Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | June 2019 | 19 minutes (5,308 words)
By the time I finished reading Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life I had over nine pages of questions for author Darcey Steinke. She does, after all, explore a variety of topics through the lens of menopause: Sex; grief; the patriarchy; whales, gorillas, horses, and elephants; God; art; the transgender community; and, of course, women’s bodies, along with our minds, our spirits, our anger, and our animalness. She braids all of this into sparse, patient prose that’s somehow lush and explosive, not to mention formidable and exquisitely sensitive to all beings. [Read an excerpt from Flash Count Diary on Longreads.]
I first met Darcey back in the day, when I was a newbie writer and she was my scorchingly cool teacher. Dirty blonde hair, black tights, oozing brilliance, confidence and a bit of the daredevil, she kind of scared me. As it turns out, she is all of that — and also gigantically kind, funny, generous, and wise. The perfect combination to pull off a book like this.
Darcey’s menopausal journey begins with hot flashes so intense she, a minister’s daughter, believes God must be visiting her and ends with the bone-deep realization of her place within the divinity of nature. “I pray to the body, I pray to the lake, I pray to the whale,” she writes. In between she explores why there is so much scarcity and shame around menopause.
Darcey and I spoke via Skype about ungendering, postmenopausal killer whales, and the bad ass younger generation.
Jane Ratcliffe: You weave together your personal experiences, research, interviews with other menopausal women, biblical references, animals and so much more. What was your process for writing it?
Darcey Steinke: My model was kind of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex because that was a book that has always meant a lot to me. It’s very unique in that she interviews women [and] of course she’s a genius so she does it incredibly well; she uses quotes from other people, she uses history, she philosophizes on the phases of women’s life. In the back of my mind I wondered if I could write a book like that. The idea of putting all these things together, that was something that I always thought could be quite dynamic and quite alive.
Then, secondly, I have a very discursive brain. Luckily in this period of time, I think because of the internet, there’s more acceptance of a certain sense of discursiveness where you’re thinking of a philosopher, and then you’re using a quote from one of your friends, and so on. I feel like I finally got the best sense of my own mind in this book. I found a form for the way I think.
In the book, you explain your menopausal symptoms, but I wonder if you could do a brief recap of what you were living through.
Around 50, 51, I started to have night sweats and hot flashes. I can remember waking up at night and at first I felt like, “Is God contacting me?” I was completely drenched with sweat. Just incandescent with heat. I didn’t know anything about the hot flashes, I didn’t know anything about the sexual changes, the changes in desire, I didn’t know anything about the sleeplessness, and I had never read anything about the disorientation. Those things were all pretty heavy.
I’m 57 now; my symptoms are less. I also think I’ve gotten used to it. Instead of feeling disoriented outside of the cycle, I feel that it’s a very freeing, beautiful time.
It’s almost like an Angela Carter short story. This very dark, medical, patriarchal world is feeding women as they age these drug hormones that will continue to make them sexually pliable.
When you attend the European Congress on menopause in Amsterdam, you think you’re going to learn about herbs and other natural approaches but instead it turns out to be mostly mainstream menopausal treatments. One of the speakers states that despite the lack of long-term studies, he still holds hormone replacement therapy as the best treatment. You write, “He talks of shrinkage, lack of pliability, dryness. All his descriptions explain how the vagina might feel to an incoming penis. Not how a vagina might feel to the woman it belongs to.” It does seem like a lot of the menopausal protocols revolve around keeping us attractive and functioning for men.
That’s really true. Even as you’re reading that, I’m kind of getting chills. I’m thinking, it’s creepy, how dare they do this to us? As I read the books and did research and went to this conference, I realized, this thinking is everywhere. When you look at places like WebMD, the menopausal symptoms will be detailed with a lot of negativity and aggression like senile ovaries, atrophied vagina. Can’t they get another word besides atrophied? No woman feels that her vagina is atrophied. That’s a male judgment.
I’m not going to judge women who go on hormones, that’s a personal decision based mostly on the overriding idea that our best and healthiest period is our fertile one. I do think hormones have been sold to us as a way to stay young and keep your vagina pliable. Stay conventionally appealing in a patriarchal world. It’s disheartening. It’s almost like an Angela Carter short story. This very dark, medical, patriarchal world is feeding women as they age these drug hormones that will continue to make them sexually pliable. To some extent, emotionally compliant too. Homage to the domestic world and all that kind of stuff.
You write is, “I’m not focusing here on men or my relationship to them, but on the history of this body, my legs, my arms, my mouth, my cunt, what it wanted, how afraid it was, how it moved relentlessly forward, how it was sometimes cowardly, other times brave.” What is your relationship like with your body these days?
It’s interesting to live in an aging body, right? I think of it sometimes as like when you live in an old house or an old apartment, you still love it, it’s incredibly charming and everything, but things kind of go wrong. I’m very active, I don’t really like change that much. I’m trying to learn how to decrease. As you age, you’re going to have physical limitation. You have to learn to decrease with a certain amount of grace. I think it’s fine to be angry and to rage as well, but there’s a way in which you’re going to have to take these things that come and have them expand your humanity, not limit it. That’s my goal. It’s a hard goal.
Even though I’m older, I feel happier and more centered in my body than I’ve ever been.
Your goal sounds very beautiful. The female body is exposed to shame at all ages. How do you think the menopausal body in particular becomes an object of shame?
That’s a good question. I think that women are mostly valued for their sexuality and their motherhood abilities. Once you’re outside of that, there’s a lot of shame, because we’re made to feel that our bodies are kind of useless. That we’re somehow damaged. A lot of shame comes from the idea that after the phases that the world values, we’re just kicked to the sidelines.
I sympathize with women that want to cover that over. Want to pretend that transition hasn’t come. They want to continue to be seen as women that are still fertile, that are still viable. I had a drink with a friend recently and she works in media and she was saying that she’s in her 50s, she would love just to go gray because she’s sick of dying her hair. But she said in the world she’s in, she feels like she can’t. She works with people in their 30s and 40s who think she’s slightly older than them, but they don’t really have a sense of how old she actually is. And she needs them to feel like she’s hovering around 47. That was sad to me. This is an extremely brilliant woman and she’s feeling this incredible pressure. It’s hard.
During one of your sleepless nights, you discover the Southern Resident Killer Whales go through menopause and then enjoy a long post reproductive life. The only other mammals that experience this. You start dreaming about them, and feel their psychic presence, and eventually you seek out two of them. Why?
I was struggling and needed my own totem to move me through menopause. There’re some amazing older women, but a lot of them are sort of continuing to keep their façade of their fertile life intact and so when I found the whales and I found that they go on to lead their pods after they go through menopause, I realized nobody offers them hormones. Nobody tells them that their vagina is dry. They just become badass leaders. It really inspired me. We just lost J2, the whale that was known as Granny, she was 104. She was the pod leader of all the resident pods, the K, J, and L. There was some YouTube footage of her breaching, spyhopping, swimming beside younger members of her pod, it was extremely inspiring to me.
It sounds weird in that I got obsessed with an animal like a little girl in a fairytale but that is kind of what happened. I remember when I was swimming laps in the pool, especially when I was sad, I would think, “Yeah, I’m a whale.” It was helpful.
What did you feel in your body when you felt like you were a whale?
Really powerful. I didn’t feel like I was under this patriarchal oppression that was telling me I was less, I was ugly, I was no longer sexually viable. It made me feel strong, like the animal that I am. I’m a strong, midlife, female animal. Just like a whale. Also, in the whale culture, they don’t debase the older females. They honor them. They honor their knowledge. That was amazing to read about, too.
People always talk about, ‘Who am I?’ The answer is, you’re an animal! It’s not any big thing, really.
During menopause you begin to feel the animal-ness of your body in a new way. In fact, you realize that some moments you categorized as religious were actually “glimpses into your lost animal consciousness.” It sounds like this was regenerative.
It was everything. Menopause is a reminder of your mortality. You have a timestamp. When you see animals dead by the side of the road, they seem very dead. More dead than people seem dead in a way, because you witness their death and their decaying bodies.
To say inspiring is weird, because it’s more like I came to a truth that was always there and took me a long time to figure out. The idea that I’m one of the animals, I’m part of the earth’s ecosystem. Those feelings were very invigorating. They were very profound. People always talk about, “Who am I?” The answer is, you’re an animal! It’s not any big thing, really.
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“Without hormones my femininity is fraying,” you write. You and some of the women you interview experience an ungendering. You don’t feel feminine or masculine. Rather a third sex. What that has been like for you in a tactile way as well as emotionally and mentally.
I started to feel not as traditionally female. There was this one time, it was very disorienting, I was coming out of the subway and in the bodega window next to me, I saw this very elegant looking older man going up and I realized, “Oh my god, that’s me.” It was so surprising. People aren’t ungendering me. I’m ungendering myself. This more androgynous self was coming out of my more traditionally feminine body. It manifested in a lot of ways. It was a relief not to fight it. Rather just go with it. I understand now better why people would do plastic surgery and all these things, because once you feel this, your body changing and your gender shifting even, you just want to get back to that more fertile femininity. To let that go was a very powerful thing for me.
Was the ungendering just your physical presentation or were you internally shifting as well?
It was also internal. It’s confusing, because I’m always wondering, “What is a woman?” If someone would tell me what a woman is, that’d be great. I guess you could say sexually I was less interested in the very stern male/female binary of what’s sexy. That’s something I definitely put aside. I felt less interested in traditional female things. I really don’t care if my kitchen is nice or not. There were periods earlier that I wanted to have a nicer house or whatever. That’s over. I just feel like my interests have gone in a different direction now and I do think of it as a gender switch. I don’t really think it’s male necessarily.
One of the books that helped me the most in my transitioning was The Testosterone Files by Max Wolf Valerio. It’s about Max’s transition from being a woman to being a man. He takes testosterone and talks about lessening estrogen and feeling more steady and I identified with a lot of things in that book. I felt the stability and the calmness that he speaks of outside the cycle. That helped me so much more than, for instance, The Sexy Years by Suzanne Somers which I found to be so misogynistic. So against the full flowering of what a woman is.
I do see how it could be frightening, because so much of your value comes from being feminine. But I’d argue the most appealing thing about you is to be a genuine, authentic person. Not to falsely gender yourself.
You write, “The most surprising outcome of my ungendering has been that the male God I grew up with has lost its power.” That one kind of bowled me over.
I’m glad it bowled you over, because it kind of bowled me over too. When you’re in the binary, you think, “I’m a woman and there’s men. God is a man.” I used to try to think of God as a woman when I did my meditation, but it never really worked. But then somehow feeling less feminine, really helped me be like, “No, God is not a man, that’s ridiculous.”
Also, being more interested in the earth, feeling more like a citizen of the earth, I realized this energy is androgynous. It’s not male gendered. It’s just wrong to say God is a specific gender and resides in a specific body or specific male being. You realize how God got to be male, right? A lot of men who had all the power were like, “God is like me. God is a man.” As I felt more androgynous I felt less, not exactly respect, but at this point in my life, I’m less willing to have men tell me what to do. I’m just not interested.
In keeping with this, you write, “The spirit, unlike the father and the son of the trinity, is more female, appearing only after the body is broken, permeable.” Why does the body have to be broken for the female spirit to manifest?
I’m not sure how you’re thinking of broken, but to me, to live is to be broken. Hard things happen and they break you down. I don’t think of it as negative. I think of it as kind of positive. People who think they’re perfect and strong, I’m not really interested in those people. My friends are all a little dinged up. They’ve been shaken up by life and I think that’s right. You’re not pursuing negative things, but life is just going to do some things to you that are going to be hard. They’re going to break you down. They’re going to change you. I think that’s a part of life and with those things come a lot of knowledge, vulnerability, things that can help you connect to other people, not be superior over them. To me the idea of brokenness and holiness really go together.
I’m less willing to have men tell me what to do. I’m just not interested.
One of my favorite sentences in the book is, “Since I’ve stopped my struggle to be beautiful, I am overtaken by beauty more often.” What kind of beauty are you discovering?
I’m less interested in how I’m coming off now, which then makes it so your consciousness can move outward, because you’re not obsessed with how people are seeing you. I walk at Prospect Park by my house and the beauty in spring, the small lime green leaves are crazy beautiful, right? The little animals and the people that I see there too. The beauty of the body and not necessarily in a sexual way, but just the beauty of human life. I feel myself very open to it.
You write, “Though no one wants to say it out loud, menopause is about loss; it’s about departure — each flash reminds me of my corporality, my mortality. With every flash, my psyche is pushed to grasp what it does not want to let itself know: that it is not immortal. This is terrifying. It’s also a rare opportunity, if faced directly, to come to terms with the limitations of the self.” I underlined this twice and surrounded it in stars.
I’m glad. When you’re younger and your body is moving through the world, you don’t have a lot of things holding you back physically. Where things that might seem to diminish your body they actually, by understanding your limitations, make you value the life that you have. The life you have is quite rich, but it sort of needs a little bit of boxing in by the idea of time, by aging, to really make you realize the freedom that you do have.
Did your mom talk to you about menopause?
No. My mom and I had a pretty fraught relationship. I remember her being hot. I remember her fanning herself. I don’t think she ever mentioned that it was menopause though. I wonder if I would I have been sympathetic even if she had. I knew so little about it, culture diminished it so much.
My mother didn’t talk to me about it much either. Like you I was shocked when the symptoms began.
Yeah. I have to say, I interviewed a group of about 100 very diverse women, not one of them told me that they knew very much about menopause other than seeing characters on TV having hot flashes as a joke. What I knew of puberty came from health class basically. There’s no health class when you’re 50. I have a good doctor whom I like, but she wouldn’t even admit that I was going through menopause. She kept saying, “Oh, these symptoms must be something else.” I’m very frustrated with this, because I feel like on the one hand, big pharma and the hormone companies are more than ready to rush in and say, “Here’s what menopause is. Here’s what you should do about it.”
On the other hand, just a certain amount of information about the body, about what we’re going through, understanding about the changes psychologically and whatnot would be helpful. That information is very hard to get, right? Not hysterical, just grounded information about what’s happening to our bodies. I did a thorough search of the books out there and they aren’t that great. Even the memoirs end with this come-to-Jesus moment of, “Then I accepted hormones.” I’m not against it, but when they accept hormones, they say all their menopausal symptoms go away, so then the journey through menopause kind of stops.
I probably wrote the book because I wanted to hear what it’s like for other women. What happened to them? How are they going through it? I found women whose sex life was ramped up, now that they couldn’t get pregnant. I found women who had decided to choose celibacy; they wanted to get out of the sexual rat race. I found a lot of women in between who were still interested in sex but were less interested in penetration. They were interested in different sexual positions and different ways to be sexual. I found women who had twenty hot flashes a day. I found women who had no hot flashes. I found every single variety of way to go through menopause.
Many women, as they enter menopause, begin to realize just how angry they are. You write “I also feel angry more often, a menopausal condition that doctors classify as hormonal irritability, but that I am starting to see as a gateway to authenticity.” What does it feel like to be authentically angry?
I still struggle with my anger. Somehow it makes me feel out of control. In earlier times I thought that it wasn’t ladylike. My first husband used to say when I was angry that it was unsexy, which was so incredibly controlling — when you’re just having your normal emotions, you’re not appealing. Now when I’m angry I try to be responsible with my anger, but I try to not press it down. People always say repressed anger turns into depression. I’ve suffered from depression, so I think that’s a thing.
Right now, we’re seeing so much female anger and some people think it’s bad. It won’t do anything. But I feel very inspired by it. I feel like there’re ways in which as women, as a group, we’ve been treated really unfairly. African American women and minority women, my god. So much more than white women. Rather than just shove it aside I think we need to really listen to the fact that somebody is angry and see why they are angry. Since menopause, I’ve been able to vent and experience my anger and move it out in the world, yet I still feel frightened by it. I guess I have to be honest about that.
It’s primal. Do you think it can ever be a force of positive change?
Yeah. I think that’s what we’re seeing right now, right? All the changes in workplace sexual harassment, that’s amazing. I had a situation where I was harassed at my work and the person who harassed me is still being protected by the institution. I never, ever thought that we would get these kinds of results. That we would get people actually listening to women that had been treated badly, that a certain kind of monsterish man would actually be fired. I just thought, well that’s the way the world works. Those men have power. That’s been inspiring and hopeful to me.
My de-creation is also attached to creation. It’s very hard to talk about because these are extremely spiritual things. They kind of come apart like a tissue in a glass of water when you try to speak about them.
Why do you think feeling your own anger scares you?
I’m German so there’s a lot of brooding, right? My partner and I, we both maybe are more brooders than we are anger expressers. I definitely can access it more when I’m angry about something in the world; I can express it better and feel empowered by expressing it. Within my personal relationship it’s tougher, to be like, “You crossed my boundary. You shouldn’t have done that.” It’s hard for me not to be at peace and helpful rather than actually angry.
I think a lot of women feel like that. It’s ingrained in us not to get angry.
You always think that the higher and more spiritual way is to figure out why you’re angry and try to make peace within yourself, But I don’t know if I believe that anymore. I feel like anger expressed is normal. If I could just convince myself it doesn’t mean that I’m out of control or I’m bitchy.
You lay yourself bare in this book. What it was like to write so openly about your body and experiences that even outside of menopause are often considered taboo — menstruation, a flagging sex drive, gray pubes, dry vagina. You write about everything.
I’ve always loved to write about the body. Even my very first writings and many of my books talk about the female body. As I got older, it was harder for me to figure out how to continue to write about it. In my last novel, the character was adolescent, and in some ways I did that because I couldn’t figure out a way to write about my own aging body.
You want to write these things, it’s the female experience, but I felt a little bit weird and shy and in shame about some of the things I’ve written because of the way the world works and the patriarchy works. I remember when Suicide Blonde came out, there was a satirical nasty review about it because it was so erotic. It really hurt me. I thought, “Wow, the New Yorker, I’ve admired it for so long and then they’re saying that the thing I do is not okay.” I internalized that. It didn’t stop me, but I always had it in my mind where this thing that you do is considered not as serious, or somehow you’re trying to get attention or whatever. I feel a certain sense of validation now. I feel like we’ve moved forward.
We have a lot of really cool young novelists. I love the story by Catherine Lacy, “Cut,” that was in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago. It starts out that the character has a wound, has a cut in her groin area. Somewhere around her vagina or her asshole. She just says it outright. You never know if the wound is real or not, but it becomes a metaphor for the idea of the female body feeling damaged, and the female body having longing and then limiting itself. I thought it was such a beautiful story. The fact that it was in the New Yorker was amazing to me. I feel inspired by this younger group of women who are willing to write about the female body without shame. They’re not going to cower and they’re not going to feel shame and weirdness. They’re going to be, “No. I have the right to do this.”
I think you probably inspired them.
That’s a nice thought. I hope that’s true.
“Since early adulthood, desire has been the main way I’d oriented myself,” you write. Yet you note that your sex drive has changed. I wondered what orients you now?
As I went through menopause, I experienced big changes in desire. For a long time, I was like, “Wow, I guess I don’t have any sex drive.” It was weird. It’s almost like I had to refind it. What am I feeling now? What do I really want to do physically? How do I want to connect with my partner? It took a while of reorienting myself as a sexual body to figure out what felt good for me sexually.
There’s a lot of relief too, because I don’t think about sex as much as I used to. I’m no longer afraid that my desire will derail my life, which in my early life, that happened some. It was scary. To think that my own desire could burn down my life. I feel a steadiness in my physicality and my sexual desire now that I like. I still want to be really close to my partner, and there are many ways that I can do that, including physically. I have sex less, but I enjoy it more. It’s still extremely exciting and sensual and I feel like there’s been no loss of pleasure at all. It’s just that I’m less jonesing for it all the time.
Is your partner okay with that?
Yeah. We have a lot of discussions. We definitely want to keep our physical life going forever. I interviewed a bunch of men too for my book and pretty much all of them deflected questions about their own aging bodies and their own desire onto the fact that their partners didn’t want to have as much sex anymore. It was the way that they were obviously dealing with their own aging, which is sad and says a lot about why we have this big menopausal problem, right? If men would deal with their own selves and their own vulnerability, maybe they wouldn’t want to force us into being sex bombs our whole lives.
How has menopause affected your writing?
It’s hard to know how or why it’s happening, but I feel like I’m interested in more difficult subjects now than I was; things that excite me narratively have changed. The stories that I want to tell are different.
What stories do you want to tell now?
I’m definitely interested in telling stories about older women. Women in the second half of their life. I’d also like to tell some stories about what it’s like to be in a male run world. I’ve often wanted to tell some stories about the fact that your spirituality or my spirituality was tied to the idea that the biggest metaphysical presence was gendered male. I like to think about what that did to me and how I moved in the world and what that said about myself, and how that directed me.
In the end you recognize your body is simply part of the life cycle. You write, “I may be aging even decaying a little, but rot, let’s not forget, is generative.” This actually brings tears to my eyes.
Yay. You’re successful if you’ve made someone cry.
You go through this long journey with the animals and with the women you interview and with yourself and your partner and then this is where you land. That your body will rot and nurture new life.
As I came to the end of the book, I really felt strongly, “Okay, I have to figure out a way to both land with a lot of these themes tying together, but also with new ideas.” I always want to go macro at the end. How can I broaden some of these ideas out? I also knew death had to be a part of it. I, of course, didn’t want it to be a big bummer. I wanted it to be the idea of death as a new beginning.
I don’t really feel like I’m decaying necessarily but I understand that I’m different than I was. There are some fluxes in my body and it’s important for me to feel like it’s just not going down into death and I’m becoming a used-up hag. It’s important to think that my de-creation is also attached to creation. It’s very hard to talk about because these are extremely spiritual things. They kind of come apart like a tissue in a glass of water when you try to speak about them.
There’s also the notion that we have become crones, that we’re wise now, at least in theory. We have this knowledge now to pass on to this younger generation that you’re so excited about, so the wisdom also regenerates.
I read books about the history of crones and about the idea of the wise woman. I feel like that’s the one idea that we have for ourselves as positive. It’s kind of sad. I want to support it, but I don’t want to get completely behind it, because I want more for us. I want more than just, you’re old but you’re wise. I want to be a completely vital part of the world. In all aspects. I want to be physically vital, intellectually vital. I love the crone. I want to be the crone. And then I also want to be the un-crone.
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Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, The Rumpus, Tin House, and Narratively, amongst others. She’s just finished a novel about the unpopular peace movement as well as the women’s movement in London during WWII.
Editor: Dana Snitzky