The germ of an idea for this study began in the spring of 1982 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Peter, shortly into his first teaching job, met with a student in his office who came to tell him about an odd practice of hers: she intentionally cut herself. Intrigued and sympathetic, he listened to her story, looked at the small cuts on her legs that she took great pains to hide, and asked questions, with curiosity, about her motivations and sensations from it.
Over subsequent years we both caught further glimpses of similar behavior. As interested and “cool” professors who taught courses on deviance, popular culture, drugs, and sport, we often found ourselves the adults to whom college students turned as sounding boards. Our next encounters with cutting were rare at first but took on greater frequency during the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-’90s we knew or had heard about enough people who cut themselves intentionally that we felt surrounded by it. Yet during the occasional times when we discussed this behavior with friends or colleagues, we found it fundamentally unknown. Then, in the spring of 1996, a young high-school-aged friend of ours, the daughter of close friends, confided to Peter about her cutting. She had never mentioned it to her parents, but she needed someone to talk to about it. Peter was her college adviser (one of his side avocations), and they had a close relationship. This very detailed, intimate conversation caught our attention. We felt the behavior was calling to us to study it, but we were squarely in the middle of another major research project and did not have the time.
The next few years saw cutting beginning to be revealed to the public, as noted in chapter 1. Only a small body of people seemed to notice it, however. Yet this lack of attention also appeared to us as a sign that the behavior was growing; it had all the earmarks of a burgeoning underground phenomenon, much like the increasingly popular but once highly stigmatized tattoo and piercing scenes we were witnessing at the time. As a result, we began to discuss with each other the prospect of undertaking a major study of this behavior.