I’m honored to be able to talk about my first period in this intriguing collection
of stories. Here’s an article about the book from the New York Times.
In the Open at Last, a Secret All Women Share
By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D.
Published: February 23, 2009
Seldom can a book stretch to accommodate both its author’s and its publisher’s fondest hopes: that it be original yet universal, artistic yet practical, and likely to sell briskly for centuries to come.
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff has collected first-period stories.
My Little Red Book
Edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.
Twelve, publisher. 225 pages. $14.99
To understand why Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s “My Little Red Book” manages all of the above, you need only muse for a moment on the fact that your local Victoria’s Secret, that high temple of undress, has private dressing rooms. Or that “Hair” on Broadway features full frontal nudity on stage and the usual segregated men’s and ladies’ rooms at intermission. Or that sex education still routinely proceeds in single-sex classes.
In other words, for all our public exploration of everyone else’s bodies, our own personal specimens remain quite private. So when it comes to the onset of menstruation, it is the rare girl who will launch an enthusiastic dialogue with family or friends on the subject. Far more typical is she who enters the feminine-products aisle alone (and returns there alone for the duration).
To 18-year-old Rachel Nalebuff, this particular privacy made no sense. Reasoning that every lonely soul wandering through Walgreens has a story to tell, she was inspired to assemble a collection of 92 short reflections by women on the subject of their first period.
At this point, male readers may want to go outside and toss a ball around for a while. No matter how sympathetic, how curious or how deeply interested in life’s little yuck factors you are, this collection is unlikely to hold more than the mildest intellectual appeal for you. But it is hard to imagine any woman, from the most straitlaced and body-denying to the most uninhibited and body-embracing, who will not read right through it with pure enjoyment, small flashes of recognition and the urge to buy it for every female preteen in sight.
Contributors range in age from teenagers to the very old, and they come from all over the world. Either Ms. Nalebuff or her editors had the good sense to prohibit all of them, especially the well-known writers, from droning on. Most pieces are a few crisp paragraphs that manage to avoid both the chirpy “You are a woman now” song of the Tampax box and the lugubrious musings on blood, moons and fertility of the feminist academic.
Ms. Nalebuff’s Great Aunt Nina, for instance, got her first period on a train out of Poland at the onset of World War II, while being strip-searched by guards at the German border. Her first napkin was a railroad-issue toilet paper roll, and her first intimation of a better life ahead was her mother’s hissed promise that sanitary products in France, where they were headed, were far better than Polish versions.
Sixty years later, Ms. Nalebuff herself spent a horrific afternoon waterskiing in a stained yellow bathing suit stuffed with paper towels, in the company of her tongue-tied grandfather. Her younger sister Zoe, on her day, simply text-messaged her best friend a big red dot and a sigh: “Only 40 more years.”
The author Patricia Marx was furious at her first period, having decided by age 15 that she was going to be lucky enough to skip the whole thing. Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the “Gossip Girl” series, was one of untold thousands to be flummoxed by a box of applicator-free O.B. tampons. The runner Kathrine Switzer had to prime the pump with calories: only after she gained 15 pounds with peanut butter and chocolate milk did she begin to menstruate.
Even Gloria Steinem makes an appearance, with a reprint of her hoary 1978 classic, “If Men Could Menstruate.” (“Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”)
Like other menstruating women in Bangalore, India, in 1962, Shobha Sharma was banished from the family home to an isolated room in the back garden. In New York in 1942, Thelma Kandel was forbidden to water the houseplants (scientists once claimed that menstruating women secreted potent plant-killing “menotoxins”). More than one immigrant mother slapped her daughter across the face, for reasons none of them can quite remember.
Ms. Nalebuff, who will enter Yale this fall, has established a Web site for readers to contribute stories, but one suspects that a giant menstruation chat group will be just a little too much. The discipline of hard covers here is perfect for letting the reader sense themes without being bludgeoned by them.
Two surface over and over. First is the remarkably durable adolescent conviction that no matter who you are, where and when you were born, you are freakishly abnormal — too young, too old; your flow too thick, too scanty, too brown. The writer Joyce Maynard sums it up: “Before I started being ashamed of getting my period I was ashamed of not getting my period.”
More intriguing is that even among the carefully prepared adolescents of the late 20th century, one contributor after another writes of her utter conviction that the stain on her underwear meant that she was dying.
The book’s great beauty is that these themes are left unexplored. No one draws a moral (see, everyone thinks she’s different!), or offers up the poet’s lament that all life’s landmarks spell a step to death. The reader is left alone to absorb it all in privacy.