Darcey Steinke | Excerpt from Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life | Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux | June 2019 | 17 minutes (4,557 words)
I walked up the Q train station steps, pushed through the turnstile, and headed out into the stormy fall night. Even as I left the station, anger swirled in my chest, severe and combustible. I moved away from the dark trees of Prospect Park down toward Flatbush Avenue. Some people say fury makes them blind, unable to see the world around them. I felt the opposite. Rage focused my attention. The wet asphalt reflected a red ATM sign. In the market on the corner, I watched a policeman buy a coffee in a white paper cup. Down Flatbush past the nail salon with the wall of multicolored polish, then past the vegetable stand, lemons and limes shining just inside the glass door, and left on Midwood, where I walked under wild trees, as different from trees in calm sunlight as a living person is from a zombie. Branches moved frantically in the greenish streetlight.
I had my worries. I wasn’t sure I could get the money together for my daughter’s college, and I’d developed a mysterious skin condition, with hives rising up under my bra strap and at the waist of my jeans. Those were on a back burner. In the forefront that night was a rage with a singular focus directed at my husband.
Mike has many great qualities, but neatness is not one of them. He often jokes about how, while he was away, a neighbor who glanced into his window assumed his house had been ransacked and called the police, how he caught a jar of peanut butter on fire, and how he lived for years with water leaking out of an overhead light fixture. When I visited him in Virginia while we were dating long-distance, a raccoon who had learned to use his cat door came nightly into the kitchen to go through the trash.
Mike moved to Brooklyn in 2005 and we got married in 2008. Our shared domesticity didn’t change his slovenliness. He seemed to find his messiness charming, but to me, who had lived the ten years before as a struggling single mother, his lapses not only meant more work but also danger. My mother had died the year before, alone in her house in Albany, New York. By the time I drove up from Brooklyn, her body had been removed, but my brothers and I found her house in shambles, newspapers all over the floor, drawers tipped out, empty food containers scattered everywhere.
Mike’s messiness, to me, was tinged with death, sinister. I was afraid his carelessness would eventually somehow hurt me and my daughter. He left his dirty clothes everywhere, left drawers and cabinets open in the kitchen, and he never offered to cook meals, change the kitty litter, or make the bed.
In hindsight I can see that what I was actually mad about went much deeper than Mike’s messiness. I’d lived alone with my daughter for ten years, and I’d forgotten how easy it is for men to focus. To be all-consumed with their work, their sports teams, their computers. I was as angry at him for making me bear the brunt of our shared domestic duties as I was at myself for feeling weighted by and responsible for them.
What marked this night as different, though, is how hard I struggled with conflicting forces inside myself. Should I confront him or should I continue to stuff it? As I turned onto Bedford, I knew there would be dishes in the sink, that the bed would not be made. I’d find his underwear on the floor, his spit in the bathroom sink, even his pee in the toilet. Cold wind drove tiny bits of ice against my face. Dog shit and chicken bones littered the sidewalk, and the red stoplight swung around like a gigantic demonic charm. I felt as if the wind moved not only against my jacket, flattening out the down, but also through my skull, blasting open the door between me and my rage.
Like many women, I got sad, not angry, for most of my pre-menopausal life. I pushed down and compressed my anger until I could almost convince myself it did not exist. I reveled in being split, diaphanous. It was a little like being high, having no singular self. Being weightless, like a ghost. “In order to avoid her rage,” writes the therapist Mary Valentis, “a woman may have to numb herself to all feeling.”
In her 2004 Anger Workbook for Women, Dr. Laura Petracek uses worksheets and exercises to apply cognitive behavioral techniques to help angry women. She stresses in the foreword how uncomfortable the culture is in general with female anger, how women are told anger is not ladylike, how our anger is defeminizing, even dehumanizing. Angry women are so threatening that they’ve been accused of being demonically possessed. Angry men are just men. Angry women are stigmatized and ste reo typed: shrill wife, crazy ex-girlfriend, feminazi. I recognize myself in the details of women who are so afraid of their anger that they control not only its expression but also their awareness of its existence.
I felt affinity with the ideas in the Anger Workbook as well as with the ghost trapped inside its pages. In pencil, the book’s former owner had checked off symptoms that had developed because of her own tamped-down rage. Frightening thoughts. Ironic humor. Smiling while hurting. Disturbing dreams. Slowing down movement. Suddenly refusing eye contact with another person. Laughing when nothing funny is going on.
Like many women, I got sad, not angry, for most of my pre-menopausal life.
As a young woman, I was drawn to female characters whose repressed anger fermented into a melancholy that made them feel unreal, ghostly. In Jean Rhys’s novel Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha Jansen stares through a storefront window at an older woman, an aged version of herself, trying on a hat. The woman’s expression is terrible, hungry, despairing, hopeful. “At any moment you expected her to start laughing the laugh of the mad.” Sasha, whose husband left her after their baby died, lives in Paris, dreaming of a well-lit room with a private bath, instead of the dingy room in a cheap hotel she shares with another ghost, a man who seems to be always standing in his white bathrobe on the landing.
Embarrassed by her shabby clothes, as well as the barren body underneath, Sasha longs to be invisible. She understands invisibility to be a mental state: “You must make your mind vacant, neutral, then your face also becomes vacant, neutral — you are invisible.” As the novel ends, Sasha is so unhappy that a part of her, phantomlike, splits off. “Who is this crying? The same one who laughed on the landing, kissed him, and was happy. This is me, this is myself, who is crying. The other,” Rhys writes, “how do I know who the other is? She isn’t me.”
Lonely people, a 2007 study found, are more likely to believe in the supernatural. This is linked to the greater fear people who live alone have of home invasions. If you don’t have real friends, the mind makes up ghostly malevolent ones. I was at my loneliest the year I was writer in residence at Ole Miss, in Oxford, living in a stately home across from Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak. My first marriage was on the rocks and I was facing a future as a single mother. One night after I had put my daughter into her crib, I was in my bed reading. The large room was dark, with only the cone of inverted light illuminating the pages of my book. The master bedroom was as big as my entire Brooklyn apartment. Outside I heard wind chimes in my neighbors’ yard and branches from the dogwood scratching against the house.
The Victorian writer Cynthia Asquith, in her story “God Grant That She Lye Still,” tells of a woman so permeable that the spirit of a dead girl infiltrates her body and eventually her mind. “I don’t know how to explain,” she tells her doctor, “but what I mean is that there is no real permanent essential Me.” Asquith herself wrote about having this sensation: “I feel so hopelessly fluid. So indefinite. A different person with whichever friend I’m with and no one at all when I’m by myself.” Asquith felt herself to be a ghost. In her stories living and dead characters find themselves interchangeable. “I believe . . . ,” the critic Ruth D. Weston writes, “that Asquith internalized a patriarchal perception so self-contradictory as to defy rational explanation.” The actual chill of “God Grant That She Lye Still” is less the struggle the human narrator has with the ghost from a nearby graveyard, and more that, alone, Asquith feels “like water released from a broken bowl — something just spilling away —to be absorbed back into nothingness.”
“Feeling of Presence has specific characteristics,” says the science writer Rick Paulas in his essay “The Neuroscience of Ghosts.” “If the patient was standing, the presence was felt as standing. If the patient was lying down, the patient felt as if the presence was lying down.” During these episodes, three areas of the cerebral cortex light up, ones that deal with visual memory and perception. “ These areas,” Paulas writes, “give you the [feeling] that you are a specific body.” If there are lesions in the brain, or if the brain is traumatized or stressed, it makes the assumption that someone else is in the room with you. There is a sort of doubling in the patient’s body.
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In Mississippi, I could keep it together during daylight hours, but at night a strange feeling of uncontainment came over me, as if I were bifurcating like the multiple images in a dressing-room mirror, splitting up into a multitude of selves. I had the sensation, as I sat up in my bed reading, that I was also sitting across the room reading. When I twisted the neck of my reading lamp, it illuminated the empty velvet love seat. Still, I felt a presence, a woman with my same weight and focus, but she wasn’t melancholy like me. No. She was furious.
Many female ghosts are ineffectual. Like depressed people, they float around the house, miserable but unable to act. Others, though, have angry agency. Women in books and movies often make better ghosts than men; in a male-dominated society, their rights are repressed, and they are less likely to find justice in the material world. Female ghosts who were unhappy or victimized while alive can seek revenge after they enter the spirit world.
Bloody Mary is one such spirit. Both my mother and grandmother told me how, as girls, they along with their friends had tried to summon Bloody Mary. Abbie, my daughter, came home once spooked from a sleepover, telling me she and her best friend, Ginger, had seen a bloody woman in the mirror. The ritual varies according to decade and part of the country: Girls hold a hand mirror and walk up a flight of stairs backward chanting, “Bloody Mary.” They flush the toilet and whirl around thirteen times. They prick their fingers, then smear the glass with blood. At slumber parties in the 1970s, my girlfriends and I turned off the bathroom light, lit a candle, and gathered around the mirror: “Where is your baby, Bloody Mary?”
Mary Tudor took the throne in 1553. She was nicknamed Bloody Mary for ordering three hundred of her subjects burned at the stake. This moniker seems unfair, considering her father, Henry VIII, put not only two of his wives but also fifty-seven thousand of his subjects to death. Being England’s first female ruler, Mary Tudor was ridiculed and undermined. Her procreative struggles were mocked. Court doctors recorded that Mary suffered from heavy blood flow, pelvic pain, and cramps. At thirty-eight, she married Philip of Spain and soon after suffered a phantom pregnancy that led to a nervous breakdown. At forty-two, Mary had another phantom pregnancy. Some say she confused stomach cancer with a fetus, others that she had stopped menstruating because of menopause.
Begging a mirror for clues to the future, sometimes known as scrying, has a long history. Besides the Bloody Mary ritual and the evil queen’s enchanted mirror in “Snow White,” the practice appears in the Bible — “seeing through a glass darkly”— as well as in Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The relationship, supernatural or not, between a woman and her mirror is complicated. Our reflection, day by day, reveals our abjectness. Menstruation sets off sexuality, and girls at this precipice are understandably anxious over what is to come, bodies bleeding monthly, opening up in childbirth, and eventually decaying with age. In Sylvia Plath’s scrying poem, the mirror speaks: “Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. / In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day like a terrible fish.”
Fish, according to historians, were one of the few animals not suspected as a witch’s familiar. Women could be accused of witchcraft for being too friendly with their cats. If a woman was seen talking to or looking at ferrets, hedgehogs, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, snakes, owls, or insects, then that woman was a witch. One witch supposedly kept bees under a rock and called them out so they could drink blood from her pricked finger.
Women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, according to sources, could be accused of witchcraft if they begged at their neighbor’s house for a pitcher of milk, if they crashed a wedding and asked for a sausage, if their plants were taller than their male neighbors’, or if they were better at steering their ploughs than were their male neighbors. If, when a woman pulled a blanket down from a shelf, a toad jumped out, then she was a witch. If she was poor. Witch. If she was widowed. Witch. If she had neither father, son, husband, nor brother. Witch. If she was the midwife and, through no fault of her own, the baby died, she was a witch. If women appeared as witches in their neighbors’ dreams, then they were witches. If they made herbal tinctures for sick neighbors, they were witches. If they regularly had black eyes, bruises on their arms or legs, and cuts over their bodies, then, as their husbands suggested, they’d been beaten by the devil and were definitely witches.
The most common clues for demonologists, though, were connected to menopause. Chin hairs. Witch. Wrinkles. Witch. Warts. Witch. If a woman had on her arm a skin tag, a bit of gray flesh that looked like a miniature teat, then she was a witch. If, in the presence of others, a woman grew red and perspired heavily, then she was a witch. If, in summer, unable to sleep, she wandered in her nightgown outside her house, then she was a witch. If she was quarrelsome, angry, spoke loudly, and moved, at times, in quick bursts of chaotic energy, to open a window or get a ladle of water, then she was definitely a witch.
In Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1687, after her husband abandoned her, Rachel Clinton was forced to beg from house to house. She had not eaten in three days when she went to her neighbor Thomas Knowlton’s house and asked his maid for meat and milk. When the maid denied her, Clinton pushed past her into the house. As Knowlton tried to remove her, she called him a hellhound, a whoremasterly rogue, and a limb of the devil. Just before he threw her out the door, Clinton looked directly into her neighbor’s eyes and said she’d rather see the devil than him. Knowlton turned her in as a witch.
The devil in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes, is more understanding than any man. He both acknowledges Lolly’s inner darkness — “I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in” — and her need for freedom. The book features Lolly, a fortysomething spinster who longs for autonomy and a deeper connection to nature. “One doesn’t become a witch,” Warner writes, “to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either . . . it’s to escape all that . . . to have a life of one’s own.” As the novel ends, after meeting the devil, who looks like a gentle gamekeeper, Lolly feels giddy, as though she had been thrown into the air and suddenly begun to fly.
The most common clues for demonologists, though, were connected to menopause. Chin hairs. Witch. Wrinkles. Witch. Warts. Witch.
Alex Mar, the author of the 2016 memoir Witches of America, takes part in a Samhain ritual on the day in October when the veil between worlds thins and the dead can reach out and touch you. She’s encouraged by her mentor to consider her craft ancestors: mother, grandmother, aunts. Three words come to her during her meditation: “to — own— myself. ” “I realize,” Mar writes, “this is exactly what these women I loved were unable to do themselves: to have ownership, to each be and own herself completely.” Modern Wicca, at its best, is about empowering women. But for an older woman, being called a witch can still stigmatize. “Ditch the witch!” was the chant leveled at the Australian prime minister Julia Eileen Gillard in 2013. And in 2016 anyone with a brain understood that “Lock her up!” was about much more than Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
The exercises in my Anger Workbook are remarkably close to witches’ spells for releasing anger. The workbook tells me to write out the reasons for my anger on a sheet of paper and then in any way I choose — fire, wind, water — let it go. Both the workbook and the witches’ spells I found online encourage me to work out my anger either in a solitary ritual or, better yet, through visualization. In the witches’ spells version, after taking a purifying bath and lighting a blue candle, I am instructed to write out the situation that is causing my anger in dove’s-blood ink. As the paper catches fire, I am told to chant: “Let peace now enter come and stay, as anger in me goes away.”
Another visualization spell instructs me to imagine a ring of white light around my work space as I light a black candle. On a slip of paper, as I conjure a mental picture of the one who has angered me, I am to print their name out in capital letters. Once I burn the paper, in the remaining ash I should write out the emotion I want to replace rage. The Anger Workbook goes even further than the casting of the spell. After I visualize myself entering a dark cave, I am told to imagine walking far down inside the earth. There I will meet the person I am furious with. At first I should talk calmly, explaining why I am irate. Afterward I am allowed to imagine screaming, spitting, and punching the person.
A surprising number of women felt their first experience of unbridled anger during perimenopause or menopause. One woman felt murderous. “I often felt like I had been body-snatched, and there was a wild ax murderer who took over the control panel of my mind and body.” Another felt that it wasn’t lessening hormones that made her angry but that menopause lifted the curtain so she could finally see how furious she was. “I distinctly remember looking at a mug of coffee and wanting to throw it against the wall, which was really not something I had ever remotely felt before.”
No studies exist that test menopause’s connection with anger. Depression, the most common way women experience anger, has been studied. The 2012 SWAN study found a correlation between menopause and depression, while the Melbourne Women’s Midlife Health Project, which included not only a survey but also blood tests for estrogen levels, found no direct link. Websites list irritability as a symptom of the change. Irritability is a demeaning word, laughably imprecise when what I actually feel is a bright, ascendant rage. I feel indignant that I live in a body, a body that will one day die. “Anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here,” writes the poet David Whyte. It’s an inchoate and electric feeling I recognize from PMS. Menopause and PMS share the same chemical landscape. I was taught not to trust my feelings of frustration and fury in those days before my period when my hormones would drop. I was told instead that I was crazy, that the world I inhabited was not real.
The supernatural creature women are most often compared to is neither revenant nor witch but the demonically possessed. Partners of menopausal women insist that their wives are not simply going through a hard time but have actually been taken over by a malevolent presence. One husband told a researcher that he wanted the woman he married back — not this awful person she had become. Another said his wife had undergone “a personality transplant.” Many call their wives monsters: “She’s turned into a crazy monster.” “It’s like a monster took over her brain.” “It’s as if an alien had completely taken her over.” A man in a chat room wrote that he’d studied up on menopause and even gone to a workshop, but “it did not bring back who she was before.”
Angry women are not witches or demonically possessed. They are simply women who are angry. Why is it so hard for the culture to see anger as on a spectrum of female emotions rather than a supernatural infestation? Women too demonize their anger. Online I found several essays written by women that linked their menopausal symptoms to the devil or his minions. In one on HuffPost titled “The Difference Between Menopause and Demonic Oppression,” Donna Highfill lists behaviors wrought by “the winged little guys.” These include moodiness, lack of self-control, and bursts of anger. “If you’re trying to decide,” she writes, “if it’s menopause or demonic oppression, good luck.” Highfill’s invocation of demons is tongue-in-cheek, unlike the workshop I found at the website Finding Freedom titled “Hormones and Demonic Activity.” The deliverance minister Ella LeBain explains the premise of her online class: “What does Adolescence, PMS, Perimenopause and Menopause all have in common? Answer: Hormonal changes attract demonic activity.”
This is, of course, insane. I know that demonic possession is a societal construct, not a supernatural reality. Still, I sometimes feel when I wake in the dark, throw off the covers, and wait for the woomph! of heat that I am fighting against a force beyond my comprehension and my control. I understand that this force is not speeding toward me like a horror movie demon from the supernatural sphere but instead resides inside me. I grapple like the women Freud wrote about in his notebooks, women whose bodies became the battleground in society’s hysterical repression of the grotesque form.
The grotesque form is both my aging body and my angry self. Dr. Julie Holland got blowback when she suggested in her 2015 book, Moody Bitches, that estrogen was the whatever-you-want-honey hormone and that, first during PMS and later in menopause, when the hormonal shroud of accommodation lifts, women should embrace their angry selves. Critics wondered how women, who had to live with and care for others, were supposed to manifest their feelings safely. I get this. It’s hard to figure out how to express anger in a world that tells women that anger is unattractive, or as my first husband used to say, unsexy. Furies, the original spirits of anger, had eyes that dripped goo, they threw up clotted blood, and they reeked like a pack of wild dogs. Their anger was “a cancer blasting leaf and child.” No wonder even witches’ spells encourage women to deal with their anger on their own, better yet using visualization inside their own heads.
Angry women are not witches or demonically possessed. They are simply women who are angry.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the speculative fiction writer, acknowledged that anger was useful in resistance to injustice, but she warned that it’s “a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.” Le Guin went on to critique the anger used in second-wave feminism: “If feminism was the baby, she’s now grown past the stage where her only way to get attention to her needs and wrongs was anger, tantrums, acting out, kicking ass.” Only if laws again oppress us do we have the right to access anger. “ We’re not at that point yet, and I hope nothing we do now brings us closer to it.” Dear Ursula: We are at that point. And we have been at that point all along.
“We are living through the moment,” the feminist Katha Pollitt wrote in 2017 in The Nation, “when women unleash decades of pent-up rage.” I’ve realized with the help of #MeToo and #TimesUp that my anger at my husband and the kitty litter, at the job interviewers who asked who would care for my little daughter if I got the job, and at the harassing boss who continued to be institutionally protected is nearly always rooted in patriarchal oppression. The point of anger is to eventually have less anger. Anger helps me define what I belong to, what I believe in, what I would sacrifice myself for. It helps me deter others from infringing on my rights and focuses my political resistance. If I can work, alongside others, against sexism, my daughter may inherit a world where being female will not hurt quite as much.
“There is a time,” Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, “when it becomes imperative to release a rage that shakes the sky. There are times — even though those times are very rare . . . to let loose all the firepower one has.”
So what happened when I finally got home that rainy night? My husband remembers that he had actually done the dishes and made the bed, a rare occurrence. Mostly he remembers the intensity of my emotions: “I had to hide in my office until you cooled off.” I remember the golden quality of the kitchen lamp, how the air itself sparkled with thousands of tiny strobes. I was less a scolding teacher than a lawyer listing off past wrongs. Did he think my job was to clean up after him? Did he suppose that because I was a woman it was my job to deal with cat shit? Was it too much to ask that he close the fucking drawer after he took out a fork, flush the toilet, and not spit in the sink? As I yelled, I felt expansive, as if I were much taller and wider than I actually am. My husband did flee into his office, but to my mind I propelled him through the living room and down the hallway, not with my body but with my mind. I was neither ghost, nor witch, nor medium. I was not a teenage girl in a blood-soaked prom dress. No, I was myself in my mom jeans and teaching sweater, but my rage felt telekinetic as I watched him retreat into his office. I used my will, my own agency, to slam the door.
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Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere and five novels: Sister Golden Hair, Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water.