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Tell Me the Secret of Your Great Strength

The morning after a man was elected who had, arguably, the worst head of hair in American presidential history, I began pulling out my own. I would watch the news or read the paper, and my hands would wander, fitfully, until they found my hairline, twirling a few strands experimentally around my finger until one snapped out. It was a weird sensation: the hair popping free of its sheath (I think of a sword) with just the smallest of pinches. Without thinking, I’d do it again. Then again. Then again.

Stop pulling, my husband would plead, grabbing me gently by the wrist. It was like my childhood habit of biting my nails, something I did until my grandmother told me that flies laid eggs under people’s fingernails, and I would get maggots in my stomach if I put my fingers in my mouth. Then I never bit my nails again. But my grandmother was dead, and there was bad news everywhere, and within a month, I had a bald band framing my whole face, like a scalp-colored accessory a schoolgirl might wear.

I stared at myself in the mirror. I looked like Queen Elizabeth, the first one, the one who plucked her hairline back an inch or more to keep up with the fashion of the time: a high forehead had for centuries been a must for ladies of the aristocracy. Apparently, she also wore a hairpiece to pull her hair back further. I wonder if this hurt, if she took it off at night to sleep and rubbed the feeling back into her grateful scalp. I look at her portraits now and think none of it seems comfortable: the hair, the heavy jewels, the magnificent spiky ruffs puffing out at her neck like jungle birds. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw her dark stare, our shared tiaras of bare skin.


Here’s what I remember about the story of Samson and Delilah from Sunday School. He is powerful. For some reason, she doesn’t want him to be powerful. His hair is the source of his power, like Iron Man’s armor. So she cuts it while he is sleeping, and he deflates like a balloon.

When I revisited the story as an adult, of course, things were more complicated. Samson is on the Most Wanted list of the Philistines, and when he falls in love with Delilah, the Philistines instruct her to ask him: tell me the secret of your great strength. Each night, she asks him, and he lies to her. He says, for example, the secret is to tie him with ropes, and he would then be as weak as any other man, but the Philistines try this, and Samson breaks free. And the next night, Delilah tries to pry the secret from him again. What astonishes me is that it only takes three nights to get the truth from him. Isn’t it obvious to him that Delilah is trying to get him killed? Couldn’t he keep telling her inventive lies, like Scheherazade, night after night to avoid the ambush that obviously lay waiting for him?

But he is, I guess, rendered stupid by his love. On the fourth night, he tells her the truth, and Delilah calls someone to cut off his seven braids while he’s sleeping. Why doesn’t she do it herself? I imagine her watching as someone—a servant?—brings the razor across his scalp. He sleeps through it, his oblivious head in her lap. And when he wakes, the Philistines are upon him. He goes to fight back: “But he did not know the Lord had left him.” As if the Lord were physically present in his hair, woven like a ribbon into each braid.


I pulled my hair for many months before I learned this was not just an anxious quirk but a diagnosable condition: trichotillomania. Hair-pulling madness. It’s a form of self-harm, the child of OCD and anxiety. Anti-anxiety medication sometimes helps, but I was already on that. Cognitive behavior therapy usually helps, but I couldn’t afford that.

I read the paper in the morning, pedaled past swastikas graffitied on the bike path, then picked long strands of my hair from my children’s clothes, from the vacuum cleaner where they collected.

A woman in a waiting room berated me, disgusted, as I merely ran my fingers through a tangle: You’re getting hair everywhere.


The paradox of American presidencies is that they are at once incredibly secretive—CIA reports redacted with those severe black bars, whispers of “state secrets”—but also embarrassingly transparent. It never ceases to astonish me, for example, the minute detail about the health histories of our presidents that we’re privy to, at least in modern times. We know their weight, we know their surgical histories, the trivia of their bodies. We know that Bill Clinton underwent a colonoscopy in 1984 due to “rectal bleeding.” Ronald Reagan suffered injuries multiple times in his life from falling off horses, in addition, of course, to being shot. Once, he grazed his own leg with a chainsaw.

The man I read about in the newspaper is the oldest person ever elected President. As such, people fuss over his physical fitness for the job, as if that even cracks the top one hundred list of primary concerns. The President’s personal physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, revealed that the President was very healthy. His cholesterol was slightly elevated, and he took medication for it. He also took a pill for rosacea, the skin-reddening condition, and baby aspirin to prevent heart attacks. His only other medication? Propecia, to promote hair growth. Dr. Bornstein, who has hair down to his shoulders, enthusiastically admitted to taking Propecia himself.

The last time Americans chose a President who was losing his hair was 1953 when we elected Eisenhower with his grandfatherly comb-over, a few wisps of gray clinging the crown of his head. In 1953, only half of American households owned a television set.


Thanks to the early twentieth century (male) historian Hilaire Beloc, there is a persistent rumor that Queen Elizabeth I wore a wig to disguise the fact that she had gone bald. By the time she was in her early thirties, he said, she was as bald as an egg. I look at one of my favorite portraits of the Queen, standing next to her throne in a dress with billowing sleeves and gold embroidery. She is 42. Her eyes look a little tired, but she’s smirking, just barely. Her hair is ruddy, curled, close to her head.

I can find very little agreement about Elizabeth’s hair in my research. Did she wear wigs because she was going gray? Or merely to yank her hair back farther from her head? Did she lose her hair near the end of her life or early on? Did it perhaps thin or fall out due to the lead in the mixture she used to make her face paper-white? (How much did she suffer to remain beautiful?) Did she really own eighty hairpieces? There are photographs of a lock of hair said to be hers, given to Phillip Sidney. Like a fox’s fur, it is white with tawny streaks, as if the color has been bled from it.

By the late 1590s, a different male historian writes, the Queen’s political mystique was fading in parallel with her physical appearance.


Although I had never before pulled my hair as a response to anxiety, I began to realize that I had been in a state like this once before, after moving to New York City in September of 2002, one year after 9/11. I was just out of college, dragging my mother’s hand-me-down furniture up three flights of stairs to my apartment in Queens. At that time, chyrons still raced across the bottom of the news channels indicating the color-coded level of a terrorist threat. Often, we were at orange, the second-highest tier. It seemed untenable to me to live in daily fear of impending doom. I couldn’t understand how anyone did it, how all the commuters swayed so lackadaisically on the trains, one hand around the sweaty metal bars, the other hand scrolling through their iPod or holding a newspaper. I started having panic attacks. Sometimes they were clearly linked to fluctuations in the threat levels: I remember one Red day, on the subway platform in Times Square, of all places, feeling my body just stop working, and sinking down to the floor, my cheek pressed sweating up against the cement, squishy with filth. Sometimes the panic was less specific, and I would just be walking Steinway Street, crying and struggling to breathe.

In New York, my hair was in a sleek bob with bangs. It was stylish, I thought, and once a man came up to me in a cafe and handed me a business card with the name of a famous hair care company printed on it, one I recognized despite being out of touch with anything fashionable. He asked if he could snap a photo of my hair for his company. I assumed he was a weirdo and told him no. He backed off politely. In those times, everyone was suspicious to me.

In New York, I only wore my anguish in public for a few moments until the panic abated. And the city was the perfect place to freak out: even a woman crying, prostrate on a subway platform, doesn’t merit a second glance. But now, with my odd head, that band of stubborn blankness, I wore that feeling on the outside, everywhere.


There is a difference between regular hair and hair that is new growth. The tips of normal hair are usually square and neat, either from being cut or from being broken. The tips of new hair are tapered, almost to an invisible point. In this way, it resembles grass. (What is grass? Walt Whitman says; It seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.) Sometimes the tips are kinked as if the hair has struggled this way and that to break free of the scalp. The hairs I pulled out had the fine tips of newly growing hair as if my body was trying to replenish. I didn’t let it. The front of my head would speckle with minuscule growth, and then I would render it bare again.


I thought about Samson again, two years after that election, two years after I started pulling, when I finally brought out the electric razor. The other thing I hadn’t understood as a child was that Samson’s story is about politics; that’s what the Bible is really, a way to explain power. Samson is an Israelite, supposedly a hero, whose birth was foretold by an angel. Delilah is assumed to be the enemy, a Philistine (though the text never spells this out), which would make her a pagan as well as a woman: a sword with two sharp edges. If I wanted to see myself as Samson the moment I turned on the razor and began shaving all of my hair off, I could have. His hair will grow again, and when it does, he will be so strong that he’ll pull down walls. And as I shaved my hair down to a velvet coating over my skull, I knew it would be too short to pull, and then perhaps I could break my own will; I could wait, replenish, gather strength, grow powerful.

But in this—the will-breaking, the waiting—I was also Delilah. Not only is it unspecified whether Delilah is a Philistine, it is also unclear what becomes of her. Movies about the pair have her dying, one among thousands, when Samson brings the pillars of the temple tumbling. But this is an invention. The Bible itself disappears her immediately after she calls the blade-bearer to come, as if she slipped into the night the moment Samson’s hair is taken, her one job finished. Hair is no one’s source of power, and there is power in knowing this, in getting free of the stories people try to tell about strength and weakness, about beauty and ugliness.

On the floor, my hair made a dark ring around my feet. I stepped clear.

Colleen Abel

Colleen Abel is a disabled writer living in the Midwest. She is the author of the poetry collection Remake (Unicorn Press, 2017), as well as the chapbooks Housewiferyand Deviants, a hybrid work that won Sundress Publications' 2016 chapbook contest. A former fellow at UW-Madison's Institute for Creative Writing and a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow, she has appeared in venues such as The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere.


Colleen Abel is a disabled writer living in the Midwest. She is the author of the poetry collection Remake (Unicorn Press, 2017), as well as the chapbooks Housewifery and Deviants, a hybrid work that won Sundress Publications' 2016 chapbook contest. A former fellow at UW-Madison's Institute for Creative Writing and a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow, she has appeared in venues such as The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere.