Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Period in History: Two book reviews

May 24th, 2016 by David Linton

Menstruation in Early Modern England and Early Modern France

Menstruation in FranceObviously, menstruation has been around a long time, and while its biological purpose has been constant, its cultural significance and social construction have taken on innumerable meanings across time and space. Yet, probably due to skewed gender perspectives, taboos, and prejudices, the meanings of menses, what I think of as “the menstrual ecology,” has received relatively scant attention by historians of cultural practice. Recent efforts to redress that absence are found in two fascinating studies: Cathy McClive’s Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France (2015, Ashgate) and Sara Read’s Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (2013, Palgrave).

Menstruation-in-EnglandTaken together, these two volumes offer insights into the often surprising ways both French and English societies strove to make sense of this seemingly gender exclusive phenomenon. Among the many enlightening insights the authors offer is McClive’s challenge to what she calls “the myth of menstrual misogyny,” the idea that menstruation has always been viewed negatively, a notion she convincingly refutes. And Read’s examination of the role New Testament Biblical scripture played in shaping menstrual attitudes provides one answer as to why Christian beliefs surrounding the period diverged from those prevailing in the other two Abrahamic faiths.

Though both books are published by academic presses and, unfortunately, are unlikely to find wide readerships in the general public, they are well written and accessible to any curious reader. And in case contemporary scholars and activists are prone to think they are the first to grapple with the multifaceted meanings and prejudices that comprise the menstrual milieu, McClive and Read provide historical perspectives that are both useful and enlightening.

A more detailed review of each book can be found in the Society for Menstrual Research journal Women’s Reproductive Health:

Review of Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England

Review of Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling 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.

Writing Menopause, An Anthology: Preview #1

April 26th, 2016 by Editor

WritingMenopauseWriting Menopause, a diverse literary collection about menopause to be published in the spring of 2017 by Inanna Publicationswas first introduced to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in a session presented at our June 2015 biennial conference in Boston. The anthology includes about fifty works of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, interviews, and cross-genre pieces from contributors across Canada and the United States. With this collection, editors Jane Cawthorne and E.D. Morin hope to shine a light on a wide variety of menopause experiences and to shatter common stereotypes. This week at re: Cycling we are pleased to be able to preview excerpts from the collection.


Two pieces by Tanya Coovadia:

The Things We Carry

Last January, I attended a reading series during which two distinguished male authors, in separate opening remarks, said derogatory things about middle-aged women. I don’t think I would have noticed twenty years ago, but lately, for some reason, I am particularly attuned to discussions regarding women of my uncertain age, especially when they are uttered in tones suggestive of a shameful affliction.

Benign anal tumours, say.

One of these men, after his reading, went on to add further insult. He described the typical bumbling misapprehension of his work by that admiring but clueless fan who, he assured us, in his laconic drawl, was “always a middle-aged woman.” As a late-blooming member of the midlife sisterhood, this incident sparked a poem in me.

And (in a laconic drawl) it’s dedicated to Tim O’Brien.

Always a Middle-Aged Woman

(because middle-aged men are just men)

Striding up
with her staunchly held head
her opinions bared like wrinkled breasts

And those years she wears
a bitter glory of furrows and lines
etched by thousands of erstwhile smiles.

Who do they think they are,
these ladies (and we mean you, ma’am)
thriving so steadily
from their cloak of invisibility

We don’t see your once young face
we never stroked your once shining hair

We can’t hear your
sweet, barely caught breath
because you’re
Blatantly!
middle-aged

As though ageing is some kind of victory
as though youth and beauty
are not mandatory

As though you can bring
something new to the world
when your womb is too old to care.

My mirror,
I,
we,
you
reflect this, true

We lift our jowls toward our ears
and smile
a spasm, a rictus. Of youth.

Tanya Coovadia is a technical writer, blogger and angry-letter-writer-cum-fictionalist who occasionally dabbles in poetry. She’s a Canadian transplant to Florida who, during the writing of this poem, realized her interminable hot flashes were not weather-related after all. Ms. Coovadia has an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. Her first collection of short fiction, Pelee Island Stories, recently won an IPPY award.

Are menopause stereotypes still selling?

December 26th, 2015 by David Linton

The holiday season brings plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as to reflect on our lives, our society, and the state of the world. So, here’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of the menstrual ecology, a look back at a post from three years ago, published on Aug. 6, 2012. This piece was about a book that, as the copyright page states, was “Published by Hallmark Books, a division of Hallmark Cards, Inc.” The publication date was 2008 and it was also credited to a company called Celestial Arts which still lists it in their catalog. However, it does not currently appear in the Hallmark online catalog and it is impossible to tell if any Hallmark stores still carry it. Which brings up some interesting questions. Has Hallmark dropped the product and, if so, why? Have they become more period and menopause positive – or at least less negative?  What prompted the publication of such a negative view of women in the first place? In any event, even the publication history of a trivial item such as this can yield insights into much larger issues and attitudes. That’s what makes studying the social construction of the menstrual cycle such a constantly fascinating topic.

HALLMARK – When you care enough to send the very . . . ??

Hallmark greeting cards and related trinkets have long exemplified wholesome, up-tempo, Norman Rockwell-styled sentimentality, often packaged in clichéd verses and trite images of puppies, kittens, flowers, babies, sunsets and other references guaranteed to elicit a smile, a tear, or a warm glow. However, as rude humor has spread its influence, expressed most vividly and viciously in celebrity roasts and the Comedy Central show, Tosh .0, Hallmark was not to be left behind. A visit to the racks of cards, books, and novelties at your local card shop reveals a wide variety of snarky items offering cheap shots at a wide variety of groups, hobbies, and practices.

Menopause001Among them are several items that attempt to poke fun at what are thought to be characteristics of women in some stage of the menstrual cycle, notably PMS or menopause. Setting aside the fact that the items perpetuate the common misuse of the term  menopause when what is meant is perimenopause, consider a small book presently on sale titled, Not Guilty by Reason of Menopause.

HallmarkIt is comprised of more than 50 pages, organized in double-page spreads, each of which offers a completion to the phrase, “You might be menopausal if. . .”

A few examples will suffice:

“. . . you think about the ‘til death do us part line in your wedding vows a little too often.”

“. . . you tell all your children they’re not your favorite.”

“. . . when your husband proposes a romantic vacation, you suggest ice fishing.”

Collectively, it amounts to an anthology of mean-spirited nastiness with little redeeming humor. Women are depicted as crazy, stupid, vicious, obese, and every other negative stereotype imaginable.

And with each insult women are expected to smile sweetly at being the butt of a bad joke. Of course, to express outrage or even mild annoyance with these sorts of put-downs is to risk of being accused of lacking a sense of humor or, worse yet, of being “politically correct,” the favored dismissive term of those who demand that their repugnant values are somehow benign or lacking in impact or intent.

We’ve come a long way from the days of 1910 when Hallmark was founded and especially from 1944 when the company adopted the slogan that is still theirs today, “When you care enough to send the very best.” In this case one might ask, “The very best of what?”

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the re: Cycling 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.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 3

December 19th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

This post was originally published at re:Cycling on March 27, 2015. 

State of Wonder–Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in a fictionalized theory for extended fertility

In Parts 1 and 2, I wondered why author Ann Patchett chose not to include information about menstruation, femcare products and birth control that, logically, would have enhanced her novel’s inciting premise—lifelong menstruation and fertility—while retaining the literary integrity of State of Wonder. I believe just a few sentences could have accomplished this.

Now, I wonder about the menstrual cycle misconceptions that underpin Patchett’s proposed explanation for the extended fertility experienced by the Lakashi tribe.

The reader learns with Dr. Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, that the Lakashi women continue to menstruate, ovulate, conceive and give birth into their 70s because they regularly chew the bark of Martin trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The bark is so effective there are no post-menopausal Lakashi.

The women chew the bark once every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant, because the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. The researchers, led by Dr. Annick Swenson who has been studying the Lakashi for decades, observe the women chewing the bark and collect cervical mucus swabs to monitor their estrogen levels. They dab the swabs on slides for “ferning.”

“No one does ferning anymore,” Marina said. It was the slightly arcane process of watching estrogen grow into intricate fern patterns on slides. No ferns, no fertility.

Dr. Saturn shrugged. “It’s very effective for the Lakashi. Their estrogen levels are quite sensitive to the intake of the bark.”

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle: Used with permission from Geraldine Matus, Justisse Healthworks for Women

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the cyclic ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. As the graphic illustrates, estrogen rises in the pre-ovulatory phase, peaks, then drops dramatically just before ovulation occurs. Post ovulation, estrogen continues to be produced but its effect on cervical mucus is suppressed (no ferns) by the substantially higher level of progesterone which acts upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy.

It would make more sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in their study subjects. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

Furthermore, if intake of the bark raises estrogen levels, chewing the bark every five days would interfere with the post-ovulatory rise of progesterone, throwing the hormonal interplay of estrogen and progesterone required to achieve and support a pregnancy out of whack.

Another issue: Marina is told that by chewing the bark “her window for monthly fertility would be extended from three days to thirteen.” What does this really mean? According to the scientific principles underlying the fertility awareness method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, the fertile phase starts when fertile-quality cervical mucus is first observed and ends when three dry days have passed. The bark would increase the fertile quality of the mucus and the number of days fertile mucus occurs pre-ovulation, thereby increasing the chances for conception. But sperm can only survive five days, kept viable by the mucus that locks it in the cervical crypts until an egg is released. And that egg will remain viable for only 24 hours. Timing of intercourse still matters. The extended fertility explanation in the novel does not suggest the Martin tree bark has any effect on these accepted reproductive factors.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. State of Wonder is, after all, a work of fiction. But I expect a seasoned novelist to have researched basic menstrual cycle facts so as not to pose an explanation for extended fertility that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Had Patchett consulted with a menstrual cycle expert, perhaps an SMCR member, she might have imagined a much more plausible scenario. In the actual book I read, there were no acknowledgements to those she may have consulted on the subject.

I loved State of Wonder for all it’s literary complexity that goes far beyond the details related to the menstrual cycle that I have wondered about in this 3-part series. But it’s been fun to explore how one novelist wrote about a subject I am intimately familiar with and to suggest how she might have done it differently.

Thank you Ann Patchett. Here’s to more menstrual mentions in literature.

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 2

December 17th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

This post was originally published at re:Cycling on March 6, 2015.

State of Wonder–Part 2: Wondering about missing femcare products and birth control references

In State of Wonder–Part 1, I mused as to why, in a novel revolving around the extended menstruation and fertility of the Lakashi tribe, only the menstrual cycles of the Brazilian women being studied are made visible to the reader. Why does author Ann Patchett ignore the menstrual cycles of the novel’s protagonist, Marina Singh, or the other female research scientists? If they are eating the tree bark responsible for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, their menstrual responses should be of interest to the author.

Failure to mention the scientist’s cycles points to another puzzling omission. There is no reference to menstrual-care products the women would have required while living in the rainforest for years at a time. There was opportunity to do so because a few key scenes are set in the store where research leader Dr. Annick Swenson buys all the provisions for the camp.

Marina must visit the store immediately upon landing in Manaus because the airline has lost her luggage. She has no clothing, no toiletries, none of the necessities for daily living. Why does she not purchase, visibly to the reader, tampons or pads? If not on her first trip to the store, then on her second as she prepares to leave for the remote research camp with Dr. Swenson? She obviously will need such supplies as her weeks in Brazil progress, and the timing of her cycle, as deduced by this reader, suggests she needed them while in Manaus or shortly after arriving at the camp.

I think Patchett’s reason for leaving out this menstrual-related information was not literary, but rather socio-cultural in nature. She tastefully shares the intimate details of the Lakashi women’s menstrual cycles, but can’t find a way—with even a few sentences—to convey this aspect of other female character’s lives? (Exception: Dr. Swenson, whose experiences I avoid mentioning to prevent plot spoilers.) Did she try? Did she resist? If so, why? What a missed opportunity. Marina’s interior dialogue makes it clear she is a still-menstruating woman wondering if motherhood will be in her future. How easy it would have been to use Marina’s need for tampons as a segue to consideration of her fertility.

Which brings me to another menstrual-related omission in the book. There is no reference to the birth control methods used by Marina and one of the female scientists who lives in the research camp with her husband.

Drs. Nancy and Alan Saturn are part of the research team in Brazil. Nancy is eating the bark, enhancing her fertility. Pregnancy is not an objective for this couple; they must be using contraception. The pill would be contra-indicated—a double whammy of exogenous estrogen provided by the pill and the Martin tree bark could have negative consequences. Condoms would break down in the heat. A Mirena IUD might not be at odds with the estrogenic bark, which has another critical medicinal effect the researchers are eager to access. Maybe a copper IUD? A diaphragm? Abstinence? Does it matter? Perhaps not, but why not be daring and tell the reader anyway? Surely the author must have asked herself these questions.

And what about Marina’s choice of birth control? At 42 she is in an intimate relationship with a much older colleague, the man who sent her to Brazil. Contraceptive use is implied but the method is, yet again, invisible. One can assume it was non-hormonal and not an IUD because of what happens at the end of the novel. But why not write one or two sentences along the way to convey this information? Isn’t this what good writers do, litter clues as a novel progresses to set up what happens later?

Ann Patchett chose not to mention the femcare products and birth control methods her characters used in her novel State of Wonder. I can’t help wondering: why?

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

Novel approach to the menstrual cycle: State of Wonder, Part 1

December 14th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

As re:Cycling explores media representation of the menstrual cycle, we’ve chosen to republish a three-part series I wrote about how author Ann Patchett uses the menstrual cycle as a major plot devise in her novel State of Wonder. Part 1 was originally published on January 22, 2015.

State of Wonder–Part 1: Wondering about missing menstrual mentions in literature

In her novel State of Wonder Ann Patchett explores, among many broad themes, the question: What if there were a drug women could take to extend menstruation and fertility into their seventies? Not evident on the dust jacket, this storyline grabbed the attention of this menstrual cycle advocate.

Set mainly in the jungle of Brazil, the novel revolves around the decades-long research of Dr. Annick Swenson who has kept the location and progression of her research secret from the drug company funding her work with the fictional Lakashi tribe. When a male scientist sent by the drug company to find Dr. Swenson and deliver a message is reported dead, Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist, becomes the second emissary charged with finding Dr. Swenson and assessing her progress towards the promised drug.

Finding Dr. Swenson is a formidable task, but when she does Marina eventually learns the complex botanical explanation for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, as well as the justifiable reasons why the research location has been so scrupulously protected.

This literary novel, a satisfying read, powerfully renders the mystique of the Amazon jungle, conveying both the wonder and trauma Marina experiences there. For an insightful review of State of Wonder I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s. This series of posts is not a review, but rather commentary on the niggling details related to the extended fertility storyline. Spoiler Alert: Some plot points will be revealed.

After a few weeks in the jungle—the timeline is fuzzy—Marina is invited by two other female researchers to the grove of Martin trees where she observes Lakashi women of all ages scraping tree bark with their teeth, a practices she is told that begins at menarche and is the key to their lifelong fertility.

Marina learns the women chew the bark every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant; the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. She is told also that although the women don’t all come to the grove on the same five-day cycle, they’re menstrual periods are “pretty much” synchronous so the researchers “get a few days off every month.” That is, days off from observing them in the grove while taking pin-prick blood samples and collecting cervical mucus swabs to monitor estrogen levels that Dr. Swenson has taught the Lakashi to do themselves with Q-tips. Dr. Swenson’s research team charts and studies every cycle of every menstruating girl and woman.

The researchers tell Marina they also chew the bark and invite her to try it. Here is where, in a story that speaks intimately about the tribal women’s menstrual cycles, I wondered why Patchett did not include even one sentence to acknowledge when Marina had her last period. (At 42 she has thought about her fertility and her prospect of having a child someday.) Because she scrapes the bark one assumes she isn’t menstruating, and she’s been in Brazil long enough–weeks spent in Manaus before getting to the jungle–to have had at least one period. Where is she in her cycle? This matters because of what happens later in the story. So, since menstruation is integral to the novel, why not mention it? And why don’t the other female researchers mention whether their cycles, too, have synchronized with the Lakashi’s?

In most novels, probably too many, the menstrual cycles of female characters are invisible unless they figure prominently in the plot. It made no sense to me that Patchett chose to make Marina’s cycle invisible. Even if readers can deduce this missing information, surely this is the wrong novel in which to require us to do so. Again, I ask, “Why?”

Laura Wershler is a veteran sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer, SMCR member, and editor-in-chief of re:Cycling.

A doc about birth control, #LiveTweetYourPeriod, and other 4th of July weekend links

July 4th, 2015 by Laura Wershler
  • It’s old news that men find women’s faces more attractive when they are fertile, but the facial cues to explain this have eluded researchers. A new study from the University of Cambridge, as reported in the Science Daily, shows that women’s face skin gets redder at the point of peak fertility. However, as this change in face redness is too subtle for the human eye to detect, skin colouration has been ruled out as the reason for this “attractiveness effect.” Dr. Hannah Rowland, who co-led the study, said, “Women don’t advertise ovulation, but they do seem to leak information about it, as studies have shown they are seen as more attractive by men when ovulating.” The mystery continues.

When Elynn Walter walks into a room of officials from global health organizations and governments, this is how she likes to get their attention:

“I’ll say, ‘OK, everyone stand up and yell the word blood!’ or say, ‘Half of the people in the world have their period!’ ”

It’s her way of getting people talking about a topic that a lot of people, well, aren’t comfortable talking about: menstrual hygiene.

Depo-Provera and Fifty Shades of Grey—The Movie

February 13th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Dear Readers: The following post first appeared on July 25, 2012, during the media think-piece flurry over the soaring popularity of E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. With the movie opening on Valentine’s Day, 2015, I can’t wait to find out if or how Depo-Provera is referenced as the contraceptive choice made for heroine Anastasia Steele by ob-gyn Dr. Greene, a character I have confirmed via IMDb is in the movie. I argued in the post that Depo-Provera as Ana’s birth control method was an unrealistic plot device. Commentary on Fifty Shades has again started to snowball, but I doubt anyone besides myself will have the slightest interest in this facet of the story. I invite readers who get to the theater before I do to report back in the comments section.

Menstrual Considerations in Fifty Shades of Grey

Fine literary fiction it is not, but the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James can certainly claim to be libido-boosting storytelling. Deirdre Donahue at USA Today summarized the books’ appeal in 10 reasons ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has shackled readers. She pretty much nailed it. And she’s read the books, which is more than can be said for other writers, including this one who implied that heroine Anastasia (Ana) Steele signs a contract to become hero Christian Grey’s submissive in a BDSM relationship. She doesn’t.

Until he meets Ana, Christian’s sexual history has included only BDSM relationships, those involving bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. BDSM plays a role in their love story, but the most sadistic thing that Ana submits to is a shot of Depo-Provera. re:Cycling readers know what I think of this contraceptive: I. Am. Not. A. Fan.

As a menstrual cycle advocate, I pay attention to menstrual mentions wherever they appear. It was impossible for me NOT to hone in on how James handles menstruation and birth control.

Christian quickly ascertains that Ana, a virgin when he meets her, is not using birth control. (His unflinching communication about sexuality is one of the books’ most appealing aspects.) As their sexual affair begins, he uses condoms. Within a week or so he asks when her period is due and says, “You need to sort out some contraception”. But our hero is a rich control freak, so he arranges for “the best ob-gyn in Seattle” to come to his home on a Sunday afternoon. Ana, the narrator:

“After a thorough examination and lengthy discussion, Dr. Greene and I decide on the mini pill. She writes me a prepaid prescription and instructs me to pick the pills up tomorrow. I love her no-nonsense attitude — she has lectured me until she’s as blue as her dress about taking it at the same time every day.”

Alas, Anastasia, just 21, is the perfect example for why researchers with the Contraceptive CHOICE Project are recommending that women under 21 use long-acting reversible contraceptive methods. She forgets to keep taking her pills when she and Christian briefly break up. It’s back to condoms for this couple, until Dr. Greene reappears, confirms Ana is not pregnant, and, after Depo-Provera’s side effects are dismissed as irrelevant because “the side effects of a child are far-reaching and go on for years,” gives her the shot. I almost had to stop reading.

I get it that James uses Depo-Provera as a plot device, as becomes apparent. But the author’s decision to give Ana Depo-Provera is not in keeping with either Dr. Greene’s or Christian’s characters. I don’t believe for one minute that the best ob-gyn in Seattle would give Depo-Provera to any patient; she’d recommend a Mirena IUD. As for control-freak Christian, he is adamantly committed to Anastasia’s safety, evidenced in many ways. He would never consent to her taking a drug with these potential side effects: weight gain, digestive problems, depression, loss of bone density, vaginal dryness, and — especially — loss of sexual sensitivity and desire. Never! And he’s too smart not to know this.

Christian’s occasionally expressed distaste for condoms also seems to be a plot device considering he uses them so skillfully, and without obvious diminishment to either his or Ana’s pleasure, through 986 pages of the 1594-page trilogy. The tearing of foil condom packets is a leitmotif that in no way hinders this man’s exceptional “sexing skills.”

But James gets full marks for this: Christian Grey is not afraid of blood. While making love in a spacious hotel bathroom, he gently removes Ana’s tampon and tosses it in the toilet. Later, sitting on the bathroom floor, Ana remembers she has her period:

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.

State of Wonder–Part 1: Wondering about missing menstrual mentions in literature

January 22nd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In her novel State of Wonder Ann Patchett explores, among many broad themes, the question: What if there were a drug women could take to extend menstruation and fertility into their seventies? Not evident on the dust jacket, this storyline grabbed the attention of this menstrual cycle advocate.

Set mainly in the jungle of Brazil, the novel revolves around the decades-long research of Dr. Annick Swenson who has kept the location and progression of her research secret from the drug company funding her work with the fictional Lakashi tribe. When a male scientist sent by the drug company to find Dr. Swenson and deliver a message is reported dead, Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist, becomes the second emissary charged with finding Dr. Swenson and assessing her progress towards the promised drug.

Finding Dr. Swenson is a formidable task, but when she does Marina eventually learns the complex botanical explanation for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, as well as the justifiable reasons why the research location has been so scrupulously protected.

This literary novel, a satisfying read, powerfully renders the mystique of the Amazon jungle, conveying both the wonder and trauma Marina experiences there. For an insightful review of State of Wonder I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s. This series of posts is not a review, but rather commentary on the niggling details related to the extended fertility storyline. Spoiler Alert: Some plot points will be revealed.

After a few weeks in the jungle—the timeline is fuzzy—Marina is invited by two other female researchers to the grove of Martin trees where she observes Lakashi women of all ages scraping tree bark with their teeth, a practices she is told that begins at menarche and is the key to their lifelong fertility.

Marina learns the women chew the bark every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant; the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. She is told also that although the women don’t all come to the grove on the same five-day cycle, they’re menstrual periods are “pretty much” synchronous so the researchers “get a few days off every month.” That is, days off from observing them in the grove while taking pin-prick blood samples and collecting cervical mucus swabs to monitor estrogen levels that Dr. Swenson has taught the Lakashi to do themselves with Q-tips. Dr. Swenson’s research team charts and studies every cycle of every menstruating girl and woman.

The researchers tell Marina they also chew the bark and invite her to try it. Here is where, in a story that speaks intimately about the tribal women’s menstrual cycles, I wondered why Patchett did not include even one sentence to acknowledge when Marina had her last period. (At 42 she has thought about her fertility and her prospect of having a child someday.) Because she scrapes the bark one assumes she isn’t menstruating, and she’s been in Brazil long enough–weeks spent in Manaus before getting to the jungle–to have had at least one period. Where is she in her cycle? This matters because of what happens later in the story. So, since menstruation is integral to the novel, why not mention it? And why don’t the other female researchers mention whether their cycles, too, have synchronized with the Lakashi’s?

In most novels, probably too many, the menstrual cycles of female characters are invisible unless they figure prominently in the plot. It made no sense to me that Patchett chose to make Marina’s cycle invisible. Even if readers can deduce this missing information, surely this is the wrong novel in which to require us to do so. Again, I ask, “Why?”

Continued in State of Wonder—Part 2: Wondering about missing menstrual femcare products and birth control references

 

Literary Menstruation

November 12th, 2014 by David Linton

Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.

Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.

The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.

This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.

So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.