Crown of Thorns

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

In an effort to better understand the behavior, Sanfuentes once agreed to try the art of pulling. "It was this really complex process. I had to grab the hair between two fingers and then yank it out. I asked Veronica how I'd know which was the right hair, and she said, 'You want a good, thick root.' I hated the taste, and the next day my head hurt because I had to try pulling several of them to get the procedure down right," said Sanfuentes. "It's disgusting."

The hair-pulling was not at all amusing to Milchorena's mother either, or to her aunt, who would call home to El Salvador in hysterics to say Veronica's bald patch was growing.

"My mom freaked, man. She was so embarrassed. Whenever people would start looking at my head, she'd say no, no, it's not a fungus. She was so afraid people wouldn't want to approach me," Milchorena explains. "But I was more paranoid about the way people were reacting to my head than to how I was reacting to it."

Jonathan Postal
Veronica Milchorena's "The Art of Pulling" photo exhibit 
is on display outside the Helix Gallery through August
Veronica Milchorena's "The Art of Pulling" photo exhibit is on display outside the Helix Gallery through August

Milchorena's wit and genuine interest in others has compensated well for her hyperactive and obsessive tendencies. She practically never misses a Sunday with her family in Pinecrest, holds vigils for the tsunami victims, checks in regularly when friends are sick or in the hospital, and is almost never without a steady boyfriend.

Not until now, that is. The day at the doctor's office in late May marked the end of a six-year relationship with her 47-year-old Chilean boyfriend and fellow cameraman Augusto Gallardo. The breakup was amicable, and they remain friends. Milchorena felt she needed to be on her own, concerned that too much worry for another individual increases her present anxiety.

"I always tell her she's like a twelve-year-old kid. She has that rare combination of being wise without really knowing why -- like a kid," Gallardo reflects. "There was something about her soul that made me always want to be around her."

Twelve marked the age at which Milchorena's mother and grandmother resolved to stop her hair-pulling by sending her to a hypnotist in El Salvador.

"The guy was like this 300-year-old man who would lay me down and make me apologize to my grandmother for pulling my hair. It was like a guilt trip. I'd be there laughing and looking at her trying to say I'm sorry. But I was petrified because he would tell me, 'If you don't stop pulling your hair, we're going to shave your head.' They thought it was some kind of rebellion," says Milchorena on another evening, as she lays across her bed in a fuchsia silk bathrobe and brushes her mane in long strokes down to her hip.

Christina Pearson, executive director of the Trichotillomania Learning Center in Santa Cruz, California, says trichotillomaniacs are often "highly intelligent, high functioning, highly creative, and hypersensitive." Many of them are artists or overachievers who excel precisely because they are sensitive and perceptive in addition to obsessively organized.

Experts like Hyman who have heard Milchorena's story say it wouldn't be surprising if some of her behavioral disorders were set off or exacerbated by difficult childhood experiences. Born in Paris, she was sent back and forth to live with relatives in San Salvador, Oneida, Mexico City, San Francisco, and Miami, often in attempts to shield her from family strife and the civil war raging in El Salvador throughout the Eighties. Then when Milchorena was seventeen, her favorite uncle and role model, Salvadoran cinematographer Baltazar Polio, who was dying of an AIDS-related illness, revealed to her that her mother's ex-husband was not her biological father. Months later, another relative revealed that her birth father was a Spaniard who had since moved to Miami. The hair-pulling reached new heights over the next couple of years as she tracked the man down twice, only to be bitterly rejected.

"Sometimes we didn't even know if we should consider it a problem, because when Veronica has any kind of problem, she covers it up. While some of us cry and complain, she just pulls her hair," her aunt Marta Kennedy says.

Lounging in her living room this past spring in South Beach, Milchorena twirls the baby-soft hairs that frame her forehead between her long fingernails, now grown out and painted for the first time in years in celebration of kicking her nail-biting habit. She twitches nervously, aware that at any moment she might feel the urge to wrap one of those hairs around her finger and yank it out.

"It's a trance, it's like a project, man. You become very selective about what you're looking for, and then when you find the one you like -- which tends to be a real thick one, a real stubby one -- then your life changes for that one moment and you pull it out and you say, öGod, I hope it's got a good root,'" she explains. "It's a texture thing. You play with the root and you slide it between your teeth and you bite it. You can do that sometimes until you start noticing this itching in the back of your throat where all these hair roots have comfortably settled."

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