Menopause hit Darcey Steinke hard. First came hot flashes. Then insomnia. Then depression. As she struggled to express what was happening to her, she came up against a culture of silence. Throughout history, the natural physical transition of menopause has been viewed as something to deny, fear, and eradicate. But Steinke longed to understand menopause in a more complex, spiritual, and intellectually engaged way. In Flash Count Diary, Steinke explores the changing gender landscape that comes with reduced hormone levels, and lays bare the transformation of female desire and the realities of prejudice against older women. Steinke joined Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, at Greenlight Bookstore to discuss everything from killer whales to writing through anger and why menopause is such a taboo topic.
Darcey Steinke: I want to talk about how the book came to be. I was starting to have menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. I was waking up drenched in sweat, I was having trouble sleeping, I was wandering around my house at night, feeling like I was molting, like a new creature was coming out of my old fertile body. I was very disorientated. It was a hard time for me. I was kind of reeling. So, I was looking around for books that could help me with this transition and found very few that were actually helpful. Around this time, I read in the science section of The New York Times an article about how the two creatures that go through menopause are women and female killer whales. And then I found out that just like women, they go through menopause at around forty-five or fifty, and then they live for another thirty years. After menopause, they become the leaders of their pods—pods are these close-knit family groups of about thirty whales. This thrilled me because there was so little that was good about menopause. I was like, oh, the culture thinks I’m a hag. I’m not sure if I’m ready to become a crone. So, it was amazing to read about these killer whales who were leaders.
Post-reproductive leaders became so important to me. I got obsessed with them. I went directly to YouTube and started watching videos of them. The post-reproductive whales live in what’s called the Southern Residence, near Seattle, Washington State, and the San Juan islands. They have been catalogued and reported forever, so there’s a lot of footage of them on YouTube. I was particularly fascinated with J2, who’s known as Granny. She was the 105-year-old pod leader. I would see footage of her leaping and sky hopping and—it sounds crazy to say, but—I started feeling like a whale. I would swim my laps and I would think, I’m a whale. Yeah, I’m a whale. I felt like I had joined them and they were helping me through my menopause, these post-reproductive pod leaders. In Haro Strait, there’s a lighthouse with a hydrophone underwater with a live link you can listen to, so I would listen to it on my computer and I would have it on day and night. I only actually heard them about five times. I would hear mostly, sadly, boat motors. And I learned to distinguish how shrimp sounded when they were swimming by. I got so obsessed, I just wanted to get close to them. Around this time, I had a hard night’s sleep, and my husband came to bed and said, “You know when you go away from the whales, it seems like you don’t do so well, but when you stay with the whales, it seems like you do really well.” I thought that was such a good sign of how important the whales had become to me. Eventually, I got so obsessed with them, I not only decided to write a book about them, I flew across the country to Seattle and took a van four hours up the coast, I went to the ferry, took a two-hour ferry to the San Juan Islands, got in a sea kayak, and took this sea kayak ten miles out to try to see these whales. And I did get to see the whales. That’s the amazing thing about this story. I went to the San Juan Islands twice for about two weeks. I could’ve never seen any whales. I had come to terms with that. I thought, it’s as important to see whales as to not see whales, it’s a mystical thing, that’s okay. I’m not sure if I would’ve really felt that, but I told myself that. But I was lucky enough to see some whales.
Elissa Schappell: This book is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. I was trying to describe it to my sister earlier. I said, “It’s part philosophical rumination, part natural history, part memoir.” There are some parts that feel very confessional, but there are also some parts that are a call to arms. I found it to be an amazing comfort. But it’s also a primer on how to continue the process of becoming.
Steinke: Right, it never ends.
Schappell: Daring to do so very boldly, too. I found that very liberating.
Steinke: Thank you.
Schappell: When you talk about how you started writing the book, it seems like you learn this about the whales, and you’re off and running. Was there any moment you were like, really, do I want to write about menopause?
Steinke: I think I was struggling with it myself. I did a fairly wide reading of books about menopause, and I thought there was so little that was actually helpful.
Schappell: It’s all written by men!
Steinke: I mean, Susan Somers’s The Sexy Years is not the most helpful book in the world. But really it was the whales. I’d been working on and off on this novel forever. But the whales started to take over my obsession. My husband said, “You should write about the whales.” Then I had a really important meeting with my agent and she said, “I think that’s a good idea.” I started telling people and they said, “I think it sounds amazing,” so that was helpful to me.
If you write about the female body, female sexuality, there’s a shaming throughout.
Schappell: Well, we need it. Did anyone say we need it?
Steinke: Hopefully we’re going into a different time now, but if you write about the female body, female sexuality, there’s a shaming throughout.
Schappell: You have written a lot of books about female sexuality. And the erotic. And faith. So all your obsessions here are dovetailing, or whale-tailing.
Steinke: That is what happened. Once I committed to it, I was obsessed. I was already obsessed with the whales. I had never written a book like this. Typically, the novel is this long mysterious process, but with this one, once I committed to it, I wrote it really fast. I wrote it within two years, which is incredible for me. I’m a slow writer.
Schappell: But it seemed like forever for those of us who were waiting for it. I remember when you told us, “Oh, I saw the whales, I took lots of photos”—I was thinking, why don’t you stay at your goddamn desk? Don’t you know we’re on a timeline here? I am curious, it’s certainly part of the conversation. Why is it that we don’t talk about menopause? I was trying to think of titles of books about menopause. And I thought, of course, what do we think about when we talk about menopause? Five hundred pages of nothing, books that don’t say anything.
Steinke: Here’s what I think. I think women in our culture, in the patriarchy, are mostly valued for their sexuality and their motherhood. Once those phases are over—even though we know they’re not over because sexuality in later life is fantastic, I’m here to tell you—we fail to see a woman’s value. When those phases are over, I feel like there’s a lot of shame. What’s a woman’s worth then? And then the stereotypes come in—the old hag. I think there’s a feeling of not being fertile anymore that seems really dangerous when you live under patriarchy.
Schappell: Well, it’s hard to put you in a box.
Schappell: You’re not a sexual creature anymore. We know what to do with sexual creatures. We know how to sexualize you. And if you’re not that, if you’re not a pregnant woman or a mother we don’t know what to do with you. Everyone loves pregnant women—they’re doing the most profound thing in the world, they’re giving the world a human. People get up and give you their seat on the train. When you’re a little girl, you go through puberty, we have a ritual for that. We have a sweet sixteen and confirmation. There are rituals for becoming a mother. And if you’re going to wed someone, join your life with someone, we have a ritual for that too. But there is no ritual for the phase in life when you don’t have your period anymore. Like what, a dry vagina party?
Steinke: There’s kind of a vacuum. That’s what I found. It’s so disorienting. There’s not much you can read that is all that interesting or hopeful. There’s no activity around it.
Schappell: Well, there’s nothing. I felt it was like limbo. It’s like suddenly you have children, then you get divorced, then you disappear for a while, then you’re resurrected as Granny.
Steinke: I also think there’s a chemical part. It’s so freeing and I love it now, but I found that it’s disorienting. You sort of know yourself by your cycle, how you feel at different parts of the month. It’s almost like walking into a field and being like, okay, that happened. You feel like, who am I now?
Schappell: And we also don’t talk about it. Again, it’s like if you’re going through puberty, you’re manifesting. But with menopause, you don’t necessarily know what it entails. The only thing I ever knew about menopause was the hot flashes. So, maybe you see someone ripping off their blouse or wringing out their bra in the restroom. We don’t talk about it so it’s hard to know.
Steinke: To me, what was upsetting as I moved through it too was the lack of gentleness and understanding. People make fun of women who are having hot flashes, women who are struggling, rather than actually asking what’s wrong, like, “Can I bring you a cold pack?” That was sad to see in the general culture. My first memory of menopause was Edith Bunker from All in the Family. I remember her getting hot and running into the kitchen then hearing the laugh track roar. And I remember my dad telling me, “Oh, she’s in menopause.” Sorry, Dad. It wasn’t negative, he just said to me that was menopause. But even that was couched in a lot of humiliation and negativity.
Schappell: When you start talking about female sexuality in older women, it’s always played for laughs. Why do men feel the need to control this feminine sexual energy?
Steinke: When someone’s having a seizure, nobody laughs. A hot flash is, in some ways, like a small seizure. It’s just misogyny, it’s just boiler plate misogyny. We just need to get real.
Schappell: Your book makes hot flashes sound pretty good.
Steinke: That’s the thing about being a writer. Even when things are terrible, you find them really interesting. That’s what I’m most grateful for when it comes to being a writer. Everything is material. This is suffering, but it’s also fascinating. I’m always surprised when something happens to me. I’ve always heard it described as something bad. But I thought I could describe it better. Like that’s not what it really is. That wasn’t a nuanced description. When a hot flash happened, I felt the same way. It’s nothing like the way people say. You’re not just hot. It’s almost like this eerie, spooky feeling. There’s this sense of panic. It’s very sci-fi—the way different parts of your body heat up due to different blood vessels opening. They were uncomfortable, but they also fascinated to me. Also, given my religious upbringing, it was hard for me not to think of them as somewhat spiritual, that it was a spiritual transformation as well as a physical transformation.
That’s what I’m most grateful for when it comes to being a writer. Everything is material. This is suffering, but it’s also fascinating.
Schappell: Would you talk a little bit about that? You talk about wondering at the beginning, is this being touched by God? Is he reaching out to me? How did your faith change during this process?
Steinke: So, I woke up, I was covered with heat, and I almost felt like I heard someone call my name. I was like, okay, God is finally, finally contacting me. Finally, it’s finally happening. Then I realized in a few days, oh no, it’s just a hot flash. But I thought to myself maybe something spiritual is happening. I feel like it was a spiritual transformation.
I’m very interested in theology. I have an inner religious life that’s constantly on the move, I’m constantly having new ideas, reading books. But in the arc of this book, I move from a traditional Christian faith or mystical faith to being centered in nature, with a particular fascination with animals. The natural world is my spiritual world. I wanted to be close to animals, to be a better creature of the earth. I walk in Prospect Park, and I try to notice the leaf shape. This was the first year I was able to notice the fledgling birds, the birds that are just born. They look like adults, but they’re not. That was meaningful to me, to be able to notice that distinction. I’m less interested now in doctrine, more interested in trying to see better, look better, trying to notice the world I live in. That was really the arc of the book. I became much more interested in myself as an animal. What I used to think of as moments of grace were really more like remembering what it was like to be an animal, to be one with everything. Once I realized that, it was really meaningful to me.
Schappell: There is something really freeing about that. I don’t think what you’re saying is that if you’re going through menopause, your way is the only way. This is very personal.
Steinke: I interviewed over a hundred women. I wouldn’t judge anyone’s way. Everyone’s way is their own way. The variety was incredible. Some people felt nothing, some people were completely discombobulated. Some people felt less sexual desire, some people felt more sexual desire. There’s a wide variety of every kind of person. And I think that’s great. That also should be celebrated. People think it’s this one thing, but it really isn’t.
Schappell: Which is so fascinating. Let’s talk about the shape of the book, the structure. You haven’t written a book like this before, one that seems to recreate the nimbleness of your mind. How did that come about?
Steinke: Well, I was working on the form, and I’ve wanted to write a book in chunks for a really long time, almost ten years, but it never made sense. I read about five hundred books and I wrote notes in fifty notebooks. I had so much stuff I wanted to say, I realized I couldn’t just do straightforward chapters. I was going to have to find a form that was a little more discursive. I feel happy with this book because I feel like I have a very discursive mind. I’m not the most linear person in the world. I have lots of ideas and they get smushed up together. With this book, I feel like I finally found a form that fits with my discursive mind. There are many books now that are in chunks and move around. Some people think it’s the internet, that nobody has the attention anymore, but I completely disagree with that. I feel like what we’re seeing with this form is a way to show that things can be put next to each other, which can resonate with each other, but don’t have to be completely tight.
Schappell: What’s so interesting about that is that it makes room for the reader in a different way, and allows you to say, “I’m not giving you information, I’m giving you an experience.” It opens up the text as a way to collaborate. There’s something very intuitive about this other structure, which I think is much more female. And I think a lot more women and women who are experimental writers are finding publishers and I think that’s exciting.
Steinke: I loved writing it. For every chapter, I probably read about twenty or thirty books, and I would take notes, and I would do that for about a month. Then I would think about it, wondering what do I want to say? Slowly I would find my way, taking notes of my notes of my notes of my notes until finally I would get something. And I would ask, okay, how am I going to enter into this? This book was written in conversation with these other books, it was me trying to figure out how I wanted to move through it. I never felt like I could write a book with such big ideas and so many ideas. When I was writing it, I was shocked. I thought, I can’t believe this is working, but I think it is. It’s a crazy book. It’s got all these quotes, all these crazy ideas. But I feel like I found a form and I’m grateful for that.
Schappell: We’re grateful, too. Were there any books not on topic that you read at the time, any other writers? Or even music that you listened to?
Steinke: I found Maggie Nelson really inspirational. I’ve known her for a long time, and I’ve just found her mind-blowingly inspirational. Moby Dick was a big thing for this book. When I started writing it, I thought, I’m going to do a feminist reading of Moby Dick. Then, as I was writing, I realized that the whole experience of writing the book was itself like a feminist reading of Moby Dick. I got obsessed with that whale, I got into that boat, I chased that whale. I did that. That was on my mind, too. I don’t listen to music, but without CDs and apps of rain sounds, I could not exist. That’s my favorite. I listen to rain sounds all the time as I write.
Schappell: Did you think about how the book was going to be perceived? Even when we don’t mean to, sometimes when we’re working, we think, I shouldn’t say that, maybe I should cut that part out. Or I’m sharing too much, or do I need to be braver?
Steinke: I think the person I was worried about most was, of course, my wonderful husband because I was going to have to write about my intimate life. But he was very generous. He said, “You write it, I’ll read it, and then we’ll discuss.” Luckily—I was really worried, but—he read it and he was a big fan, he loved it. So, I felt very supported and loved, which is amazing. That idea: “you write it and then we’ll figure it out,” that allowed me to write whatever I wanted. I would be willing, if it upset him, to move it or change it. But he said, “Just do it and then we’ll talk about it,” and that was very freeing for me. As I worked on it, I did feel that I was angry a lot.
Schappell: I wondered about that.
Steinke: I read these old medical books saying all these nasty things about menopausal women—even new things. Looking on WebMD, all these words—atrophied vagina—you can pick a better phrase than “atrophied vagina.” Or “senile ovaries,” I mean, come on. It’s like a weird scientist doing field notes on a creature, it’s so nasty. I found myself getting really angry. That fueled me a lot. It made me feel like, fuck it, they’re doing what they want. I’ll do what I want. I felt so lucky that I had a place to bring the text, to decide I’m just going to write this thing.
Schappell: Was it easier to write than other books?
Steinke: I wouldn’t say it was easy. I usually don’t write by contract. I had a two-year contract. Once it started, it was going. I worked through the weekends. I got a space outside my house, which I had never had before. I felt really driven to my desk. I woke up every morning at seven, wanted to be at my desk by eight, work until three or four. I really wanted to work on it. With a novel, there’s a lot of wondering, is it working? I was lucky, the New School gave me a paid leave for a semester and I wrote a big chunk of it at the very end, maybe three or four chapters. By then, I was just rolling. I wrote a chapter about the menopause conference I went to in Amsterdam. That was dark. Such darkness. There’s nothing darker than a menopause conference.
There’s nothing darker than a menopause conference.
Schappell: That sounded grim.
Steinke: And the fact that it was in Amsterdam? Just crazy. And the fact that the doctors would each get up there and talk about the menopausal vagina, and they would talk about the way the penis would feel going into the vagina, the dryness. I was just like, this is not how a vagina feels if you have one. I would get so angry. It was so dark, it was hard. I had to go back to the hotel room and drink some rosé. It was the darkest part of the whole book, which was really weird because I was supposed to be learning more about menopause and natural things. But it was a conference completely obsessed with vaginal rejuvenation. And those companies paid for the conference, which is also very jarring. The way that some of the laser and hormone companies are in bed with some of the doctors is rough.
Schappell: Let’s talk about that, the hormone therapy. There is this kind of dystopian shadow surrounding this.
Steinke: I feel like in one way, menopause has been debased on the hormone debate. People ask, should you go on hormones or not? And then it just ends, that’s the whole discussion. And I feel upset about that. There’s so much more, there’s so many more things to talk about. Hormones are a very polarizing topic. Do I think big pharma pushes them on vulnerable women? Absolutely. But do I also think they could possibly help some women? Probably. And that’s a personal choice. My bigger problem with them is the overriding idea that our fertile period is our most important period. Taking hormones puts us back in that fertile place, so I’m not all that thrilled with that. But I do think getting into that has hurt people talking about this. And there’s so much more to talk about than that.
Schappell: Right, that you need this correction.
Steinke: That it’s a disease, which is really a problem. It’s not, it’s not a disease at all.
Steinke: In my mind, nobody tries to shut down menstruation, nobody tries to shut down birth. Menopause is the only thing people try to shut down. It’s crazy. It is dystopian.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, Up Through the Water, and Sister Golden Hair. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. She has been both a Henry Hoyns Fellow and a Stegner Fellow as well as a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, the American University of Paris, and Princeton.
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and cofounder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.