In a fast-moving world of first impressions, where conversations have been replaced by “likes,” our relations with others are governed by the skin. We speak with the skin: We get tattoos, we sit in the sun for a nice, deep tan, we cover up or show ourselves off, we get piercings or smear ourselves with expensive creams or go for Botox treatments in an attempt to remain eternally young. We say more about ourselves with our skin than we do with our words.
And yet, at the same time, we pretend we don’t care about it. Skin-related issues — apart from those that affect politics, like racism — aren’t generally deemed worthy of writerly reflection. It would be frivolous, narcissistic even, to explore these questions when there are so many serious subjects to contend with. Nobody cares about the feelings of shame experienced by those with skin conditions, their panic at the prospect of a sunny day at the beach, the tactics they employ to camouflage themselves or their desperation at failed treatments. There are far more important illnesses deserving of literature’s attention.
For a long time, this was my attitude as well. I never considered writing about my psoriasis because I resisted the very idea that it was a problem. It wasn’t part of me. My body wasn’t part of me; I existed purely in what was noncorporeal, in my writings, my intellect. All the itching, the patches of peeling, flaky skin — these were private problems, nothing to complain about.
I would sometimes come across historical figures and writers who suffered the same illness as I do. Joseph Stalin, for example. And Vladimir Nabokov. Their biographies would barely mention it — a couple of lines, two or three paragraphs at most. Sometimes just a footnote. But I always found this striking, and when I began making inquiries, I almost always discovered that the skin problems of these people had a considerable influence on their lives and work. Their skin was instrumental in shaping their ways of perceiving, understanding and relating to the world, which was almost always from a position of shame and rage.
Studying Stalin’s life, I began to entertain the notion — I’m a writer, it’s my job to exaggerate — that the gulags were a kind of revenge for all the intolerable itching. Of course, not everyone with psoriasis becomes a villain. Most of us are good people. But Stalin wasn’t the only evil so-and-so with psoriasis: The Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had it, as did Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Peruvian terrorist organization Shining Path, whose arrest came about because his pursuers found jars of his skin cream in the trash cans at his hide-out.