In her new memoir, Bearded Lady, Berkeley resident Allison Landa describes her decades of struggle with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition that can result in an abundance of hair, especially on the face, along with male-pattern baldness, irregular periods, infertility and obesity.
In middle school she is called “a werewolf” and “the Animal.” In high school, she is referred to as an “It.” When she is 10 her mother takes her to a doctor, who orders blood tests. Yet her mother, who likely has the condition herself, never takes her daughter to get the tests and instead teaches her how to shave, which she ends up doing, twice a day, to conceal her secret from the world.
Not until Landa walks into a doctor’s office in her 20s is she diagnosed with CAH and prescribed medications to manage her symptoms.
These are just some of the indignities Landa suffers as a child and a young woman who just wants to be “thin and smooth,” a desirable image of femininity she knows society has created, yet wants nevertheless. Today, her face is virtually hairless, thanks to a combination of meds and laser hair removal, her journey of self-actualization, she says, complete, and the book’s publication, for the author, a cause for celebration.
Yet there is one more humiliation: The publisher, Woodhall Press, did not include a photo of Landa on the back cover or anywhere else, a slight the author can’t help but take personally.
“That, honestly, pissed me off,” said Landa. “I can be ballsy, but I can be a little meek. That was an editorial choice I was not part of. I actually have a good friend in Berkeley who took my picture and they did not include it. It makes me sort of faceless,” she said. “I’m quite grateful to Woodhall, however, there are things I want to do differently next time.”
Landa is discussing her memoir while sitting cross-legged in a big comfy armchair in the South Berkeley apartment she shares with her husband, Adam Sandler (no, not that one), and 7-year-old son, Baz. She is an essayist and fiction writer who has been a journalist and freelance writer. She is also a writing teacher and coach at the Writing Salon in Berkeley and San Francisco. Bearded Lady, her first book, took 17 years from conception to completion.
The memoir tells the story of a quick-witted narrator who finds her way in a patriarchal society deeply rooted in promoting the fallacy of hairless women.
For a long time, Landa said, she felt conflicted about not being able to accept her facial hair. In the book, she describes admiring Brenda, the Bearded Lady of Guildford, an internet sensation who not only accepted but embraced her substantial white beard.
“I wish that I could be like her, but that’s not me,” she said. “You’re supposed to accept yourself. That’s the social lingo. It wasn’t until I successfully had laser hair removal that I realized I could change the parts I didn’t accept, and I didn’t have to swallow it all because swallowing that stuff hurt. It didn’t need to hurt. It could be made better, and so could I.”
A personal journey
Bearded Lady is not a medical memoir or a journalistic account, but a personal journey, reflecting her many years as a creative writer.
CAH occurs in 1 in every 15,000 people worldwide and affects males and females in equal numbers. There is no cure for the condition, though medications help manage its symptoms and new clinical trials involving gene therapy appear promising.
Landa has sought emotional support from others who have CAH through the CARES Foundation and various CAH groups online, but she does not include the perspective of others with the condition in Bearded Lady.
How the book will be accepted by the CAH community remains to be seen. Many women who have CAH experience hirsutism and, like Landa, express a desire to be free of facial hair, said Dina Matos, the CARES Foundation’s executive director, who knows Landa and is looking forward to reading the book. So far Matos has heard from one woman with CAH, who does not have hirsutism and was offended by Landa’s title, saying “it made us sound like freaks” and “that’s not who we are.”
Landa said she chose the title because it reflects her “lived experience and self-concept at the time.” If anyone doesn’t like it, she said bluntly, “they should write their own book.”
Overall, Matos said, people who have CAH want it to be known as a life-threatening adrenal condition. “Like having diabetes, that means you will have to take medication for life,” she said.
What Landa preferred was to write a personal journey and share the aspect of that journey that affected her most. Getting to the point where she could write about it at all was a challenge. Though her condition dominated her youth, Landa spent years avoiding discussions about it, hesitating to broach the subject with even her closest friends and her husband. Her hesitancy stemmed from how her family treated the condition from the get-go — as a subject to be avoided and covered up.
Growing up, Landa’s hirsutism was not her only daunting challenge. Her parents’ broken marriage and then messy divorce forced Landa, the eldest of three, to be the parent, acting as a sounding board to her needy mother, who dressed too young for her age, and was outspoken and prone to crying fits.
Like her mother’s profanity-laced one-liners (“She was as boring as frozen shit,” is one example), Landa’s writing can be cutting and quick, which makes for some snappy dialogue and hilarious nicknames. She refers to her mother as “Nails” because of her “talons the shade of blood.” She calls her father, who has big, fat opinions and in one scene comes to the dinner table wearing nothing but his underwear, “Rooster.”
Despite Landa’s wise-acre retorts, her anger and an acting-out incident (which causes her mother to throw her out of the house), she exhibits empathy and unflagging loyalty to her parents whenever her most longtime and protective friends try to diss them.
“My parents are vastly different creatures,” Landa said, “and I love them because I don’t know any other way.”
When writing about her parents, both Jewish from the Bronx, Landa worried that their depictions bordered on caricature. When she ran her concerns past Sandler, her first reader, he laughed and said, “Sometimes there are caricatures in real life.” She left her descriptions as they were.
“I can see them for who they are and I hope it makes for a stronger book,” she said.
At home in Berkeley
Landa ended up in Berkeley after taking a job at the Daily Republic in Fairfield in 1997. She had visited the city when she was in college at UC Santa Barbara.
What’s not in the book: Her father gave her “a lot of guff” about moving here and had many critiques, most of which involve Berkeley’s hippie culture and “weirdness.” As a defense engineer, he got “really pissed off” at the city calling itself “a nuclear-free zone,” she said. Undaunted, Landa moved into an apartment in a big pink house on Sutter Street. She said she could be herself.
“I immediately noticed that I was different from being here. You can be your own person. You can be authentic. You can show up fully,” she said. “At 22 that was intoxicating to me. I have never experienced that in my life.”
She credits living in Berkeley with helping her create the book. It’s where she met her husband, who has encouraged her writing, and found various cafes around town “that would let me sit for $2.50 and write for hours and hours.” Among them: Raleigh’s, Le Coquelet, whose closing made her “pretty sad,” Gaylord’s, which “closed a while ago,” and Saul’s, which her father believes “is not a real deli,” though he still likes it. Berkeley Espresso and Cafe Strada were favorites, especially the latter, because “they don’t care how late or how long you stay,” she said.
Ashkenaz has a cameo in the book, along with Pharma Corps (Bayer), where she takes a temp job, and a landlord who asks Landa if everything is OK because her aura is “a really deep purple.” Landa also observes that pot is “the social currency of Berkeley.” In fact, it is a smoke-laced discussion with her roommate over a bong that leads to an epiphany about her looks. He tells her, without malice, that she looks like a drag queen.
“Yeah, I do look like a drag queen,” she tells him. “I look like a man. I have stubble. I can’t get rid of it and I can’t seem to cover it up. You want to hand me a solution?”
Her roommate tells her to make a choice and stick with it. That leads to her mending her difficult relationships (especially with her mother) and, ultimately, getting the medical help she needs.
Despite her fear of never being loved, Landa describes devoted friends she’s known since middle school, high school and college, along with a couple of suitors who find her attractive and lead to her first sexual experiences.
In some instances, she found that she was making more of her hirsutism than others were. In fact, she said, her husband-to-be didn’t even notice her facial hair when they met.
“He noticed other physical attributes,” she said.
The path to publishing
Landa decided to write her story after taking a writing workshop in 2005 with Joyce Maynard, who then lived in Mill Valley. Maynard revealed to Landa that once she wrote about her relationship with J.D. Salinger, which became the book At Home in the World, she did two books in quick succession.
Landa got the message: Chronicling her condition would free her up to move forward as a writer.
She had another affirmation while a graduate student in the creative writing program at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of that program.) In a creative nonfiction class with the late Wesley Gibson, he made students write a book proposal and a scene.
“My mouth was dry, my hands were shaking and I wrote down ‘Bearded Lady’ and something about having dark, obvious facial hair. I couldn’t write more than that,” she said. “Not much scares me. That scared me.”
During the next class, Gibson said, “Sweetheart, go for it.” In the book’s acknowledgments, Landa thanks both Gibson and Maynard, who also wrote a blurb for the book.
Since one of the book’s major themes involves the standards of women’s beauty, excoriation felt inevitable, but Landa doesn’t go there. “I heard that a lot and wanted to push up against that a little bit,” she said. She is more interested in what she wanted as an individual, what was right for her, and if society has shaped some of her ideals, so be it.
“Do I think that society tells women that they should be hairless? Oh yes. We’re told what to be, what to wear, what to think, what to feel,” she said. “Yet I’m a very oppositional person and I don’t give a damn what society tells me. I don’t care about the cultural critique and what society says. I care about myself and who I want to be in the world. I wanted to be hairless. I didn’t want a beard. I wanted to be free of that.”
When she looks at the gender fluidity that’s taken place since her coming of age in the ’90s, when an actor like Billy Porter could sport both a goatee and a ball gown at the 2019 Oscars, Landa said, “Rock on. Go for it. I admire you vastly. And still, if I were 22 years old with a full beard, I wouldn’t want it. It was something that hurt me every day.”
Landa no longer has the facial hair that once made her stand out. Even though some standards of female beauty have eased, welcoming more body types, for example, the pursuit of a flawless face has not waned and, in fact, has been heightened in the age of Instagram.
Cosmetic procedures are up and laser hair removal is now widespread and increasingly affordable. Landa finally looks like the person she has long wanted to be, and, though it bucks the “acceptance” narratives typical of most coming-out stories, she said she feels a camaraderie with gay and trans people who become themselves on their own terms.
“It’s an absolutely revolutionary act of incredible bravery to say, ‘This is who I am and I’m going to show up in the world,’” she said. “I’m not in the world to be in your face or not to be in your face. I’m doing it because that’s who I am. And ultimately that’s a large part of what this book is about.”
Her parents’ reaction
Landa’s not sure if her mother has read the book, though she did get a response a couple of years ago when she posted an excerpt on her Facebook page, forgetting that her mother is a Facebook friend. She was writing at Gaylord’s when she got the call.
“She was crying and saying, ‘It’s absolutely beautiful,’” Landa said. “I respected her for that because a lot of what I wrote was about her.”
Her father hasn’t read it yet and may not ever because “he’s not a reader.” If he does, she imagines he might call her up and “try to argue me out of every single point.”
As a result of her experiences, Landa has learned what not to do when you have a child who has medical needs. Her son Baz, a Hebrew name meaning “falcon,” has autism and ADHD. Once that was discovered, she and Sandler did not hesitate to get him all the care he needed.
“I made a commitment to him to do what it would take to give him a fighting chance in life,” she said. “I couldn’t bear — it brings me to tears — the idea of him suffering and us not doing anything. It would kill me. He’s my heart.”
The fact that Landa got pregnant in the first place defies the odds. One of the effects of her condition is infertility and, despite being on birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle, she got pregnant anyway. She can’t help but see her breakthrough pregnancy in especially meaningful terms.
“Anybody who can survive in this body is somebody to be reckoned with,” she said, “And my son is somebody to be reckoned with. He’s a cool guy. And I hope he reads this one day and is proud of me.”