach. In my 12th-grade English class, we were reading Hamlet, and I thought of myself as the Ghost, escaping through a trap door in Shakespearian staging. I had grown up in a chaotic home, the youngest child of five, where the wind seemed to take away my words, trapped between my adoptive sister’s intense rage and my mother’s out-of-control corporal punishment. The house buzzed, furious as a wasp roused from its nest. In my sixth-grade journal, I wrote that I always knew when everyone else around me was angry but that no one knew when I was angry. As I grew older, I spiraled into what I now realize was severe anxiety and depression, fantasizing about suicide—until I met Renee and learned that there was another way to express pain and anger.

       Now, sitting in newspaper class, I regarded Renee. 

       “What do you cut yourself with?” I whispered, leaning forward, twisting and untwisting the cap off a pen in my hand. 

       “Lots of things,” she said, tracing circles on the desktop with her sparkly pink, ragged nails. “But some work better than others.” 

       I learned so much in those days. Renee taught me that the flyspeck cuts relieved rage but weren’t detectable. Nobody, especially teachers, would glance at a few scratches on the arms, provided I turned in my schoolwork on time, or if there were more slices, that long sleeves were best. 

       But my blood bloomed. My heart hurtled. I would learn that slicing and burning skin was a form of translation. I wanted to say, “I’m in pain, and this is the only thing I know how to do that helps…”  To me, for a time at least, my wounds signified power

       But others heard my cuts and burns saying, out-of-control. They read my injured body as manipulative, and dangerous.

       What I didn’t know, starting out, was that I would need to hurt myself again and again, more and more severely, to continue to signify the power.

       Renee promised, “Cutting is like writing out your pain on your skin.” 

       From that moment, I wanted to be that master author. I wanted control. I didn’t know that control was elusive, illusory. I didn’t know I would become mere translator, taking dictation, an amanuensis, bought and owned. I didn’t know the experiment would escalate, morphing into an all-consuming addiction. 

       The pain spirits moved into the house, stitched up with blue.


       When I was ten, I pressed my hand to a car roof in the August heat. 

       “Bet you can’t hold your hand there for ten seconds,” my middle brother, six years older, dared. “You’re just a wuss.” 

       I smiled. I pressed my hand flat against the roof of the baking, black Mercury Cougar. 

       My brothers yowled when they touched the metal, but I was silent as the seconds passed. Ten seconds… twenty… thirty…. Still, I held my hand to the car’s scorching roof. 

       “Stop it!” my oldest brother said, panic in his voice. “Stop it, right

now, Meggie!”

       “Whoa…” my twin brother said when I eased down into the back seat and buckled my seat belt. “How did you do that? Didn’t that hurt?”

       How could I explain my trickery with pain, with reality, how it hurt but didn’t hurt, how it all became a way of focusing sideways, a way of looking away? Maybe I just said nothing, and we stopped at Miller Brothers, the corner store, and my oldest brother bought us all Blue Moon ice cream, and my brothers forgot. 

       But not me. I learned something that day—something straight out of fairy tales.

       I learned how to be in two places at once.             


       As a sophomore in college, I plunged my body into dark. I dressed in heavy sweaters and navy jeans, wool and denim stanching my blood, sticking to my burns, because I refused to bandage the self-inflicted wounds. When a cigarette burn began emitting pus, I finally sought help from my best friend. 

       “Meg, you must go to Campus Medical Services,” my friend said. “You’ll go even if I have to walk with you every step of the way.”  

       As I lay on the exam room table, my jeans neatly folded on the yellow plastic chair in the corner, the doctor examined the burn for what seemed like a Space Age, like an Apollo Mission fully orbited the moon and maybe the sun, too. As I lay on the table, the doctor prodded the wound with a sterilized instrument, asking if I felt anything. I wasn’t completely numb, because I did sense something on my leg, a fact that both relieved and disappointed me. I’d wanted to feel nothing. At last, she pronounced that she “couldn’t detect a third-degree burn.”

       “It’s second degree, without any areas of third-degree burning,” she said, looking squarely at me with her clear, blue eyes, as I sat up to face her. “You can’t keep doing this. “You will only hurt yourself worse and worse, as the addiction escalates, and eventually, you will inflict a third-degree burn. Then, you will require more attention, even potentially skin-graft surgery.” 

       I squirmed, my legs still naked, and nodded—anything to get out of there. Anything to disappear.


       Later, I had a therapist who referred to self-harm as “self-mutilation,” which made me think of Van Gogh chopping off an ear, but about three years after visiting Campus Medical Services, I did succeed in inflicting third-degree burns, holding a curling iron to my thigh until the skin went yellow and hard like some expensive, rare French cheese—charred black where the curling iron touched. 

       Maybe my therapist was right—maybe I was mutilating myself.

       Or are the connotations of “mutilation” merely semantics? 

       Psychologists and researchers debate the correct term for the behavior in which I engaged— “non-suicidal self-injury,” abbreviated with the acronym “NSSI,” has now widely been accepted in the United States, but many words are used, some more stigmatizing than others: “deliberate self-harm,” “self-injurious behavior,” “self-injury,” and, yes, “self-mutilation.” Most definitions describe self-injury as behaviors that are intentional, direct, and don’t have a fatal outcome: cutting, burning, punching, hitting, jumping from a height, bone breaking, skin picking, and biting. 

       “Non-suicidal self-injury” makes explicit that this behavior is not a suicide gesture, a mistake too often made, and an aspect of the term I like because the behavior remains such a mystery, so misunderstood in popular opinion, that any clarification of its motivations is welcome. But I find the cool, offhand acronym “NSSI” easy to dismiss, a handle made for a social media generation, as if someone were to say, “I’ve got deep JOMO for NSSI.” 

       “Self-mutilation,” on the other hand, comes closest to the truth but profoundly stigmatizes—makes a pariah of the twelve-year-old girl out behind the school gym plying an X-ACTO knife. A spiritual resource called “Got Questions?” has this to say about “self-mutilation and the Bible”: 


What we think of as self-harm today—behaviors like cutting or burning—is generally not the same type of self-mutilation we read about in the Bible. Much of the self-mutilation in the Bible was related to pagan idol worship. But we do see biblical occurrences of self-harm being related to demonic oppression, which can certainly still be the case in some situations today.


       If we call it “self-mutilation,” do we run a greater risk of being instructed to pray it away?

       No term, no handle, quite got at the reality, of course, or rather the unreality: the stinging pain of cuts carried beneath cloth, hidden in the dark, still oozing blood, as I chatted and giggled my way through biology lab with my classmates, a lab I aced. A superb actor, I could always “play” normality, even when my life was anything but normal. I could always make everyone, even those closest to me, believe that Meg was “okay.” 

       “You smile even when you’re saying something sad,” a therapist said to me, when I finally sought help at University Counseling Services.

       I could always seem okay—until, suddenly, I couldn’t. 

       The doctor who treated me saw a young woman who self-injured, and that doctor did her best, within the limits of her power, to translate her knowledge to that young woman, to convey a warning. But I would go on translating emotional pain into physical pain, ever further, ever further, distancing myself from me. There would become two Megs—the one who harmed, and the one who got hurt. Not that I had developed multiple personalities: in the language of psychology, I “dissociated,” or I stood outside myself, even as I wreaked pain upon my own body. What happened when I hurt myself was akin to an “out-of-body experience,” inflicted over and over again, hundreds, if not thousands, of times. 

       I appeared an untroubled, carefree young woman, my bright smile and infectious laugh always prompt, always proffered—but I was not at home in myself.


       Adults who hurt themselves are not present in their bodies. They go numb, exhibiting pain analgesia: they take longer than people who don’t self-injure to identify a feeling as painful and are willing to tolerate pain for longer periods of time. Researchers speculate about causes for this, and one study found that self-criticism significantly correlated with pain endurance. We punish ourselves—my body is out of control; I’m going to slice up my thighs. 

       The noun analgesia dates to 1706, meaning, “absence of pain, incapacity of feeling pain in a part, though tactile sense is preserved.” It’s a Latin word coming from the Greek analgetos: “without pain, insensible to pain,” also “unfeeling, ruthless.” 

       When I hurt myself, I became ruthless, but indirectly—I imagined that I was walking in a garden, and though I felt the pain of the injuries, I endured because I looked away. I was emotionally numb—and I wanted to feel something, anything, even if it were physical pain. However, I could only withstand such intense physical pain by pretending that my body was somewhere else, that I had disappeared. 

       But then there were the real elements of ruthlessness: sometimes, I would look—look at myself in the mirror, in the corner of my dorm room by the sink, where I hurt myself—stare at my glassy blue eyes, lids safety-pinned back with surprise, gathered and fastened, surprise at the fragility of the skin I felt no feeling for and the power of the inner command, as I held the curling iron to my thigh and I whispered, “You are the one that things are done to.”


       My friend from literature class said to me, “Meg, is everything all right?”—hand on my arm, when I rushed down the stairs and into the main artery of the dorm, students pushing by on their way to classes, and I laughed, harpsichord playing, airy and designed, and said, “Sure, everything is fine! We should catch up! Do lunch—but maybe another time!” 

       I constructed even my laughter, like a tower, a bell tower, with a million blood-red and silver bells all chiming midnight at noon, all off-kilter, but who could tell because they all counted twelve? Radically off-kilter, my days and nights reversed, I crouched in my room upstairs, burning myself with a curling iron, clasping the searing metal to my thigh, counting off the seconds, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… daring myself to go ever higher, ever higher, a tower of numbers reaching for the sun on a starstruck night.  

       The inquisitor and the tortured, secrets, secrets, secrets, I confessed: I could no longer hold the curling iron; I dropped it, but remembered to unplug it, and then, pulling up my jeans over the wound, shaking, and then, running, running, running, down the stairs and out into the hallway. My friend looked at me with a face full of concern, and later, we went walking in the darkness of Ann Arbor late at night, and I said to her, “Laura, I’ve been hurting myself.” 

       There, my secret, told, and I thought she would tell me that I had gone crazy, that I was insane, that I needed to be locked up, but I blurted it anyway—I was so scared of myself that I couldn’t hide any longer. 

       She said, “Meg, I know.”  

       I began to cry. “Oh, thank God.” The relief of being known blew over me, breezes sweeping fields of sunflowers at dusk.


       That evening, my friend holding me as I cried, I came home in

her arms—

       If only for a moment.


       Now, almost two decades later, I still want to hurt myself sometimes. I want to hurt myself despite the loving marriage, the respectable job, the nearly seven years free of self-injury. I want to punish my body, want to take scissors or a knife to my skin, to let blood flow, but I say, “No, that’s off-limits,” and “You can’t go there.”

       I calm myself in the bath, stroke my scarred thighs under the streaming water, the places where I burned myself so long ago still numb to my touch: maybe someday, I will think of my body as blameless. Even now, most days, my thighs are just my thighs, signifying me, myself, my body, something to protect, even something at which to marvel. Skin unfurls like sky, and I wonder—if the sky is holy, might my skin be, too? 

       Today, I write my pain in spiky, inky characters, marking the expanse of page instead of the skin, sending my words out into the world on a song. Today, I create a home for the sad, angry girl I was, for Renee—who wasn’t powerful, as I imagined, but traumatized—for all the girls and boys who harm themselves because they know no other way to signify pain. And maybe words are holy. Words signify, and making meaning is a holy endeavor, language the house I build up around me, so that, in words, I find myself. I find myself—young and scared and angry—and help that girl

to stand. 

       There is no forgetting, though: our scars are immutable, never to be erased. We will carry the marks when the angels sing, and then our scars will shine like morning glories opening to the day, pain spirits crowned by flowers, an ultimate translation.  

       They shine even now.

Meg_LeDuc_Mount_Hope_Headshot copy.jpeg
Meg LeDuc
Michigan, USA

Meg LeDuc lives with her husband and three rescue cats in the Detroit area. She currently attends Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing. Her literary work has appeared in Brevity, New Delta Review, and Cleaver Magazine; and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


I wanted to bring light to the secret addiction that consumed me: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mark 4:22).

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