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Hair Pulling in the Sharp Objects TV Mini-Series & Novel

This summer’s Sharp Objects TV mini-series recently wrapped up its final episode and many were blown away by the small screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 thriller novel, Sharp Objects. But what many people don’t know is that Adora, the mother of Camille (played by Amy Adams), has a mental disorder known as trichotillomania, commonly referred to as the hair pulling disorder.

The Sharp Objects World

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We’re introduced to the small-town world of Wind Gap when Camille, a late 20s journalist, goes home to report on the serial murder of two young girls. The town is dated and closed off from the outside world, much as most of the characters are. Many people survive by eking out a living slaughtering pigs at Camille’s mother’s factory. Wind Gap, like most small towns, has a rumor mill which circulates news faster than people can travel. When Camille comes back to town and starts asking questions about the murders, most shy away from her, while others want their five minutes of fame. As Camille investigates, she’s slowly crushed by her mother’s suffocating mental abuse and the expectations and meanness of those in the town.

Note: I’m going to avoid any major spoilers in this review. Also, shoutout to my friend Kizzy for helping me find the exact book quotations 🙂

Triggers: I also want to call attention to the following triggers, which are mentioned: trichotillomania/hair pulling, self-harm/cutting and alcoholism. If you feel uncomfortable reading about any of these issues, please don’t read further.

Adora: Camille’s Mother & Trichster

adora

One of the reasons that I really wanted to write about this trich rep is that Adora is one of the main characters in this narrative. She’s not a side character, she’s not used as a joke and she’s certainly not treated like a weirdo at all, as many other narratives I’ve explored have done. She is a fully-fleshed out character, with good, bad and many, many grey parts. I appreciate this representation because the audience sees Adora living her life; her hair pulling is just a part of her, not the main attraction. Certainly, in the TV show, the camera angles and script do not over-focus on her TTM element. When it is relevant to the narrative, it is shown, otherwise we see Adora as a mother, a wife, a woman and the person controlling a majority of the town’s money and job opportunities.

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In the novel, Camille lets the reader in on Adora’s “tell”:

1.) “When my mother is piqued, she has a particular tell: She pulls at her eyelashes. Sometimes they come out. During some particularly difficult years when I was a child, she had no lashes at all, and her eyes were a constant gluey pink, vulnerable as a lab rabbit’s. In winter time, they leaked streaks of tears whenever she went outdoors. Which wasn’t often.” (p. 25-26)

“Vanish” (Episode 1): Hair Pulling & Social Anxiety

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From the beginning, Camille is shown to be a flawed character. She’s a day-drinking alcoholic and was recently released from a stay at a mental hospital for self-harming. Her boss at the newspaper is hoping this assignment will help her get back on her feet. But what she quickly discovers is that nothing has changed since she left; her mother is still controlling everyone and everything, her step-father is a doormat and the town is full of acidic gossips with long memories.

Examples

2.) Her mother lets her know that her coverage of the murders is a horrible act. Essentially the same dialogue occurs in both the book and the TV series.

When Adora asks Camille why she wants to cover such a depressing topic, Camille replies with “It’s my assignment,” to which Adora says “Goodness, what an assignment” and then reaches her hand to her lashes and pulls. (p. 25-26)

3.) To drown everything out, Camille goes drinking, gets drunk and sleeps in her car. When she returns home the next morning, her mother starts laying into her.

A: “Don’t embarrass me— not again.”

C: “What?”

A: “When you’re here, everything you do comes back on me. Understand?”

C: “Uh, honestly… no. That might’ve been true when I was a kid, but I’m an adult now.”

A: “Not in Wind Gap. When you’re here, you’re my daughter.”

As they continue to fight, Adora gets angrier, throwing a dish towel and then screaming. She puts her hand to her lashes and starts pulling. Camille sees and yells, “Momma! Momma, stop! Momma, look I’m sorry.” (Ep.1, ~38 min)

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Analysis 

From these two short scenes, we learn a lot about the toxic relationship between Adora and Camille. Adora is more worried about Camille causing her embarrassment than worried about her safety. She also belittles Camille’s adulthood by condescendingly telling her that while she’s back in town, she’s no longer autonomous, but has instead regressed back into the child that used to live in Adora’s house. This is also carried out through the season as Adora constantly wants to know where Camille is, what she is doing, remarking on how she is dressing, who she is meeting and where she goes and when. As the story goes on, it becomes very clear that Camille’s alcoholism and self-harm are probably less bad habits and more coping mechanisms she is using to deal with family abuse and other childhood traumas.

The interesting thing to note here is that while Adora has no real love lost for Camille, it is not the same in reverse. Camille doesn’t want her mother to be distressed and when Adora starts to pull on her lashes, Camille immediately reacts and apologizes, getting her to stop. Some might argue that Adora is pulling to prove a point and make Camille cave (as she so readily did). While I can see where they might get that idea, I’m leaning more towards the idea that she just can’t stop herself, despite the success of her actions in getting Camille’s apology. For a woman so focused on what others think of her, I don’t think Adora would knowingly pull her eyelashes out. Any gaps in the lash line may be noticed and gossiped about by others—something she would surely hate.

As far as the cause of Adora’s pulling goes, it is very clearly anxiety over being embarrassed by the “Camille situation” and everything that goes with it: asking questions, stirring up the town, staying out late, etc. She doesn’t want to receive judgement from the town. Her high status in Wind Gap is pretty much all she has. While I don’t agree with Adora’s motivations (she’s a horrid person), I do understand not wanting to be embarrassed or judged. Who hasn’t been anxious when a situation we thought we had in our control gets out of control (from our point of view, anyways)? Those kinds of situations have definitely led to a lot of hair pulling in my own life.

“Dirt” (Episode 2): Hair Pulling & Grief

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One of the reasons that the murder of the two little girls is so hard for both Camille and Adora is that Camille’s younger sister had died in childhood.

Examples

4.) Camille reminisces on Adora taking care of her ailing sister:

“During those years, my mother pulled out all her eyelashes. She couldn’t keep her fingers off them. She left little piles of them on tabletops. I told myself they were fairy nests. I remember finding two long blonde lashes stuck to the side of my foot, and I kept them for weeks next to my pillow. At night I tickled my cheeks and lips with them, until one day I woke to find them blown away.” (p. 72)

5.) In the TV series, when Adora and Camille attend a funeral for one of the slain girls, Adora pulls her lashes, triggering Camille into a flashback of her own sister’s funeral. At that time, Camille watches Adora from afar, as she sits alone in front of her daughter’s coffin, pulling her eyelashes. Camille approaches and kneels, hugging Adora’s lap to give or receive comfort. Instead, Adora stands and goes to kneels against the coffin, leaving Camille alone at the chairs. Camille sees Adora’s lashes on her sister’s funeral pamphlet. Similar to the novel, she presses her fingers to the lashes, picking one up and dragging it down her cheek. (Ep. 2, ~12 min)

6.) Later, after the funeral, Adora sits down in the parlor with her husband (H). She lifts a hand to her lashes and he lightly reprimands her by saying, “Now, now come on. You don’t want to look like a hairless cat.” She pauses, gives a slight laugh, says “don’t,” then resumes. (Ep. 2, ~31 min)

funeral

Analysis 

Grieving for someone who is dying or has already passed away can be a very stressful time. Adora pulling all of her eyelashes signifies just how much she was enduring. If Camille as a child was noticing the gaps or complete lack of lashes, then there’s no doubt others in the town would have as well. One wonders if that isn’t perhaps why Adora didn’t often go outdoors. Was she hiding what she’d done to herself? Was she embarrassed of herself? I know that whenever I have a gap in my lashes or brows, I won’t leave the house unless I’ve filled in those gaps. So, I understand that aspect of Adora’s willingness to stay at home, especially in such a small, gossipy town.

Another interesting thing to note is how this modern representation of grief-driven trichotillomania is radically different from the earliest representations of trich, in ancient Greece. While many think Aristotle was the first to document hair pulling in 350 B.C., actually Homer did so in his Iliad and Odyssey around 800-750 B.C. (more on that coming in a later post). In Homer’s works, “hair tearing” was an expected, very public way to display grief and honor the deceased. So, Adora’s very private and quiet display of hair pulling grief is pretty much opposite to how trichotillomania was written about in antiquity. While the idea of publicly pulling hair to display grief is still somewhat around today, more commonly hair pulling tends to culturally denote anxiety or high stress.

On a different note, Camille picking up the lashes (in both the book and show) and running them down her cheek is a bit weird to me. I would understand if a person who had a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) disorder did that. Hair pulling is, according to BFRB definitions, a self-grooming behavior. Groomers will often look at individual hairs, run them across their lips or cheeks, etc. But, Camille doesn’t have a BFRB disorder (as far as we know). Personally, I think it is her way of getting closer to her mother, who often abandons her, physically and emotionally. She wants to connect with any small part of her she can get.

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The last comment I have for this section is Adora’s husband making the hairless cat joke. I don’t find it funny, even though Adora laughed a little. Perhaps he is trying to remind her that other people who see her may judge her hairless appearance. Maybe he’s trying to make a joke that’ll get her to laugh. Maybe he’s trying to stop her without being overbearing. Or, maybe, he’s just a jerk. That being said, I don’t think this is an unrealistic conversation. People who don’t have a mental disorder yet observe someone who does, often grapple with placing that person’s actions within a context they can understand. That’s why they might use animal terms, poor jokes or unfortunate turns of phrase. They are misguidedly connecting something they don’t know (the actions) with something they do (those metaphors, jokes and phrases). I don’t agree and it made me cringe to hear it, but, again, I think it is an accurate representation.

“Milk” (Episode 8): Hair Pulling & Denial

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Don’t worry, I won’t go into too much detail here, as it is the final episode.

Examples

7.) In the novel, as Adora cares for Camille, Camille in turn watches Adora.

“Adora’s lashes were plucked clean, the left eye dribbling plump tears, her upper lip continually battered with her tongue.” (p. 223)

8.) In the show, as Adora cares for Camille she shares a sliver of her past. She explains that her mother would often mistreat her. She tells the story of how her mother woke her one night, drove her into the woods and left her there. She says that if anyone had asked her mother about the abuse, she probably would have said “what she’d been doing was right.” Then, Adora gives Camille this charming piece of advice:

“We all have bad childhoods. At some point, you have to forget it, move on. Anything else is just selfish.” (Ep. 8, ~24 min)

9.) When Adora is speaking to a police officer, she intimates that no one should listen to Camille because “She has a mental illness. Do you understand?… She’s mentally ill.” (Ep. 8, ~32 min)

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Image Source: The Lily

Analysis

As Camille lets Adora take care of her, Adora shares more about her past. We find out that Adora also suffered emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. Although, the fact that Adora has internalized that and is doing the exact same thing to her own daughters, is completely beyond her. She, too, probably thinks what she’s doing is right.

When Adora notes that “we all have bad childhoods” it really struck a chord with me. Do we? Does everyone have things they hold on to from childhood? I’ve often wondered how much of my own toxic childhood environment has tinged who I am. While on some level I agree that “at some point, you have to forget it, move on,” I also have issues with this statement. How are children supposed to move on if who hurt them was their parents? Like Camille going back again and again, trying to please her mother, at what point does a person have to cut and run? Certainly, forgiveness and growth would be ideal, if possible. But, how do you “forget it” when the toxic family members won’t acknowledge any wrong-doing? And, even further, they have no interest in changing the way they act. Should children keep going back to toxic parents just because they’re their parents? Or is a family relationship something to be earned? Maybe Adora is right, in a small way. Maybe the answer is in the moving on–without the toxic people.

This episode struck me so strongly. It’s the finale, after all! But when, after everything, Adora tries to dissuade Camille’s voice from being heard by saying she’s “mentally ill,” I flinched. I hope this has never happened to anyone else, but it definitely has to me. People misjudge us all the time, but when close family members intimate that we aren’t of our right mind because of our BFRB disorders, that really gets under my skin. Not to mention, Adora clearly has at least one mental illness herself. Both Adora’s self-denial and her treatment of Camille are completely unacceptable. They are, however, unfortunately realistic.

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Final Thoughts

I know Sharp Objects won’t be for everyone. So many elements of the show were quite painful for me to watch because they hit close to home. However, the whole show itself—the pacing, the dialogue, the visuals, the music—is excellent. If you like atmospheric thrillers or want to see realistic trich rep, this is the show (or book) for you.

I know I’ve brought up a lot of different things to talk about in my analysis. Feel free to comment below and get a discussion going, even if you disagree with me. My singular goal is to talk about trich. So, don’t be shy! To see more of my trich and BFRB disorder content, you can find me on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Love, Rexie xx

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Extra: Sharp Objects Playlist

The TV show had some truly excellent tracks that helped set the mood for the entire show. I’ve picked my favorites, just in case you need a nice song to listen to 🙂

The Acid – Ghost

The Acid – Tumbling Lights

Agnes Obel – Chord Left

Alexandra Streliski – Berceuse

Alexandra Streliski – Changing Winds

Alexandra Streliski – Dance and Angels

Alexandra Streliski – Plus Tot

Jeffrey Brodsky – Glance Backwards

LCD Soundsystem – Black Screen

Ludovico Einaudi – Dietro Casa

Nana Mouskouri – Les Parapluies De Cherbourg

Vitalic – Trahison

The War on Drugs – Thinking of a Place

Sources

Castillo, Monica. “The Curdled Mother-Daughter Relationship in ‘Sharp Objects’ gives the show its sour notes.” The Lily, July 31, 2018. http://thelily.com/the-curdled-mother-daughter-relationship-in-sharp-objects-gives-the-show-its-sour-notes/

Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects (e-book). New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2006.

Sharp Objects. “Dirt.” 2. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Gillian Flynn. HBO, July 15, 2018.

Sharp Objects. “Milk.” 8. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn. HBO, August 26, 2018.

Sharp Objects. “Vanish.” 1. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Marti Noxon. HBO, July 8, 2018.

Sillitoe, Will, “Hair Pulling in Ancient Literature – Part Two: Homer’s Iliad.” Caught in Two Minds, Blogger, December 7, 2013. http://caughtin2minds.blogspot.com/2013/12/hair-pulling-in-works-of-homer-part-two.html.

**No copyright infringement is meant. If you have any issues with an image, please let me know and I will take it down immediately. Thanks!**

 

3 comments

  1. Laid out wonderfully, and I appreciate you bringing attention to one of the much smaller
    possibly less noticed themes as it was just as important to the story. Personally I related very much to the Sharp Objects book when I read it, and even Dark Places. And thank you for the bonus playlist!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments! I hope that if I find enough rep in pop culture then it might help people come to know more about trich (and hopefully those who have it will may feel less like the “other”). I’m so glad you liked the post & I hope you like the music too. Have a lovely day & take care. xx Rexie

      Liked by 1 person

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