- Darcey Steinke, author of Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
For Darcey Steinke, author of five novels and the memoir Easter Everywhere, menopause came on like wildfire and licked a flame under her pen. Astonished by hot flashes, intense sleepless nights, and raging emotions, she started to write. The resulting book, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), is an honest, unflinching take on a life passage spoken of mostly in whispers or mortality-defying denials.
Troubled by the messages of our youth-obsessed culture, she endeavors to understand menopause in a more nuanced, philosophical, and spiritual way. It's a quest that brings her face to face with everything from 17th-century witchcraft and surrealistic art to female killer whales, some of the only other creatures that experience menopause and lead long, purposeful post-reproductive lives. I recently connected with Steinke—who's based in Brooklyn and has a cottage in Sullivan County—to talk about the effect her book is having in a world that desperately needs new narratives for women going through "the change."
There's so much wrong with the way our culture talks about menopause. What are some of the worst mischaracterizations?
Darcey Steinke: There's a lot of negativity pushed at older women. There's this idea that after the fertile years are over, you become this sort of dried-up crone or hag. What people think of as your reason for life—procreating and domesticity and taking care of children—is over and now there's nothing for you to do, right? It doesn't help that there are very few images of women over 50 or 60 in magazines and films. We don't often see ourselves in the media. It's not just derogatory—it's a kind of invisibility.
The medical world is more interested in chemically putting you back into your fertile state, with hormones. I'm not against [hormone therapy]—that's a choice that each woman has to make, and I would never judge anyone for doing that. But the way hormones have been sold, often to very vulnerable women, is really terrible. It's based on using fertility as the benchmark of what's valuable. For Suzanne Somers, who wrote The Sexy Years (2005) and other books about menopause, being sexually appealing is the way that she has found worth in the world. But I find her message to be really cynical. It's telling women that they're getting ugly, their husbands aren't going to like them anymore, they're going to leave them for younger women, and the only way to keep your integrity is to take bioidentical hormones, like she does, to keep yourself young. I find it really dark, really anti-woman.
In this culture, women are supposed to freeze at 45 and do tons of upkeep to stay there. But there needs to be a way we can say that a woman looks beautiful without saying that she looks young. There are other ways to look good and feel good and be seen as a positive force in the world.
Do you consider your book a feminist manifesto, like Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?
"Vindication" is a word that hearkens back to [Wollstonecraft's] really important feminist text, and that's why I used it in my title. When I started this book, I wasn't even sure what it was. In some ways, it's in line with my other books, because I've always written about the body and desire. As I worked on it more, I thought, okay, this is a kind of manifesto.
We need one because, if you think about it, there aren't many great models for aging women who are still considered interesting or valuable into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. There's Ruth Bader Ginsburg—she's a badass, she's physically kept herself together, she's mentally a powerhouse. But the fact that we're always hearing about [RBG] just shows that there needs to be 100 of her. Instead, I feel like the culture is always asking, "How can we shuttle these women to the side?" That's part of living in the patriarchy. The things we're most valued for by men are our fertility, our sexuality, and as those things change, we seem less valuable. Which is bullshit.
Is that why you had to turn to the animal world for models?
I do think that's what happened. I was really flailing. How am I going to get through this? Then I learned that killer whales also go through menopause, and the post-reproductive matriarchs—they're around 45 or 50—become the leaders of their pods. That really thrilled me, because it was a leadership model. I sort of latched onto the whales to help bring me through menopause. And there was one whale who I got obsessed with—[scientists call her] J2, the whale with the nickname Granny. I thought about her a lot, the idea of her working with her family, finding food, helping the younger members of her community. I got to see her, too, in the Salish Sea [off the coast of Washington state]. She really inspired me as I moved through the harder part of my own menopause. She was 105 when she passed [in 2016].
How did the natural world offer you a vindication of menopause?
One thing I felt as I moved through menopause was, I'm a creature and I have a time stamp. I have different life cycles. When you're going through puberty, it's traumatic and all that, but I myself didn't have the lucidity to think, oh, I'm moving from childhood toward adulthood. But now as an adult, I thought, this is what an animal does. They have different life stages. Now I'm moving from my fertile years into my post-reproductive years. It made me feel like a creature, and instead of making me feel bad, that made me feel good. More like a part of the natural world.
It's also very much a wake-up call. I hope to live for another 30 years, but there is going to be an end—my life cycle will end with my life being over. What do I want to do in the time that I have left? It's very profound to think of those things. There's so much denial around it too, because it's hard to accept that you're a creature, that you're going to die someday. But the thing is, even if you're 60 and you look like you're 40, you're still 60. It doesn't really work as a strategy; it doesn't really turn back the clock. You're just denying your own self, which makes no sense. To me, it's better to face it.
Some women say menopause is no big deal and they didn't even get a hot flash. Your hot flashes were so intense that you compared them to a religious conversion.
It felt like a graduate school for growth—like my old self was being burned off so that a new self could emerge. But I saw so much variety. Some women had no hot flashes. Some women said they just stopped menstruating and didn't even notice anything else. Other women have 20 hot flashes a day, they're debilitated, they feel disoriented, they're incredibly frustrated. And then there's everything in between those two. That's the thing about menopause—there are so many different ways to go through this time, this passage.
You write about hormonal "docility." What did you learn from its flip side, anger and rage?
Once the hormonal veil lifted—I call it the veil of domesticity and docility—I felt able to get in touch with my own anger more. I had better boundaries. I was able to say no, stick up for myself. If there was anger toward a friend about something that happened years ago, I was able to bring it up and talk to them about it. I wasn't premeditated—it would happen very spontaneously. And I think it's helped a lot of my relationships, because relationships go better if you're honest about how you feel. Women are taught to contain their anger, to be grateful for everything. We're constantly taught to contain our negative emotions.
One thing I found fascinating was how you said menopause seemed to open up a liminal state between feminine and masculine.
Yeah, I felt that a lot. This has been hard to talk about because of the cruelty around menopause. Some people will say that menopausal women look like men. And that's really not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is that I feel not quite so tightly female in my own gender identity now. I feel a little more in the middle, less interested in propping up my femininity. To me, it would be a loss and a sadness if I were to do a lot of things to femme up myself. It feels real to be who I am now, my somewhat more androgynous self, and to bring that more authentic self to every aspect of my life, rather than try to hold on to some femininity that doesn't really suit or fit me anymore.
Similar to the way the whales inspired me, I got a lot out of reading trans memoirs, especially the female-to-male trans memoirs, and talking to trans people. They're going on their own hormonal journey and they face it with a lot of excitement. It's a struggle but it's also kind of exciting. I really identified with that.
A few reviews of Flash Count Diary say the book doesn't offer enough redemption or hope. What do you say to that?
It makes me feel like those people didn't finish the book, because it's very redemptive. I think a lot of women are used to very soft-focus, positive books about menopause. My book shows everything—the physical hardships, the struggle, the gains. But a lot of menopause books are not very raw; they don't talk about the experience as something real and visceral. So I think some people were freaked out by my book. Maybe they got it thinking it was going to be like Suzanne Somers's The Sexy Years, and they were like, "What is this?" My book is not a screed for hormone therapy, and I think there's some defensiveness from the women who decide to go on hormones.
I also think that women have taken misogyny into themselves, so when they read my book they're reading it in some ways like a man would. Though I've had a lot of male readers who've been really positive about the book, writing to me and saying, "Now I understand a little bit what my wife is going through. Thank you." That's been really nice.
Your most important piece of advice to other women who are about to step into the flames?
Be gentle with yourself. Do a lot of self-care. And whether you're partnered or single and have a lot of partners, you might need to talk about how your desires may be shifting. Do you want to stay with the same sexual script, or are you going to do other things? What feels good now, in the body of a nonfertile woman? Communication is key, because you don't want your partner to feel alienated. Sometimes women close down and their partners think they're less interested. But really what's happening is the struggle is going on. If you can communicate that struggle, then hopefully your partner can help you. But they can't help you if they don't know what's happening to you.