Ecstatic Stigmatics and Holy Anorexics:
Medieval and Contemporary

by Sharon Klayman Farber, Ph.D.

"The medieval mystics inflicted pain on themselvesto find
relief from the psychic pain of severe trauma."

"Children who become attached to parents who neglect, hurt, or abuse them
also become attached to the physical and emotional pain
they have experienced at their hands."

"Basic to every perversion, every freaky ecstasy, is an eroticized childhood trauma that the person is trying to master."
-- The author

The Passion of Christ has provided Western culture with its most enduring images of human suffering: the bleeding and emaciated Jesus nailed to the cross, a crown of thorns piercing his scalp, his mouth open in agony. In some paintings a spear pierces his side, releasing a startling gush of blood The Passion of Christ has also provided the West with our most enduring images of death and rebirth.

Despite our anxieties about death, the wish to know what death feels like is universal. People want to know what death is like, and they also want to live to tell the tale. The closest they will get to experiencing death is in the painful ecstasies of near-death experiences, in which they come close to dying and then miraculously seem to be resurrected from the dead and reborn, like Jesus. This is true both for those who flirt with death today and for the medieval mystics, who engaged in remarkably high risk behaviors such as self-starvation, binging and purging, and self-mutilation. While self-mutilation has often been equated with suicide in the earlier literature, a pre-occupation with death and heightened death anxiety in eating disordered individuals is a significant although notably under-recognized and under-reported factor in the etiology and maintenance of eating disorders (Jackson and Davidson, 1986). When death becomes deified and eroticized, this promotes the flirtation with death.


People desperately want to know what it is like to "cross over" to death as recent television hits such as HBO's Six Feet Under and Crossing Over With John Edward (known as "the guy who talks to dead people") has demonstrated. Pop psychology books about reincarnation, past life and near-death experiences are big sellers. The events of September 11, 2001, when annihilation anxieties (Hurvich, 2003) became even more pronounced and our national illusion of invulnerability was traumatically ruptured, exacerbated an already existing obsession with death.

We all struggle with the concept of death, and many do not allow themselves to think about it, or deny their mortality (Becker, 1973). Death is often described to young children as an eternal sleep, creating an anxiety that they won't wake up. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Older children may take what seems to their parents a morbid interest in how the human body decomposes, a counter-phobic effort to overcome the anxiety about death. An old camp song goes: "Whenever you see a hearse go by, You know someday that you will die. They put you in a great big box, And throw you down with the dirt and rocks. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out; the bugs play pinochle on your snout." Such a song is a child's attempt to imagine death, but as Freud (Freud, 1915) told us, "Our own death is indeed unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can conceive that we really survive as spectators. . . . at bottom no one believes in his own death, or to put it another way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality (p.289)."

Ever since the Black Death devastated and traumatized Europe in the fourteenth century, a very real European culture of death developed (Binion, 2003). The Black Death killed nearly one out of two, piling the streets high with rotting, putrid corpses, and came to define Europe, uniting the continent psychologically in a figurative reliving of the trauma that flourished in elite and folk culture. Death was depicted as a seducer, dancing a danse macabre with nubile women as he lured them to their deaths, and then as a violent rapist, who grabs women and throws them to the ground to die, writhing. Death had become violently eroticized and remains so. Today we see the phenomena of convicted male killers, especially if they are handsome, receiving offers of marriage by women irresistibly attracted to them.

Freud (Freud, 1913) wrote of the reversals that mask the figure of death: the beautiful woman who stands for the terrible destructive goddess, an idealized corpse. From the field of theology, too, comes the notion that there is a demonic, destructive side to the deity. "To behave like a beast of prey . . . betokens that one has ceased to be a man . . . that one has in some sort become a god . . . On the level of elemental religious experience, the beast of prey represents a higher mode of existence (Eliade, 1958, p.72)." There is in those who are drawn to death an unconscious counter-phobic effort to deny or overcome the anxiety about death. The chilling paradox is that these counterphobic efforts serve to maintain much life-threatening psychopathology.


Since the thirteenth century, devoted Christians focused on the nature of Jesus and his suffering. Wanting to be like Jesus, they began to suffer with him and like him, creating their own ecstasies of pain and near-death experiences. Compounding the Christian preoccupation with death was the European culture of death (Binion 2003).

It was in this eroticized culture of death that the medieval Christian mystics mortified their flesh, and it is in this post-nuclear, post-September 11 culture of annihilation and death anxieties that today many young women and some men are starving, purging, burning and cutting themselves in much the same way. Both groups have become deeply attached to pain and suffering, and have established a sadomasochistic relationship with their own bodies, in which they are the sadists and the masochists all at the same time. Perversion has been defined as the erotic form of hatred (Stoller, 1985) and self-harm is a means of enacting it.

Basic to every perversion, every freaky ecstasy, is an eroticized childhood trauma that the person is trying to master (Bach, 1994; Stoller 1985). Using the concept of traumatic attachments previously elaborated in my book, When the Body Is the Target: Self-Harm, Pain, and Traumatic Attachments (Farber, 2000, 2002), I hope to shed some light on how and why sadomasochism and Christianity have become strange bedfellows through the centuries.


Children who become attached to parents who neglect, hurt, or abuse them also become attached to the physical and emotional pain they have experienced at their hands. The traumatizing object becomes introjected and serves as a template for the developing relationship to the self and others. That is, having become attached to people who inflict pain and suffering, they develop an attachment to pain and suffering, to others who inflict pain and suffering, and they develop the same kind of relationship to themselves.

In my study of the relationship between bulimic and self-mutilating behavior (Farber, 1995,1997, 2000) I found that the most severe experiences of physical self-harm can serve numerous powerful psychic functions, serving as a form of self-regulation. The development of the self is basically a bodily attachment experience in which the infantile psyche-soma (Winnicott, 1949), via the ministrations of a good-enough mother, develops into an integrated psyche-soma that can regulate the self. In those who harm themselves, the psyche and soma have not been integrated, and so the primary function of both disordered eating and self-mutilation is to regulate the self.

These behaviors are used to release tension and terminate dysphoric mood and affect states, or more simply put, to make the person feel better. They begin in infancy or early childhood, in milder form, when the primary attachment relationship fails to regulate the child and fails to help the child develop his own means of soothing and regulating himself. That is, these behaviors serve a self-medicating function.

These acts represent compensatory attempts to serve transitional functions when there has been a failure in separation-individuation (Mahier et al., 1975), specifically the failure to differentiate self from "not self", or self from mother. In normal development the child may use a transitional object to promote separation-individuation processes. The transitional oblect is an object the child uses when he is alone to comfort himself, using his imagination to create the illusion that he is being held and soothed by his mother or caretaker (Winnicott, 1953).

It is a "not me" object, not part of his own body, often a fuzzy teddy bear or tattered blanket he may experience as being part of himself, especially when falling asleep, and that precisely is its purpose. The anorexic, bulimic, or self-mutilator seizes upon the symptomatic behavior for the comfort it provides, as toward a transitional object, but the behavior fails as a transitional object because it fails to differentiate the boundaries between self and other, to further individuation, and to further the capacity for symbolic thinking. Instead, it functions as an addiction or a fetish, shoring up a defective sense of self for the brief time that the shoring up lasts, until it is time to do it again, and again, more severely and more frequently.

It is quite similar to the way an alcoholic develops tolerance for the effect of the alcohol, progressing to drinking greater volume and with greater frequency. The bulimic binge-purge episodes may become more severe and more frequent. When even the escalated form of the behavior fails to do what it is supposed to do, another self-medicating behavior that is even more severe may be added to the repertoire. Thus, after even the most severe bulimic behavior no longer is strong enough self-medication, self-mutilating behavior may well be needed to supplement it.

The self-mutilation may escalate from sporadic skin picking or hair pulling to more frequent and more severe self-mutilation such as self-cutting, self-burning, or repetatively and compulsively having ones body tattooed or pierced. When even the latter is not a sufficiently strong enough dose of self-medication, only suicide attempts may remain (Farber 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002). So while those who harm themselves turn to their own bodies to serve these transitional functions, it is an effort that fails, drastically.

In addition, these acts, the mutilation of the surface of the body and the mutilation of the deepest internal recesses of the body by severe purging, represent the child's own best attempt to define and differentiate inner and outer body boundaries. In those patients who are very prone to dissociate, the self-harm can serve as somatic reenactment of severe trau­ma. When trauma has not been understood and the experience integrated into the self, the person needs to keep repeating the trauma as a way of mastering it. If she cannot speak of it to someone who can listen, if it is too dissociated to speak of it, if it is so unspeakable, she may be driven to repeat it through her body in intense, regressive bodily reenactments that repeat the trauma on behavioral, emotional, physiologic, and neuroen­docrinologic levels (van der Kolk, 1989), in patterns of hyperarousal alternating with numbing responses.


By applying this understanding of the multiple psychic functions of self­harm to what is known historically about the medieval mystics, we can understand their ecstasies of pain as their own best unconscious attempts to bear their inner suffering and sickness in their souls. Conversely, by applying an understanding of Christian belief to today's self-harmers, we can understand their desperate measures as their own best attempts to heal their souls and be born again into a new and better life.

Many young people today, whether devout Christians or frank unbelievers, seem to have an identification, conscious or unconscious, with a wounded, bleeding, and emaciated Jesus. Having closely examined the popular "Generation X" culture, Tom Beudoin (1998) found that it is infused with religious iconography of the kind found in medieval Christian paintings, in which almost any detail in the painting carries a disguised symbolic message. But these disguised symbols, found in clothing and MTV videos, are transgressive and provocative, juxtaposing religious and sexual imagery. Grunge clothing, ripped jeans, and thrift shop clothing may suggest an outward expression of an inner poverty and neediness. At a time when crosses have become fashion accessories, a line of women's clothing called Imitation of Christ has emerged, the name a take-off of Thomas à Kempis' spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ. It features old Salvation Army clothing which is then "crucified" by being cut up and ripped.

The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States reminds us how strongly American culture resonates with images of its European Christian origins. These images can be absorbed into the mind and heart of anyone growing up in this country, in much in the same way he breathes air and drinks water. These images have found a special place in the minds and hearts of those who have been mistreated, neglected, or abused by their parents. Also having a special meaning for them:are the words Jesus is said to have cried out on the cross: "Eli, Eli lama sabachtani" is interpreted as "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46)."

Even in the popular rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus feels betrayed by God, his father. He rails at him, demanding to know why God chose to sacrifice him, and he accuses him of murder. This is an angry Jesus, whose attachment to God is a traumatic one. It is no wonder, then, that many children who have been mistreated or abused seem to identify with Jesus as an unwilling sacrifice and they too often rage against God for abandoning them. They may experience their painful traumatic states as raw wounds that are always ready to bleed, like stigmata. Or as Alice Miller said, "An unacknowledged trauma is like a wound that never heals over and may start to bleed again at any time (Miller 1983, p.81).

Some may create their own visible signs of suffering, visible stigmata, while others have the sufferings without any outward marks, invisible stigmata. There are many abuse survivors who cut their breast or inner thigh or lacerate their vagina, creating stigmata that are not readily visible. Some bulimics also have invisible stigmata, the internal bleeding, scarring, and lacerations caused by the most violently convulsive purging. The following is a fragment of a poem written by a young woman who cuts herself, published in The Cutting Edge (Sabrina, 1995), a newsletter for woman who live with self-inflicted violence:

there is no razor sharp enough to cut away the pain
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
there is no cleanser deep enough to wash away the stain
(in the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb)

there is no fire hot enough to purge my soul
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
there is no loving deep enough to make me whole
(in the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb)

Many people today, mainly females, beat, cut, starve, and burn themselves in much the same way the female medieval mystics did. But rather than being canonized as saints as many of the mystics were, they are sent to psychotherapists and psychiatric hospitals. I have come to understand such behavior as the body speaking of the unspeakable, a disguised expression of terrible trauma. (Farber 1995, 1997; 2000). When the body weeps tears of blood, we need to wonder what terrible sorrows cannot be spoken. When food that had tasted good suddenly feels like poison and has to be purged from the body, we should wonder what traumatic experiences exist that cannot be contained, metabolized, and integrated. . . .The body speaks of that which cannot be said in words, of secrets, lies, and trust that has been broken.


Pleasure and pain are very subjective experiences, shaped by the mind of the person experiencing it and by the culture and context in which it is experienced. Pain may be trivial or acute, if we interpret it as such, but it is always more than a matter of neuro-pathways and neurotransmitters. It is how we perceive our pain that makes the difference.

What is painful and hellish for one can be ecstatic and heavenly for another, as the writings of the Marquis de Sade have shown us all too well. Inflicting pain on oneself can serve a self-medicating function (Khantzian 1985, 1989) for many who suffer from severe states of depression, anxiety, or dissociation. So inflicting pain on oneself can immediately lift a depressed mood or momentarily end an anxiety state. Consider that it is faster than Prozac or Xanax, and costs nothing in prescription costs. For those who suffer the alternating states of hyperarousal and dissociation that result from severe trauma, self-inflicted pain has been found to end these states when they become unbearable, helping them to feel better. For others, the effect can even be an ecstatic release.

This is because painful stimulation has been found to alter the neurotransmission of the brain chemicals that control emotion, perception, and bodily functions (Milkman and Sunderwirth 1987; van der Kolk et al., 1991, van der Kolk, 1994; Winchel and Stanley, 1991; Wirtman et al., 1981). A great deal of serotonin, the "feel good" brain chemical that seems to be deficient in bulimics (Wurtman et al 1981) and seif-mutilators (van der Kolk et al., 1991, van der Kolk, 1994; Winchel and Stanley, 1991), seems to be secreted by bulimic purging and self-mutilation.

The more severe the pain, the greater seemed to be the self-medicating effect of self-harm. The findings of my study showed that of the numerous forms of self-harm used by these eating disordered women, it was the most violently severe purging and self­mutilation that served as the most powerful forms of self-medication (Farber 1995, 1997, 2000), with the potential for these "drugs-of-choice" to promote an addictive cycle of dependency, requiring the individual to use increasingly greater and more frequent "doses" to get the same effect (Farber 1995, 1997, 2000).

Despite how self-destructive these behaviors are, they serve as precious survival tools for survivors of severe trauma. People who harm themselves often appear to be possessed by a demonic force. When the most profound religious traditions are examined, all can be found to have gods, saints, martyrs, and sinners who have mortified, injured, or otherwise sacrificed themselves in search of redemption (Favazza, 1987,1996). To be traumatized is to be possessed, not by demons but by an image or an event that has not been fully integrated into ones consciousness (Caruth, 1995). The conflict between wanting to deny horrible events and wanting to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma (Herman, 1992, p.1).

Going into a dissociative "tranced out" state corresponds with the will to deny the events, while the hyperarousal response, the adrenaline rush and extreme anxiety, corresponds with the will to recognize and proclaim them. When the person cannot speak of the pain, the body may take over and speak through illness or self-inflicted suffering, through binging, purging, starving, cutting or burning, all linguistic gestures that speak in code of the psychic pain (McLane, 1996). When the voice is silenced by trauma, all that will emerge are such gestures. When there are no safe and secure attachments in ones life, no loving arms or caring words for holding and comfort, one turns to ones own body for comfort. The concept may be new but the practice is as old as time.

Today, as in the medieval era, when a girl who has been traumatized in childhood enters puberty, she is likely to turn to ascetic harshness with a vengeance. It is a way to express a fury that has been growing inside her and at the same time it is a way to express her hatred at the culture that would control and dominate her. Offering such potent relief, the most severe self-harm lets her flirt wildly with the ecstasies of near-death experiences, while feeling afterward as if she had been born again into a new and better life.


Freud (Freud, 1913) wrote about the seductiveness of death in The Theme of the Three Caskets. The French call orgasm le petite mort (the little death), the ultimate surrender. Similarly, seventeenth century British poet John Donne eroticized death in images of lovers dying together as they reached orgasm in "A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning" (Gardner 1957).

For centuries Western culture has rewarded women who flirt masochistically with death, finding in them a heightened beauty and eroticism. In 1846 Edgar Allen Poe wrote that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world (Bronfen 1992, p.19)."

The dead woman became a perfect object of art In the nineteenth cen­tury she was a voluptuous dead woman, while today she is a bony skeleton. Visual images include the suffering and diseased feminine invalid, the tubercular wasted woman, the dying bride, and women on their deathbeds, all perfect representatives of woman as Christ figure (Bronfen 1992). Another favorite visual image is the female corpse, such as Gabriel von Max's painting Der Anatom which depicts the preparation for the autopsy of a beautiful woman. The Exquisite Corpse (Le cadavre exquise), a popular surrealist game of folded paper designed to unleash the creative unconscious through automatic writing or drawing, expresses the belief that the human corpse is beautiful.1 The women in literature who personify this marriage of the feminine and the morbid range from Carmen to Little Nell, from Wuthering Heights to Vertigo, from Snow White to Frankenstein, from Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle to writers Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom ultimately killed themselves and became feminist heroes posthumously (Bronfen 1992). Plath lived after repeated brushes with death, and compared herself to a cat with nine lives and to Lazurus, whom Jesus rose from the dead. In "Lady Lazurus" Plath proclaimed:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
-- (Bronfen 1992, p.384).

Sexton, who had made nine suicide attempts over a period of eighteen years, wrote as if in direct competition with Plath:

I'm the queen on this condition
I'm an expert on making the trip
and now they say I'm an addict
-- (Sexton, quoted in (Merkin, 1997), p.271).

Only days before she committed suicide, Plath wrote:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment.
-- Alvarez, 1972, p.34).

Images of the beautiful dead woman function like a symptom in our culture, articulating both an anxiety about death and a desire for death in a displaced, recoded manner. The most disturbing aspect of these images is that they are subliminal and insidious, often escaping observation entirely (Bronfen 1992).

It is no coincidence that many of the people who flirt with death use religious symbols or imagery, often cutting crosses into their flesh. In her memoir, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, Marya Hombacher (Hombacher, 1998) wrote about her experience with self-harm in terms of religious, masochistic suffering. She described her pain as ascetic and holy, the dark place of her mind blending in her memory with the dark womb of church, associating the chants and prayer fugues with the erotic energy she received by carving a small cross into her thigh with a nail. She danced a morbidly erotic dance with death, and described herself as having a twisted sadomasochistic holy life, being both a " top" and a "bottom".

Writer Kathryn Harrison, contemporary author of several novels (Exposure, Thicker than Water, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair), a memoir, and essays, grew up depressed and traumatized, and began starving, and cutting herself. "By the time I was born, all that survived of my grandparents' Jewishness was that our household was pervaded by a sense of clean and unclean, chosen and unchosen. My mother never went to temple, and I think that the faith of her forebears must have struck her as dowdy and workaday, lacking the overt glamour of crucifixion. The blood of Judaism was old and dull as a scab, whereas Christ's flowed brightly each Sunday (Harrison, 1997, pp.102-103)."

Conceived accidentally, Kathryn was less than a year old when her parents divorced. Abandoned by her father, her mother abandoned her to the care of her grandparents. She wrote that the only time her mother noticed her was when she was injured in a car accident. So Kathryn began pinching her fingers in a vise and licking bits of dry ice to make her tongue bleed, praying that these sufferings would make her mother wake up and notice her. What her mother did notice was Kathryn's weight gain in puberty, and nagged her endlessly about it. The starving escalated:

Do I want to make myself smaller and smaller until I disappear, truly becoming my mother's daughter: the one she doesn't want to see? Or am I so angry at her endlessly nagging me about my weight that I decide I'll never again give her the opportunity to say a word to me about my size. You want thin?. . .
I'll give you thin. I'll define thin, not you. Not the suggested . . . size six but size two . . . Anorexia can be satisfied; my mother cannot . . . (Harrison 1997, p.39).

Her mother converted to Catholicism, and gave Kathryn the children's version of The Lives of the Saints, with its color-plate illustrations of mutilated martyrs: Saint Agatha with her breasts cut off; sitting on a dish in front of her; Saint Catherine of Alexandria torn to death by the emperor Maximin; Saint Lucy,who plucked her eyes out of her head and holds them in her hand. Others were flayed alive, dismembered, or had their teeth and fingernails pulled out and tongues cut off. So many starved themselves and were transported into glorious raptures.

Starvation became Kathryn's ecstasy: "The dizzy rapture of starving. The power of needing nothing. By force of will I make myself the impossible sprite who lives on air, on water, on purity (Harrison 1997, p.41)". When her father reappeared in her life when she was twenty, he was a minister. He preyed on her longing for love, using it to seduce her, and when she objected that it was wrong, he laughed at her. He had studied theology and believed that he was above the rules. "God gave you to me," he said (Harrison 1997, p. 108), convincing her that she was his by ordained right, to do with what he wanted. Yet she knew it was wrong and so when she began sleeping with him, living on air, water, and purity was a way to disembody herself, to undo the defilement of her body and soul, a way of not letting herself know what she knew, to disavow it all and punish herself.

In years to come, I'll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. . . . It's the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed (Harrison 1997, p.70)." " . . What he does feels neither good nor bad. II effects so complete a separation between mind and body that I don't know what I feel. Across this divide, deep and unbridgeable, my body responds independently from my mind. My heart, somewhere between them, plunges. Neither of us speaks, not even one word. The scene is as silent, as dark and dreamlike as if it proceeded from a fever or a drug (Harrison 1997, p.128)."

So it happened that Kathryn, who had been preyed upon by internal and external predators, became even more of a predator herself, preying upon her body in a potentially lethal orgy of destructive narcissism. She became a demonic goddess, cannibalizing her flesh and offering her blood to the hungry predatory goddess she had become. In destructive narcissism, the internal predator is often experienced as a demon, monster, or beast inside, telling the person to cut herself, telling her that she does not deserve to eat or to have anything good inside herself. It is experienced as something foreign, evil, and demonic, not part of her suffering, good self. Because individuals who harm themselves so viciously cannot allow themselves to acknowledge the libidinally needy part of the self, they disavow it, which allows them to collude with the destructive narcissistic organization in their personality without acknowledging that they are doing so (Farber 2000, 2002; Rosenfeld 1971, 1987).

This destructive part of the self seems to be highly organized and may appear clinically as a mafia-like gang dominated by a leader who controls the members by promising benefits and threatening punishment (Steiner, 1981). So the destructive part of the self presents itself to the suffering good self in several ways. First, it is as a protector from pain, second as a servant to its sensuality and vanity, and when the individual tries to resist the destructive regressive force, as the brute, the torturer. When the individual's illusion of omnipotence is challenged, the immediate sense of defeat and humiliation unleashes the destructive "demon" that restores the sense of omnipotence. "Human aggression is most dangerous when it is attached to the two great absolutarian psychological constellations: the grandiose self and the archaic omnipotent object (Kohut, 1972, p.378)." The destructive narcissist is hardly aware that her life is hanging in the balance because the destructive omnipotent parts of the self are defensively split-off from the healthier part. The discharge of aggression shifts increasingly toward deadly encounters that can end in death.


The medieval mystics inflicted pain on themselves to find relief from the psychic pain of severe trauma. This concept helps us to understand the mystery of stigmata, the bleeding mystical marks that have been found to appear on the bodies of Christian believers. It is believed that stigmatics receive the stigmata as a gift from God, bearing in their bodies the injuries of Christ's crucifixion. It was a painful gift, often including seizures and debilitating illness along with visions of the Passion of Christ.

Scientists who have studied contemporary stigmatics found that their wounds were identical to the wounds that they saw regularly on their own statue or picture of Jesus. So if the statue owned by the stigmatic had nails in the palms, then the blood would flow from the stigmatic's palms. If the statue is nailed through the wrist, then blood would appear there. If blood trickled down Jesus' face, under the wreath of thorns, then blood would trickle down the face of the stigmatic. These findings suggest that religious art actually serves as a template for the expression of piety.

Many scholars, Catholics among them, believe that the stigmata are symptoms of hysteria or other psychosomatic process (Harrison, 1996; Nickell, 2000; Wilson, 1988). That is, stigmatics identify so closely with the life of Christ and visualize him so clearly that some as yet undiscovered physiological mechanism imposes Christ's marks of suffering on their bodies.

This can be better understood if we compare the phenomenon of stigmata to what is known about the psychosomatic processes of people who have suffered the trauma of physical, sexual, or even medical abuse. Such people often suffer a psychophysiological post-traumatic reenactment, in which they are susceptible to a heightened somatic stimulation in general or in the part of the body that was abused or injured (Terr, 1990). Through the process of such a profound identification with the crucified Jesus, a person might feel acute pain in the part of the body corresponding to the wounds Jesus suffered, and begin to bleed from that part of the body.

When stigmata were studied, some were found to result from self-inflicted wounds. In the medieval era, these self-inflicted would not necessarily have been dismissed as fraudulent but may well have been seen as evidence of genuine piety (Harrison 1996). That is, the person so identifies with the suffering of Jesus that he would do what was necessary to obtain the stigmata.

Once one person develops the stigmata, it is not unusual for whole communities to become caught up in a group hysteria in which others begin to develop the "mystical marks" (Harrison 1996). A whole culture can be caught up in this process, which spreads from generation to generation, as the history of stigmata demonstrates. The first stigmatic, Francis of Assisi, developed five stigmata in 1224 after having a vision of Christ crucified. A copycat phenomenon ensued, with over twenty more cases of stigmata occurring within a hundred years of St. Francis's death, and the trend continued in successive centuries.

There were 20 stigmatics in the nineteenth century but by the twentieth century the pattern had changed significantly. By 1908 321 stigmatics. mostly women, were recorded in Roman Catholic countries (Harrison 1996, Wilson 1988; Nickell 2000). Most were cloistered priests or nuns, with about a fifth of of them became beatified or canonized as saints. Cases were reported from Great Britain, Australia, and the United States (Harrison 1996), and for the first time, not all of them were Catholic. At least three Anglicans in England have exhibited stigmata (Harrison 1996), as well as a ten-year-old Baptist black girl in California. Only a year ago, in 2002, the Vatican canonized an Italian stigmatic, Padre Pio.


Those who have studied the history of childhood (deMause, 1998, and others) have described it as a nightmare rife with neglect and cruelty, including the most horrific abuse and infanticide. So it should not be a surprise that the medieval mystics were found to have suffered severe psychic trauma in their lives. Inflicting pain on themselves was a welcome unconscious means of diverting themselves from their psychic pain.

In the medieval era good European women were expected to marry at 12 or 13, stay at home raising children, receiving little or no education, remaining virtually invisible in public life so that they would not tempt and corrupt men. Contemplation was virtually forced upon them by lack of other opportunities, and some channeled their ambitions into an ascetic mysticism, taking the mortification of the flesh to brutal extremes in an effort to subdue their bodily appetites so that they could become pure spirit (Bell 1985; Egan 1999). Paradoxically, their extreme suffering provided of them with a degree of visibility, influence, and power that was unheard of for women at that time, as the histories of Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena show.

In Ralph Frenken's (2000) study based on autobiographical and biographical writings of sixteen medieval German mystics (thirteen women and three men), the findings suggest that their self-harm behavior bears the imprint of early trauma, especially early deprivation, and emotional and sexual abuse. At least fourteen of them, like many of the Italian and Spanish mystics, showed extreme self-destructive behavior, such as self-flagellation, severe fasting, and falling on one's knee, with most manifesting idiosyncratic forms of self-destructiveness, such as cutting religious symbols into the skin, setting themselves on fire, biting themselves, chaining themselves and wearing itching clothes or other devices that injured the skin permanently, such as nail crosses, very tight, narrow belts, and stingers in their underwear.

As Catholic nuns do today, the female European nuns took their vows in a sacred marriage in which they became brides of Christ. They could not allow themselves to enloy directly the pleasures of sexual ecstasy but could allow themselves to enjoy instead disguised eroticized ecstasies of pain (Elsier 1995). Rudolph Bell (1985), using autobiographical writings, letters, confessors' testimonies, and canonization records, examined the life of 261 women officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as saints, blessed, venerables, or Servants of God, from 1200 to the present, primarily the medieval era.

These women flagellated themselves, starved themselves, lacerated themselves, kissed the sores of lepers' and drank their pus, deformed their own faces with glass and acid, and even ripped their faces with their own hands (Bell 1985; Maitland 1987). They spoke of their sacred marriage with the divine as Christ's rape of them, their suffering bringing them closer to their divine bridegroom. Here we see the image of Christ the rapist readily merging with Rudolph Binion's (2003) image of Death, the Rapist that grew out of the morbid Culture of Death.

In return for their suffering, Christ gave the women the love they so craved (Maitland 1987). It is what happened in their bodies that brought on mystical or trancelike states. Just as orgasm can be used to induce mystical states, mystical states can be used to induce orgasm. Hadewlich, a Flemish nun, described her ecstatic union with God: "And he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him, and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported (Hadewuch: the complete works, translated by Caroline Hart, quoted by MacKendrick 1999, p.86)."

Similarly, Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic and spiritual force of the Catholic Reformation (Bell 1985) described her best known vision, the appearance of an angel, in terms of pain and erotic penetration. In Bernini's sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Teresa appears to be in the throes of orgasm. Teresa regularly tickled her throat with an olive twig to induce vomiting so that she might receive the host, the body of Christ, into her mouth, without rejecting it. Her rapid weight loss was testimony to the strength of her hunger for union with Jesus.

Saint Francesca Bussa de Ponziani, born into a noble Roman family, squirmed in rage as an infant against her father's unwanted fondling and caresses (Bell 1985). She wanted to be a nun but her father forced her to marry at age 13. Forced to consummate the marriage, she lost her strength, became paralyzed and dumb, and refused to eat, hovering near death for almost a year until a vision seemed to cure her. She dedicated her life to public charity and had three children, maintaining the outward appearance of a normal life as wife and mother. At the same time, she led a life of terrible self-punishment. Under her silk dresses she wore a hairshirt and scourged herself regularly by fastening a tight iron band fitted with sharp metal studs around her hips. She whipped herself until the blood ran.

Although she fulfilled her marital duties, in anticipation of sexual encounters with her husband she melted wax or pork fat and burned her vulva with it. She entered his bed stricken with pain, and when the act was over, she vomited and coughed up blood. She ate only one very Spartan meal a day, drank out of a human skull, and slept very little. She had visions of demons in the form of animal monsters and sexual demons that appeared as nude men, women, and children engaging in every form of physical play, especially sodomy (Bell 1985). Her history would suggest that she had been sexually molested as an infant, and was repeatedly retraumatized by being forced into sexual intercourse. It seemed that she continued to reenact the pain and trauma by painfully injuring her genitals herself, a perverse attempt to master the trauma of being forced to endure penetration by actively injuring her genitals herself.

Francesca sounds remarkably like so many of today's women, expressing their rage in the way that women have been socialized to do for generations, masochistically directing it against themselves. Like many abuse survivors today, Francesca seemed to relish feeling a sense of control as she abused her own body in a way that would have made the Marquis de Sade proud, becoming the cruelest sadist and the most suffering masochist, all at the same time.

If we examine the history of Saint Catherine of Siena, we will find that the masochistic excesses that ultimately caused Saint Catherine of Siena's death can be related to childhood trauma (Bell 1985; Egan 1999). The second youngest of 25 children, as an adolescent she wore a hairshirt, then an iron chain bound tightly against her hips with which she flagellated herself three times a day. At 26, while meditating upon the crucifix, she experienced stigmata so painful that she swooned. She prayed that the marks not be conspicuous, and they became invisible. Catherine is said to have gone for eight years without food or liquid other than the host of the Blessed Sacrament (Bell 1985; Harrison 1996).

She overcame her revulsion at the fetid sore of a cancer patient by drinking a cup of the pus it discharged. While in an ecstatic state, she once fellforward into a fire in the kitchen. How do we understand this? From such a large family, most likely she was severely deprived and neglected, at best. Some of her siblings, including her own twin sister, died in infancy. This undoubtedly evoked in her terrible guilt about surviving when her twin did not, and survivor guilt is often a factor in self-punishment. The deaths of her favorite older sister in childbirth undoubtedly made pregnancy and childbirth very frightening, leading to her resolve not to marry. She cut off her long blond hair to repel potential suitors, and treated her body with brutal extremes of self-punishment.


The influence of the medieval mystics on today's culture is disturbingly far-reaching. We see it in popular culture, in the extreme self-harm behavior that confounds psychotherapists, mental health clinics, and psychiatric hospitals, and in extreme religious and cult-like movements, including one that seems to have the blessing of the Vatican.

The culture of the medieval mystics has inspired Stigmata, a film released in 1999 about a young woman, an atheist, afflicted by the stigmata. It is also the inspiration for a 1991 best selling novel, Mariette in Ecstasy (Hansen 1991), about a young postulant nun in New York state at the turn of the past century. Passionate and extreme in all that she does, Mariette longed to be wed to Jesus and she developed stigmata. She scalded her hands with hot water as penance and threaded barbed wire beneath her breasts while she slept. The book quickly became a favorite of book discussion groups, and was made into a film.

At the same time, a secretive movement for lay Catholics who strive to share in the suffering of Christ ran its American operations on a side street in New Rochelle, New York for two decades, keeping a low profile until two years ago when Opus Dei ("the work of God") went public. Most members are married and work full time but contribute much of their time and money to the movement, while single members are celibate and give their lives and entire paychecks to Opus Dei. Single members must wear spiked chains around their thighs to control their physical desires, whip their buttocks, wear scratchy hairshirts, and sleep on wooden boards.

This mysterious worldwide movement, long a visible religious force in Europe and Latin America, opened a new 17-story, $55 million headquarters in midtown Manhattan two years ago and is aiming to increase its American membership. Opus Dei's critics, liberal and progressive Catholics, say that the group will nonetheless continue to operate behind a veil of secrecy, promoting the worst strains of religious extremism by aggressively recruiting and controlling new members, and by seeking members in positions of political power. Feeding this theory has been the revelation that one of FBI Director Louis Freeh's children attends an Opus Dei school, and the news that Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent accused of spying for Russia, was an Opus Dei member.

Catholic liberals describe the organization as a cunning and cult-like Catholic mafia, in which members lead a kind of double life. Paul Baumann, a columnist for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, wrote after Hanssen's arrest, "To the world, they are successful doctors or lawyers, distinguished only by their professional skills and autonomy; off the job they must not only engage in an intense life of prayer but be strictly accountable to those above them in 'the work' (Cohen and Stern 2001)."The Opus Dei Awareness Network [Editor's Note: See, on the internet, (ODAN)] a national group that warns parents about Opus Dei's activities and helps to "deprogram" college-age children who join the group.

It was begun by Dianne DiNicola who started the group after her daughter, Tammy, joined Opus Dei while a Boston College student in the late 1980s, initially impressed with the group as an alternative to keg parties. But after moving into an Opus Dei facility, she says, she was forced to wear a spiked thigh chain for two hours a day and whip her buttocks once a week, and was also instructed on how to target new members.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified Opus Dei's founder, Monsignor Josemaria Escriva of Spain, who then was canonized as a saint in October 2002. In 1998, the late Cardinal John O'Connor at a special Mass for Opus Dei, said: "The kind of life Opus Dei offers as an ideal is the life of holiness to which everyone is called (Cohen and Stern, 2001)." The first celebration of the feast day of St. Josemaria, Opus Dei's founder was celebrated June 26, 2003 with special Masses by Cardinal Edward Egan at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and other major cities.

In my study about the relationship between self-mutilation and bulimic behavior, a number of those who wrote about their self-harm as a form of cleansing or purification were specifically religious. Christine, a 43 year old married woman wrote about her religious scrupulosity as an influencing factor in inflicting pain and mutilation on herself. She indicated that she was sexually abused by "a family member" but was not certain whether this occurred before age ten or not. Interestingly, her binge-purging behavior began at age 30, which suggests that memories of the abuse may have begun to occur at this time.

Her father died when she was 12, another trauma in her life. She was convinced his soul was in purgatory for an indeterminate period of time until it could be purified sufficiently to justify admission to heaven. She feared that he may have died in a state of mortal sin, which meant he would never be admitted to heaven. She believed that that the more praying and suffering she did, she could offer her suffering up to God and in that way could obtain "days of indulgence" from her father's sentence in purgatory, reducing his sentence.

She began to hurt herself, careful that no one see her injuries because allowing them to be seen by others was to commit the sin of pride and self-righteousness. She created invisible stigmata in several ways. She began chewing the inside of her mouth and cheek, causing large ulcerations, something that she still does at times when feeling anxious. She would deliberately bend her legs in a manner that would cause pain while praying. Although she appeared to be kneeling in prayer in church, she was actually supporting herself on her elbows on the pew in front of her, causing herself more pain. Each time she prayed she tried to do this for an even longer period of time to build up endurance. For her, the suffering seemed to serve as an "act of contrition" for her father's sins, a sacrifice that she believed was necessary to save her father's soul.

Many others who participated in my study, who gave no indication of being religious, nonetheless made a connection between their bleeding or purging as a means to cleanse or purify themselves, to release the evil inside them, to redeem and heal themselves. For example, a 20 year old wrote that she had taken as many as 60-75 laxative pills and 30 diuretics at a time to purge. She binges in order to purge: " Whatever it is I feel guilty. I feel dirty, out of control, and that I will throw up . . .The guilt is what makes me purge. Then I feel clean, uncontaminated, in control (Farber 2000, 2002, p.285)."

I have had the unique privilege of treating a 67 year old woman who had been suffering from anorexia nervosa since infancy and bulimic binging and purging since age 8. This too was a case of "holy anorexia". When we began our work together Claudia was 5' 3 1/2" tall and her weight had been stabilized at 82 pounds. She had been emaciated and sickly throughout almost all of her life. Her lowest weight was 61 pounds at age 30, even less than her mother who was dying of cancer at the time. Claudia longed to be like her, "to fade away, like a flower."

Claudia's early history, as it has been reconstructed, speaks of numerous early trauma. The daughter of devout Irish Catholic immigrants, she was of normal weight at birth and nursed well at her mother's breast, but soon seemed to lose interest and appetite. She became a frail severely under­weight baby who developed as a sickly and emaciated looking child. She was born when her older sister was four. Her mother, preoccupied with marital problems, her husband's rages and alcoholism, was probably depressed. While she may have been a "good enough" mother of symbiosis to Claudia until she was five or six months old, when she became pregnant with a third child at this time, the pregnancy undoubtedly depleted her of sufficient libidinal investment in Claudia.

When Claudia was fourteen months old the third child was born prematurely and very ill. Claudia's mother undoubtedly was overwhelmed by the needs of such a sick infant, the normal neediness of baby Claudia, and her oldest daughter, still a dependent young child of 5. It sees fair to assume that essentially Claudia was emotionally neglected and abandoned, which created a profound emotional hunger for her mother.

Claudia had become an emaciated child, developing a form of infantile anorexia nervosa, characterized by food refusal and leading to a failure-to-thrive syndrome (Chatoor, 1989). This, according to Chatoor, is a developmental disorder of separation and individuation that has its onset between 6 months to 3 years, or when the infant is no longer so dependent, passive and compliant. The infant refuses to eat in an attempt to achieve autonomy and control in relation to the mother, which tends to get the mother more deeply involved in his eating behavior and meets the infant's need for attention.

A battle for control ensues, with the infant's feeding driven by his emotional needs rather than physiological sensations of hunger and satiety, while the mothers are overdetermined to feed their babies, and bargain, coax, beg, distract, and sometimes force-feed. The child fails to develop the ability to pay attention to his bodily sensations. These children seem to be born with a remarkably strong-willed temperament, amazing persistence and sensitivity to their mothers' cues, while the mothers often struggle with their own unresolved conflicts over control and autonomy, and were strikingly unattuned to cues from their baby.

Superimposed upon the trauma of losing her mother emotionally was an infantile neurotic conflict that developed at around age 3. It was at this time that this strong-willed child made a decision to begin starving herself. She had overheard her father crying that he had lost all his money in the 1929 stock market crash and now the family would starve to death. There would be no food; the family would go hungry, there was nothing to do. Fearing the end was near, she thought that if she rationed food to herself in tiny portions, she could extend the food for the family and thus "buy" them days of life. She believed that just as Jesus had sacrificed his life for the salvation of mankind, she could offer her pain and suffering up to God and obtain mercy for her family. So to prepare for the famine to come, she began eating even less than before, never telling anyone why.

She had heard about the poor hungry children in the world, and knew it was a sin to eat when they were so deprived. She knew that to suffer and offer her suffering up to God would make her special in his eyes and insure her a place in heaven next to him. And so when Claudia's mother, who knew that steak was one of the few foods that she enjoyed, would cut a piece of her own portion to add to Claudia's plate, coaxing her to eat it, Claudia always refused, feeling an exquisite virtue in denying herself, even though she wanted the meat very much. And so the anorectic battle for control was launched.


As has been shown and explained, the stigmata and other mortifications of the flesh can serve as survival tools for someone who has been severely traumatized, devout Christian or unbeliever alike. When Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed, this nonreligious woman came to be regarded by her admirers as a popular saint who wanted nothing more than to help and serve others. Despite her wealth, she became a waif in the popular imagination, and like many others who suffered great psychic pain, she too inflicted further pain and suffering on herself through starving herself, binging and purging, and cutting herself. This suffering was her visible stigmata, inspiring great popular devotion. When she died, millions cried, carrying candles in the streets as they listened to Elton John's song to this suffering woman whose light flickered "like a candle in the wind".

Sharon Klayman Farber, Ph.D., B.C.D. maintains a private practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and is the founder of Westchester Eating Disorders Consultation Services. She is on faculty at the Cape Cod Institute. She is the author of When the Body Is the Target: Self-Harm, Pain, and Traumatic Attachments (Aronson 2000, 2002), and is working on a second book on ecstatic experience.
Dr. Farber's website may be accessed at


1 Thanks to writer James Howe who introduced me to the Exquisite Corpse game at a meeting of the Rivertowns Artists and Writers Group.


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This paper originally appeared in the The Journal of Psychohistory: Fall 2003, 31,2: 182-204.
It is available online with the permission of the author. It should not be duplicated without the author's permission.

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