Julia is a bright-eyed girl of 14, with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair and a winsome smile. One recent July morning, she, along with her 16 year-old sister Jane, drive into downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, in their father’s battered F-150 pick-up truck, on their way to fulfilling a dream. She pulls a damp wad of ten- and twenty-dollar bills from the pocket of her jeans, carefully saved from a weekly allowance and regular babysitting jobs. “I’ve been working for this almost a whole year,” she says excitedly, as Jane rolls her eyes in the driver’s seat. “But I’ve wanted it a lot longer–like, since two years ago, when Jane got hers done.” When they reach the corner of Benmont Avenue and Fifth, they pull into a metered parking space and walk the remaining two blocks to Rickys Tattoos, a grimy storefront parlor on the main drag of this sleepy town. Julia is so thrilled she can barely keep herself to a measured pace, which she must do if she doesn’t want to leave her sister struggling alone on the sidewalk. Jane walks with a pronounced limp. “Come on, Jane,” she cries, bouncing on the pavement, half a block ahead. “We’re almost there.” Jane rolls her eyes again, then turns to me and confides, with charming sympathy she conceals from her younger sister, “I was totally just as excited as she is. It’s, like, a really big day for her.”
Jane and Julia are but two of the many thousands caught up in what is fast becoming a fashion craze among American teen-age girls. It’s called “crippin,” and among the few sociologists and psychologists fully versed in the practice, it is one of the more worrisome new developments in a culture of low self-esteem, best characterized by drug and alcohol abuse and rampant sexual promiscuity. Liz Harmon, a developmental psychologist at the University of Rhode Island, who is among the foremost authorities on crippin, is unsurprised at the speed with which American girls are submitting themselves to the quasi-medical procedure. “It’s really the next logical step, isn’t it?” she says. “With the ubiquity of tattoos, and after piercings have become practically de rigueur, why not crippin too? It was right around the corner, but still nobody saw it coming.” She sighs with a depth of fatigue one might expect from someone who makes her living studying the ways of American teendom. “I think nobody really wanted to see it coming: That’s how disturbing it is.” But opinion is not monolithic on the subject. Jack Stiles, a sociologist at UCLA, says the widespread concern is overblown. “Look, it’s difficult to understand, without a doubt, but is there anything about growing up in America that isn’t? These girls aren’t doing long-term harm to their bodies, at least nothing that isn’t superficial. The fact is, much like tattooing, it’s a reversible procedure. Expensive? Sure. Painful? Absolutely. But it’s a correctable thing, and if it answers a psychological need, then maybe we should be focusing on that. Maybe we shouldn’t be marginalizing these gals for just trying to fit in.”
Ronnie Jendick’s left arm is covered with tattoos: a naked woman, Chinese characters, complex circular designs of what looks like barbed wire. He lifts his shirt and points proudly to his ample belly, to a fierce-looking eagle whose wings span a rippling American flag. “Took two weeks for this one,” he says enthusiastically, “and painful as hell. Belly flesh? That’s tender shit, got to be honest. But it was worth it.” Ronnie is the proprietor of Rickys Tattoos. “I bought it a few years ago. Dirt cheap, too.” When asked about the name on the hand-painted sign out front, he says, “Ricky? Croaked on his bike.” He makes a dispiriting sound through the baffle of his thick lips. “Totaled, man. It was ugly. Semi behind him sort of finished him off for good. But it was quick, though. Definitely not the worst way to go out, you know?” He crosses himself in the Catholic style. Ronnie leads me to a back room, the “fracking room,” as he calls it, behind the main floor of his establishment, where body art is commissioned and performed. “This is it, man. I got the chair from some dentist across the street a couple years ago. He was retiring, wanted five hundred for it, but I talked him down. It was pretty easy to modify. I got the leg irons off this freaky sadist dude I know–traded for some body work.” The chair is of the normal variety–red pleather cushioning, a head rest, a welter of hinged metal limbs coming out from both sides, most of them unused in its new function. What distinguishes this chair from one you might find in any dentist’s office are the leg clamps, two on each side, rust eating away at their metal bindings.
The procedure is a simple one, but that simplicity hasn’t stopped sixteen states from outlawing it. Commonly called “fracking,” which is short for fracturing, Ronnie is willing to describe it only because Vermont’s legislature is famously reluctant to curtail the freedoms of its citizenry. “Those laws are about the anesthetic, not the procedure, ’cause they couldn’t even outlaw the procedure, you know. But I bet they tried.” The anesthetic is local, but nonetheless potentially dangerous, and its administration is usually subject to state licensing. Ronnie himself is not licensed, as is the case with most frackers, and so fracking is often performed at night, after normal business hours, in back rooms similar to the one at Rickys Tattoos. He brandishes a large hammer, larger than one you’re likely to find in the local hardware store, and equipped with a narrow, clawless head. “Ready?” He swings it with startling force. “See, you got to come down real hard to get it done right. That little head? It concentrates the force. You better know what you’re doing though, or there’s some serious damage. Shut your ass down quick if you’re not careful.” He mimes the striking procedure again. “I make a little target with a laundry pen, a little x, right there on the leg. It’s the fibula you want, but it’s easy to miss. You crack the tibia instead, you’re screwed.” At the sound of this reporter’s uneasy laugh, Ronnie asks, “You want to hop in, have a try? Give you a special discount.”
There is a distinct look of anxiety on Julia’s face as Ronnie calls her into the back of the store. Jane, who is examining tattoo samples, encourages her. “Let’s go, Jules. We gotta get back by four, and you’re gonna have to sit around for an hour afterwards. Let’s go.” Julia has consented to the presence of an observer, and we walk back to the fracking room together. Trembling, she gets into the chair, and Ronnie locks the clamps around the ankle and knee of both her legs, even though only the right will be fracked today. “Keeps ’em still,” he says by way of explanation. He pulls out a large hypodermic needle, the sight of which elicits a cry of fear from the 14 year-old girl. “Don’t you worry, little honey,” says Ronnie. “I know just what I’m doing.” After injecting the anesthetic and giving it some time to take effect, Ronnie tests Julia’s responsiveness with a few mild taps of the hammer. “You feeling that?” Julia grins up at him from the chair and says, “I’m ready.” With a single fearsome blow, Ronnie fracks Julia’s right leg. The resultant cracking noise is surprisingly sharp and clean, not at all what one expects from such a violent act. Apparently, Julia hasn’t felt a thing. Ronnie sniffs with satisfaction. “Good frack, I can hear it, and I’ve done enough to know when it’s wrong. There’s sort of this chunky sound when you miss. Kinda hard to describe.”
Ronnie insists that all his clients remain in the chair for an hour, to allow the anesthetic to wear off. “There’s no law or anything, but it seems like a safety thing to me. Plus it gives me a chance to put the brace on, teach ’em how to do it, ’cause you don’t want ’em coming back again, you know, demanding another frack. Big waste of time if the bone goes and heals right.” He wraps the effected portion of Julia’s leg in a small plastic brace designed to prevent its setting properly. “You got to keep this on for two weeks, understand? Go ahead and walk around without it, the normal stuff. The more you move the better. But when you sleep you put the brace on. Same in school and everything, when you’re just sitting around. Not my responsibility if it sets right, got it?”
Back on Benmont Avenue, Julia and Jane move at a halting pace, side by side. It’s almost 3 o’clock, and Jane is annoyed. “We’re gonna be late and Dad’s gonna be pissed,” she says, but Julia is unconcerned. She’s crippin now, and happy. “My boyfriend Nick? He’s totally excited. I’m calling him up right when we get home.” Jane rolls her eyes at me. As I watch the girls make their way back to the pick-up truck, I’m struck by the controlled violence of the procedure, the primitive equipment, and I’m reminded of Liz Harmon’s weary words. “These girls,” she said to me, “they’re damaging themselves for the rest of their lives, and it’s a sad commentary. It shouldn’t even be allowed. You have to ask yourself: What does it mean for us, as a society?” Having witnessed the procedure, having seen the result, I’m not sure I have an answer to her troubling question. And yet I confess I can’t help but appreciate the girls’ simple beauty as they struggle down the street. The gentle scrape of their shoes on the pavement, the slight bobbing of their heads as they limp away–there is an appealing vulnerability there, and I am not unmoved. It’s easy to condemn crippin out of hand, without taking time to understand the process and appreciate its aesthetically pleasing outcome. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper before we judge so harshly. As we part, Julia turns to me and says, “Crippin? It’s not about being rebellious, all pointless and everything, you know? I mean, that’s what everyone says, but it’s totally not like that at all. It’s my choice, and it’s got nothing to do with anyone else, right? Crippin–it’s just a way to express myself. It’s a way for me to be me.”