Midcoast documentary nears completion

Under cover no more

By Dagney C. Ernest | May 10, 2017
Ann Hedly Rousseau of Appleton appears in a scene from “Mop Cap,” a personal exploration of alopecia she is producing with Belfast filmmaker Nicolle Littrell.

In spring so early it felt like winter, Belfast’s Colonial Theatre offered a sneak peek at “Mop Cap: An Alopecia Story,” a work in progress by Belfast’s Nicolle Littrell and Appleton’s Ann Hedly Rousseau. An Indiegogo campaign in its final weeks is raising finishing funds for the hour-long documentary.

The film takes its name from the vintage-styled mob cap — the family called it a mop cap — Rousseau wore in elementary school to cover her head. Around the age of 5, she began losing her hair in patches; by 7, she had no hair at all. Living in Williamsburg, Va., the historic headgear made perfect sense.

“Then I loved going to Colonial Williamsburg because I blended in — I didn’t get stared at,” Rousseau said the first week of April in her Appleton home.

It took the family and its medical practitioners a while to figure out what was happening, but finally the diagnosis of alopecia was made. It’s an auto-immune disease in which the body attacks the hair follicles. It presents in several types of hair loss, and seems to come and go at whim. In the film, Rousseau reads a typical internet entry on what to expect from alopecia. The take-away? There’s really no way to know. But even at a tender age, Rousseau was sure about one thing.

“As a child I was very clear that I didn’t want to wear a wig and pretend like I had hair. That was very important to me,” she said. “That’s not everyone’s choice, and I think some alopecian children simply do what makes their parents the most comfortable.”

Her parents did not insist their active, athletic, outspoken child wear a wig. They did offer one, however.

“They said, 'You can have a new Apple II GS computer or we can buy you one of those custom fancy wigs,'” Rousseau recalled. “And I said, 'The computer!'”

She never did wear a wig. By the time she was 9, she had enough of her own hair to put the “mop cap” aside. After eight or nine months, her hair fell out again; grew right back in; and fell out once more and stayed out. This time, she wore a painter’s cap — “It was the 1980s, I thought it was cool at the time” — sewn tight in the back to secure it to her head. That was a challenge, especially when she rode the roller coaster at Busch Gardens; she’d have to switch the cap around backwards to make sure it covered her head.

“Really, it was all about covering it up. It was for my own comfort, but also was about the comfort of other people,” said Rousseau. “And this go-around losing my hair, I’ve really been able to look at how much is my own comfort and how much is the comfort of other people.”

The homeschooling mother, wife and yoga instructor is currently at the stage of alopecia universalis — “no eyelashes, no eyebrows, no hair!” And unlike her childhood experience, which reached a low point at age 13 — “at the worst time ever, I just lost my hair and I was so done with the whole thing” — and continued into wearing head scarves in high school and college, Rousseau is no longer concerned with covering her smooth dome.

“Juxtapositions thrill me,” she said, sorting through a tabletop pile of Legos and “Moana” playset pieces. “This whole project is about me not having hair, but what I love about this particular time in my life is, I love the juxtaposition of allowing myself to think of myself any particular way,” she said. “And I find that thrilling, a kind of personal activism of allowing myself to believe exactly what I want to believe about myself, despite what I see in the mirror.”

According to Shakespeare, the stage holds the mirror up to nature, and it was the stage that enabled Rousseau to become comfortable with her hairless head. She went to Virginia Commonwealth University for dance and choreography, and she started performing with nothing covering her pate.

“For some reason, being bald on stage felt like the safest. You were going to see me anyway, so you might as well see all of me,” she said. “And that became my freedom … wow, it was fun! And it was really nice to be young!”

Rousseau said that alopecia often strikes women and men in the 40s and 50s, who have had hair their whole lives, but “as a young thing, I could just rest on the joy of youth, and I think it gave me a feeling of self-confidence.”

It also gave her a bit of an advantage as a modern dancer, she said.

“There was no question that I was going to be somebody that got skipped over,” she said. “I was going to be seen; all I had to do after that was be good!”

One summer, Rousseau attended the American Dance Festival and purposely did not bring any head coverings. She said alopecians who decide not to cover often ease into it, taking the final plunge away on a vacation trip. She was done with covering up.

Maybe a year later, she was “really into this Australian dude” who asked her why, instead of shaving her stubbly head every day, she didn’t just try to grow it out.

“That relationship didn’t work out, but I did grow hair. And from 21 to 41, I had hair,” she said.

It was kind of odd hair, she said. She was still an alopecian, but was “passing as a haired.”

“I had a strange hairline, had no sideburns; it was a little strange, but people didn’t give me a second look. And then, at 41, poof,” she said.

Alopecian hair loss isn’t quite that instantaneous, but it is fast; Rousseau said it happens inside of a month. And she had three young sons who, while they’d seen pictures of her mob-cap youth, had always known their mother to have hair.

“My youngest was 3, almost 4, when I lost my hair. And I knew it was falling out, it wasn’t just a spot,” she said.

It began shortly after Thanksgiving 2015. Rousseau said she started trying to prep her boys, because she knew it was going to be a big deal for them.

“I said, 'You guys, I want to let you know that I’m losing my hair a little bit and it might fall all the way out, it might not, I don’t know,'” she said.

She also had to fill in some of her closest friends with whom her childhood experience had simply never come up. Her husband, furniture-maker and instructor Timothy Rousseau, had always known a return to active alopecia was a possibility.

“He took it all in stride in this really beautiful way and was more on board than I was,” said Rousseau.

She brought in Woman in the Moon Films’ Littrell when she realized that documenting the process could be worthwhile. The two conferred by phone when Rousseau decided the hair loss was such it was time to shave her head for the first time in 20 years.

“I had done some self-filming up in the loft, talking about losing my hair, and thought, this has got to be better than just a selfie. There needs to be more depth to this,” Rousseau said.

The women have known each other for years, having been part of a local cohort of women who had homebirths working with the same set of midwives.

“There was a night that I woke up when I was losing my hair, and it was clear that it was all going to come out, I just woke up wide awake out of bed and had this very comforting vision of doing this project,” said Rousseau.

Littrell has taught in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Maine for almost six years. A documentary filmmaker, she has, among other subjects, produced "At Home in Maine," a film series about the modern homebirth movement. As an activist, she is cofounder of BelFem, an education-focused group exploring issues pertaining to gender, race, sexuality and health. She said she was interested right away.

“It intersects very succinctly with the issues that I look at and I saw a lot of potential around that to parse out the beauty ideal, the male gaze around beauty — these were areas I was definitely interested in exploring with Ann,” she said.

The original idea was to put together a personal history of alopecia to share with friends and family. The women planned to film a couple of times, but the project expanded. They ended up filming for just shy of a year, beginning in March 2016 and covering the four seasons. On March 26 of this year, they screened the first half of the then-rough cut at the Colonial.

“We had about 50 people come and a lot of support by Mike Hurley, one of the Colonial’s owners. We screened it in tandem with this documentary film, ‘Embrace,’ which is all about body image and the beauty ideal,” said Littrell. “And we did a Q&A afterwards, which was wonderful; so many people made a personal connection to the issues raised.”

The crowdfunding campaign followed shortly after; the co-producers are looking to raise $10,000 to finish the film, which Littrell has submitted for consideration for a couple of this year’s film festivals.

“I started this project and I knew I wanted to pay Nicolle. I had my own little savings to use, so I wasn’t taking from family savings,” said Rousseau, who added it was very out of character for her to want to do something like this.

“For the past 12 years, I have been the mother and homemaker and homeschooler. This was my own project that had nothing to do with anyone else in the family,” she said. “And everybody was like, aaall riiight!”

She said neither her family nor herself and Littrell really knew where the project would go, but she knew it was time-specific and couldn’t wait.

“The story would not be the same if we did it today; I’d have a completely different take on it,” she said. “There wouldn’t be the same kind of vulnerability around the story.”

“One thing that’s been important to me, and I keep reflecting back to Ann, is that this has more resonance and a personal message, it goes beyond people who have alopecia,” said Littrell. “It touches on what is femininity and looking at loss, these broader themes of paths to healing and self-acceptance.”

Part of Rousseau’s own path has been to choose not to explore new treatment options. She said there are some pharmaceutical trials under way, but that “ends up meaning a lot of blood tests, and I’ve done that in my life.” She said there was always a low-level constant concern she could lose her hair again.

“To have it fall out again really led to a deep healing of my childhood; in a very strange way, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said.

She said she thinks as a child, she didn’t allow herself to feel as much.

“As an adult, I am so much safer to feel all the uncomfortable feelings about what it is to be so different … So lately I’ve been just sort of enjoying what it is to make my own decisions about how I’m going to feel about it,” she said.

Monitoring how her sons feel about the transition has been part of that adult take. Both they and she struggled a bit when it came time to shave her head.

“I said, 'Guys, it’s really getting thin now and they were, it’s fine! It was a fear for them too, changing the way I looked,'” she said.

The boys weren’t home the day she shaved. When they returned, she approached her youngest, wearing a hat.

“I said 'Hey, look,' and took off my hat and he just broke out laughing. But then he got quiet and his eyes got big and he said, ‘Put your hair back on.’ I had to tell him I couldn’t, but he kept asking,” she said, adding that she wore a hat for a couple of days until he got used to it.

“The other boys, whether they felt that way or not, were just very sweet and supportive,” she said. “And at this point, they say, ‘Mom, I can’t even remember you with hair!’”

Her hair could grow in, and fall out again, but Rousseau said it doesn’t matter — and that it did still matter, until this reoccurrence.

“There was this idea I was winning the game if I had hair and losing the game if I didn’t have hair, and now, I’m done with that — there is no game,” she said.

To see the campaign preview and fundraising page, visit the “Mop Cap” page on indiegogo.com. There also is a “Mop Cap” Facebook page; and it is on Instagram and Twitter.

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Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for more than 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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