Off the Shelf: Picking Up the Pieces

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2016

By Laura Silver

Kathleen Glasgow (M.F.A. '02) was riding the bus to her job at the University of Minnesota when a teenage girl sat down next to her. The girl had downcast eyes; her hair hung in her face. And when one of her sleeves rode up, Glasgow glimpsed something all too familiar: fresh thin red scars. The girl was a cutter, one of the estimated one million girls and boys each year who engage in self-harm, or nonsuicidal self-injury. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 14 to 24 percent of adolescents and young adults have engaged in some type of self-harm.

Seeing the young girl on the bus stopped Glasgow in her tracks. "I was basically looking at myself when I was 15. Head down, hiding away. And I thought, I'm still hiding away. And I should have said something to that girl, like, "It's going to be OK," but I didn't. I let her get off the bus. And I thought, you know, maybe it's time that I tell this story."

Glasgow was working on a different book at the time, but she put it down to start writing Girl in Pieces, her young adult debut novel about a girl much like her younger self. Eight years later, she signed a six-figure, two-book deal with Random House for Girl in Pieces, which was published in August. The second book, still untitled, comes out in fall 2017.

Like 70 percent of girls who self-harm, the narrator of Girl in Pieces, Charlotte "Charlie" Davis, is a cutter. Her world has been defined by loss-her father's suicide, her mother's subsequent neglect, her best friend's devastating accident-and at 17, after a stay in a St. Paul hospital treatment program, she makes her way to Tucson, Arizona, where she hopes to reconnect with an old crush. Instead, she gets involved with a washed-up yet charming musician who's also a drug addict. The other characters, all vivid, sympathetic, and struggling in their own ways, help lighten the intense, sometimes harrowing story. Through them, Charlie rediscovers the healing power of her first love, drawing, and begins to pick up the pieces of her life.

Glasgow recently talked about her book.

Why do people harm themselves?

I would say the most common reasons that young people start self-harming are abuse, trauma, or severe depression. Harming is a coping mechanism, a way to control their feelings on their own terms, or, in a strange way, to take care of themselves, like Charlie does. And as I show in the book, it does become kind of a vicious cycle. You learn that to feel better you have to feel pain, and then you have to unlearn that.

Were you ever homeless, like Charlie?

There was a period of my life when my depression was very acute and I was unable to work and was in and out of the hospital for treatment. I was lucky enough to have friends who let me stay on their couches and to receive welfare and food stamps. I know what it's like to have to steal toilet paper and public bathroom soap, and subsist on crackers and peanut butter, or be hungry at your restaurant job. I don't see enough of that in books-how people actually struggle day to day to make a living and sometimes just to eat.

Was there a particular reason you set part of your book in the Twin Cities?

I wanted to go from one extreme climate to another, from a cold climate where she could hide under layers of clothing to a climate where she was going to be forced to take off her clothes. And she would be shedding parts of herself, physical and emotionally, as she made that journey.

It's nice to see that Charlie has a happy ending.

Yes, I did give Charlie a happy ending. This is a book, more than anything, about hope and survival. It's not really about what Charlie does to herself; it's about the life she crafts for herself out of bits and pieces. It's about learning how to live as a girl in a world that constantly questions your value, your intelligence, and your dreams. The struggle is so hard. All of us and all of the kids who are doing it right now deserve a happy ending.


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