David Linton on how novelist Judy Blume incorporates menstruation into the lives of her characters
The author Judy Blume broke the menstrual barrier back in 1970 with the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, one of the most memorable and influential books (along with Steven King’s Carrie) to include specific references to the period. In fact, the menstrual material in It’s Me Margaret became a significant source of information and bonding for generations of girls. Furthermore, though surely not Blume’s intention, the reception of the book by school authorities and “responsible” adults revealed the depth of social anxiety surrounding any frank depiction of young girls’ sexual development, particularly in reference to their periods. The book became one of the most often banned or censured in 20th century America. It regularly made the American Library Association’s list of the ten most censored books.
Now, Blume has written yet another novel (her 28th including the full range of her oeuvre that ranges over adult, children’s and adolescent genres), this time aimed at an adult readership, titled In the Unlikely Event. It too focuses largely on the lives of a number of girls and women, this time built around a tragic series of three plane crashes that actually occurred in 1951-52 in the vicinity of Patterson, New Jersey where Blume herself grew up.
There are many noteworthy elements in the novel, but for purposes of Menstruation Matters readers, attention is drawn to the artful way the author integrates the menstrual lives of characters into the narrative flow. While not in the least heavy-handed or showy, Blume acknowledges that menstrual matters are a natural part of the fabric of women’s lives. The tendency of most other writers is to simply omit such details, a reflection of the broader practice within the culture at large to similarly avoid any mention of the topic.
In the course of the unfolding stories of the women characters there are 12 references to periods, including a set of four focusing on a missed period and pregnancy scare, and others alluding to menstrual products (pads, belts, Midol, and the Tampax restriction for young girls), hot flashes, menopause, and simply just “getting it.” For instance, a character named Christina feels she has to hide her concerns about whether she has had a miscarriage or not by telling her friend that she simply had some “lady troubles.” She explains:
“I’m so irregular. . . I don’t want to worry my mother. You know how greek mothers can be.” She hated lying to Daisy. She wasn’t irregular at all – her periods came every twenty-eight days, like clockwork, until recently. (p 361)
In this way Blume manages to normalize menstruation, incorporating its existence and management into the lives of women in ways that are sometimes simply no more than casual notes and at other times in ways that capture the central role that the cycle’s processes can play in women’s lives.
The title of the book, In the Unlikely Event, is a reference to the phrase commonly used by flight attendants when explaining to passengers what to do “in the unlikely event of an emergency landing.” But it just as well could be an ironic reference to the highly “likely” event that in the course of a woman’s life there will be menstrual occurrences that will require attention, an observance that most other novelists prefer to avoid but that Judy Blume has always been willing to explore.
David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the Menstruation Matters editorial board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.