My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison. Early in my employment, I spent some time counseling an inmate who had been confined to a solitary cell in the infirmary because he somehow had repeatedly gained access to razor blades with which he would compulsively slash his own arms and legs. Later in my career, I saw this behavior quite often, but this was my first encounter with it. As I inquired into his motivations for this behavior, I would become transfixed by the mass of crisscrossing scars that completely enveloped his limbs. He begrudgingly told me that the act of cutting himself relieved his tension and relaxed him.
I walked down that cell block heavy with the scent of stale sweat and urine. Wearing a coat and necktie, I passed by the silent hard stares from a row of a dozen convicts. There was always the possibility that a cup of urine or feces would be flung out through the bars. Finally I arrived at the cell of the prospective interviewee. On this particular occasion, a hulking individual—let’s call him Joe Smith—was sleeping on his bunk. After my repeatedly trying to arouse him by name, Joe opened his eyes and simply looked at me from his bed. I told him in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that I was fulfilling a legal obligation to offer him a psychiatric examination. After several minutes of staring at me, he began to stir. With deliberate and excruciating slowness he stood up, grasped the bars, and glared at me with intimidating contempt. Struggling to maintain eye contact, I said, “I take that as a no.” He had no intention of dignifying my visit with a response of any kind. While walking back down that gauntlet, someone spoke to me: “Dr. Wylie, come here. I want to tell you something.” It was the man with the mass of self-inflicted scars whom I had engaged in the infirmary some weeks earlier. I stepped over to his cell and reflexively tilted my head to listen to what he had to tell me. Suddenly, I felt a blow to my face. Had he struck me? We locked eyes. His expression, which was to haunt me for the better part of two years, was viciously contorted. He hit me again—nothing serious, I thought, and walked away. Something had changed. Weirdly, I suddenly felt in control of that corridor, giving hard stares right back as I walked on back. I opened the great door at the end of the hall, noting a sensation of increasing warmth. I looked down: the entire front of my suit was soaked in blood.
The man with the scars’ initial strike with a razor blade had sliced clear through my cheek, causing it to gape open. The second swipe had sliced my neck, exposing the two great vessels without cutting them. Had they been even partially severed, I would have rapidly bled out on the spot. I knew to apply direct pressure to the bleeding wounds with a handkerchief. I felt oddly relieved by the situation, almost as if I had gone through a primitive initiation ceremony and survived. As I calmly chatted to the physician sewing up my cheek, I almost felt intoxicated by the experience.