Cringing painfully while witnessing a cyclist collide with an arm-flailing pedestrian in SoHo last weekend, I was reminded of my own bicycle accident on the corner of Lafayette and Prince Streets in the spring of 2008.  A visit to St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital and one tetanus shot later, I was left with a gash on my left knee.  It left a scar, which has eventually blurred itself over time.

My oldest scar can be seen as a dent in my forehead, a consequence of ignoring warnings about jumping on my bed when I was little.  I also have a scar on my right shoulder from being dropped during a piggy back ride in college; another one on the top of my right foot from trudging through rainy Brooklyn in faux-alligator skin galoshes; and one at the tip of my left eyebrow from a post-college piercing.  My most recent scar is a small mark on my left hand, where my 3-legged cat turned into a buzz saw as I attempted to capture him for neutering last month.

I’ve had a particular interest in scars in recent years.  I look at scars on other people, wondering where they got them and if they’ve had them so long that perhaps they don’t even notice them anymore.

I read a piece in The Huffington Post earlier this year in which they discuss Tina Fey’s facial scar – in brief, she refuses to elaborate on it because, “It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it.”  Her husband commented, “That scar was fascinating to me. This is somebody who, no matter what it was, has gone through something. And I think it really informs the way she thinks about her life.”

Every day, often multiple times a day, I think about the scars of a 23-year-old woman who lived in upper Manhattan; she was attacked and tortured in her apartment for 19 hours in April 2007.  In an account of the trial written in The New York Times, the prosecution took the jury through a step-by-step account of the ordeal, which began at about 10pm on 13 April 2007 and lasted until 4pm the following day.  Robert A. Williams assaulted and tortured the young woman and was intent on damaging her vision, because a blind witness would never be able to identify her attacker.

Sitting on the floor of her studio apartment in Hamilton Heights and holding a pair of scissors between her knees, the blades pointing toward her face, he demanded that she gouge out her own eyes.  She attempted to stab herself in the neck instead, but the scissors slipped, her suicide attempt failed and she suffered several more hours of torture.  He later slit her eyelids and face with a butcher knife, but she did not lose her vision.  After blacking out, she later awoke alone in her apartment and surrounded by a fire he had started.  She used the fire to burn the ties that bound her wrists, and she escaped alive.

She testified that she worked to memorize his features and scars while trying to connect with him, even asking about his taste in music, trying to convince him that she would not identify him to the authorities.  At the trial’s conclusion in July 2008, the jury pronounced Robert A. Williams guilty 44 times, the sentence totaling 422 years in prison.  There were only two acquittals, after jurors agreed that the permanent, hairline scars he left on her eyelids did not constitute a serious physical injury.

I think about her a lot.  I wonder where she is, and how she is, and how often she thinks about what happened to her more than two two years ago now.  In a city where more than 100,000 people are living with HIV, I wonder if he had it and if he passed it on to her.  I wonder if the hair he cut off of her head has grown back, and what she thinks about the scars around her eyes when she looks in the mirror.

I wonder about scars. Scars that might make us feel undesirable or unlovable; some people are forced to wear them on the outside, and some people have so much emotional scarring that, even though there may not be any physical evidence, it makes us act defensively or harshly out of character.

But in some parts of the world, scars are crafted with the specific purpose of accenting one’s personal beauty. Albeit controversial, scarification celebrates one’s village, tribe and clan for both men and women in many local cultures throughout Burkina Faso.  It is a traditional act to commemorate a young person’s entrance into adulthood and the full realization of their individual beauty.

Scarification in Burkina Faso

Scarification in Burkina Faso

“There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.” – Harry Crews