Menopause has long been a subject men and young people avoid, except when it’s approached with humor or disgust. Women who talk about it do so in hushed voices and private spaces. Books, many by women, address mood swings and other symptoms as jokes or as medical puzzles. We’re reminded how important it is to look and feel younger. Our aging bodies might remind male partners and peers that they’re aging as well.
A few recent memoirs have shown the experience can be freeing, like Marina Benjamin in The Middle Pause: On Turning Fifty and Claire Dederer in Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning. Darcey Steinke has nudged the conversation in a different direction, to power. In a 2015 essay in New York Magazine’s The Cut, she described her hot flashes in the vivid language of a novelist (inner apocalypse, chaotic force) and called out the “patriarchal, youth-obsessed, porn-drenched USA” and the way it treats menopausal women. Her research led her to the killer whale, one of the few creatures besides humans to go through menopause. That research speculates that menopause developed in early hunter-gatherer societies for the same reason it did with killer whales: so that women, freed from reproduction and child rearing, could become leaders.
In Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, Steinke expands on her thinking and research from that essay. It’s part memoir. She begins each section with herself, logging hot flashes in the middle of the night for her count diary, or about to confront her husband for not cleaning the kitty litter or the bathroom, or on a whale-watching trip with a recent high-school graduate taking selfies as they set up camp. From these scenes she segues to the ways menopause is like religious conversion, drug withdrawal, demonic or spiritual possession, or transitioning from one gender to another.
Menopause is about more than hot flashes and crankiness. And so is the book. Steinke visits older female gorillas, horses, and elephants to learn about their post-reproductive lives. She studies killer whale pods, especially Lolita, who at 50 (at the time of Steinke’s writing) is the second-oldest killer whale in captivity, in a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium. She links her hunger for animal knowledge to the idea that women have been confined to erotic narratives that end with a house, a mate, and babies. Suppose the post-menopausal narrative could be like the prepubescent one, focused on creatures or a quest that makes the woman the hero.
Like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which also portrays a body’s transformation with a wild mix of research and anecdote, or Deborah Levy’s memoir about middle-age rebirth, The Cost of Living, Steinke’s Flash Count Diary is composed of short, discreet paragraphs separated by white space. Perhaps due to the disjointed thought patterns of the menopausal writer or as a balm for the reader with disjointed thoughts. Either way, it gives the short paragraphs more power. When she travels to a European conference on menopause, it takes few words to depict the foolishness of panel after panel of men preaching the sanctity of hormone replacement and laser or surgical vaginal rejuvenation (“I remain unconvinced, though, that tightness and pliability are exclusively concerns of women”). Similarly, after reading books by journalist Gayle Sand, fashion magazine editor Christa D’Souza, feminist Gail Sheehy, and actress Suzanne Somers, all of whom recommend hormone therapy, Steinke finds them “in complete thrall to the culturally supported variety of moist, compliant femininity… like the girl in junior high who sees you floundering, but instead of supporting your otherness, shows you how to put on makeup, curl your hair, and diet so that you, too, can enter into a rigid femininity and join the generic popular crowd.”
I didn’t want to finish this book, to lose her voice telling me my body is nothing to be ashamed of, and, yes, my sense of injustice is sharper. I found it validating after a trying day of small moments of rage and embarrassing sweating episodes to open the book and spend three pages with the Hulk, who in Ang Lee’s film says his transformation feels like “someone has poured a liter of acid into my brain.” Steinke describes watching YouTube videos of Hulk Outs, where each time “his face flushes, his forehead gleams with sweat, and there is an expression of panic, of his not wanting this to happen.” She acknowledges menopause brings us closer to death, but mostly she finds a freedom in the loss of estrogen and the submissiveness it brings. We might look like crones or hags to the untrained eye. In reality, we’ve moved closer to the fierce people we were as children, and resistance can be the antidote that hormones and lasers will never be.
Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
By Darcey Steinke
Sarah Crichton Books
Published June 18, 2018