Inside Story

“An unfathomable, shapeshifting thing”

Writer Adele Dumont charts trichotillomania — compulsive hair-pulling — from the inside out

Zora Simic Books 13 March 2024 1070 words

Writer Adele Dumont. Stephanie Simcox

When she was a teenager Adele Dumont’s hair was so thick and heavy she felt shame at how it looked undone — “it didn’t work with gravity like other girl’s hair, it took up too much space.” Then, at age seventeen, The Pulling began. From peeling apart split ends — an ordinary ritual for the long-haired — Dumont “started to do this other thing, an arresting thing…” She would pull out individual hairs, “curled and coarse,” stretch them out and inspect them, taking special interest in the “hidden bits” that grew out of the central part of her scalp.

“The whole process was mysteriously painless,” Dumont recounts in her new book, The Pulling. She discovered that the hairs on her head “sit as shallowly as birthday candles on a cake” and “can be removed as effortlessly as a grape can from its stem.”

More than a decade later, Dumont has been pulling out strands and roots of hair from her scalp for so long that she invests in an expensive, custom-made hairpiece, especially designed to blend inconspicuously into the patchy hair that remains. The catalyst is the publication of her first book, No Man Is An Island (2016), an account of her time teaching English to asylum seekers on Christmas Island. Her motivation, she writes, was not “wanting to look nice” on the publicity circuit but the desire “to be able to stop thinking about my hair altogether.”

As in every other essay in Dumont’s finely wrought collection, “The Piece” stands alone, as well as in unison as memoir. The themes of shame and secrecy, evocatively rendered, pervade The Pulling. Entering the building for her first “hair transition” appointment, Dumont “felt the kind of edginess that I imagine a married man might feel visiting a brothel.” She is assigned Andrew, whose “dispassionate” approach and knowledge of her “problem” put her at relative ease. After her partner M, Andrew is “the second person on the planet to witness my scalp in this state: naked and defenceless.”

Dumont’s “problem” has had a name, “trichotillomania,” since 1987, when it was categorised in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM, under the “dubious heading Impulse-Control Disorders Not Classified Elsewhere.” In DSM V, the current edition, trichotillomania has been reclassified under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders but, as Dumont notes, there is no medical consensus. Some professionals liken “the disorder to a substance addiction” while others “see it as a form of self-harm.” Like her own attempts to “get my head around the problem,” the condition, writes Dumont, “seems to resist the medical world’s attempt to categorise it. An unfathomable, shapeshifting thing.”

In The Pulling Dumont sets herself the challenge of putting into words what can’t be captured in an official diagnosis. She begins with her family of origin, and an early onset nail-biting habit, suggesting her condition has its roots in some formative trauma, but from there she avoids the obvious route. There is life before The Pulling but not yet after: hers is not a recovery memoir. If there is a dividing line it is circa 2005, when Dumont finds a book in her university library, published in 1989, by a “Distinguished Psychiatrist” who documents cases of clients with “pointless disorders.” She recognises herself in its pages and furtively photocopies the relevant section.

As the outside knowledge accumulates and she comes to know her condition through authorities other than herself, Dumont initially feels more resistance than relief. She “felt robbed” and wanting “to reclaim my singularity, I decided that even if my condition might align to others’ conditions in its generalities, surely how it manifested in me was unique.” Dumont cycles through numerous therapists, theories and key texts and while she finds some solace, insight and direction, she also remains protective of the enduring mysteries, paradoxes and specifics of her condition.

Some of the most exquisite sentences and passages, in a book full of them, detail what it is like for Dumont inside or in the immediate wake of a “ravenous episode.” To give in is a kind of surrender, what she describes as “a turning.” Then comes the “the deepest pleasure and fullest absorption” of being “inside the experience, when the world is reduced to teeth and touch, and taste.” At the end of an episode, Dumont feels “that I’ve been shipwrecked: dazed and conspicuously fragile.”

On the flipside, Dumont speculates on the view from outside, shifting between awe and shame as the dominant registers. Perhaps, from above, it might appear that “my fingers must be moving in accordance with some greater design, like a needleworker’s, or like a spider darting from point to point to build her web.” Elsewhere, she is convinced that her behaviour “must look masochistic, deviant, repulsive.”

The beauty and power of The Pulling resides in how artfully Dumont balances two sometimes competing concerns — filling a gap and sharing a secret. Dumont makes fathomable and palpable a neglected condition estimated to affect around one in fifty people — more than bipolar or schizophrenia. Readers with trichotillomania will surely be drawn in, as will any of us who have or have had a compulsive habit dating back to childhood that began, as it did for Dumont, as “just something that I did.”

Yet Dumont is as much a writer as she is a person with trichotillomania, and accordingly The Pulling exhibits the propulsive and exacting qualities of a book that had to be written and had been brewing for a long time. Here and there, she addresses the reader directly to tell us that this is not easy, or to reflect on her own motivations. “I ought to say,” she writes, “I am finding it hard to tell you, harder than even I anticipated.” In less skilled hands, such self-reflexivity could easily grate, but Dumont succeeds in creating intimacy with her imagined reader and audience. We come to learn what it has meant for the author to carry her secret, and now to share it.

Beyond liberating herself as a writer, Dumont stakes a powerful claim for all people who have been diagnosed with a condition having the authority to tell their own stories and comprehend their own experience. As she persuasively writes, “my not-knowing that my illness existed was a precondition for coming to know it as intimately as I have.” •

The Pulling: Essays
By Adele Dumont | Scribe | $29.99 | 288 pages