The Silence About Menstruation: A Conversation with Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

WHEN RACHEL KAUDER NALEBUFF, editor of Our Red Book: Intimate Histories of Periods, Growing & Changing, was 12, she heard a harrowing story about her Tante Nina’s first menstruation. As Nina recounted the story to her niece, she was transported back to 1940 and the day she, her mother, and her siblings were crammed onto a train to escape Nazi persecution. The guards on the Poland-to-Belgium journey searched each passenger for hidden valuables. “They looked at the most private places,” Tante Nina recalled. “In my fright, I completely lost it and peed my pants. But when I looked down, what I actually saw was a stream of red.”

For Kauder Nalebuff, this dramatic story not only made the Holocaust real but also kick-started a fascination with menstruation: how it begins, how it ends, and how it is treated by cultures throughout the world. Our Red Bookwhich follows Kauder Nalebuff’s 2009 anthology My Little Red Book, is both a highly personal and a highly political look at periods. What’s more, the collection — which includes 67 essays, drawings, and interviews — intersects with a slew of related issues, from aging to pregnancy, childbirth, relationships, and parenting. Trans voices are prominent, with several accounts of what it is like for a trans man to face a monthly cycle.

Still, as Kauder Nalebuff writes in her introduction, “This book is not a comprehensive collection of every story there is to tell about first blood, last blood, missing periods, birth, bleeding after transitioning, staining things, aching, grieving, grieving, aging, and changing. Rather, it is […] a web of memories.” Together, these memories make for a provocative and emotionally resonant read.

Kauder Nalebuff spoke to me about her new collection in late July.

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ELEANOR J. BADER: Did you start out with a concrete list of topics you wanted the anthology to include?

RACHEL KAUDER NALEBUFF: I initially wanted to fill some gaps, information that had been missing from My Little Red Book. I’d started working on that first book when I was a teenager, and my goal was for it to break the taboo about discussing menstruation. After the book came out 13 years ago, I got countless letters and emails from people who wanted to share their experiences, so basically, I’ve been gathering stories for much of my life. Now, in 2022, the world has changed; the door has been discussed, and it feels possible to periods more comprehensively and openly.

Once I began compiling the stories for Our Red Book, I imagined what I might include but found that I had to surrender to the process. Basically, I followed a trail from one person to another person to another person. So, although I imagined what I might include, I didn’t need to look for stories about celebration or overcoming shame; I could listen to more nuanced accounts that people are now more willing to tell.

At the same time, I wanted to include a wide range of accounts — people from different parts of the world and of all ages, races, sexual preferences, and gender identities — and spent more than two years actively on the trail (yes, including during the COVID-19 lockdown) gathering diverse stories. I hope that the result represents a spectrum of emotional relationships to menstruation.

In one entry, you quote your friend Merkel, who told you that underneath menstrual shame, there “is a source of power that someone is afraid of you unlocking.” How can that power be used to change the status quo?

After hearing hundreds of stories, I’ve developed a deep reverence for, a deep humility about, bodies. It is not surprising that stories about menstruation are missing from our misogynist culture. One of the essays in the book, written by a Brazilian healthcare professional, is about how she taught her infant son about menstruation. When I read it, I was shocked, and this shock saddened me.

The United States punishes certain people who bleed. Period poverty is a very real thing. Deprivation of health-related information is also real. When we read enough stories, it unravels a thread around our basic lack of knowledge, let alone reverence, for one another’s health and bodies. A large number of teens in the United States are now fighting for free menstrual-care products in school bathrooms, which I hope will provoke larger questions around the basic care we all deserve.

Let’s go back to Tante Nina. Many Holocaust survivors are reluctant to share their experiences with family and friends. Similarly, period stories are rarely shared. How do these silences trickle down from generation to generation, and what is the damage wrought?

I knew that my Tante Nina had been through something awful during World War II. I’d learned about the Holocaust in school, but the power of her story cut through textbook history — dates and facts — and zeroed in on her trauma. I could suddenly see her as a kid my age. It was as if hearing her story collapsed time. It was also the prompt for others in my family to begin sharing their period stories. It ended some of the silences.

One of the book’s many strengths is its insistence on the connection between our emotions and our bodies.

Part of my quest was to tell stories that make that connection apparent. I mean, what were the chances that Tante Nina would get her period right when she was being strip-searched by a Nazi? Our emotional states are, of course, deeply tied to our bodies. Periods can begin or stop right after a death. I see periods as a sort of weathervane. My aunt’s story is one of trauma in action, trauma in the moment, in the body’s response to what was happening.

At the same time, our culture acts as if menstruation has nothing whatsoever to do with men. How do we change that?

This is one of the gaps I wanted Our Red Book to fill. One of the stories in the book is an account from a cis man who reports on his struggle to buy period products in the supermarket. It’s high time to end that particular story. I hope the book will feel like an invitation to male readers and help end the embarrassment and shame many feel talking about menstrual cycles.

I want to stress that this is already happening to some extent. I did several period storytelling workshops in New Haven, Connecticut, and feel like teens today are more open than my generation — I am 32 — or preceding generations. When I asked the group to write stories about menstruation, there was momentary confusion about what to write, but there was no discomfort, and it was a beautiful experience to see how every person connected to the topic.

The young trans writers in the book especially wanted to make other trans teens feel less alone. Their stories are also consciousness-raising for readers who may never have thought about what it is like for a trans man to bleed. The many trans authors included in the book also make clear that there is not one trans story. Some trans women are covetous of menstruation; others are happy not to have to deal with it.

Nonetheless, one of the book’s other messages is that everyone is connected to menstruation, whether it’s you, your partner, your siblings, cousins, friends, colleagues, or a parent. This makes it particularly odd that it is so shrouded in silence. The internal shame and disgust surrounding menstruation have been used as oppression in Western societies. Additionally, the colonization of Native People has deprived some Indigenous communities of a sacred and powerful rite of passage deeply. Thankfully, people all over the world are starting to reclaim this. In one essay, a Māori contributor, whose research is dedicated to this work, writes about bleeding directly into the earth as a way to nurture it. Another contributor writes about watering her garden with menstrual blood.

Speaking of tyranny, the sections focused on incarcerated people are horrifying.

These accounts allow us to see the prison industrial complex in an embodied way. Although laws vary by state, the accounts of having to make tampons yourself — and then risking punishment for possessing contraband — are stories of dehumanization. So is being forced to bleed through clothing as a form of humiliation. We know, intellectually, that prison conditions are horrible, but when we read these stories, we know it in a different way. I hope to be able to get the book into prisons, but in some places, books dealing with anything sexual are banned. In fact, the contributors may not be able to see their words in print.

The language we use to discuss periods is also striking. In the United States, we use terms like feminine hygiene products instead of period or menstrual products. In 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products universally available to everyone and the movement that organized the campaign uses the phrase “period products.”

The youth who are working on menstrual equity in the United States are linking their movement to the ideas of healthcare as a human right, health justice, and Medicare for all, and are fighting for housing for all. They speak directly and without euphemisms. Things are so broken that are reimagining real alternatives and are seeing Scotland as a model to promote health and dignity for all. The victory in Scotland has also helped students see that what they are asking for can be won. While school administrators have told them that they’re asking for too much, they know this is untrue and are continuing to push for what they want and need. Free products should be in every public restroom, starting with schools, hospitals, and prisons.

Did any of the stories surprise you?

The whole project was fundamentally a surprise on a structural level. I tried to fill gaps and think about categories of stories to include, but as I said earlier, I found myself surrendering to the people I met. The stories they told were so emotional. These are such vulnerable accounts, and I could not imagine most of them in advance. All told, it was a wild and humbling ride!

How do you want the book to be used?

I hope it’s assigned reading in schools but then turns out to be something that young people secretly really like. I hope it’s read by parents who want to know how to speak with their children. I hope it’s read by friends and by lovers as a shared experience. I hope it’s read as poetry and literature that also happens to be informative. I hope it invites readers to speak with more intimacy and vulnerability with one another.

I’m really excited to have the book out in the world. I’ve been carrying so many intimate accounts and feel like I’ve been this giant pot, a huge vessel, for years. It has grown heavier and heavier over time — and I know I’m not supposed to be holding it alone. These stories want to travel.

I also expect the book to be a Trojan Horse since school-based sex education has become so controversial and politicized. I hope that these literary, personal, poetic histories will help readers — especially teens, but also readers of all ages — pull together practical information and teach them what they need to know, serving as a sort of sideways teacher and illuminator.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in Truthout, The Progressive, Lilith, The Independentand Rain Taxi.

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