Title: Cornered: Dr. Richard J. Sharpe As I Knew Him
Author: Linda DeFruscio
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
SUMMARY: In the year 2000, Linda DeFruscio was forced to make an unthinkable decision. Someone whose genius she admired immensely, a business associate and dear friend, committed a terrible crime. In response, she could cut off their friendship and avoid the risk of losing friends, clients and her own peace of mind—or, she could trust her gut and try to save some aspect of her friend’s humanity.
Cornered is Linda DeFruscio’s story of her long and often complex association with Dr. Richard J. Sharpe, the millionaire dermatologist from Gloucester, MA who was convicted of killing his wife. Beautifully written and surprisingly tender, Cornered allows the reader an upfront view of the fragility of genius and the decline into madness, all while casting a second light on how one woman’s refusal to turn her back resulted in momentous changes in her own life.
Chapter One – Hair, Pseudonyms And Transgender Lives
My mother was an electrologist too. Before she got into the field, she worked in a factory, welding small parts for airplanes. She was good at working with small things; she was good with her hands. She liked electrolysis even more than airplane parts because along with the intricate hand work and exacting eye focus came people, different people with different personalities. When I got out of high school in 1972, she took me into her office (which was in our home) and did my eyebrows. She explained the process to me as she worked. I went into a dental studies program that same year, offered by Northeastern and Tufts, and after a year and a half I received a Dental Assistant certification. Thereafter I was accepted into a dental hygiene program, but at a school in Connecticut. (The ones in Massachusetts could only put me on a waiting list.) Instead of leaving my family to live out of state, I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and go to school for electrology, and cosmetology too. While I was a student, I worked as a dental assistant (as well as a McDonald’s counter person and a housecleaner) to pay my bills. I graduated from Eleanor Roberts School of Electrology in Boston in 1975.
In school, people came in off the street to get inexpensive treatments from the students. One day Bart Fish came in, our neighbor from near our home, and I worked on him. He told me that sometimes my mother worked on him too. Small world. I didn’t know. Bart was married and had three kids, one still at home. He confided that he was a cross-dresser, which was why he didn’t want facial hair (and probably why I hadn’t known my mother was working on him). By the time he came to me, I was a licensed master barber as well as an electrologist. I worked on Bart’s beard and also cut his hair and shaved him. I even practiced a few perms on him. On one occasion, his daughter freaked out. She said I’d sent him home looking like a poodle. She didn’t mind the cross-dressing, because he did that elsewhere, in a different state; it was a separate segment of his life. But she couldn’t endure seeing him every night at the dinner table looking like a priss. She made such a fuss that I went over one evening and cut off his curls.
My mother, I would come to realize, knew lots of cross-dressers, because they made up a good percentage of her clientele. But she had never talked to me about them. It was Bart who helped me to understand that some people just weren’t totally comfortable with the gender they’d been born with; or they weren’t comfortable all the time. He was lucky, he said. His wife accepted him as he was. He was her best friend and she didn’t want to lose him just because he felt the need to alter his gender presentation now and then. Bart’s job as a bra and underwear salesman provided him with the opportunity to travel to different cities, destinations where he could cross-dress without worrying about who found out. He had a friend in Manhattan, and she was okay with his cross-dressing too. He said to me once, “Cross-dressers will be some of your best clients. Don’t be afraid of them. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re all just people.”
Once the cat was out of the bag, my mother and I began to spend social time with Bart and his wife, chatting over lemonade on their porch or in our house. One day Bart offered to take me to an IFGE—International Foundation for Gender Education—meeting so I could learn a little more. His friend Merissa Lynn had founded the organization, in Waltham, Massachusetts. She wanted to help me to find clients. I told her I liked to write and she suggested I write an article about electrolysis for the IFGE magazine. She and Bart introduced me to other people.
Over time, Bart became my mentor and confidante. When Mom retired, he encouraged me to start my own business. Even though I was still very young, Bart and his wife were certain I would achieve success. I would inherit mom’s clients, and there would be some IFGE people too. To me, the transgender people were just regular people (perhaps a little more empathetic and more educated than other people I knew) who were conflicted about their gender identification. They lived, they died, and in between they worried about high blood pressure and paying their taxes like anyone else. My acceptance of them was automatic; after my conversations with Bart, I never gave it a second thought. As for Bart, he was a second father to me, my own father being away much of the time.
So I did it. I started my own business. At first I worked in the house, in the room that had been my mother’s office. Then, with Bart’s encouragement, I opened my office in Newton, and before I knew it I had a thriving practice. I liked being an electrologist. I liked the process. Each hair I removed gave me a surprise. One might have a big juicy black bulb at the end, and one might not. Analyzing each hair provided a clue as to what was going on under the skin. Also, I liked the people. They weren’t all transgender people either; a lot of my clients were straight men with ingrown hairs or just too much hair, or straight women who needed work on their upper lips, chins, legs, or underarms. Some wanted eyebrow shaping. Sometimes pregnancy produces unwanted hairs in unexpected places. Electrolysis is a safe way to deal with it. Menopause can create hair havoc too. All kinds of people seek to control their hair growth.
Being an electrologist is not so different from being a psychiatrist…or a bartender. If a client comes in for hundreds of hours, and you are working together in a small quiet room, eventually they will open up and tell you about their life. I’ve had many a patient cry and admit they need to work on a particular issue. I always respond, “I’m not a therapist. I’m not allowed to tell you what to do. But I can give you my opinion.” That always turns out to be what they wanted anyway, more or less.
I’ve done my share of venting too. Once, on the way into work, a crazy driver came within an inch of taking me out on the highway. I was really shaken up. I remember how happy I was when I got to the office and realized that my first patient was someone who would want to know every detail of the almost accident. The transgender clients were always the most interesting to tell your troubles to, because they are really part female and part male. If you tell them a relationship problem, for instance, they will be able to help you to look at it from both perspectives. Talking to transgender clients is as comfortable—and as comforting—as talking to my mom or best girlfriends. In fact, I count a few transgender women among my best girlfriends.
Besides my work, I continued to write skin care articles for Merissa. One day I was even contacted by the famous—well, famous to those of us who work in skin care—Dr. Peter Chives, who asked me to write an article for the Annals of Dermatology, for which he served as editor-in-chief. Dr. Chives was the author of more than a dozen books, one of which was in its sixth edition and had been translated into several foreign languages. He was also the author of over three-hundred scientific publications. I was thrilled when he contacted me and said he considered me to be outstanding in my field and wanted me to review a textbook that had been written by one of his colleagues. I accepted of course. But while I had written lots of magazine articles, I’d never written a book review on a technical book, and I had no idea how to go about it. As it happened, one of my patients, a professional writer, volunteered to give me some tips. I submitted the final piece on time and the issue appeared at the end of 1991.
* * *
When Chris Trembly first called me I was between patients and had the time to talk, which was good, because Mr. Trembly had some nice things to say. He’d read the article that I’d written for Annals of Dermatology. He liked it a lot; he thought I was a good writer. This was about the best compliment anyone could pay me. Chris Trembly said he liked to write too, but he didn’t say what he wrote and I didn’t ask. He’d called because he had ingrown hairs on his neck and he thought I would be the right person to remove them. We set up an appointment.
He came in a week later. He was a sweet, shy, soft-spoken, unassuming man. Dark eyes, longish dark hair. A combination of a young Mick Jagger and Keanu Reeves. Maybe 5’9, about 165 pounds. Mid to late thirties, which is to say about my age. He wore black pants and a white shirt and dark cranberry penny loafers with shiny pennies in the vamp inserts. I led him into the treatment room. I have a chart on the wall there featuring several graphics that define the electrolysis process. The first thing I do with a new patient is tell him or her how electrolysis works—a very fine probe inserted into a hair follicle on the surface of the skin, etc. I always enjoy this explanation. I use the chart as a prop.
Before I could get started, Chris Trembly told me, politely, that he didn’t have time for the first-visit consultation that day. If I could just work on a few of his ingrowns…. He promised the next visit he would relish the opportunity to talk about the process. In spite of the fact that he was in a hurry, he was pleasant. When our eyes met, he looked right into mine. I had him get up on the table and I examined his ingrowns under the light and removed a few. We set up another appointment.
An ingrown hair can occur when a hair is shaved and it retreats below the skin surface, causing inflammation and irritation. There are ways to reduce the number of ingrown hairs, such as running one’s razor under hot water for about thirty seconds. Shaving in one direction (the direction of the hair), and never using a blade more than three times, is also good. If you cheat, your skin will know. I was telling all this to Chris Trembly during our third session, because during the second session, as was the case with the first, he had to be somewhere and didn’t have time for more than the removal of a few more ingrowns. I was happy to finally have the chance to impart my knowledge to him, to point to the illustrations on my trusty wall chart. He followed the movement of my finger diligently. Alternately, he looked into my eyes. His apparent interest in what I was saying stirred me to say more, to add more detail than usual. When I stopped to take a breath, he smiled a hesitant smile and said, “My name isn’t really Chris Trembly.”
I was taken aback not at all. There are those among my clients who prefer that I don’t know their real names. Like Fred, for instance. In ten years I’ve never asked him for his real name and I never plan to. Fred adores his wife and his five kids. He has a nice home. He likes his life. When he first came to me, he said, “I don’t want to change my life but I do want to be more of the real me. I want my hair thinned on my beard, knuckles and brows.”
Over time Fred told me his story. He cross-dressed once a month, always in the daytime when he could fit his excursions into his work day. Generally he went to out-of-town malls or to hotels to have lunch alone or with transgender friends. Unlike my dear friend Bart, his wife knew nothing about it, and he had no intention of letting her find out—because he suspected she wouldn’t approve. He knew he was right when she told him over dinner one night about the disgusting transsexuals she’d seen on some TV talk show. The last thing Fred wanted was for her to think of him that way and leave him. The second to last thing he wanted was to have to give up the one afternoon a month that he dressed as a woman. He came to me to find a compromise.
Money was no object for him, so we agreed that we would do very short sessions, removing only a few hairs at a time, several times a month. I said, “At this rate you’ll be with me for a long time.” “That’s fine,” he responded.
During each session I removed two or three hairs from under his nose, a few from his chin, his brows, his knuckles—so little that if anyone noticed at all, they would think he had scratched himself. While I worked, he liked to talk about politics. He had a government job, he said. During one appointment he told me a story about how he’d lost his purse while he was out. I said, “Oh my God, was your government ID in it?” No, he’d created a different ID for his excursions, for his alternate self; he even had a PO box just for his transgender mail. His interest in politics and his guile led me to suspect that he worked for an intelligence agency. But I never asked.
After eight or so years of ongoing appointments, we got to where he wanted to be; he was no longer “hairy.” But he didn’t look as though he’d had any hair removed either. We knew we had created a masterpiece when his wife said to him one day, “You know, now that you’re getting older, your hair is thinning on your face. It looks great! You’re more handsome than ever.”
I saw him once with his wife, at my favorite luncheonette. He’d asked me years before never to say hello to him if I saw him outside of my office, and I’d never forgotten. So I turned away while I waited for my to-go order. I was about to pass their table on my way out the door when he said, “Nice day, huh?” I glanced at him. He was smiling. I glanced at her. She looked at me suspiciously. I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” and hurried outside.
* * *
I smiled at Chris Trembly when he said he wasn’t Chris Trembly, and I went on talking about ingrown hairs. I was explaining that you could use a tablespoon of salt and warm water, mixed together on a piece of gauze, or even in your hand, as an exfoliant to heal any irritation…just like how ocean water works to heal the skin. But a few minutes later he interrupted my lecture again to say, “Did you know that an ophthalmologist from St. Louis, Missouri was the first person to use electrolysis on someone who had ingrown eyelashes in the year 1875?”
That stopped me cold. I stared at him. He smiled his sheepish smile. Then he pulled his wallet from his pocket and extracted two loose photos and handed them to me. The first was a picture of him wearing a lab coat over a dress shirt and tie, a stethoscope draped around his neck. The second appeared to be a photo of a woman, but I recognized instantly that it was him, in drag. I handed them back. “Are you a doctor?” I asked.
He nodded. I looked him over. As always, he was wearing a fresh white shirt and penny loafers, his signature ensemble. He said, “I’m a dermatologist. My name is Richard Sharpe.”