All the Parts of Things

My grandmother was persisting in a state of crisis. There was a zone where the lifeguards would save you if you drowned, and my dad was swimming outside of it. She offered me a ziploc baggie of cold red grapes.

“I don’t like when he swims outside the flags,” she told me, maintaining forceful eye contact with the Fire Island coastline, which was refraining from wreaking vicious treachery on my father’s body thanks solely to the smoldering strength of her gaze.

“I think that’s why he does it,” I said, chomping down on the dewy orbs she handed me, sweet gushing through firm cold walls.

When I was in high school, researchers did an experiment in my hometown to determine whether they could manage deer overpopulation by injecting does with contraceptives. The experiment started in 2014 and lasted almost eight years. The same researchers had been testing immunocontraception on white-tailed deer on Fire Island—a long thin strip of land off the coast of Long Island—since 1993.

They focused the study on five adjacent communities lining the northernmost and fattest area of land on the island: Kismet, Fair Harbor, Ocean Beach, Lonelyville, and Saltaire. Somewhere between 74 and 164 female deer were injected with the immunocontraceptive PZP and then given a booster. Such a vague range. By 2000, it seemed like the drugs had taken effect: in certain areas of the island there were half as many fawns. But Fire Island is a protracted finger, stretched and knobbly, and in other parts of its thirty-two mile-long, half-mile-wide sinewed expanse, the effect wasn’t so clear.

They shot the deer with vaccines via dart, planting a pink bloom of dye on their coats in the process, like a paintball splatter. The researchers could tell by bloom who had been injected that year. But by the next, the pink had evaporated into salty air, rubbed off by branches, by wind, by whipping rain. Five volunteers who lived on the island year-round were responsible for keeping accounts of the deer, noting each time they spotted a pink splotch.

Later, when they attempted the study in my hometown, these researchers would take increasingly invasive measures to keep track of the deer they studied. A hefty orange tag punched through an ear, flicking about like an ankle monitor. Discomfort in the name of science, of tracking. I remember watching deer in my backyard and feeling this anxiety as if it were my own. Their ear tags waggling like flags, warning of some strange something somewhere blistering beneath the surface, beyond their control. The tags, neon and flashing, reminded observers that this was an experiment, and no one was entirely sure just what the birth control would do, or how deer bodies might react.

But though their anatomy became increasingly constrained by outside hands and needles and tranquilizers and contraception, Fire Island deer remained free to flow through the discrete pockets of beach-town communities, connected only via coastline—freer, even, than humans are. As much as this experiment was intended to be scientific, precise, it’s hard to control an animal bounding across borders it isn’t even aware exist.

Ever since the summer before my junior year of college, my grandmother has rented a house on Fire Island for the month of August in a village called Saltaire. I visit for a week each year. My parents and brother and aunt and uncle and cousin and assorted partners and friends join as their schedules allow. My grandmother stays the month. At the tail end of July, she decamps from the Upper West Side, where she lives alone, and takes a car to a ferry to an island traversed only by bicycles, where, among her offspring and their descendants, her worry can finally take objecthood.

“I could always find something to be anxious about,” my grandma once told me, plainly, like she was speaking of the weather. I’ve often considered the heft of my family’s perceived ailments, grasped resolutely like laundry in her arms—even, especially, those we aren’t nursing. I’ve considered the prospect of helping her, but I can’t imagine how. How could I, when I can’t even keep myself all together?

For a while, my hair was thinning, falling out. Mostly on the top, in the front. For years I maintained the Amélie: short bangs and a swinging bob. I first got this cut the winter of my college sophomore year. I was often confused for other women sporting the same look. We’d joke about this, me and my doppelgangers, a who’s who of dark-haired Jewish women in all-black popping up within the same few frames of our pocket-sized campus. But for me, the short bangs performed a function—the hairdresser drew sections from the back, shrouding the patched front. When bangs are short they look full, more thick.

It is possible my hair loss started when I stopped eating meat the summer before starting college. It is also possible it started when I got my IUD in, midway through sophomore year. It is also, of course, possible it is something else.

Early in my transition to pescatarianism, soon after getting my IUD implanted, I lived with my grandmother for a summer in her Upper West Side apartment. I was so tired all the time I could barely walk. I rode through the summer in a daze. It was hot like fresh cake: mushy and saccharine. My eyelids like valuable shells. My hair, froth. Sometimes there, most times not.

I shuffled into a doctor’s office. She told me to take a B12 supplement and fish oil. She told me to up my protein intake.

I upped my protein intake. My hair grew back a bit. But not completely. Not even close.

One dermatologist told me she could take a biopsy of a skin cell on my scalp to study it. I asked if she thought things would improve, were improving, perhaps.

“Well I just met you, so I have no idea,” she said, her voice shocked, as if I had asked her to perform a massive favor.

Another dermatologist, his voice a baritone of confidence, a foghorn, a steady hand, said, “We will be sure to treat this very aggressively. Because it’s the worst thing that can happen to a pretty young woman, her hair falling out.”

I stared at him for a beat too long, my thin brown hair knotting like brows.

“Well, you know,” he grinned and a hand fluttered in front of his face, a butterfly of bashfulness. “One of the worst things.”

I have been to: dermatologists, endocrinologists, nutritionists, general practitioners, general practitioners specializing in integrative medicine, general practitioners specializing in alternative medicine, gynecologists, hematologists, beauticians. Everyone has sent me somewhere else. Everyone has prescribed me something. No doctor has ever agreed there’s a chance my IUD might play a role in this hair loss. But really, they just say there aren’t any studies that confirm a correlation. Really, there aren’t many studies at all.

I was thinking about this on Fire Island because some of the deer looked bad. Their fur patchy. A growth on the side of their face, like a burr. I wondered whether it was related to the contraceptives they’d been injected with. We stared at each other; like at like. What’s wrong, I wondered. What is wrong with us?

For a long time I just didn’t want to know what was going on with my body because I was scared of finding out there was nothing I could do.
I didn’t allow myself to consider why I was focusing so much energy on these deer, their bodies rent by birth control. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from them.

The word alopecia comes from the Greek word for fox, alopex, because fur loss was observed in foxes due to mange. Mange, a skin disease in animals resulting in hair loss, lesions, itching; a disease borne by mites, tiny little bugs. Mange, “eat” in French, conjugated in the “I” form. I eat myself. The disease that eats away at me, that brings to mind the terms “wasting,” as in “wasting disease,” or “angst,” a dread directed generally, an anxiety addressed at the world.

What could be a better way to describe a disease that gnaws at you, whose cause might be suspected, but is not known, that wears you down? What is eating at me, and could I be curbing its appetite by doing something different? There is the patchy fox, and here am I.

The worst thing about the hair loss was never its aesthetics, though of course that added stress to a condition only worsened by worry. The bigger loss was my assurance in my body. I hadn’t realized how much trust I put in my physical frame to sustain itself as I went about my daily life, doing whatever it was I wanted. Belief was not something I’d considered; I never put much stock in faith. I wasn’t raised to.

But then suddenly I stumbled into a conviction I’d been maintaining, only now it was gone in a poof, a scarf snatched off my neck. It’s upsetting to remember the ways I am fallible, how I’m always one wrong motion from crumbling. If one piece of me can just start slipping away, what’s stopping the rest from following? What parts of myself might my body decide to reject next?

On the beach, I listened to my grandmother’s friend explain the concept of jumping the shark, nearly getting it right. My grandmother gazed deep into the ocean, scouring for a shark fin. That isosceles blip that might manifest, vindicate her anxiety. I sometimes think it would be my grandmother’s happiest day if a shark arrived off Fire Island. It would be like Christmas, Hanukkah, and all the High Holidays rolled into one. No, it would be better than that, because she doesn’t celebrate two out of those three. “A shark!” she would exclaim. All her worry suddenly worth something.

There is research on IUDs being linked to hair loss. But not much. I have so much anecdotal evidence of it though. Everyone has a story. I know so many people who have gotten their IUDs out to get their hair back. It’s a question of inside versus outside. It’s a question of aesthetics versus freedom, versus safety, versus ease. A matter of looking good, of a thick line arcing the face like a crown, of feeling sexy, hot, confidently good. So much of what interests me is the way things look. It isn’t possible for me to separate presentation from ideas, from art. The way something looks says something, and when it comes to the body, I suspect a change in my appearance means something internal is clearing its throat. It is trying to speak up, to force me to hear what it has to say.

But what exactly is it whispering? I can hear the sounds but not the words.

I haven’t gotten my period in nearly eight years. By contrast, I bled through high school. I bled through AP exams, I bled through softball games, I bled through ballet classes, I bled through my pants, all over the white cushion beneath me, a Rorschach test of crimson blooming. I wore super plus tampons and changed them on the hour. I wore an additional pad, which felt like a diaper. I was fourteen. The blood spewing out of me was mortifying, a wound I couldn’t stanch. I couldn’t go anywhere without a tampon. I got my period twice a month. It lasted a week. Consider that: half my life I was bleeding.

I stopped myself up. I lost some hair. What’s a little hair, I sometimes think, compared to a soup container of blood?

Over time, I’ve discovered my grandma is at her least anxious when recollecting events from her past. This makes sense to me. There’s nothing left to do about it. As opposed to the present and the future. There is always something you can change. Some altered way you can act. Something different you can have for dinner.

“We used to eat, oh, tongue, liver, whatever, when I was growing up. Jews liked to eat all the parts of things,” my grandma recalled, gazing off, a small smile twitching about her lips.

Although my grandmother recently expressed shock that my parents own a menorah, though I was not bat mitzvah’d, though I am the only one in my family who knows some semblance of prayer—amassed through an intense shirley-temple-and-snowball-fueled stretch of 2008—there was never a question of who or what I was. And when you grow up Jewish, in a place like New York, even if you never go to temple, never consider yourself a practicing anything, the Holocaust is this thing that just hangs over your head. It is the big bad thing that happened, and it even happened to kids, particularly one kid, and you read her diary in 4th grade, as you yourself are writing in a diary, and you begin to worry that this might happen to you.

I haven’t historically believed in comparing things to the Holocaust—it often felt like an appeal to something so mammoth it nearly couldn’t be fully grasped. A horror so great that to compare was to cheapen it. But, particularly recently, I’ve been thinking a glint of history can help. There are so many echoing antecedents one might reach for when thinking of what was done in this experiment. The control of reproduction, the marking of other. What does that do to a community, to a population? For generations to come? What long-term effects has the immunocontraception experiment had on the deer?

There’s something twisting and sinister about the move to mess with a body this way. To think about another being’s potential future and then decide, no, that’s not going to happen. I keep considering all the atrocities humans are traipsing toward whenever they declare the beings around them undesirable. And then when they determine to do something about it.

My friend and I used to joke about the “slutty little Mormon names” they give IUDs: Kyleena, Skyla, Liletta, Mirena.

“I miss Skyla…she was a free spirit,” I texted in 2020, when IUDs were the decisive birth control of choice for my friends and me, and I had just had the Kyleena inserted. “Perpetual summer camp counselor vibe…into flowy pants, nude modeling on Instagram.”

“Oh really I think of Skyla as like Cookie Monster pajama pants and Marlboro reds,” she replied. “Skyla’s messy as hell.”

On some level we understood we were being sold an idea of a woman who lives a life unfettered by pesky issues like pregnancy, but this felt laughable, not sinister. “Mirena is obviously a dour but wizened headmistress,” I replied.

It is unquestionably weird to have a gendered device inserted in my vagina—a tiny delicate woman whose labor endures even when I forget she’s working. A small plastic girl, arms spread wide like a Polly Pocket, unable to loose her socketed joints, unable to slip into a more comfortable position. If she’s doing her job right, I forget her entirely. Her strings dangle like legs, the better to be yanked out with.

What is a Kyleena IUD? an infographic on their website demands. It is a rhetorical question. A diagram details: Flexible Arms, Hormone Reservoir, Soft Threads.

Flexible, hormonal, soft. A support, a reservoir, a spool. Without a head, a mouth, a face. An ideal woman.

It’s frustrating to realize that, despite the lack of research into their side effects, riskier methods that require little action on the part of the user have been most widely researched, funded, and innovated since the 1960s: implants, IUDs, vaccines. For all the lack of information, pharmaceutical companies and birth control advocates in America have long focused on products that can be sold, specifically products that can be inserted inside people. Things that can be tucked somewhere the user is unable to reach around to tinker with them on their own. Things only a doctor can decide whether or not to remove. That prohibit user agency, swapping safety for certainty. Because family planning has always been, at its root—whether for deer or for humans—about population control.

The US Government has long been involved in the project of controlling “undesirable” populations via contraception. The ubiquity of tubal ligations in the seventies—operations primarily conducted on Native American and Puerto Rican populations, often without their knowledge or consent—has found its reincarnation in the prevalence and promotion of IUDs today. It’s another example of not trusting people to be able to control their own reproduction, and another way of making reproduction accessible only to wealthy people, those who can afford to go to the doctor and remove the IUD whenever they want.

We are used to seeing this sort of control play out on animal’s bodies—the deer’s lack of agency is admissible to most people because the rules are different for nonhumans. But that category of the nonhuman is ever at risk of slipping, absorbing humans deemed undeserving into its ethically murky bounds. It’s a matter of who gets to determine who or what constitutes undesirability, or humanity, or nuisance, or pestilence, and what mechanisms are used for counteracting their existence.

There are too many deer because the US government outlawed hunting in tandem with the rise of the suburbs, eliminating natural predators while providing deer feeding ground in the form of yards and gardens, public woods. And now it’s a problem, because these undesirable populations are running rampant in wealthy, primarily white communities, where people have the time and money and power to do something about it. Another solution suburban communities have pursued involves catching deer and taking them to a less populated place. Studies show that somewhere between many and most deer to whom this is done die within a year. Essentially, moving the death somewhere less visible.

Deer take a toll on an environment, an ecosystem, in excess. But there is something insidious about this sort of circuitous solution. This moment when neoliberalism links with authoritarianism, skidding past exit ramps that make good geographic sense, and barrelling straight to the coastline, to biological control.

In Caren Beilin’s book Blackfishing the IUD, a book about the pervasive dangers of the copper intrauterine device, she suggests an IUD is “a marketed thing in a social person.” People make money off inserting IUDs into other people, leaving the person with the device inserted inside them to bear the risk. And there are material, documented risks and harms and permanent immunologic damages done by the placing of this object inside a body. I don’t know if it makes it any better that humans usually have a degree of choice in the matter. The choice feels illusory, the difference between something bad and something worse.

What is PZP? A marketed thing in a social animal? It is not cheaper, it is not easier to implement, but it feels novel, cutting-edge, to inject PZP in place of hunting. It helps peoples’ careers, its aesthetics are less grotesque, at least in theory. And the administration of medicine is so often about sterilizing the way something looks, making it appear clean and good and without mess. Sterile, I keep thinking. Cold and colorless.

The National Park Service enacted a new plan in April 2016, two years after the researchers began their immunocontraception experiment in my hometown. This new plan swaps contraception for hunting. A yearly cull, during the winter months, when no one’s living on the island, no one but the deer.

The new plan does include “the option for fertility control” to maintain the number of deer on the island “when a fertility control agent which meets NPS criteria becomes available.” By this, they mean they might reconsider using the immunocontraception once they’ve lowered the population to “20 to 25 deer per square mile.” In Saltaire, that would mean that they could try the contraceptives again once there are only about five deer left in the entire village. There are, speaking not too hyperbolically, usually about five deer in sight at any moment.

“Surgical sterilization was considered but dismissed during the planning process because it does not meet the NPS criteria and because the risk of deer mortality was not acceptable,” states the National Park Service website.

It does seem almost comical when put that way: the risk of deer mortality was not acceptable. Instead they’re killing deer. And maybe by “risk” they just mean it’s a matter of precarity for the researchers, financially or professionally. But I prefer to believe they mean it’s a matter of suffering—risk for the deer undergoing experimental control. That it’s a matter of fucking with a body until it breaks from the inside out.

They don’t know much about alopecia, “this common but distressing condition, the classification and etiology of which has puzzled physicians for generations.” One study’s introduction states simply, “there is little published information about the risk of alopecia.” For a while they thought it was an autoimmune disease, now they’re less sure. Recently, scientists have identified genes that might correlate with the immunologic changes presented by a body with alopecia. A gene, an invisible little bug, carrying disease, like a tick.

I don’t know what to trust when reading these studies. I know better than to simply believe something because it backs up what I want to believe; I know better than to not trust the knowledge pealing from my body.

Another study notes that “FPHL [Female Pattern Hair Loss] is the most common cause of alopecia in women and approximately one-third of adult caucasian women experience hair loss. The impact of FPHL is predominantly psychological. While men anticipate age-related hair loss, hair loss in women is usually unexpected and unwelcome at any age.” Unexpected and unwelcome. The “surprise, bitch!” of it all. They don’t even need to say why, it’s so obvious. The worst thing that could happen to a pretty young woman.

I have heard stories of deer fucking to the point of injury because they’re not getting pregnant. Blood spurting like a horror movie. On Fire Island, a shocking sight. A splash in the background of staid couples strolling to dinner against a dripping sunset.

The National Park Service website acknowledges that “PZP also has been shown to cause repeated estrous cycling in females which can result in late pregnancies and behavioral changes.” The bold is in the original. It is bold, really, to acknowledge that things like these late pregnancies and behavioral changes, caused by an involuntarily injected immunosuppressant, are not good. That because of PZP, deer keep going into heat. Their bodies insist on an unattainable pregnancy. They just keep going at it.

I wonder whether the National Park Service doing a limited hunt of the deer might be evading the choke of capitalism, even a little bit. All of the deer meat from the 2019-2021 hunts was donated to a local food bank, called Island Harvest: “the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island, delivering food to a network of 570 food pantries, soup kitchens, and non-profit organizations across Long Island.” In 2019, 25 deer were removed; over 500lbs of venison donated. In 2020, 460 deer; 8,000lbs of venison. In 2021, 192 deer; 2,610lbs of venison donated. That is a lot of food for those who need it, if you think about it that way.

Increasingly, I think I don’t believe in win-wins. Increasingly, I believe in a little less loss-a little less losses.

I have considered removing the IUD. Of course I have. I’ve considered every option imaginable. I’ve read all the forums. I’ve thought through every potentiality, imagined each scenario in all its gritty chance.

But what if it’s not the IUD causing the hair loss? Or what if it is, and I take it out, but that doesn’t even change anything? Maybe it’s too late. What if the hair loss is, as seems most likely, caused by a combination of factors? How could I ever track this? Plus, it’s not like I really have a better option.

These days, I pay for expensive supplements. I take a blood pressure medication that has an unintended side effect of stimulating hair growth. They don’t really know why. These solutions sort of work. But I’ve never gotten the sense that anyone really understands exactly what’s going on. I still have no solid grasp of what caused this loss, this lack, this sudden change in what had always just sprouted there, so mundane, until suddenly so strikingly absent.

On the beach, I watched as my grandmother and her friends together paraded to the edge of the ocean, holding onto one another’s arms or shoulders for support, bony bodies linked like paper dolls.

“Joyce is the strongest swimmer, of course, but she’s a fraidy cat,” my grandmother told me in a loud whisper. My grandmother strapped on her pink bathing cap, stomped down to the water, and in one fluid motion, like sea becoming wave, dove under, just as the water threatened to crash white and froth and mist.

Most of the time, when I talk about hair loss, which I generally do not, people ask how it makes me feel. This question always catches me by surprise. I am usually better at describing my emotions, in all their soup and roil. And it’s true, I have sometimes wondered if the hair loss points to something worse to come. I’ve watched my own anxiety arise in the gap that not knowing what to believe foments. That lack of assurance—how distressing. That amorphousness, that lack. And I have so much practice at this anxiety, so many strong role models who’ve come before me.

But a lot of the time, quite honestly, I just avoid thinking about it. There are worse things happening around me every day, and the loss is no longer all that noticeable. It’s really only when a doctor doesn’t take me seriously that I grow upset. And I’ve noticed, since college, I’ve met with marginally fewer dismissive doctors. I wonder if this has to do at all with an increased incidence of patients coming in with similar stories. Sitting there in a paper gown holding a vague question, tick box clues.

There’s always been a part of me that believed if I just put something different in my body it would hold it all together—a glue, something sticky, a part of something. There’s a part of me that believes in this like it’s my religion. A cold grape handed to me on the beach, something to be scoffed at over dinner, an approach to fixing things through furrowed foreheads, focused concentration.

I’m not saying that knowing what caused the hair loss would change everything. Perhaps it might make me feel a bit better, somewhat vindicated. But the deer experiment has sharpened my suspicion of how and why so many doctors have refused to even entertain the possibility of hormonal birth control contributing to hair loss. It’s striking, when you read the hair loss forums, how these streams of young women who make up the bulk of these threads are so certain that one thing led directly to the other. These teenage girls, so attuned to every minute detail of their own appearances. Teens, a population pushed to get IUDs en masse.

IUDs make people money, and novel experiments contribute to peoples’ careers, and bodies fall by the wayside, disposable, a casualty of profit. At least, that is what I believe.

It’s hard to go on without believing in something, even if the something is just a sense, a feeling, a hope, a commitment, a pill, a little piece of plastic. Another strand of info, another study, a new way of thinking. A story about deer.

There’s just something different about them. Deer are so large, and they come so close. My brother’s girlfriend stuck out her hand and the doe didn’t flinch. Her hand swept closer, closer, and then she was petting it.

“Oh my god,” I said.

The doe stood in the tall grass, up to her waist, and my brother’s girlfriend stood on the wooden walkway, her arm breaching the barrier between wild and tame.

I didn’t want to pet the deer. I was scared of infection, of what disease it might carry. But a part of me thinks, maybe, by touching its taut spine, the deer would have become no longer merely a mechanism for thinking through anxieties of my own.

I stood on the wooden walkway beside my grandmother, our fretful eyes trained on the spot where the deer and my brother’s girlfriend’s palm collided. For just an instant forgetting which, of all the bodies converging around me, I most resembled.


My mother asked for what she wanted in her passwords, the typed stars recording without revealing her desires.


When Mother names me does she reclaim her own decay. I am born and I am dying. Doctor holds my tits in his hands. My flesh which is not my flesh retracts.

Barking Dog Nocturnal

The coyotes didn’t show themselves, no matter how hard I searched. Some nights my mom came into my room and stroked my hair before I left to search them out.