Crown of Thorns

A photographer's obsession with obsession is a study of exquisite pain and profoundly weird pleasure

Milchorena saw compulsive disorders from a different perspective when, by coincidence, she picked up a gig as a videographer for True Life. Since its initial episode in 1998, MTV's documentary series has told real-life stories of young people and the unusual subcultures they inhabit. The episode Milchorena was assigned to happened to be about people with nearly incapacitating mental disorders.

"Filming [OCD patients] makes me realize I have some of the same habits, like twitching in threes. The thing is, they can't function because they're too busy doing these things and they have to be medicated," she says.

Milchorena made a particularly deep connection while filming the castings for True Life, with Meredith Solotoff, a 23-year-old whose OCD was complicated by a recent car accident in which she lost her hand. Milchorena's ease with relating to her subject while filming was enough to convince Solotoff to join one of Milchorena's independent photo projects by portraying a bionic superhero.

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

"You're a hot 23-year-old amputee, and you don't think pretty people go through things like this. It's shocking," Milchorena told her as they packed up props after taking test photos.

Solotoff, whose disorder is suppressed by medication, begins to knock her knees together nervously as she talks about the possibility of never being able to put her hair in a ponytail again, relying instead on others to take care of one of her greatest fixations. "It's so subtle you wouldn't know I had [the disorder]. But it gets bad at night and it can take up a lot of time; like when I go on a date and I have to have my hair exactly right and I will spend hours trying to get the ponytail just perfect," she says.

Milchorena pipes up consolingly: "You don't have a hand, I don't have hair; we're meant to be, man! When we met, it was like too much. It was like, let's just get this out in the open because it's all good with me."

"I can't even sit on a chair that might seem dirty. Like even if it has one hair on it, I can't sit down," Solotoff adds.

"Dude, don't sit on any chair I've been in, or you'll have hairs up your ass!" Milchorena exclaims, sending the two into fits of laughter.

This past spring Milchorena agreed to return to the OCD Resource Center in Hollywood, where she had filmed another True Life patient, only this time she went to speak with therapist Bruce M. Hyman about whether she should be seeking treatment for her own condition. In addition to trichotillomania, she manifests other obsessive-compulsive traits such as junk-hoarding and obsessive note-taking.

Milchorena crossed her legs at the thigh and reclined stiffly in the therapist's office, taking a long look at each patient in the waiting room. One man was wildly tapping his belt; another woman stared ahead blankly as though on a heavy dose of lithium; and an attractive mother tensely pulled her baby in a stroller through the office door, a look of forced emotional control paralyzing her face.

Twirling a single strand of hair around her finger and yanking it out, Milchorena smirked as she asked, "I'm pulling my hair out, aren't I?

"I'm not a freak, man. I'm not. Oh my God, this is so funny," she said, her eyes wide as she slid a piece of hair between her lips.

"No camera today, Veronica?" asked Hyman.

"No, doctor. Here about me this time," said Milchorena, who has found that medication hasn't helped her trich. "This is weird. Very weird," she said.

"Do you want to talk about that?" Hyman asked.

"That I'm doing art with my disorders?" Milchorena responded.

"Do you think this is some way of coming to grips with yourself?" inquired Hyman.

"Well, I've been screaming it out for a while, depending on the conversation and who I meet. I'll talk about it," Milchorena said.

"What would happen if you didn't do those things?" asked Hyman.

"I know nothing would happen, but physically I would be anxious," she replied. "For example, I haven't missed a day without writing in seventeen years. It's like a documentary. If I lost my pen ..."

"That pen?" asked Hyman, as Milchorena pulled her pen from her bag.

"Well, yeah. I mean, it's a Pilot Precise V-5 extra-fine black pen," she responded, as though Hyman could totally agree that nobody would want to lose a pen like that. "When I was a kid, it was a Bic pen. It was like ecstasy, like my Prozac until I found this pen."

Panchi Sanfuentes, a 35-year-old Chilean industrial designer, says her relationship with Milchorena grew from neighbors to friends to artistic colleagues the day they went out to mail some letters and ended up stealing mangoes from the yard of a priest. From there, every encounter was an artistic brainstorm leading to crazy adventures for projects like the local movement Arte del Barrio.

"I once tried to slap her hand when I saw her pulling, and she got upset. She told me never to do that again because she doesn't know what she's done wrong and it puts her in a horrible mood," Sanfuentes says.

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