In this poetic prose piece, Jane Hartshorn’s experience of Compulsive Skin Picking Disorder leads her to explore – through physical encounters, popular culture, and past relationships – the connections that we try to see between the disparate elements of our lives, in twists and turns that often have no neat resolution.
It started with my face.
When I am thinking, my hands run absent-mindedly over my skin, identifying and worrying any irregularities I think I can pick or squeeze.
When I am talking, I tug at ragged ends, or dry skin around my nails.
When I am watching television, I feel along strands of hair for wiry kinks that I can pluck.
Sometimes, in the evenings, a murderous kind of desire grips me, and I attack myself in a frenzy of squeezing and popping and pulling and scraping.
One of the only depictions of Body Focused Repetitive Behaviour I have come across in popular culture is in Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects.
Camille recounts how her mother, Adora, ‘pulled out all her eyelashes’. Adora’s Trichotillomania means that she cannot stop her fingers from fluttering to her lashes, and leaves ‘little piles of them on table tops.’
In the TV adaptation of Sharp Objects, we see Adora (Patricia Clarkson) bathed in warm interior light, wearing a pink silk dressing gown. The camera focuses on Adora’s manicured fingers as they grasp at her eyelashes. Barely above a whisper, her voice melts into the piano solo playing in the background.
It is a gentle gesture; the soft tones of both the visual and aural elements of the scene create a synesthetic cocoon.
Like a murmured incantation, the shape of the gesture is mirrored in other scenes; a moment where Adora reaches to stroke Camille’s hair, a close-up of Camille and her sister’s fingertips interlacing, a young Camille stroking her own cheek with one of her mother’s eyelashes.
Crucial to my own experience of BFRB is inspecting the artefact after I have removed it from my body. I need to experience its texture, its malleability, the sense of touching myself whilst being touched.
When I meet someone I’m interested in, I start to make connections between things. It’s a kind of poetry: discovering patterns, linking ideas, finding meaning in the banal. It doesn’t even really matter who the person is; it’s not necessarily the result of a dialogue. It seems to come from within.
It’s like everything begins to make sense; a strange kind of synchronicity permeates the world around me.
On the train to Liverpool Street, I take the window seat of the girl sitting opposite when she disembarks, as I want to see the interior spaces of the city.
I can feel the warmth of her through my tights, like an itch prickling my thighs.
In Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut, English teacher Frannie is obsessed with words.
She believes the Poetry in Motion placards on the New York Subway are secret messages chosen specifically for her.
A line from Garcia Lorca’s poem ‘Variations’ includes the phrase ‘under a thicket of kisses.’
In Spanish, the word for thicket is ‘espesura’, and she settles on this word, turns it over in her mouth as though she is trying to solve it:
‘I whispered it many times, breaking it into syllables, trying it this way and that, rushing it, slowing it down.’
I like to collect small objects and keep them in my pocket. Usually a strange shaped stone or piece of soft-edged sea glass. At the moment, I have a heart shaped yellow stone I found on Ayr beach.
When I am walking, I rub my finger over the ridge of the top of the heart; its twin scallops and plunging neck.
In the film adaptation of In the Cut (directed by Jane Campion and starring Meg Ryan), the line from Lorca’s poem has visual resonances, like an echo of half rhymes across the screen:
A heart-shaped wreath.
A t-shirt with the word ‘kisses’ emblazoned across its chest.
In the dark edges of the subway, Frannie reads the poem in a pool of watery light, as though she is underwater. The camera blurs and jolts in a kind of woozy stupor. A close up of Frannie writing ‘under a thicket of kisses’ is overlaid with her voice repeating the lines; we hear the pen scratching across the notebook, the rustle of paper. The camera slows as she passes the ‘kisses’ t-shirt on the subway steps, and we hear her voice, again, as the line reverberates across her thoughts.
Merging with light and shadow, the words acquire consistency and texture, speed up and slow down. Dipping our fingers into pools of green light, we bristle against the skin of the moving image.
My gran has picked through the material of the arm of her chair to the white foam beneath.
My mother gives her a pair of knitting needles and some wool, and she starts to knit.
Huge spiral shaped blankets in garish colours. Fluorescent pink and mauve with a swirl of blood red at the centre.
In Carol Morley’s film Out of Blue, we follow Detective Mike Hoolihan (also played by Patricia Clarkson) as she tries to solve a recent murder case.
Weaving together disparate elements and incorporating recurring motifs, the film is like the creative process itself.
The detective’s mind keeps returning to a sequence of specific images: a blue marble, a red shoe, a snow globe, a jar of hand cream, a red scarf, a brooch, a postcard that says, ‘I’ll be seeing you’.
‘Like a trail of clues leading closer and closer to this black hole’s dark heart.’, the detective returns to these images as though she’s trying to gauge their significance.
When the woman at the front desk applies the patch test behind my ear, she says, ‘sorry for the intimacy’.
Whenever I get the train from Liverpool Street to London Fields, I think of K on that first day. What he must have been thinking as he looked out at the crumbling buildings, the warehouses, the parking lots, the back gardens. I try and see through his eyes, the things he might have noticed: Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, snatches of purple buddleia between railings, ivy cracking brickwork.
And me, waiting at London Fields, watching his jeans as they descend the steps, recognising his legs. A frisson of anxiety as he emerges haloed in sunlight, striations of shadow across his face.
Frannie returns time and again to a rubber hand that is left under her mailbox, nails painted a lurid red.
Her friend Pauline gifts her a charm bracelet. The bracelet has five gold charms:
A baby carriage. A cocktail shaker. A telegram. A gold toilet. A utensil that looks a poultry bulb-baster.
A tiny gold baby lies within the cocktail shaker.
She believes the charm bracelet is somehow connected to the rubber hand, somehow connected to the strange things that are happening to her.
When I return home, my hands smell like someone else’s perfume.
I’m suddenly aware of all the places I touch. Escalators, handles, in the tube, handrails, on the bus, buttons at traffic lights.
My mother keeps bringing me body parts. An old brace; the shape of the roof of my mouth. The transparent plastic undulating like the pink lip of a conch shell. A plaster cast of my foot, yellowed with age. Six of my milk teeth, dark with old blood at the roots and fuzzed over with dust. The hospital tag that was around my wrist after I was born, the width of two of my fingers.
I arrange them in a row on a shelf of my bookcase, like a little offering to a past self.
At lunchtime, a woman in a café asks if she can pick a ladybird out of my hair.
There is a man I like who works at a café near my house. Yesterday, I furtively removed the lid of my coffee cup to see if he’d given me a milky frothy heart.
But there was no secret message; the foam had melted.
Like Frannie, Camille in Sharp Objects, is also preoccupied with words:
‘Every phrase had to be captured on paper or it wasn’t real, it slipped away.’
Although she begins with paper, she starts carving words directly onto her skin.
Her desire to capture words – to somehow fix them in place – extends beyond seeing them on the page. She wants to feel the words burning on her skin.
In the TV series, the words are clues scratched across the surface of the screen, often existing in the corner of the frame:
BAD and A DRUNK are carved into her desk.
DIRTY is traced across the dust of her car boot.
On dashboards, post-its, digital screens, the words no longer exist solely in Camille’s mind, but have made their way into her experiential world.
Like Campion’s In the Cut, there is a haptic quality to this: we feel the words ripple across the surface of our skin like gooseflesh. We inhabit DIRTY as though we can run our palms along the shape of its grain.
On my way home, I walk behind a man brushing his teeth.
He spits a mouthful of toothpaste foam into a bush.
The taste of mint fills my mouth as I pass the glob-flecked leaves.
Frannie is also a kind of detective in her tendency to look for meaning, to create connections between things.
After she is assaulted, she notices the gold baby carriage is missing from her charm bracelet.
Upon finding it in the pocket of her lover, Molloy, Frannie sets in motion a sequence of events that carry the plot towards its grisly end.
But Frannie has misread the clue.
As Marty Hart says in the first episode of True Detective, ‘You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it’.
When my brother and I became sick, my parents looked for things to blame.
My Dad hacked the lavatera in the garden to pieces.
My Mum asked Scottish Water to check the water supply.
They forbade us from playing with snails in the garden, bodies seething yellow puss, and placed saucers of salt on paving stones.
Finally, they blamed one another.
After things between K and I end, I retrace inconsistencies, brain fastidiously picking over the details. Returning to the same site again and again – a remembered word or phrase, a particular intonation. Trying to make sense of the sequence of events. Trying to find the weak spot, the part the rest hinges on.
The place under the trees where we lay stretched out side by side, his hand under my dress.
The baby pigeon skewered under the railway tunnel.
The poppies in London Fields.
The coots down by the canal where we sprinkled cake crumbs.
A cat stretched out on the flat roof of the shed.
Flynn, Gillian, Sharp Objects (London: Phoenix, 2007).
Moore, Susanna, In the Cut (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2019).
In the Cut, dir. by Jane Campion (Pathé Distribution, 2003).
Out of Blue, dir. by Carol Morley (Picturehouse Cinemas, 2018).
Sharp Objects, dir. by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sky Atlantic, 2018).
True Detective, dir. by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sky Atlantic, 2014).
About Jane Hartshorn
Jane Hartshorn is a poet and PhD candidate at University of Kent. Her first pamphlet Tract was published in 2017 by Litmus Publishing, and her second pamphlet In the Sick Hour with Takeaway Press in 2020. She has had poems published by Boudicca Press, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, amberflora, & para-text. She is poetry editor at Ache Magazine. @jeahartshorn
This piece was written as part of our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, author Ayo Deforge, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers’ brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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