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May 25, 2023 53 mins

Allison knows something is fundamentally different about her. She looks different and she feels different from the other girls in school. But when her parents refuse to acknowledge just how different she is, it becomes harder and harder for her to reckon with who she is, and who she wants to become.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (00:06):
Where to where one's flaws on your face, where they
can never be concealed, or inside a mirrored bathroom cabinet
where they grow more shameful with each hidden moment. Where
to handle those flaws in the light of day or
in the gauzy dimness of a feminine bathroom. What to
do with the burden of being human?

Speaker 1 (00:28):
That's Alison landa writer, editor, teacher, coach, and author of
the recent memoir Bearded Lady. Allison's is a story of triumph,
the triumph of an indomitable spirit over gaslighting, questionable parenting,
and a complex journey towards self acceptance and self love.

I'm Danny Shapiro, and this is family Secrets. The secrets
that are kept from us, the secrets we keep from others,
and the secrets we keep from ourselves. Tell me about
the landscape of your childhood.

Speaker 2 (01:18):
I spent my childhood and a home that was way overblown,
completely high on its own square footage, and incredibly wounded inside.
And that's probably no accident. It was a custom home,
it was built by my family, and it looked decent

on the outside. I don't want to say fabulous, because
the landscaping was completely out of control. It was completely weedy,
and it showed its flaws on the outside, but really
you had to come in to see just how flawed
it was on the inside. The carpets were staying. There
was an entire room without carpet that had been flooded
that my parents never replaced the carpet in. And yet

there were many many touches that were very interesting. They
used all the materials of the time, all the right
materials of the time. There was marrol, there was granted,
there was cherrywood, all the things that you were supposed
to put into a home of that size and that stature.
But I feel that you can completely overlook that for
all its flaws.

Speaker 1 (02:22):
And this home was also on the edge of a winery.

Speaker 2 (02:27):
Correct, It's on the edge of the Bernardo Winery in
North San Diego County. In that part of the world,
especially before a lot of more homes were built, the
coyotes were everywhere. I mean, that was the background to
my childhood. I would hear that, and we had a
dog and we knew to keep her inside. Dogs disappeared,
cats disappeared, Every small thing disappeared because coyotes kind of

ran rampant and we heard them constantly.

Speaker 1 (02:55):
Now, your mother, who you have a nickname for, now
had a name for the house. The house had a
name and also a style.

Speaker 2 (03:07):
The home was called just to Lago and it was
the first two letters of everybody in our house. There
was Joan, Steve, Adam, Allison, Jonathan, and she called it
a French country castle. I think she was reading a
lot of architectural digest at that point, and I think
she really liked that little detail. Oh nail, nail is

my goodness? How to begin? My mother is larger than
life in so many ways. At first I adored her.
She was somebody who I felt the world wounded and
the world really hadn't justified its experience to her, if
that makes any sense. Basically, I felt that she didn't

get a fair shaken life. She didn't want kids, that
was pretty clear. She had wanted children. She wanted to
be free, she wanted to go to India, she wanted
to experience the world, and said she had kids because
that's what my father wanted. And I felt sorry for
her for that. I felt sorry for her for being
in a marriage that was very, very obviously flawed. I

also looked up to her. She was somebody who to
me was beautiful and smart and all the things that
I hoped to be as a child.

Speaker 1 (04:23):
Did you know as a child that Nails hadn't wanted kids?

Speaker 2 (04:28):
I did. She told me, she said, I didn't want
to have kids. Your father forced me to have children.
And it was very very clear. It was just like yup,
did not want to have kids, never wanted it.

Speaker 1 (04:43):
Why did you call her nails?

Speaker 2 (04:45):
She was really really into her nails, or her grooming
of her nails, her cake nails. I mean at the time,
I think lee pressons were very much the fashion, and
she did that. But she also would go and get
her nails done and they were be they were very
well groomed. She kept them such and they were just

so much a part of her. But I also called
her nails because they really represented a part of her personality,
very sharp and very dangerous, and you didn't want to
mess with them too much. They would cut You.

Speaker 1 (05:24):
Tell me a little bit about your father, who you
have the nickname for of the rooster.

Speaker 2 (05:31):
Rooster is very proud of himself, especially as when I
was a child who was very proud of what he
did for a living as an engineer. He actually did
GPS for a very long time, very very proud of that,
but also proud of things like frequent fire miles. He
would brad to us when we were young about his

freaking fire miles, and that made absolutely no sense to us.
But we learned to nod and smile. That was just
something that we did, and I think with my father
that's a very important lesson nodding and smiling and saying yes, yes, yes,
because he doesn't really listen to what he's told. He

listens to what he says, and that's really about it.

Speaker 1 (06:17):
What did the frequent flyer miles represent to him?

Speaker 2 (06:21):
They represented cash and cachet. He's a collector in a sense.
He checked his bank balance three times a day. He
was big on collecting money. But I think it was
the collection and the accumulation of which he was very proud.
Hotel points were the same thing. He was very very
into that, and the more he got, the more he
enjoyed talking about it. We didn't understand that that wasn't

the case for everybody. We just thought everybody's father talked
about their frequent flyer miles and their hotel points, and
again we just nodded and smiled the whole heck of
a lot. As far as I know, there were never
money issues. There were responsibility issues. My parents sort of
would bat it back and forth, almost like a volleyball.

It's your job, No, it's your job, it's your job,
and things did not get addressed, and what happened was
that they became normalized. We felt that everybody had a
floor in their home that was not covered with carpet,
everybody had stained carpets. Everybody had these things, and they

just became part of our lives. And I believe that
my parents fell subject to that as well, where it
was just like, this is just how we live.

Speaker 1 (07:38):
That's so interesting. So the dysfunction, there weren't external reasons
for it.

Speaker 2 (07:42):
It was all internal, very much so, and that's a
good way to put it. It was very internal. It
was very internally driven. And if you look at something
often enough, it just becomes part of what you're used
to seeing. And I think that the state of the
home became part of what we were used to seeing

and what they were used to seeing. I had gone
to an orthodontist and I had a plaster cast made
up my jaw, and it sat on the dining room
table like some sort of art object. We never did
anything with it. I never got my teeth fixed. It
was the same thing. We just it became normalized.

Speaker 1 (08:20):
That is such a great detail. By the time Allison
turns ten, the challenges no longer just live inside her home.
Her own body begins to present challenges too. She's nearing
puberty and she's changing. She isn't really conscious of the
changes right away until one day she is.

Speaker 2 (08:45):
I remember the exact moment. I was sitting on the
floor of the school's multipurpose room, and I could tell
that the back of my shirt had ridden up slightly.
And the reason that I knew that was because I
heard laughter. And when somebody's laughing, you can tell there
was something. There's something about that that you can tell

that that laughter is pointed at you. And I heard
them say the animal. They were laughing and pointing, and
I hadn't realized that I had hair there on the
lower part of my back. I just had not realized that.
And it was something that came into my consciousness, almost

like the coyotes did outside of my window. It was
like once they were not there, and then they were.
They were howling, and I just became very, very aware
that this was about me, This was pointed toward me,
and that they were laughing at me. And after that
I became so aware that there was so much on

which to be judged well.

Speaker 1 (09:49):
And it's interesting too that your first realization that you
had hair on that part of your body was accompanied by,
or was you know, caused by being made fun of,
So you know, it's sort of like a shame sandwich.

Speaker 2 (10:05):
Absolutely, that's a great way to put it. It was
just a shame sandwich. And I knew immediately this is
not okay. Sometimes people's reactions do you tell you something
about yourself, And the reaction I was receiving told me
this is not right. I'm a girl, right, I'm not
supposed to grow hair here, am I? And at that

point I realized it wasn't just there. It was on
my arms, it was all over my body, it was
on my face. The realization dawned on me in that
moment so quickly, My god, what is going on with me?
And you know, later on I thought, did they do
me a favor by calling this out to me, what
would have happened if I had never realized it, And

would that have been a good thing or a bad thing?
And I actually don't know. I went home and I
pulled up my shirt and I said, I got laughed
at today, and this is why there's something wrong. And
my mother's reaction was so interesting. It was like her
face was very blank, and I was, of course in tears.

It was something that I never expected would have happened
to me. And then when I realized this is not
just happening to me, this is who and what I am.
I needed her to help me, and I've started to
realize in that moment help is not afoot. This is
probably not going to happen.

Speaker 1 (11:30):
Alison's mother does take her to a doctor fairly quickly,
and the doctor uses a word she's never heard before,
a word for what's going on with her here suit
Alison hears it, and her mother hears it too. The
doctor says, if this were my daughter, I would get
on this immediately. He writes some lab orders for blood work,

but when Alison and her mother leave the doctor's office,
her mother says, let's get out of.

Speaker 2 (11:57):
Here so we can take care of this ourselves, and
the lab slip disappeared, and along with the lab slip
went my hopes of getting treated medically at that point,
and I couldn't figure out why. I didn't understand why
she wanted to bring it in house as she did,

and why she would have brought me to the doctor
only to then turn around and ignore what he had
to say. And the word here suit I understood that immediately.
I understood what it meant, and I felt, honestly, I
don't think it's too dramatic to say life sentence. I
don't know that I have those words to put to it.
But I knew that I was in for something, and

it was going to be a big deal and something
that was going to define my life.

Speaker 1 (12:45):
Have you come to realize what was going on with
your mother by on the one hand, taking you to
the doctor and on the other hand, rejecting what the
doctor had to say.

Speaker 2 (12:57):
I've thought about this so much. What I've come to
realize is that she exercised her responsibility to the best
of her capability, which is to say, she took me
to the doctor. She couldn't go beyond that, she couldn't
continue to admit that something was wrong, something was wrong

with her daughter, and she couldn't put my care in
another person's hands. And in a way, I feel that
it was almost a protective urge. I can handle this,
this is my daughter. I can handle this. We don't
need to get lap tests. I can take care of it.
And that is Nails to a t. I can handle this.

I can do it. And I really believe that's what
it was. And in a way, I actually believed she
felt as though she was doing me a favor. I'm
going to spare her these invasive tests, all the things
that are going to come from this, all the things
that could come from this, we will handle it ourselves.

Speaker 1 (14:00):
When Allison and her mom get home from the doctor's appointment,
Nails takes her into the bathroom and she sets her
up in the mirror with a razor and shaving cream.
She proceeds to show her daughter how to shave like
a man would.

Speaker 2 (14:14):
She was very precise about it, and I can recall
her voice as she said, the sun will tan the
sides of your face evenly, it will hide the stubble.
I recall her saying that. I recall her showing me
how to use the razor, telling me how to position
my jaw, for example, so I could get a really

close cut. I mean things that you would expect a
man to do with a son, or a woman to
do with her son. But I was not her son,
and the difference there was overlooked. I can't fathom it.
But she did do exactly that. And I can picture
the bathroom, the green and pink motif that they had

in there, the exposed light bulbs with the they called
Hollywood lights. I can picture the phone that they had,
because we had phones in every room. I can picture
all of these things, and I picture the can of
barbisol that she used. I remember how hot it was
that day. I remember it all.

Speaker 1 (15:14):
So then this becomes your routine and every day before
you go to school, this is your own private, your
own secret.

Speaker 2 (15:24):
Practice that you do every day twice a day.

Speaker 1 (15:27):
So before you go to school in the morning and
then when you come back after school exactly. But this
routine isn't really working in that it isn't protecting Alison
from shame. The kids at school are cruel, not all
of them, but many are. At that age, to be
different in any way is to be a target.

Speaker 2 (15:49):
You know, they had a name for me. They had
a couple of names for me, as kids do. One
was the animal, one was the werewolf. I was the werewolf,
and that was what I heard walking down the hall.
And the animal was based on a kid's toy. There
was a commercial and it said nothing can stop the animal.

And they would say that nothing can stop the animal,
and I was the animal. I was the werewolf. I
was a thing. And I will say that that was
a minority of the students. There were some very cruel kids,
but there were also some wonderful kids. There were also
some kids who respected me, cared about me, treated me

with dignity and with love. I have to remember that
when I think about this. Otherwise there's just a whole
lot of sadness, but it is really balanced out by
remembering the good.

Speaker 1 (16:44):
One friend, in particular, Missy, becomes essential to Allison's sanity
and sense of self. Missy is compassionate, she's caring and loyal.
She's also protective of Allison, willing to embrace, defend, and
accept her as she is. In Missy's eyes, Alison is
not an animal or a monster or a sing She's

just her, and to Missy, that's just perfect. The same compassion, however,
is not found within the walls of Alison's home. Nails
is still refusing to pursue medical treatment for her daughter,
and on top of this, she and Rooster are fighting
more and more. Their marriage seems to be falling apart,
and Nails is very forthcoming with her kids about her

feelings about their dad. Perhaps two forthcoming.

Speaker 2 (17:35):
She told us about their sex life. She told us
about the fact that my father wanted to worry to
watch Doctor Ruth with him, and she would to do it.
She told us about all the things that he held
against her. She told us about all the things that
she felt she was a victim because of how he

treated her. All these ways, I was confident by the
time time I was five or six. I think the
fractice between the two of them really defined the households,
and it really defined our intrinsic tension. And in a way,
though it was never outright said, it was considered selfish

to advocate for oneself. You would just never think to
do it. You would never think to ask for something
because my parents were too busy fighting and fighting as
a full time job when it comes to my family,
and you know, you don't have any room for extracurriculars.
And I fell under the umbrella of extracurriculars. I was

not that person whose medical needs were addressed because it
interfered with the busy work of them fighting. And they
thought about everything. They thought about whether Jim Nabors was gay,
they thought about whether Billy Joel was Jewish, and I
mean it was unbelievable, the minutia about which they would argue.

But they also argued about more serious things, of course,
and it was just it raged and the sheer spectrum
of topics that they could get into it about or
just mind boggling, And in the meantime, the kids were
just on the sideline and we really we weren't heard

or seen. My father was a domestic violence perpetrator. He
didn't do it often, but of course, as we know,
once is too much, and I knew that. I knew
when he hit my mother that was unacceptable, and I
couldn't say or do anything about it. Was I was
completely sidelined. But there was also violence that came from

my mother. There was slapping, there was throwing. I remember
at one point my father was furious about something and
he up ended the dinner table and the floor was
sticky with lemonade for days afterward, no one cleaned it up.

Speaker 1 (20:04):
We'll be right back. In nineteen ninety, Allison's parents separate
and divorce. Her dad moves out, and Nails stays in

the house. The house is very important to her and
she'll do anything to hold on to it. Nails also
becomes involved with a younger man named Bill.

Speaker 2 (20:35):
They became very, very strange. It was her taking care
of his every need, her bending to his will, and
her giving him everything she thought he needed. And once again,
the kids were sidelined in this effort. My father knew
about him and was furious and couldn't do anything. There

was nothing that could be done about it. The dynamic
of the household now was my mother and Bill, and
that's what defined the household. And the household was defined
by the places where they would sit wrapped in conversation.
You did not interrupt them, you did not talk to them.
They were busy, same as my parents were busy fighting,

My mother and Bill were busy being my mother and Bill.
By the time Bill's in the picture, Allison is about
seventeen and she's eager to leave home. She's applying to colleges.
She knows she does not want to stay in this
chaotic environment, now made even more chaotic because of Bill's
disposition and his footprint. It was so painful to come

in the house and see all the vestiges of this
person who didn't care about us. There was no attempt
to get to know the kids. He was basically there
for the goodies, for the pool, for the master bedroom,
which he claimed. He wasn't interested in us, and we
were not interested in him. We just wanted him out,

and he was not leaving, so I knew I needed
to get out. Once my mother and Bill left the house,
and I could see them walking around in the winery.
They could see them walking together, talking as they always did,
and I looked at them. It couldn't have been for

more than ten to fifteen seconds, but sometimes life just freezes,
and in that moment, I thought, I'm done. I'm fucking done.
And I looked around. I was in the master bedroom.
I had been snooping in the master bedroom, and I saw.

Speaker 1 (22:41):
The pig because grown people have piggy banks.

Speaker 2 (22:45):
Apparently, and I saw the baseball bet and talk about
going together like peanut butter and jelly, and it was
like somebody else had picked that bat up and slammed
and slammed and slammed until it was all over. And
there was a heck a lot of money in there,
and I took it. I knew I was going to

get caught, and I think that part of me wanted
to be caught, because part of me was like, you're
going to see me, you will see me, and I
will be I will make myself seen. But I think
that the overarching thing was I wanted to take something.
Something so much has been taken from me, and I

wanted to take something. My stability, my security such as
it was with my parents being as they were, had
been stolen from me and there was nothing I could do.
But still the coins and the dollars that lay before me,
and that was money was a very very important thing
in my home, in the place where I grew up,

and that represented something to me, and so I knew
darn well I was going to get caught. But in
the moment, I just grabbed, grabbed and grabbed, and then
I ran.

Speaker 1 (24:02):
And what happens when nails does catch you and confronts you.

Speaker 2 (24:07):
I was told pack a bed and go I don't
care where you have to sleep. I don't care if
you sleep in the park. You are going to get out,
and you are going to get out right now. So
I called a friend and she picked me up. My
mother said to me, I will call the police and
have you escorted from this house. You will get out.
You stole money, and you will get out of the

house right now. So I really had no choice in
the matter.

Speaker 1 (24:34):
So, Allison, what.

Speaker 2 (24:35):
Did you.

Speaker 1 (24:37):
Feel like in this liminal time between living under your
parents roof and then, you know, heading to college, which,
as you point out, is a kind of waystation between
childhood and adulthood. You had people who were amazing to you,

and then people who were misguided in the way that
they tried to help, and then people who were just
downright cruel. What was your feeling about yourself as you
were sort of entering college.

Speaker 2 (25:13):
I liked myself. I was a very likable narrator, and
I wanted the best for myself. I was not interested
in settling for the shit that was around me, and
I felt that moving forward into a new world, a
new experience, and something that I could define on my
own terms was the way to go something It really

defines My memory of that time is how hot, how
bloody hot, the northern San Diego County can get. And
I remember moving very slowly in that heat and feeling
like I'm trapped, How am I ever going to get out?
But knowing that I had to. It was like there
was It was almost as if something had blown up
behind me, and there was a heat at my back

and it was pushing me, and it was pushing me
out of that place. And I liked myself enough to
know that I needed to save myself.

Speaker 1 (26:08):
Alison finally does escape that place. She makes her way
to college. It's nineteen ninety two and she's in a
lecture hall, the kind with very small seats with little
floating desks attached to them. Alison can't sit in these seats.
She's overweight, and though she doesn't know it at the time,
weight retention is part of her syndrome. Another student named

Carol approaches Alison when she sees she can't fit in
the chair. Carol says, do you ever feel like a freak?
But she's not saying this to be mean. She's saying
this because she feels this way too. She and Alison
immediately connect and become fast friends.

Speaker 2 (26:50):
I think somehow she's zero done on me. And sometimes
you see somebody and you see that they share something
that you have, and I think she saw that, and
it was really liberating to hear that, especially at a
place like you see Santa Barbara, where I've often said
that eighty percent clones and twenty percent amazing people. There

are a lot of beautiful, beautiful people in Santa Barbara,
and neither Carol nor I fit in there literally, figuratively, metaphorically,
however you want to put it. And I think we
really recognize that in each other. I think her thing
was that emotionally she was very, very mature, almost a
little too much so, and I think it felt like

she really just wasn't understood by the people around her.
And she certainly felt like that in high school and
in college. I think she came to college hoping that
there would be something different and she didn't find it.
But in terms of physicality, she fit in. She was thin,
and to my eyes, she was beautiful. She had luminous

blue eyes and dark hair, and she was gorgeous. I
don't know if you realize how well she fit in,
but she was a lovely girl.

Speaker 1 (28:04):
That's so interesting because there are so many different ways
of feeling like a freak, and so many different kinds
of behaviors and secrets and secret lives and secret shames
that most of us, in one way or another have,
and that it doesn't necessarily show itself on the surface exactly.

Speaker 2 (28:26):
It's how are you weird in the world? And Carol
saw that. She saw that I was weird in the
world in a different way than she was, and I
think there was a draw there. And I've been drawn
to people like that as well, people who I could tell, Hey,
you've got something. And what I came to realize is
everyone does. I think at that pulloint in my life,

I came to realize that I wasn't the only one
who felt weird in the world and felt like a freak.
And she really helped me to understand that.

Speaker 1 (28:59):
Carol also luminates something else for Allison, another way in
which her parents failed her. Carol mentions that she has
an appointment to see her gynecologist, and Alison doesn't even
know what that is because she's never been to a gynocologist.
She hasn't seen a doctor of any kind since she
was fifteen, not a pediatrician, not a family doctor, not

an internist. Her parents are educated people, people of means.
They were people who knew how to make the typical
doctor's appointments for their family, but they didn't.

Speaker 2 (29:36):
The last doctor I had seen was a dentist, and
I remember feeling very very self conscious. Fortunately they did
not comment on any of my facial air, but I
remember feeling grateful that I didn't need to go to
the doctor and I didn't need to be exposed for
what I was. But I also thought, this isn't right.

There's something that's not right about this. And when when
she said that about going to the guydecologists, I had
never been examined in that way, and it scared the
hell out of me. At that point in my life,
my periods had already started disappearing, which is part of
the syndrome that I have. So I was like, well,
I'm sure I need to, but there's no way in

hell that I'm going to go and expose myself that way.
And I remember being very jealous that she had the
internal strength to do something as mundane as go to
a doctor's appointment.

Speaker 1 (30:30):
Do you think that the reason why your parents didn't
have you do this sort of annual well visit to
pediatrician or things that were usual. Was simply neglect or
do you think that it was that if a pediatrician
really were to take a look at you, they would
have to say, you know, to your parents, look there's

really something going on here that needs to be addressed.

Speaker 2 (30:56):
I think that they did not want that call to act.
I think it was that malicious. And I mean, my
parents couldn't clean lemonade up off the floor, they couldn't
water the lawn. They share as hell, we're gonna pursue
treatment for their daughter. I mean, that was just not
going to happen. I think they weren't interested in having

to pursue that. And I think they knew that if
they were to take me to the doctor, this is
something that was very obviously going to come up, and
they didn't want to deal with it. And I think
maybe they wrapped it in the idea of, oh, we'll
do it later, we'll take care of this later, and
I think you can later yourself to death, and I

think that's what they did.

Speaker 1 (31:43):
But Allison isn't going to later herself to death. She's
still in college. When she realizes that later has become
Now she searches for a specialist who she just picks
at random from the yellow pages, but it turns out
to be a good pick. The doctor she saw many
years earlier, the one whose advice Nails refused to take.

This doctor tells her that she has something called heresuitism,
an extreme case. He suggests labs, and though historically Allison
has felt shame about going to the doctor, she's emboldened
and she agrees to follow up with lab work. When
the tests come back, he gives her even more information
a diagnosis. Beyond heresuitism, she has something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

To have this diagnosis is huge. To have this diagnosis
is to unlock the secret of herself that had been
concealed and unknown for so long. The doctor puts her
on a treatment plan. Then he asks if she'd be
willing to be photographed from the neck down for a
textbook As she is, He says, a textbook case.

Speaker 2 (32:57):
That was the first time that I had heard the
name of what was wrong with me, And there was
something so liberating about that there was a diagnosis, there
was a name. It wasn't just a thing. It was
a name, but the wind went right out of my sales.
When I was asked to be in a textbook, I
just I remember sitting there in this office looking at

him and just blinking, and I think I said something
to the degree of I'll think about it, vowing never
ever to do it. There was no way neck down
or not, no means of identification or not. There was
no way in hell that I was going to appear
in a textbook again. It was making me into a thing,

into a case, and I couldn't bear that.

Speaker 1 (33:45):
Yeah, into the animal. Exactly how long do you stay
on a treatment plan before you go? You know what,
This just isn't working, and it's expensive and it's time consuming,
and you know, I don't have the insurance for it,
and I'm just not going to do it anymore.

Speaker 2 (34:00):
I'm going to say something on the order of six months.
Every month, I would go buy my bottles of hope
and I would take my pills and it wasn't doing anything.
My levels were going down, and they kept telling me, like,
your levels are taking a fall, this is wonderful, this
is great. But I was still shaving twice a day.
I still had hair all over my body. What the

hell good were my levels if I was still wearing
out the bit. I mean, I just couldn't. I couldn't
see continuing with this.

Speaker 1 (34:34):
We'll be back in a moment with more family secrets.
Allison graduates from college. She leaves California and begins her

life as a working young adult, trying to navigate her syndrome,
her relationships, and her identity. She still struggles with her medication.
She's not really in touch with her parents or her brothers,
and she begins having relationships with men, which triggers many
long held insecurities and fears. As she strives to feel

comfortable in her skin, she fears how partners will view
her body.

Speaker 2 (35:23):
I got a job as an editor at the North
Platte Telegraph in North Platte, Nebraska, which is exactly the
inverse of Santa Barbara, California. I mean, it's everything that
you would picture in the rural Midwest. And I was
there and I was still taking the medication when I
went there, and I had to get it refilled, and

I called a pharmacist and he said, well, this must
be for your husband, and I said, no, it's for me.
And he was very confused and it's hurts so much
that even somebody in the medical professions, I mean by
me that it just it took away all of my
desire to continue with this. And I just said, you know,

forget it and hung up and I did not take
that medication again. I was like, I am done. I
was losing steam on it anyway, and having this pharmacist
to say that was kind of the nail and the
coffin for the medication. At that point, I was so scared.
I was unable to really have intercourse. It was terrified.
Everything in me just tightened up. And I had an

experience with a man who was incredibly cruel about my body.
But he was not just incredibly cruel, but he would
be both incredibly cruel and then incredibly kind. It would
say something lovely about my voice, my hands, my face,
and then he would just say like and you have
the hairriest little last, with a big smile on his face.

And this is somebody who actually claimed he wanted a relationship.
And I ran the hell away from that. I ran
from it as fast as I could because I didn't
like being alone. I wanted a relationship. I didn't know
that I could extend the emotional commitment that it would
take to be in a relationship. But I sure wanted

to try. That said, I had seen enough in my
own house. I had seen enough abuse to recognize what
that was. And at that point I was still quite young,
but I understood abuse when I heard it and saw it,
and I ran from him and didn't look back.

Speaker 1 (37:30):
Well, that's such a saving grace, Allison, because sometimes the
opposite happens, right, Sometimes abuse is the only thing that
somebody knows. It's sort of the ground of their childhood,
so it feels familiar, and it returned to it, and
so you really had a lot of strength to just
know this is not going to be my life.

Speaker 2 (37:51):
It was an instinct. It was like someone tapping me
on the knee and my foot just slamming up. I
couldn't make myself be with him. There was something in
me that said, do not do this. This is not
somebody you want to open yourself up to. And never
a regret, never looked back.

Speaker 1 (38:12):
Some years pass and Alison moves back to California. She's
in Berkeley now and she's planning a trip to Europe.
Her good friend Matt, someone for whom she harbors romantic feelings.
Lives there and she's excited to travel and to see him,
but she's feeling self conscious about her appearance. She decides
to give laser hair removal a try. This is a

big step for her, but she thinks it'll be a
good idea. She thinks it will make her feel better.

Speaker 2 (38:42):
Oh, it's huge. It was basically me addressing the elephant
in the room. This is what I have. I have
facial hair. This is what I have, and I'm going
to do something about it. Because I wanted to go
to Europe and not worry about that. I wanted to
go to Europe looking good. I wanted to go to

Europe looking like a woman. And I went to a
clinic in Berkeley. Was actually right across from the Claremont Hotel,
which is a beautiful historic place, and it was just
a lovely part of town and I chose it for
that reason. It was like, well, it's in Claremont, it
must be good. And it was a hell of a

hack job. It took an hour. It hurt like nothing
else I had ever experienced before. And what happened was
I broke out in incredible folliculitis. It looked like acne,
and I remember thinking, my god, I look like the
elephant man. It was horrific, and I still had to shave.

It was it really was like shaving in a minefield.
I mean, it hurts so badly. And it happened two
days after I had the procedure, and that was exactly
when I was leaving to go to Europe. So I
spent my first days in Europe in Venice, terrified, alone
and in pain. And it was one of the worst

moments in my life.

Speaker 1 (40:09):
And what happened with Matt because it sounds like there
was another sort of warning.

Speaker 2 (40:16):
Oh. I showed up in Barcelona where we were going
to meet for New Year's and he had a girlfriend.
They were very early in their relationship. They were very
comfortable with each other, and they were very cute. And
I knew just by hearing him talk about it, just
by hearing him explain it to me, and I couldn't

bear seeing him with her, and I didn't see him.
I had come all that way and I didn't see him,
and I didn't want him to see me. I just
couldn't bear it.

Speaker 1 (40:51):
So following this, you return to Berkeley, and how are
you feeling? I mean, the is just such a horrible
thing because you were trying to do something that was
going to make things better and it actually not only
didn't make things better, but briefly made things a whole
hell of a lot worse. And against that backdrop, you

also feel the loss of this friendship and the loss
of this hope of somebody that you have feelings for.
So when you return home, how are you doing? At
that point?

Speaker 2 (41:26):
Ita was both really terrible and almost like a new beginning, like,
all right, you know what. I got my butt kicked. Romantically,
I dealt with the folliculitis, which when I was in
Europe I had taken care of it with Pedge Cortison,
and I was like, well, back to square one, but

I've learned some lessons here. And I had always been
a very strangely positive person, strangely optimistic, and I was optimistic.
I was like, well, this sucks. And I do remember
being on my couch for three weeks and getting strep

throad because I was love sick, so it wasn't you know,
everything is roses. But I also thought, well, I've got
to move on. This is so painful and so hurtful,
and yet this person who I cared about is half
a world away, and I really didn't have much contact
with him after that. I felt as though I either

needed to move forward or vegetate, and I was never
interested in vegetating. I wanted to just go on with
my life.

Speaker 1 (42:40):
And that's just what Allison does. She goes on in
two thousand, she meets a man named Adam.

Speaker 2 (42:48):
Adam came into my life when I worked at Bayer
Corporation here in Berkeley, and he was somebody who I
first became aware of on my very front first day
of work because I heard him talking to everybody and
I thought, oh god, he's going to come up to
me and small talk me to death. And that is
exactly what happened. The man drove me insane. He was

talking about the most boring stuff that drove me. Baddy.
You know, your first day at work, you want to
be nice to somebody. But I just sort of smiled
at him and said, you know, I'm not a mourning person.
So he came back right at noon and said, well
it's noon, let's go to lunch. And I got to
know him in this way where we worked together. We

saw quite a bit of each other, and I grew
to respect and admire him who he was, somebody who
was kind and caring and open and all of those
things that I questioned in myself. Am I kind? Am
I caring? Am I open? I never felt that I
was open? So I recognized that at him, and it

drew me to him.

Speaker 1 (43:58):
It also seems like his self presentation, his voice, the
impression that he made on you when you first met him,
you sort of felt some kind of kindredness with him.

Speaker 2 (44:14):
Absolutely the minute that I heard his voice, I thought,
my god, this is somebody who is the closest presentation
of oneself to me as I've ever seen. This is unbelievable,
I mean, and he was so open about it. I
get called ma'am on the phone. He said, that's straight up,

and I thought, my god, I get called sir in
the grocery store and I would never tell you that,
But he said it with a smile, because as he
told me early on, he said, I decided that I
didn't give a damn what anybody thought about me when
I was sixteen years old. It wasn't like a negative thing.
It wasn't an oppositional thing. It was a positive thing,

like I don't care. I'm going to move forward in
my life and I'm gonna speak my mind. And if
I do it in a voice that's higher than most guys,
well so what who cared? And that was incredibly refreshing
and incredibly exciting to me.

Speaker 1 (45:14):
In addition to being a breath of fresh air for Allison,
Adam also challenges her, but again, this is a positive thing.
He encourages her to reflect on some of her behaviors,
helping her to realize her patterns. He notices and tells
her that it seems hard for her to be sincere.
As Adam models sincerity for Allison, she exercises her lifelong

defense mechanisms. I mean, how could she have gone through
her life without defense mechanisms. Her favorite is deflection, making
jokes around serious subjects, making light of things that actually
trouble her.

Speaker 2 (45:53):
Oh he saw it, and he just nailed me on it,
and he was one hundred percent correct. I've always used
humor as a deflection mechanism. I've always used sort of
this cock eyed, edgy way to distract them. Please don't
see what I don't want you to see. Please don't
recognize what I don't want you to recognize. And it

was very hard for me to be sincere because sincerity
was vulnerability and Adam had embraced vulnerability and I hadn't
quite realized that until he really said that to me,
and I thought, my god, you are willing to be
vulnerable in this world. How I couldn't figure that out?

Speaker 1 (46:36):
Yeah, I love that. And it sounds like in the
beginning of your relationship with him, that gave you the
sense of hope or possibility or desire to once again
seek medical treatment. And when you make an appointment, Adam says,

do you want me to go with you? Radical?

Speaker 2 (46:59):
Right? That was amazing. It blew my mind. You're going
to do what You're going to come with me? And
there was a part of me that was like, oh,
hell no, I do not want you to come with me.
And then there was the bigger part of me that
was like, please, I need you. And he was there
and I sat there and I filled out the medical

questionnaire and we goofed off and we laughed together, and
it was so very different than anything I'd ever experienced
in a medical office, you know, being knuckleheads together the
way that we always had been, and it really diffused
my fears and my worries. I was still very anxious,

of course, but I was able to do it. And
I was able to do it because he was by
my side.

Speaker 1 (47:48):
Adam stays by her side. Soon they're engaged with support
from her partner and her doctor. She's now on a
new and helpful treatment plan. She decides, despite her first
experience with the folipulitis, to try laser hair removal before
the wedding. Things are different now, and optimist that she is,

she's both hopeful and confident that this will be a
better experience.

Speaker 2 (48:15):
What I hadn't understood before is that it took both parts.
It took being medically controlled and the cosmetic procedure to
really get the hair under control. It's like, Okay, my
levels are back down. I don't have the testosterone raging
through my system the way that I so often do.

Let's try this again, Let's give it another try, and
with Adam by my side, we went out to Walnut
Creek in beautiful suburban Bay Area and I did it.
It took I want to say, something like between ten
and fifteen sessions to get it under control. It was
quite painful and a little stressful, but they made it

so manageable, and they gave us wine and that helped
a lot.

Speaker 1 (49:05):
How did you feel on your wedding day?

Speaker 2 (49:07):
Oh, my gosh, that was the coolest day. It was.
It was so awesome. We were married at a restaurant
called Halfa de la Pause. There's a ceremony in the
Jewish tradition called you hood, and you go into a
space just to be alone with your partner. And there
was an herb shop next door to Cafe de la Pause,
and they very kindly allowed us to do your hood

in there, and we went in together. And later the
guests said that they could hear me yelling I'm married.
Oh my god, I'm married. No fucking way I'm married.
I mean, I was just like I remember doing the
can can and in my dress, Like I was just
over the top because I just had married the coolest
person in the world. Why wouldn't I be happy? I was.

I was thrilled, and I kept thinking I was going
to cry, And I never cried that day because I
was just too damn happy to cry. I mean, it
was just it was beautiful day.

Speaker 1 (50:02):
You talk about, you know, toward the end of the book,
you talk about the way that people very possibly well meaning,
but nonetheless people trying to fix things over the years,
trying to make things sort of be okay in this

way that was really really not helpful because what it
was doing was basically telling you that you should be
different or that you are fixable. It sounds to me
like Adam was so completely accepting and in love with

you this, getting the medical treatment, having the laser hair removal,
it was something that you wanted to do because this
mattered to you. You wanted to move through the world
in a different way, and you wanted to get rid
of the hair, and that mattered to you, not because
it was some societal norm or thing or standard of beauty,

but really because this was messing with how you wanted
to feel.

Speaker 2 (51:11):
About yourself exactly. I was not interested in the billboards,
the trumpeted, you know, hairless as perfect. I wasn't interested
in the social mores. I was interested in feeling okay
when I walked in a room, and I trusted my
gut on that. And I am well aware that it
could seem when somebody does something like this, when somebody

has a pretty radical cosmetic procedure, oh you know, they're
bending to societal will. Oh No, that wasn't the case
for me. I knew that I wanted to get rid
of this meeting the facial hair so that I could
move through the world in a way that felt unimpeded
by something so dramatic, and that came entirely internally. Absolutely.

Speaker 1 (52:02):
Here's Allison reading one more passage from her powerful memoir
Bearded Lady.

Speaker 2 (52:10):
If you told me in the beginning that it would
take years to figure out even how to fight, I
might have shrugged and given up from the start, as
it was. Finding the right combination meant spinning the lock
over and over. You could have told me that, and
I might have believed you, Or maybe not. It could
be that this was something I had to discover on
my own, through fits and starts, giving up hope and

picking it back up once more, running into walls before
finding what looked like the right path. Even now, I'm
still holding my breath.

Speaker 1 (52:52):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. Molly's Acur is
the story editor and Dylan Fagan is the executive producer.
If you have a family secret you'd like to share,
please leave us a voicemail and your story could appear
on an upcoming episode. Our number is one eight eight
eight Secret zero. That's the number zero. You can also

find me on Instagram at Danny Ryder and if you'd
like to know more about the story that inspired this podcast,
check out my memoir Inheritance. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio,

visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen
to your favorite shows.

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