February 2005

Sarah Statz


Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm by John Portmann

It’s hard to believe that a book about all the deliciously bad and destructive things we do to ourselves can be so irretrievably, unapologetically, and utterly boring.

John Portmann’s managed to do it, though, in his new book titled Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm. Writing with that particular mix of pedantic language and pop culture allusions that seems to be the hallmark of much recent academic writing, Portmann seeks to explore what is bad for us, who deems it so, and why we continue to engage in those behaviors that hurt our selves the most.

Before getting down to the nitty gritty of our self-destructive behaviors, Portmann cites many sources, ranging from St. Thomas Aquinas to James Carroll to Immanuel Kant, to define, first and foremost, what our responsibilities are to ourselves, and how those responsibilities are affected by both self-control and natural law. Subsequent chapters explore examples of what we have not traditionally been allowed to do to ourselves, including masturbation, sadomasochism, prostitution, appearing on talk shows, lounging about, or taking drugs.

He had me for a second at taking drugs and lounging about. He lost me again at appearing on talk shows. I mean, really. Is that the first example that pops into your head when you think of the many ways in which we, as individuals, manage to make our own lives harder?

The second part of the book further explores what it means to both have and lose self-control (here the examples range from the Aeneid to Don Quixote to Wim Wenders’s 1988 film Wings of Desire), while the third part is an extended defense of what the author calls “raving.” Expanding upon the Oxford English Dictionary definition of raving as being delirious, or “to be in a frenzy or show great excitement,” Portmann suggests that to rave, or to periodically take walks on the wild side, helps us to explore our identities. His theory is that, in selectively giving in to temptation, we integrate our best and worst impulses and are thus our most authentic selves. The theory itself is fine. Not earth shattering or anything, but it’s certainly a reasonable conclusion. The only mystery is why it takes an obviously educated and well-read scholar a couple hundred pages and seemingly hundreds of instances of the word “raving” to reach it.

Even more mystifying is the author’s short interlude between parts two and three, in which he explores the “curious phenomenon of unnecessary self-control,” or, more specifically, wonders why male students in the University of Virginia locker rooms work so hard at not letting other men see them naked. Other reviewers have referred to this chapter as the most refreshing one in an otherwise slow-moving book; I find Portmann’s conclusion that the students hide behind towels because they’re either ashamed of the size of their genitalia, or are afraid homosexual men might look at them, simplistic. He does compare his experience in the university locker room with that of his time spent in New York City athletic clubs, but I can’t help thinking that two experiences does not an impressive quantitative study make.

Portmann is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, and is the author of two previous books, When Bad Things Happen to Other People and Sex and Heaven. Although those books are also provocatively titled, I’m now a little gun-shy about looking them up and reading them. It’s not that I’m too busy lounging about or taking drugs or anything, but I do have calls in to Dr. Phil and Maury about appearing on their shows.

Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm by John Portmann
Beacon Press
ISBN: 0807016187
224 pages