Skin Deep: The Story of Governor Dr. Dr. Bentley and Me
I grew up in Alabama, where political ruckus is like the roar of evening insects—part of the landscape. So when Governor Robert Bentley made national news in 2011, there was no need for me to apply a cold compress and no need to lie on the fainting couch. For those who might have forgotten, the controversy revolved around Alabama HB 56, an anti-immigration bill that made Arizona look like the Bienvenido Vagón of America. The situation became infamous when a German executive from the Mercedes-Benz plant was stopped for identification and arrested, followed by a Japanese Honda worker ticketed at a checkpoint, despite having multiple forms of identification. These incidents were All So Embarrassing because the law wasn’t intended for those immigrants—the ones bringing high-paying jobs to a struggling state economy.
I haven’t lived in Alabama for years, and I normally would have read the article, sighed, and moved on. Then I realized that Governor Bentley used to be Dr. Bentley, as in my Dr. Bentley, back when he was a dermatologist and I a pimply teenager. The connection wasn’t George Wallace as my former psychiatrist, but nonetheless, the situation deserved further reflection.
I first saw Dr. Bentley in seventh grade when a sprinkle of chin acne refused to go away. The blight escalated from there. I never did go full-on pizza face, but I became an expert in the varieties of my affliction: the blackheads peppering my nose; the tiny, painful nails in my upper lip; the whiteheads that I had to wait to surface and pop or they would burst underneath; the cysts, barely visible but throbbing like whales under my skin. In response my mother, always quick to exercise her benefits, signed me up for the doctor everyone recommended.
I had good company in the waiting room: Dr. Bentley was the dermatologist all my friends saw, too. We all liked him. When he opened the door, he was a dead ringer for Mr. Rogers coming home from work, but with a white lab coat instead of a cardigan. He had the same tilted head, kind smile, and sincere interest in my day. Dr. Bentley even had a similar tone to his voice—that oddly comforting nasal quality as he chatted through potentially awkward silences while squeezing my nose under a giant magnifying glass. He was always so patient, so unaffected, and always discreet as he attended to whatever new Old Testament plague had bubbled up.
Dr. Bentley never failed to send me home without a stack of prescriptions. Every time, I held the white bag of medicines and prayed like Job for relief. I would be cautioned that treatment results might take four to six weeks, that I needed to be patient and follow all instructions. Placing my absolute faith in modern science, I dutifully worked my regimen. I popped tetracycline and exfoliated. I swabbed the tonics and dabbed the creams. I applied Retin-A gel until my skin turned red and peeled, then I reapplied and peeled again, deducing I could erode my zits one layer at a time.
My best friend, Amy, also suffered from acne and saw Dr. Bentley. We were unpopular and without boyfriends, but hopeful for the future. Friday nights, we cheated on our regimens with drugstore Oxy-10, slathering on a white mask that cooked our skin while we watched Duran Duran videos. The more it burned, the more it must be working, we reasoned, and so we let the paste dry and crack and itch until we couldn’t stand it anymore, running to wash off the crud and then peering at our clean, ruddy faces to see if the treatment had worked. Were we pretty now?
Over the years, Dr. Bentley treated my various afflictions. He froze off warts and peered at mystery rashes. This being the South, there was probably a case of poison ivy and an embedded tick or two. The pinnacle of my dermatological experience arrived when my mother and Dr. Bentley decided to sew up a chicken pox scar on my cheek, the idea being to make it less noticeable. After applying—ever so gently—a local anesthetic, Dr. Bentley carefully stitched until my scar resembled a Tinkerbell-sized football. At school I had to wear a bandage on my face and I came up with some lie about accidentally poking myself with a tree branch.
Eventually I left home and my mother’s insurance plan. My acne persisted, but I couldn’t afford the white bags of medicine anymore and besides, I had tired of it all. Amy and I called one another, decided we were pretty enough, and moved on. This was all well and good until at age thirty-two, I discovered a breakout on my back—a previously undisturbed neutral zone. This was the final insult; I was ready to go nuclear. I found a dermatologist in the phone book and requested an Accutane prescription. Again, I was told to be patient, that the treatment would take weeks but within days, just a few pills, I had glowing, clear skin, the child’s sunrise of promise on my cheeks.
“Whoa,” said my new best friend, the one with psoriasis. “I mean, whoa. I can’t stop looking at your skin.”
For years bad skin had dominated my thoughts. By the same token, once my skin cleared up, I forgot all about it. I hadn’t given a thought to the rigmarole of my teens until Governor Bentley was in the news. I learned that Dr. Bentley had not only added governor to his title, but now he was also Dr. Dr. Bentley, because he had his name changed to Dr. Bentley so it would appear that way on the ballot.
Staring at a recent photograph, I could see Governor Dr. Dr. Bentley was leaner now, with white hair and a harder look—maybe a bit less kindly, a bit less interested in my day—but mostly he seemed the same. I was told by a friend in politics that with the general public he was popular and well regarded. He came across as a nice guy, genuine—not the typical politician. People thought of him as honest and direct. Of course, I knew about this demeanor from personal experience.
I looked at the picture and thought back to my teenage years. I had to admit, part of me was resentful because despite all the treatments nothing before Accutane had much effect. Medical science now frowns on wonton antibiotic prescription and tetracycline is known to stain teeth. I’ve traditionally held a tiny daughter grudge against my mother regarding the chicken pox scar. The whole procedure only made me more self-conscious and the surgery left me with an exact, same-sized scar that became a regular hiding place for a blackhead.
To be fair, Dr. Bentley prescribed the going medications for the time, many of which remain standard treatment. Still, I have to wonder if he ever stopped to think, “Gee, I sure have prescribed a ton of antibiotics to kids and their skin doesn’t look that much better.” Similarly, I would think Governor Dr. Dr. Bentley believed that HB 56 would create jobs for “real Alabamians,” but has he stopped to consider whether the bill has been effective? I know I’m making some leaps and assumptions here, but I can’t help pondering the question.
Regarding the current state of dermatology in Alabama, the quest for beautiful skin remains a Southern tradition. In wealthier areas of the state, billboards advertise Botox, liposuction, and “mommy makeovers.” If Governor Dr. Dr. Bentley ever wanted to go back to being Dr. Bentley, he could probably do well. As for myself, I’m done with cosmetic dermatology. Just this morning an old red friend announced itself on my laugh line. My preferred course of treatment? Soap.