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Skin Game: A Memoir

Skin Game: A Memoir

4.2 19
by Caroline Kettlewell

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Caroline Kettlewell's autobiography reveals a girl whose feelings of pain and alienation led her to seek relief in physically hurting herself, from age twelve into her twenties. Skin Game employs clear language and candid reflection to grant general readers as well as students an uncensored profile of a complex and unsettling disorder. "[This] mesmeric


Caroline Kettlewell's autobiography reveals a girl whose feelings of pain and alienation led her to seek relief in physically hurting herself, from age twelve into her twenties. Skin Game employs clear language and candid reflection to grant general readers as well as students an uncensored profile of a complex and unsettling disorder. "[This] mesmeric memoir examines the obsession with cutting that is believed to afflict somewhere around two million Americans, nearly all of them female," Francine Prose noted in Elle. "[Kettlewell's] language soars and its intensity deepens whenever she is recalling the lost joys and the thrilling sensation of sharp steel against her tender skin."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Superbly articulated . . . on par with Autobiography of a Face or Girl, Interrupted.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Told with unflinching honesty . . . A sobering, deeply perceptive look at a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly discussed, one all the more troubling for its secret, solitary perpetration.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A surprisingly warm and lyrical evocation of an incredibly complex struggle for survival.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Kettlewell has a well-developed sense of humor and irony . . . A gifted writer.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Skillful and engaging . . . Like a good novel, leaves the reader wanting to know more.” —Chicago Tribune

In Skin Game, Caroline Kettlewell offers a glimpse into the disturbing form of self-mutilation known as cutting. It's estimated that as many as three million adolescents, mostly girls, are afflicted with the disorder that fosters this behavior; Kettlewell's account of her own battle to overcome this obsessive, self-destructive behavior is a moving and insightful one.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Following last year's A Bright Red Scream by journalist Marilee Strong, Cutting by psychotherapist Steven Levenkron and Bodily Harm by self-injury treatment program directors Karen Conterio, Wendy Lader and Jennifer Kingson Bloom, this memoir is touted as the first personal account of compulsive self-mutilation. However, Kettlewell's story leaves more questions unaddressed than it answers. Having regularly cut her body with razor blades for most of her life, at age 36 she does not seem to have enough distance from her actions to fully understand them. Searching for a reason for her behavior, she writes about the distress and anxiety she felt during most of her childhood in rural Virginia, where her educated Northern parents were rarities. Unsure if her misery was justified, Kettlewell never talked about it, instead escaping by cutting her arms and legs, which allowed her to focus only on the present moment, the certainty of blood and pain. She still doesn't know whether she is entitled to the mental anguish she continues to suffer, and the bulk of the book, by detailing her misery, simply begs the question.We learn surprisingly few details about her life--a first marriage is summarized in a few sentences; her eating disorder in a few pages; her parents, second husband and child are never fully characterized. The text jumps repetitively and illogically between episodes, occasionally registering confusion at the level of the sentence structure ("Which one of us did I lie to protect?" is typical), and rife with maudlin metaphors and similes ("summer fell across my lap like a corpse"). Although Kettlewell's story shows courage in the writing, it will make most readers feel like voyeurs. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A memoir of self-mutilation by a woman who grew up cutting herself with razors in an attempt to relieve the depression and anxiety she felt. Kettlewell first learned that cutting herself with a razor blade gave her a feeling of calm when she was 12. An insecure child growing up in an uncommunicative family, plagued by ever-present anxiety, she derived comfort from making small, deliberate cuts on her upper arms, legs, ears, and anyplace else on her body that could be hidden from the eyes of teachers, friends, and parents. Self-mutilation took her from the hurricane of her life into its eye: "All the chaos, the sound and fury, the uncertainty and confusion and despair—all of it evaporated in an instant, and I was for that moment grounded, coherent, whole." To a certain extent, her story is fascinating. Since various forms of self-mutilation, like eating disorders, plague a distressingly large segment of the population, it's at least sociologically relevant to read about one person's pathology. The shock of Kettlewell's story is not the fact that she used to cut herself—in this talk-show culture readers are not so easily surprised—but that she has chosen to tell her story at all, after successfully hiding her disorder for so many years. The same self-deprecation that caused the author to consider her depression out of proportion to her problems, combined, perhaps, with the urge to protect others who allowed her to keep her cutting secret, keeps her account oddly restrained, and sometimes gives it the flavor of a therapeutic exercise or a magazine article. When she writes that as a teenager she displayed "a public self whose job it was to distract attention from anyevidence of that other me," she seems unaware that the public self is still present in this book. Timely, and valuable for its insight into the cutter's psyche, but with a remove that prohibits empathy.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.45(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

One February day in the seventh grade, I was apprehended in the girls' bathroom at school, trying to cut my arm with my Swiss Army knife. It is always February in the seventh grade, that terrible border year, that dangerous liminal interlude.

I was apprehended in the girls' bathroom, in the act — to be precise — of wearing at my arm with the saw blade of my Swiss Army knife.

Until the moment of my apprehension, I didn't once think, People will find this odd. How could they? Is there nothing more fascinating than our own blood? The scarlet beauty of it. The pulsing immediacy. The way it courses through its endless circuit of comings and goings, slipping and rushing and seeping down to the cells of us, the intimate insider that knows all the news, that's been down to the mailroom and up to the boardroom.

In Mr. Davidson's biology class, the air dry with winter heat and pricked by the smell of formaldehyde and decay, we had been peering at mounted samples of unknown origin pressed flat between glass slides -- papery shreds of tissue and muddy blotches of long-dried blood. And I got the idea that it would be more interesting to examine my own blood under the microscope. Blood still wet, still rich with urgent color. I imagined lively, plump little corpuscles tumbling against each other like a miniature game of bumper cars.

Everything is perfectly clear when looked at in the right light; I chose the school bathroom for my theater of operations because if you want your blood to be fresh to the task, you have to be handy to the microscope when you bring it forth. I had brought my Swiss Army knife to school precisely for this purpose. It was recess. I would cut, and then I would quickstep down the hall to Mr. Davidson's classroom -- with its shelves crowded with chunks of rock and skeletal remains and things floating pickled in Ball jars -- and screw down the probing eye of 1OX magnification onto the very essence of my own self.

I found this plan so compelling it blinded me to other thought. The idea of the blood beckoned to me, hypnotic and seductive. How often do we know the blood of our veins? It reveals itself to us only as the herald of bad news: the injury, the illness, the sudden slip of the paring knife or the prick of the doctor's needle. Why should we meet only in disaster?

It wasn't as big a leap as you might imagine. I'd never been blood squeamish. I proudly displayed my scabs and scars, vaguely envious of my older sister, who seemed to garner all the really good injuries, the satisfyingly dramatic ones that needed stitches, and constructions of gauze and splint and tape, and shots and salves to ward off deliciously hideous consequences: lockjaw, sepsis, gangrene.

The key to success is to envision the thing in your mind. Draw the bright chrome of the blade along the slender rope of vein wrapping sinuous around your left wrist, and everything parts obediently beneath your command, like the Red Sea before Moses.

Except it didn't. The knife blade was worn too dull, as dull as the dun walls of the bathroom where I stood. With my arm braced against the warm metal shelf over a radiator, I could see the veins meandering blue and purple and green like a road map beneath the thin cover of my flesh. Only the frailest membrane of tissue keeping self from self. Yet who would have thought that skin could have so much substance, so much resistance?

I attempted and discarded in quick succession the can opener, the leather punch, and the flathead screwdriver. I settled at length on the saw blade, an unhappy compromise. It scraped back and forth like a fiddler's bow against my arm, chafing the skin red and raw. Little white clumps of flesh gummed up the blade, and the stubborn shelter of my skin refused to give way.

The radiator clanked and hissed. The bathroom smelled of disinfectant and body functions. I stood there and sawed. I wasn't doing a very good job of it, because sawing on your arm hurts. It burns. Disappointingly clumsy and painful and blundering, it was nothing like the swift, precise operation I had imagined.

To compound matters, I gathered a tiresome audience of other girls. You know, the popular girls. The typecast antagonists of the after-school movie. The ones who have always found that life just happens to be in perfect agreement with their opinions.

"Eeeuhhh. What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to cut myself," I said.


"Because I want to."

"That's really disgusting," said one.

"She just wants attention," muttered another darkly.

But still they stood about, like rubberneckers at a train wreck. After so many years of recesses, after all, what excitements are left? You have fifteen minutes, and you have to kill them somehow.

"You're going to get in trouble for this," announced the ringleader at last, rendering her verdict with a self-satisfied toss of her confident head, before guaranteeing the outcome by retreating to alert the authorities.

In the intricately nuanced grade-school hierarchy I wasn't one of those popular girls, the ones born to straight teeth and straight hair and genetically predetermined self-confidence. I wasn't one of the outcasts either — the pale kids with the weird health problems, or the ones who always said the wrong thing at the wrong time and didn't even know it, or the ones whose mothers made them liverwurst sandwiches for lunch. I had always occupied the shifting territory of the middle ground, sunk low by my hopeless ineptitude at all sports involving a ball, raised up by my standing as one of the smart kids.

I'd slid by on smart. I'd made smart do in the place of industry and application. As far back as nursery school my teacher had noted on my report card that Caroline loves to volunteer information, but Her attention span is quite easily distracted and She has no incentive to accomplish a finished or well-done paper. I never took naturally to the linearity of school, the ordered progression of hours and ideas. My mind has always raced about with the distracted enthusiasm of a dog chasing squirrels, pursuing one idea, then whirling after another, and sometimes losing itself staring up along the endlessly branching pathways down which the last idea has fled. I stared out windows, daydreaming. I doodled. I read books tucked surreptitiously within the covers of whatever textbook we were meant to be following. I got by on last-minute efforts —: and what's worse, I knew I could.

I got my comeuppance in sixth grade, when I was demoted to the slow-learning section for having what my school termed "a poor attitude." They didn't call it the slow-learning section, of course — B1 is what they called it, as distinguished from A, or, more direly, B2 — but we were none of us so slow-witted that we couldn't figure it out.

I remember feeling at the time of my demotion that some inevitable truth had at last come out. I come from a family of scholars and educators, and I think I've long suffered a sneaking suspicion that I've never quite measured up to the high standard of intellectual rigor valued above all else by my relations.

I can't remember a time, in fact, when I didn't think I was coming up short in one regard or another. Through no fault of her own my sister, two years older, had served as the measure by which my inadequacies were perpetually thrown into relief. She was better at sports, better at board games, better at drawing and painting and projects, more musical, more popular, and, of course, smarter.

"Oh, you're Julia's little sister," her former teachers would say to me, the first day I entered their classes at the beginning of a school year, and though I felt a swelling of pride by association, I could see already how there was no hope of proving adequate to all the expectations implied by that statement. In the first grade, according to the report by the administrator of an IQ test I took then, I kept repeating, "Oh, stupid me, that's wrong," and "I'm stupid and I can't do this."

The demotion to B1 had the quality, therefore, of a long-expected if dreaded inevitability. I even remember reassuring my parents, when the school informed us of my new class placement, that it was probably the best thing anyway.

For the better part of the day they sequestered us, the hopeless and the hapless of the B1, in a subterranean cinder-block dungeon of a classroom, its walls painted a psychosis-inducing shade of dingy yellow, its only window a narrow slit high in the wall, through which we could see the occasional passage of a knee-socked leg on the playground above. Our teacher had tried to invest the room with some faint cheer by taping up those droll little posters of bedraggled kittens and antic orangutans, captioned "Don't bother me, I'm having a bad day" or "No more monkeying around."

We were all, always, having a bad day in B1, or so it seemed. We snarled and sniped at each other, flinging invective, muttering mutinously. Every few weeks or so we were treated to a visit from the headmaster or the middle-school director, whose sole purpose in coming was to lecture us on our utter failure to live up to even the most nominal and rudimentary standards of decency and respectability, and the imminent likelihood that our entire school's reputation would be laid low by our sorry collective performance.

I have no memory at all of what we did to earn ourselves such administrative enmity, but I felt marooned in a savage land. Though mine was a small school, I swear I never saw or spoke again to any of my former comrades in A, and at the same time I felt as though my B1 classmates regarded me contemptuously as a fallen member of a corrupt aristocracy. I'd been exiled by the unforgiving academic caste system: a student without a country.

Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 1999 by Caroline Kettlewell. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Caroline Kettlewell graduated from Williams College and hold a master's degree in writing from George Mason University. She and her husband live with their son in Virginia.

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Skin Game 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a book report for my ninth grade English class. I picked it because it was something that I could relate to. I haven't read a book that has moved me as much as Kettlewell had. Self-mutilation is an addiction, and the fact that she overcame it is amazing. I idolize her strength and her writing skills.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. It's a great mix of emotions, a lurky meoir in the mind of someone who injures themselves. The occasional dark humor just made it a better book. Definite must read if you're interested in the way people process thoughts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As someone who has been struggling with self-injury for years, this book really helped to put all of what i was feeling into words. It's a great book if you want to get inside the mind of someone who self-injures and try to understand how they feel and think. It has some great humor in it, something i didn't expect. But it's a great read, and i definitely recommend it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a self-injurier myself, I read this book trying to see another self-injurers point of veiw about this disorder; their story. This was more of a complaint about the authors cutting how it was a burden on her, not the 'history' of it, as the author uses multiple time. I think if you are a S.I'er you wont enjoy all this much because the author uses the term 'self-mutilation', I personally dislike the term and know others do too so just a heads up there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
`A Book That Leaves a Mark¿ Book review: Kourtney Paranteau The Skin Game, a cutters memoir (4/5) Caroline Kettlewell We all have some kind of guise we put on in public to hide parts of our true self, Caroline Kettlewell had a little bit more to hide. Nothing incredibly tragic has ever happened to her. Up to her teenage years she has had a pretty normal life. But more and more frequently she finds herself sinking into deep depressions. Cutting is the only way Caroline can find relief. To self inflict pain is her release, but it soon becomes an addiction, and the addiction soon becomes habit. Caroline¿s brutal honesty can at times be gruesome and overly graphic, because of the way she describes her blood leaving her body in detail, and every so often I had to put the book down to get the vivid visuals out of my head. Kettlewell paints a sobering and poignant picture of growing up and loss of innocence, her words read like lyrics from a song. Caroline, nearly twenty years after her days of self-flagellation, has kept an intact memory of who she once was, and the confusions and insecurities she once faced. The Skin Game is not just about a troubled girl who cuts herself, it¿s about not fitting in, alienation, and feeling foreign in your own skin. Even though the author¿s way of thinking is off beat, I found a way to relate my self to the character. I think almost every girl also can in some way, because of the simple fact that most girls don¿t sit at the table with the ¿in¿ crowd, have perfect hair, and most girls aren¿t perfectly secure. Caroline shows her insecurities like a gapping wound, and even though her physical wounds have long since scabbed over and faded, her emotional state will forever be scarred. Kettlewell tells the story of her past woes with a dry irony, and an abstract way of thinking. For anyone who enjoys Girl, Interrupted (the movie or the book) The Skin Game is a winner.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
FreakyGirlwithBlackHair More than 1 year ago
The wat Caroline explained how she grew up depending on the feel of a blade is extremely moving, and bring to your attention that nobody is who they are on the outside.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Kait_loves_the_band More than 1 year ago
I was at Barns and Noble one day in downtown Fort Worth and just randomly picked this off the self as i started reading I noticed that this is exactly why I cut and it gave me strength to stop along with the help of family and friends this book is wonderful I couldn't stop reading it! I sat at the store for two hours while i finished it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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LizabeeAK More than 1 year ago
This book should be read by anyone who desires to understand self-injury, especially those that are close to a self-injurer or are themselves self-injurers. It is also simply an outstanding memoir. It was very well written and insightful; I couldn't put it down. I intend to teach middle school English, and will recomend this book to my students and their parents if they find themselves needing to face this issue. Caroline is a sympathetic heroine; I was cheering for her all the way. May more mental health professionals and families get and read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
as a self injurer... i liked this book alot... it tells it like it is and it was really good. I give it 5 stars
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Skin Game' is an excellent memoir. The writing is of high quality and the story is fascinating in a somewhat lurid kind of way. This girl's story evokes empathy in the reader and easily keeps the reader's attention throughout. The description of the cutting itself was fascinating and utterly straightforward- she cut because it made her feel better, like a form of self-medication. This same blunt and straightforward logic is present throughout the book and contributes to its high quality. An excellent read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i like this book because i am going through the same thing, and she shed light on the many reasons some drive themselves to cut. she, luckly had a happy ending, and i would recommend this book as a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
She¿s never seen. She has excuses and/ or cover up stories, her most favorite is taking a shower. She¿s good at covering up her tracks, and lying. As a child, Caroline went to an all boys private school. The only reason she was there was because her father worked there. Depressing herself little by little, she needed a way to release the pressure, and anger. She began to cut. She would have only one razor, but she would reuse it over and over again, each time saving the blood soaked gauze. Sometimes she¿d stand in front of a mirror just looking at her blood streaked body. Relationships she has had have been open and free of secrets. She¿s told them everything. The main question they would ask would be ¿why?¿ She had no answer. She didn¿t stop after high school. On a college campus she would do the same thing. Only this time it wasn¿t her parents she hid it from, it was her roommate. Making it look like she didn¿t go to the drug store for razors, she walked in, got a few things, and at the last minute as if she had forgotten them would quickly place them on the counter with all of the other items she would purchase. Looking back at her childhood she couldn¿t remember why she began to cut or what made her feel depressed, she was smart, creative, and well loved by her family. Maybe it was because she was jealous of her older sister, or because her mom wasn¿t happy with her hanging around all the boys at the private school. She hasn¿t stopped now, will she ever?