Novelist Darcy Steinke’s menopause memoir, Hot Flash Diary, opens with a visceral description of the harrowing physical discomfort she repeatedly feels due to the hot flashes that attack her body. At one point in her opening chapter, she counts and relates all nine flashes that she endured on a single day.
Steinke’s memoir is structured around a dozen chapters that address menopause from a multitude of perspectives: solutions and cures; investigations of it in other mammals, including killer whales, elephants, and gorillas; benighted opinions and perspectives from male scientists and leaders, especially on hormone therapy; her own mother’s experience.
Steinke’s body is incredibly sensitive to the smallest changes in heat. Although she vigilantly avoids situations that might trigger flashes, they invariably occur: cramped spaces; stuffy offices; meetings in small overheated rooms; public transportation; lying in bed. She describes rushing to her freezer and pressing bags of frozen food to her skin for relief. She recognises that escaping her own body is futile: “Heat sweeps through me like a tiny weather front.”
One of Steinke’s goals is to understand what is happening to her body during its time of transition. Why is it so sensitive to heat? She is less interested in extinguishing the flashes than simply learning why they are happening, especially because they remind her of her own mortality. No part of her body is exempt: “Each hair is a thin electric coil heating up my head.”
The following passage describes another aspect of her book’s goal:
“I am 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.”
Steinke focuses an entire chapter on how this natural evolution in a woman’s body is often framed by men based on confusion and disgust. Perhaps menopause isn’t really a problem. The problem is how it is perceived by the patriarchy:
“[Menopause] is a void created in part by an oversexed patriarchal culture that has little room for older women. . . . Your usefulness is over. Please step to the sidelines.”
Although Steinke repeatedly emphasises that no consensus exists about what evolutionary factors might have caused menopause, she does explore some of the leading suppositions. One is the grandmother hypothesis, which argues that grandmothers hold clans together, maintain their wisdom, and help educate the younger generations (much better than grandfathers). Ms. Steinke cites writer Grace Paley who claimed that she was just too busy writing stories and engaging in political activism to experience menopause. One scientist speculated that the hot flashes of menopause protect women’s brains, allowing women to live longer than their male counterparts.
Since male scientists have utterly failed to identify what causes menopause, they have experimented with a wide range of completely asinine remedies and treatments that seem too outlandish for Monty Python’s The Holy Grail:
- Urine from pregnant horses;
- Wild yams;
- Sponging with aromatic vinegar;
- Leeches on the anus;
- No sausages, especially before bed;
- Fasting on milk every 15 days;
- A transfusion of dog’s blood;
- Hormone supplements made of dried/pulverized cow ovaries.
Although Steinke’s transition is tortuous at times, she remains hopeful and emphasizes its positive aspects:
“My fertility continues to expand. I may be aging, even decaying a little, but rot. . . is generative. It helps new things grow. I’ll hunt by reading, writing, volunteering, teaching, protesting, mothering, and loving.”
Steinke envisions the next stage of her own journey as a period of spirituality and beauty:
“Sometimes I think how silly, how human, it was to feel I needed an antidote for menopause: it’s like trying to cure a rainstorm, a tulip tendril, or nightfall. As a younger woman, I was led by my biology; now I’ll let the spirit tug me along. When I wake in the dark, incandescent with heat, I pray not to a deity up in the sky but to the beauty of this world. I pray the body, I pray the lake, I pray the whale.”
Any Cop?: Steinke’s prose is refreshingly crude, political, and brusque (Ed. see also our review of Suicide Blonde). She takes no prisoners and stomps on patriarchal toes. I’ve gained a profound respect for what women around the world experience during menopause. Highly recommended, especially for husbands and fathers of wives and daughters who one day will experience menopause.