Crown of Thorns

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

Milchorena's closet is also stuffed -- with memories. Her scrapbook holds the wrapper from her first maxi pad; the home videos she made with Uncle Baltazar have been catalogued and stored on DVDs; and her shelves are stocked with boxes of the diary/daily planners she can't quit filling.

"I keep telling Augusto it's a good thing he's moving out and not me, because the house would be empty if I left," she notes.

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

"I'm fearful of what I think, because the shit hits the fan and then I gotta have another project," she told Hyman, the therapist.

That's how she ended up being a one-woman show in last fall's Miami Short Film Festival, Milchorena said. Before she knew it, she went from assisting the executive director to designing the logo and Website, taking photos, handling publicity, collecting movies from around the world -- organizing practically the entire event without her making a dime.

"Nobody notices I'm a control freak because I have everything done before they realize it," she said.

"What happens to your hair-pulling when you have projects?" asked Hyman.

"I pull with the left hand and keep moving with the right," responded Milchorena, later adding, "I don't know what's come over me in the last few years. I can't relate to people who take this to a dark level."

"I suppose that's one of the silver linings," said Hyman. "If you didn't have trich, you'd probably still be successful, but you have more resonance with people because it gives you more compassion."

That's precisely one of the reasons she's sought after for helping people center themselves onstage and in front of the camera. No insecurity or social faux pas is too great or too superficial to be taken for anything other than a reason to find an amusing way around it. A knockout blond singer from New York traveled to Miami several weeks ago to have Milchorena take her publicity shots, confessing that Milchorena is the only one who makes her feel at ease with her "body-image issues."

Milchorena took her out to a swamp in the middle of Key Biscayne, mounted angel wings on her back, and soon had the singer posing contentedly even though she was knee-deep in a gooey abyss and squashing crabs under her bare feet.

"I am conscious of my bald spot. I don't feel as pretty if it's exposed. I think my hair is one of my best attributes," Milchorena confesses one morning while pinning up her hair for a day of filming.

Ironically she is more self-conscious about her weight than her bald spot, but when it's covered up, and her clothes are sleekly skimming her voluptuous figure, no guys are complaining about either of those issues, because she gets plenty of catcalls on a night out on the town.

"I think she finds it cool that she has this condition. When you have the kind of exciting personality Veronica has, it has to come at a little cost," Gallardo says. "But she'd much rather voluntarily show her bald spot to 20,000 people than to be caught with it."

The hair-pulling just "comes with the package," Gallardo adds. "They say the greatest achievements of men have been created in absolute loneliness. Veronica was always surrounded by people, but she had a lonely childhood. She's like a true gifted person in a package with strange behaviors. We all have them, but she just lets it all go. She's pure, like 100 percent cotton."

By the end of her visit with Hyman, Milchorena was laughing.

One would have expected Hyman to offer her a round of antianxiety drugs, to suggest she come back and delve deeper into her tragic childhood. Instead he was smiling serenely and laughing along with her.

He told her she was luckier than suburban patients with these kinds of disorders whose world is limited to small-town friends and strip-mall entertainment.

"Your life space was really big, so maybe you don't focus so much on your disorder because you have a lot more going on.... I would love to bottle up what you have and give it to my other patients."

An hour and a half had gone by before Hyman glanced at his watch. It was past 5:30; the office should be closing down soon. He sat up in his chair, smiled calmly, and told Milchorena, "Maybe it's safer if you don't stop pulling your hair. You're too accustomed, too acclimated. It seems like it works for you."

It was only a one-hour session, but Milchorena seemed convinced she had received the answer she had hoped for. "Did you hear that?" she asked on the car ride home. "He said, 'It seems like it works for you!'"

Back in South Beach, Milchorena holds Meredith Solotoff's stump up to her cheek and exclaims, "Do it, Meredith! Wave to me!"

Solotoff's stump doesn't appear to be moving, but Milchorena suddenly grins. She has felt a small twitch in her friend's arm, a biological memory of where the hand once reached out.

"That's a gift, Meredith. Seriously, I don't want to get too weird on you, but that's a gift," she says.

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