Tales of a haircutting addict

For much of his adult life, Dennis Milam Bensie would spend days creating intricate wigs for professional theater companies, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — and nights struggling with his compulsion to cut hair.

During an especially dark period in the '90s, he paid hundreds of gay street hustlers to allow him to shave their heads. And as a child in Illinois — trying to escape memories of being molested, bullied and abused — he would steal Barbie doll heads from stores so he could cut their hair.

"There were two sides of the hair situation in my head," he said in a phone interview. "One was good, where I was styling it and making it beautiful, and on the other side were my feelings of punishment and humiliation, of cutting hair against someone's will."

In 1999, Bensie was making wigs for OSF productions, including "Chicago" in the Bowmer Theatre, and undergoing therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder and paraphilia, or being sexually aroused by something atypical or extreme, which for him was haircutting. He opened up to his friend Jeff Brady, then the KTVL Channel 10 anchorman, and Brady suggested Bensie write a book about his life.

"He said, 'You have a fascinating story that no one has ever really told and you should consider writing a book about it,'" Bensie said Tuesday. "I thought very seriously about that and when I left the festival and I went back to Seattle, I started writing."

Bensie's memoir, "Shorn: Toys to Men," was released Dec. 15 and is available online through Amazon and Borders. Bloomsbury Books in Ashland also expects to receive a shipment of the book in the coming days, store officials said.

A play titled "The Cut," which Dustin Engstrom wrote based on Bensie's book, will premiere at the Open Circle Theater in Seattle on Jan. 14.

Bensie, who is 45 and lives in Seattle, is making the wigs for the production.

"It's very interesting to see your life as a play and also be involved in the play," he said. "I'm building wigs for the character of my father, of my child molester, of my mother and of what my hair looked like in 1993.

"It's been wonderful, but it gets very strange and emotional for me. The play has scenes, like the book does, that are the worst moments of my life."

He'll discuss the book and sign copies of it after each performance, he said.

Bensie said the two winters he spent in Ashland making wigs were pivotal to his decision to write the book.

"By the time I got to Ashland, I had set myself up to change my life and get out of the cycle of demons I had struggled with," he said. "I was just beginning to turn my life around and it was nice to be in Ashland, because it's like no other place on Earth; it's very special there."

Bensie said he decided to write a book about his traumatic childhood and his subsequent struggle with paraphilia because he wanted to share his experience with others who may have the condition.

"A lot of the people that have this condition also seem to be victims of sex abuse or have identity issues, and a lot of them are gay," he said. "Ultimately, none of these people seem to have done anything wrong, but we all seem to have this shame. This book is about opening up and letting go of that. I think it could be helpful and inspire other people to do the same thing and not carry such a big load of guilt.

"I think that people will come away from the play and the book feeling like there's still hope."

Haircutting paraphilia is not as widespread as shoe or lingerie fetishes, but is "not as uncommon as you would think," Bensie said.

"There are people with haircutting paraphilia all over the world, and it really can affect lives negatively, like it did mine," he said.

Bensie said he began going to therapy and now takes medication for his OCD.

Bensie's obsession with hair also has a positive side, he said. It led him to a successful career as a wigmaker.

"The fact that I am so interested in hair can make me be a more intuitive wig person," he said.

He holds a degree in theater costume design from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and he also completed an apprenticeship in theatrical wig construction at Los Angeles Opera.

Since 1992, he has been on the staff of Seattle's Intiman Theatre, where he currently works as the wardrobe and wig master. He is also the wig master at the Seattle Children's Theatre.

His job at the Intiman Theatre is seasonal, which allowed him to spend the winters of 1998 and 1999 in Ashland, working on wigs for OSF.

Bensie's dream is to see the theatrical version of his book produced in Ashland, where he was first inspired to write it, he said.

"It would be great someday if the play version could be produced at a theater as prestigious as OSF," he said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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