I Can Read You with My Fingertips: Scars, Ink, Sex, and Leviticus

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Written by Hugo Schwyzer. Hugo, the author of My Sweet Boy, My Goy Toy is a professor of history and gender studies. Follow Hugo on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

Rated PG-13 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord”

Amy’s fingers traced the burn marks on my bare shoulder. Her head was on my chest; we were naked, sweating, resting from another round of fierce, urgent fucking. We were a new couple, drunk on a chemistry we were both old enough to know would be all too fleeting. As long as the mutual craving lasted, we were going to indulge it.

“Is it weird that I think your scars are hot?” Amy asked, her fingers moving onto my chest, finding each of the dozen or so decade-old bumps that were the tactile reminders of the cigarettes I’d ground out on my torso. She raised herself up on her elbow, lowering her mouth first to my nipple, then to the small neighboring burn marks themselves, her tongue darting. I felt myself hardening again, improbably quickly, my back arching at the sensation. “It’s not weird,” I gasped, “I love it.”

Self-mutilation often starts in the mid-teens, and statistically, is more common in women than men. I was 19 when I first started cutting myself with broken glass and x-acto knives, 20 when I started burning myself with cigarettes. Though I’d developed a drinking problem (and a drug habit) in high school, I didn’t learn to cut until the summer after my freshman year of college.

Phil was the first person I ever saw cut himself. He was a friend of a friend but we had our eyes on each other all summer – we were the only two bisexual guys in our social circle. One foggy August night in 1986, we had sex for the first time (in the bed of a girl we’d both taken turns dating). We were drinking, but I’d refused the hit of acid Phil proffered both before and after we’d fucked. When we put our clothes back on and stumbled out into the backyard to join the party, a dark mood seemed to collect Phil in its grip. He smashed a beer bottle and started flailing at his arms. I was spattered in his blood when I tackled him, and my hands were cut as I fought to get the glass out of his hands. We were driven to the emergency room. Phil needed a few dozen stitches on his left arm, I needed four on my left hand.

I was horrified and guilt-ridden. I assumed that Phil was ritually punishing himself for what we’d just done. It was our mutual ex who reassured me on the drive home from the hospital. “It has nothing to do with you, Hugo, it’s just how Phil deals with pain. Didn’t you notice the scars?” I hadn’t. We’d gotten naked in the dark, and the sex had been rushed, each of us too adolescently focused on the other’s cock to pay much attention to anything else.

That hook-up and its bloody aftermath haunted me for months after I went back to college for my sophomore year. In my far-from-sober recollections of that night, the sex and the cutting flowed together. It was as confusing as it was desperately hot. I got off to the memory, but I also drew inspiration from it. And by the spring of 1987, as my own depression worsened, I was cutting.

I chronically mutilated myself for the through a bachelor’s degree and graduate school and two short, unhappy marriages. Several times when I was drunk, I cut as I’d seen Phil cut, flailing and wild with a broken bottle. After being hospitalized several times, I switched from cutting to burning myself. I used cigarettes — and car cigarette lighters. Burning brought the same pain that I found so cathartic, but the wounds it left didn’t require a visit to the emergency room. Besides, wild, intoxicated cutting was about getting other people to witness my pain. Most of my self-injury was done in private, and cigarettes proved to be much more discreet but equally effective tools for getting the job done. I was careful to burn myself only in places that could be easily concealed.

Clothing covered the burn marks on my arms, chest, thighs and stomach from most of the world. There was no hiding my compulsion from the people I slept with. Some found it a turn-on; most seemed to find it repulsive. One of the last times I burned, I went to bed with the student I’d been seeing casually for a few weeks. I made sure the lights were off before Kiley and I got naked, but to no avail. A few seconds after she straddled me and slid my cock inside, her right hand found my left shoulder – and a half-dozen still oozing wounds from the car lighter. She leapt off of me, switched on the light, and stared at me with horror before putting on her clothes and going home, her disgusted “What the fuck, Hugo?” echoing in my ears.

A few weeks later, at the end of June 1998, I hit bottom with drugs and alcohol. Newly sober, I made a commitment to work a Twelve-Step program on my self-injuring as well as on my substance addictions. I found it almost impossible to cope with the urges to burn and cut again.

With the permission of Jack, my sponsor, I started getting pierced and tattooed; in a little over a year, I had hoops through both nipples, a stud in my tongue, and five tribal tattoos on my neck, back, arms, and hips. Jack pointed out that I was “decorating” rather than mutilating myself. It was a distinction lost on my disapproving parents, but it made good sense to me. I liked the rush that came with the pain of these comparatively mild body modifications. I liked that I could choose tattoos and piercings after deliberation, rather than on sudden impulse. For the first time, I felt in control of the pain in a way I’d never had before. It was empowering and liberating.

Eventually, I traded in the tattoo and piercing habit for another addiction – distance running. I became a marathoner, then an ultra-runner, enjoying both the exquisite hurt and the endorphin high that came with hours of intense exercise. I told myself – and the world — that in transitioning from the socially unacceptable (mutilating) through the somewhat tolerable (the tats and piercings) to the entirely praiseworthy (ultra-running) I’d found increasingly healthy ways to deal with the need for pain.

An added bonus was that running left my body lean and hard in ways that the people with whom I got naked seemed to appreciate.

I haven’t burned myself since 1998; I haven’t added a tattoo since 2000. I took out the piercings years ago. I’m still adding scars: since I turned 40, each year has brought new basal cell skin cancers on my neck and back and arms, reminders of what it means to grow up in sunny California with pale skin. I get them burned off and sliced off by dermatologists; the pain now merely endured rather than enjoyed. I take better care of these scars than I did of the ones that came from self-inflicted wounds, but the marks endure regardless.

A few years ago, when I began to study Kabbalah and to contemplate a return to the Judaism of my paternal ancestors, a friend who’d grown up Reform cited Leviticus and told me that I couldn’t be buried in a Jewish graveyard if I had tattoos. Another buddy, a yeshiva graduate told me not to worry: “if you convert before you die, they’ll just cut the tattoos and other scars off your body before they bury you.” He wasn’t joking. I found that a particularly unpleasant prospect, far more upsetting to contemplate than cremation or decomposition. The tattoos and scars, as disfiguring as some might find them, are part of an earned and treasured history; like the lines on my face, they are more blessing than curse.

My ex-lover Amy, one of the first women I slept with in my early sobriety, was the first to find evident erotic delight in my scars. I’m grateful that she didn’t turn out to be the last. As I learned to have sex without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, I also learned not to flinch from curious fingers and playful tongues as they explored the marks on my skin. “I can read you like Braille,” one woman said; “all these stories at my fingertips.” I shuddered in gratitude when I heard that.

My four year-old, Heloise likes to sit beside me as I read her a book, or as we watch Scooby-Doo. In recent months, she’s made it clear she wants to sit on my left side so that she can explore the scars on that forearm. While she listens to me read, or gazes at the television, her little fingers rhythmically and repetitively trace the bumps and raised lines. Heloise knows only that they are marks “where abba got hurt;” she’s years away from hearing how or why. There is of course nothing sexual about her caress. But my own ability to sit still and welcome that gentle touch from my child grew out of what I learned from the lovers who loved on my scars with their hands and mouths.

My face is weather-beaten and lined from years of running in the sun and the wind. My arms and torso carry the innumerable marks of a chaotic and hard-lived youth, and though they may not be beautiful to many, they are treasures to me. When I meet G-d at the end of things, I will meet him with this battered body. Returning to the faith of my ancestors, I will go down to the grave as a scarred, tattooed Jew.

Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of history and gender studies. Follow Hugo on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.