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Autotomy–And a Left-Handed Way to Get to My Point

Autotomy–or is that Autonomy? Or how self-cutting leads indirectly to a point about Christians writing speculative fiction…
| Aug 30, 2018 | 64 comments |

Photo credit: ABC action news

In writing the kind of non-fiction that a Speculative Faith post is, good form comes from getting to the point right away. Tell them what you intend to tell them up front, tell them again in detail, and if necessary, summarize.

I’m not doing that with this post, but hope you will continue to read anyway to see what I’m talking about. I hope the images of young people having cut themselves that I’ve shared will catch your attention to the point you will want to know why I shared them. And you’ll keep reading to find out.

Note I’m still not continuing with the series I had planned, A Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to Warfare. I’m still working on collaboration with Travis Chapman, a situation which has not been worked out by any means…

To return to my indirect (“left-handed”) means to make a specific point, I once imagined writing a modernized version of Pilgrim’s Progress. If you aren’t familiar with that 1678 work by John Bunyan, it’s highly and obviously allegorical, with character names like Wordly Wiseman, Christian, Hopeful, Ignorance, and the Giant Despair, wherein the names of the characters sum up who the characters are.

In the version I pondered writing, the character names would be less obvious, but still sum up their nature. I thought of creating a knight named “Autotomy”–a word which comes from Greek roots meaning “self-cutting.” The knight, when first met and asked if his name is actually supposed to be “Autonomy” (since that’s a regular word in English and “autotomy” isn’t), he would answer, “Yes, you can call me that, too.” So “Autonomy” is what they’d call him most of the time.

The story would show the knight bleeding for unknown reasons over a good long while and eventually would reveal that he was cutting himself–the lesson in the name being that wandering from the Lord (via autonomy) is equivalent to doing harm to yourself directly, which I imagined as the knight slicing the inside of his arms and legs with his sword when he thought nobody was watching and then covering up what he was doing with his armor. By the way, this character idea was based on observations of my own life, believe it or not.

I think that idea for a character first crossed my mind around twenty years ago–even before my first short story was published circa 2002. I did not know of a single person cutting himself or herself in the late nineties–and it certainly was not the cultural phenomenon that it is now.

Let’s time travel (and who doesn’t like time travel?) to the present. I recently happened to meet a young person I originally planned to say more about, but I decided it’s better not to share too many details for the sake of her anonymity. This person had visible markings on the inside of her left arm where she has cut herself repeatedly in the past. I wound up talking to the girl on multiple occasions (in full view of other people, by the way).

I offered her an empathetic ear and found out that she believes she is actually male. She recently began living with family members who take her to church. She wasn’t that thrilled about church and wonders if she is an atheist. And she’s a science fiction and fantasy fan, an avid reader. She and I discussed the difference between reincarnation and resurrection and she actually didn’t even really understand what resurrection was, but understood reincarnation just fine. I wondered if stories she has read influenced her understanding. She also wondered why Christians hate “people like her.” I tried to explain that not all do.

You know something, when I was around 13, I didn’t cut myself, but I had a distant, alcoholic father, and a promiscuous mother who exposed me to things I should not have been exposed to (I could say what with more specificity, but don’t want to traumatize all the people reading this who had childhoods that did not feature abuse). I contemplated suicide. And I read science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction–it was my escape and comfort. And based on what I read in science fiction, I wondered if I really should be an atheist–like Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer extraordinaire, whom I admired.

I wondered who I was, I wondered what I was, and I certainly hated myself quite a lot. Intense loathing, in fact. I found a deliverance from all that in submitting myself to God and experienced God rescuing me, there’s no doubt in my mind on that point. Yet for many years, I would voluntarily wander away from God, in spite of what he had done for me, hurting myself again. Like Autonomy/Autotomy. (In fact, I still do this, but far less now.)

And with that background, there I was, talking to someone also rather like my character Autotomy, a character I hadn’t even put down in writing anywhere until crafting this post. This young person (quite young), who was born a female but now struggling with the idea she should be male–expressed interest when I told her about science fiction written from a Christian perspective. I gave her some books. She’s reading them. I don’t know now how that’s going to turn out. I hope what she reads helps reset her point of view, at least a little.

Let me be clear that I know that works of fiction are not primarily for the purpose of reaching a lost world for Christ. That’s what Christian believers are for, you and I. And let’s not forget the power of the words and images of the Bible.

Yet Bunyan’s work had a powerful influence in its day–and it was a work of fiction. A work of speculative (albeit allegorical) fiction.

Why would a young science fiction reader clearly know what reincarnation is but not resurrection? Why would the modern cultural trend of cutting and another cultural trend of a transgender self-concept be something fully understood, but basic concepts of Christianity seem foreign?

II Corinthians 10:5 and Proverbs 23:7a (“For as he thinks in his heart, so is he,” NKJV) are just two of many verses in the Bible that talk about the importance of what we think. And Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

Let me submit to you that the fiction we write becomes the backdrop of the thoughts of human beings, a substance that pours into human hearts. At least sometimes. Especially for people who are young and impressionable.

Sure, I understand when Christians choose to write for the general market–I in fact publish some short stories that would fit in fine in the general market. But note that I felt, when talking to a younger, female version of Autonomy (er, I mean, “Autotomy”) and handing her a small stack of books, a strong sense that this is why I write what I write. To put ideas in the minds of people, especially young people, other than what our culture revels in–ideas that have a different vision of the world than one that leads people to cut themselves.

And that is my point, friends. Writing speculative fiction as Christians can be a simple act of creation, without regard to spiritual influence on the audience. Yes, true–but it also can have the capacity to offer at least a little shift in perspective, a view of reality unlike what the rest of the world has.

If that’s what God has led you to do, to write with spiritual truths permeating your story(ies), don’t let anything discourage you: There’s a need for it. A genuine and desperate need.

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.
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I’ve never cut myself. I’ve always had a wound-up cat to do it for me. /lame joke

Poor lil trans egg. I want to give them all the pronouns they want. I’ve seen it in real time, when one of my friends transitioned (mostly on Facebook ’cause we’re long-distance), they’ve been SO MUCH happier (like, in the long-term and not just in the immediate mood) afterwards.

But I’m curious about word usage. Americans generally value independence, but you’ve cast autonomy as a vice here. Is that just an easy way of distinguishing between the two, that bad-type independence is “autonomy” and good-type autonomy is “independence”?

Travis Chapman

Thank you for sharing such an intimate topic Travis. In my early teens it was characters in books that became my primary male role models as my dad traveled a lot; if it weren’t for authors creating examples to look up to, and situations to see how their actions affected themselves & the world at large, I’m not sure how my life would have turned out! Your efforts are going to be a crown someday.

For readers eagerly anticipating more spec-fic war posts, mea culpa on my part for interrupting Travis’ efforts! We’re looking at what we want to accomplish and I know I’m realizing the broad scope we want to tackle and how best to do it. Whether it’s Travis or T^2, it’s going to be great and value-added for all.

Autumn Grayson

The fun part about stories and influence is that the same story can influence two people in two different ways, especially depending on where that person is in their life. We do need good stories that will influence people for the better, but should keep in mind that now and then people may be influenced in ways we don’t intend.

I’ll give two examples, Death Note and Wings of Fire Legends: Darkstalker. In these two stories, it should be obvious that Yagami Light (the main char of Death Note) and Darkstalker are in the wrong and serve as strong cautionary tales on how their behavior and thought process are harmful. Yet, there are some people that identify with certain aspects of these chars or think they are cool, and thus almost seem to consider them heroes worthy of emulating. Some readers will even get angry when books like Wings of Fire depict these chars as villains/problems.

There are of course good traits in these chars, such as intelligence/strategy skills, but their bad traits took so much precedence in their lives that they became a problem. Some people that see these chars as heroes may end up realizing their faults and turning out for the better as a result of reading these stories, but there will probably be a few people whose bad traits become WORSE after reading these stories.

So I guess we should realize that now and then the results of our stories may not be intended, and that maybe trigger warnings should be given in certain cases. (If I wrote something with heavy suicidal content I’d probably put a trigger warning in the story’s description)

Autumn Grayson

As a general comment on society now days, I kind of worry about where people place the emphasis at, as far as where they derive happiness from. External (which is very difficult to control) or internal, which, over time, is much easier to deal with.

Obviously we need both things in some measure, so we definitely shouldn’t only emphasize internal factors. We should care about the external enough to be decent towards those around us, learn ways we can improve, make sure people aren’t harassing us, etc. But we shouldn’t usually define ourselves by those external things, or at least not to the extent that they hurt us.

If I was overweight, for instance, and people were making fun of me for it, I might take note of it. I would evaluate whether or not I was that badly overweight, then I might acknowledge that obesity is not healthy and thus exercise more. I might distance myself from people that were harassing me for my weight, too.

But I would do as much as I could to keep their words from hurting my feelings and I definitely wouldn’t let it make me suicidal. Not saying internal/external emphasis is the only thing that contributes to suicide, since some people genuinely have depression and such. But there would probably be less cutting, suicide, unhappiness, etc. if we relied on internal factors more.

Internal factors include things such as personal happiness and fulfillment, what we think about ourselves and what we want, figuring out what actually matters, etc. In the obesity example, I would decide that being at a healthy weight matters, but having the approval of a bully does not. Other than avoiding any danger bullies might pose, the bullys’ opinions don’t need to matter, so one can gradually teach themselves to not worry about it. That puts people in control of their own happiness, rather than waiting for everyone else around them to conform to certain behaviors.

There’s also a matter of carving out one’s own little niche/corner of happiness. If my life was hell because people were constantly being jerks about how much I weighed, I would still find fulfillment in my writing, drawing and reading habits.

Never had issues with obesity, but it was a less complicated example than what I went through, so yeah.


I’m of the opinion that there would be less cutting, suicide, unhappiness, etc. if we had a robust and not mostly-broken healthcare system that let people easily get treatment for their mental health, by means of talk therapy or pills or both.

But then, I’m of the opinion that everybody needs a routine check under the emotional/mental hood every now and then.

Autumn Grayson

Mental health care is another part of it, though the routine part can be a bit tricky. At this point in my life I wouldn’t feel like getting a yearly checkup for mental health because I actually don’t need to and thus it’d be a waste of everyone’s resources. But then other people might need a regular check regardless of whether they feel like it, so telling someone when they need routine checks can be a bit tricky unless they are having an obvious crisis.

Regardless of the importance of mental health care, though, that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t work on ourselves. Certain good mental health care providers(therapists, I think) are going to help give their patients tools and perspectives that they need to practice in their daily lives regardless. So if we see someone that has a useful tool/perspective/coping mechanism, there’s nothing wrong with considering it.


Good therapists give you tools to work with, which may or may include meds. Meds did a world of good for me.

Autumn Grayson

Yeah. Meds are good when actually needed. There are cases where doctors prescribe those things like they’re candy, but it’s definitely good that meds are there for people that need them.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown

Well said. There have been so many times I’ve been willing to talk with someone and the best response I get is “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a (insert particular background> thing .” Which just tells me they don’t consider me a fellow human being, someone with whom they refuse to have common ground. But then, I don’t have any particular abusive or bizarre background, so nobody gives a damn that I’ve considered suicide a few times myself. I do wish people would allow communication instead of throwing up walls and throwing stones and thinking their own problems are unique and overwhelming.

Rachel Nichols

I had a weird problem when I was young. I wanted to be a woman; I supposedly was female but I felt like my body was not really female. It was too fat and ugly–I had been told–so I felt like I wasn’t really a girl after all.

I kept going on starvation diets of 600-800 calories. I hated my ugly body rendering me unworthy of love. I never was worthy of having a family I guess.

God has made me female. That’s enough. Too bad no man ever appreciated the way God made me. I don’t need anyone tearing me down all the time anyhow. All the young men I knew when I was marriageable either cruelly insulted me or saw me as sexless. At 45 I don’t care anymore.

Women can look beyond external ugliness. Remember Beauty and the Beast? Sadly no man alive can look past the surface. But most leave you when you turn 40 so you can never keep ’em anyhow.

Glad God looks at the heart!

Autumn Grayson

Yeah. I wouldn’t say NO man can look past the surface or weight, or that aesthetics don’t matter to women, because they definitely do and they can get bored with a guy they don’t find attractive. But I personally think singleness is just as much of a gift as a romantic relationship is.

One time in a Christian dating and marriage lecture I attended in college, one of the best things they said was ‘If you aren’t ready/happy to be single, you aren’t ready for marriage’. They basically meant that it is healthier for someone to date only when they are truly happy with who they are and still happy even when single.

Why? Because someone that feels extremely lonely or desperate to get married is more likely to make desperate choices or unhealthy compromises. Relationships are good, but when people aren’t healthy and stable on their own, their relationships are more likely to be unhealthy and unstable, too.

Rachel Nichols

In which case why marry at all? Lol. You’re blissfully happy so why rock the boat?

I’m fine as a single now and don’t care how ugly people find me.


This post was seasoned with well-earned anger and just enough bitterness to deepen the complexity of the flavor. I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.