The Human Library

On March 1 and 2, Williams College participated in the Human Library Project, an event where people volunteer to be “books” and visitors can  “read” the books by talking to them for 30 minutes. The goal is for members of our community to learn more about each other, to explore and move beyond stereotypes, and to develop a greater understanding of each person’s unique story. Here are two personal accounts by a reader and a book.

The Human Library

Students review books, which were available to be read.

As I walked into Paresky, I was anxious about what ‘book’ to check out. I was overwhelmed with excitement as I went back and forth from the large display board that featured a synopsis of each book. Finally, I decided to pick a number—seven, my favorite. I was given a bookmark of sorts and was told to return my ‘book’ in half an hour. My book and I exchanged a few awkward smiles and some uncomfortable laughs as we sat down to begin. Energetic, but still a little hesitant, my book jumped in and asked, “So, what do you want to know?” Still nervous, I muttered, “Well, how did it start?”  My book went on to tell me about her history of self-harming. As early as nine-years-old, she can remember digging her nails into her skin or biting the inside of her mouth when she felt overwhelmed.  As my book aged, her methods of self-harm intensified. She began to cut.

And as I write this I know better than to call her a ‘cutter.’  Although relatively brief, our conversation taught me about the significance of phrasing patterns of depression and labeling people who are self-harming as “crazy” or “troubled.” My book decided to name herself “Cutter/Crazy” because those were the stereotypes she was trying to fight by sharing this part of herself. She was also fighting her fears of viewing herself as “crazy.” My book went on to tell me something someone had recently said to her. With a confident smirk, she said, “After speaking at a Gaudino Dinner, I was approached by an audience member who told me, ‘If people judge you for cutting, that’s their problem. You’re not just a cutter, you’re someone who has worked through it and someone who has the courage to share their stories to others.’”

This comment really struck a chord with me as I just shared with her that I couldn’t even imagine sharing something so personal with just anyone in the community. And although I still don’t have quite enough courage to become a book myself, I did have enough courage to listen to someone who was.

I learned a lot from my first book. She answered questions I was nervous to ask. She shared details where I was sure that no one ever would.  My book offered me advice about how to be an ally and how to help friends and family members who are self harming. And, before I knew it, our thirty minutes were up and I had to let someone else give her a ‘read.’
—Maya Y. Dennis ’13

Nearly 2½ years since the last time I cut, it’s still a difficult issue in my life. Even after being mostly “recovered,” it’s still a struggle just dealing with the stigma surrounding Depression, mental illness and self-harm. Little rude or dismissive comments, jokes about cutting, suicide, or “emo” stereotypes affect me all the time and make me scared to share my experiences. But, deep-down, I know that the only way to fight against this stigma is to talk about it, that I can fight the stigma just by letting people know about what these issues are really like first-hand.

Thankfully, Williams has offered me many opportunities to share these experiences in a safe space. The most recent was the Human Library Project. Even though I’d shared at many awareness-related events at Williams, this one still made me especially nervous. The other events took the form of more formal discussions or speeches and focused on mental illness specifically. But what would Cutter/Crazy look like next to Archaeologist, Orthodox Jew, War Veteran, or That Guy in the Library? Further, this event was open to the greater community, not just students in the purple bubble. My worst fear was the event being like a zoo: “Ooh let’s see what a real live cutter looks like.” But, I found this to be far from the reality.

To my surprise, everyone that I spoke with had experiences somehow related to these issues, whether personal or with someone that they cared about. I found that people came not just to listen, but to talk. However, many shared that they didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up with their friends. I know that every time I talk about my experiences, I feel a little better and come more to terms with what’s happened, and the people that I spoke with seemed to feel better after our conversations; they seemed relieved to find someone else who wanted to talk about these issues. This made me realize that events like these are so powerful because these are difficult but vital conversations that need to be started somewhere. I’m thankful that the Gaudino Fund [http://gaudino.williams.edu/] and the Human Library Committee continue to foster this form of uncomfortable learning by organizing these amazing events and allowing us to make a difference in people’s lives just by talking and listening.
—Kira D. Marrero ’15