Thursday, July 8, 2010

Terminal Perimenopause

Day 150 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project, and I am still reading Literary Feuds, by Anthony Arthur, where I have most recently completed the “cranky women” chapter on Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, followed by the “cranky men” chapter on Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Oh, my.

Meanwhile, while I hope I don’t actually die from it, I am suffering from “terminal perimenopause,” a phrase I made up. It is based on “terminal adolescence,” a phrase I grew up on, uttered by my dad*, and “perimenopause,” an awkward term made up by medical professionals to describe that ongoing terrible transition to the real end of menses.

Oh, I should have put up a TMI warning.

Why did they call it “pause” in the first place? When we are in it, we want it not to pause, but to end.

Peri-menopause. “Peri” as a prefix meaning “around” or “about” or “near.” “Menopause” meaning “the period of natural and permanent cessation of menstruation, usually occurring between ages 45 and 55”—who knew it would be all 10 years?!—and “pause” being a confusing word meaning “temporary cessation,” which is of course probably why they called it “menopause” in the first place and there is no need for the word “perimenopause.” Menopause already means the menses will stop and start, erratically, for a decade and drive the woman and anyone near her crazy.

Pertinent here: Freya Manfred’s poems “The Husband Speaks of Menopause” and “The Wife Speaks of Menopause” from her book My Only Home, which I am also reading.

Anyway, Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was 75, sick, almost blind, and surely past menopause, when she got pissed off by something Mary McCarthy said in a television interview and sued her. McCarthy (1912-1989) was younger and terminally sarcastic when she said the mean things, and both of them had their reasons. I am amazed and admiring of author Anthony Arthur’s compassion and evenhandedness as he writes about these feuding literary types, but this is a case (literally, a legal case) in which, despite his respectful presentation of Hellman’s career and performance during the era of McCarthyism (interesting that two McCarthies—made-up plural—plagued Hellman), he comes down firmly on the side of McCarthy, who accused Hellman of lying.

Apparently, she did lie. Or misrepresent the truth. I have read Pentimento, Hellman’s memoir, and seen the movie Julia, but it seems probable that Hellman took someone else’s story as her own in the “Julia” case, namely that of Muriel Gardiner. It’s all over now, the court case, the quibbling. Muriel Gardiner has told her own story. But why do people do this kind of thing? Insecurity, literary ambition, the yearning for some kind of power?

The fiddling-with-truth seems always to have been an aspect of memoir, but also of history. Arthur points out that even the New Journalism, and Capote’s invented form, the “non-fiction novel,” were not really new, after all, just ways to label and market things. In Cold Blood.

Anyway, Capote and Vidal were not suffering from perimenopause, just from spurts of mean-spiritedness, which could afflict any of us, perhaps, for various circumstantial, hormonal, and personality-based reasons. And both suffered from literary ambition, which seems the basis of most literary feuds. Sigh…

Anyway, I have read The Group, by Mary McCarthy--happen to have a first Avon printing, I see, now that I work in a bookstore and notice such things—and Arthur’s book tells me it was based on a real group of women, her own “liberal intellectual set” (quoting Michiko Kakutani), the kind of thing that ultimately got Truman Capote in trouble, commenting on his own glamorous celebrity set. And not to call any of these writers lightweights (that’s the kind of thing they do), but I am glad I have paperback copies, due to my terminal lower back pain.

Since I admit I never really grew up, but did get boobs and a period, it occurs to me that I have indeed gone from one painfully awkward long transition stage, terminal adolescence, to another awkwardly painful long transition stage, terminal perimenopause, and may well die of the two combined.

*The phrase “terminal adolescence” was uttered by my dad, who attributed it to a friend, well before Kevin Leman wrote the book Adolescence Isn’t Terminal—It Just Feels Like It and long before Cheaper Than Therapy turned “Terminal Adolescence” into a song. Where did that phrase originate? Was it my dad’s buddy, as he claims?!

But I’m pretty sure I just originated the phrase “terminal perimenopause.” Let’s see if it sticks. Meanwhile, I am happy to direct you to this blog on perimenopause, which turned up when I searched for the phrase and does seem pertinent. Oooh, and here's another! The Scandalous Women blog has an account of the quarrel!


Kathleen said...

Actually, now I have finished the Literary Feuds book. I wrote part of this entry last night, and finished the book, trying to sleep in the terrible muggy eat and phenomenal lower back pain. When I woke up, the back pain was still there, but the AC had been turned on. Magic!

Kathleen said...

That would be "heat."

Unknown said...

As I recall, McCarthy said, on the Dick Cavett Show (imagine when television had important critics from the Partisan Review, as well as dog acts and starlets) was, "every word she wrote was a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman blew a gasket. This was basically true, but Hellman had a ton of money (thanks to Dash Hammett's coattails, and posing in a mink for a bunch of magazine ads -- imagine selling minks in magazines, imagine using writers to do it) and buried McCarthy.
But "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood" is still a truer and better book than anything on Hellman's shelf. And of course, McCarthy did write the first, great and important review of "Pale Fire" when the other critics didn't know what to do with it.

Kathleen said...

Yes, that's exactly it, and apparently McCarthy had said the "and" and "the" thing earlier, and was quoting herself! Hellman wasn't aware of it the first time around, and was seeing the Cavett show later, so McCarthy was surprised and didn't at first take the lawsuit seriously.

I will have to seek out the McCarthy memoir. And I have not read Hellman's Scoundrel Time, either.

marydee said...

Thanks for the blog link about perimenopause. I turn 42 next month and am curious about what the future has in store for me.

Just started reading Jim Harrison's new collection of novellas called THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER and it's wonderful. I read a review that described his protagonists as 'lusty' and that's exactly right! They are smart and capable and sexually charged. And the rural western landscape is lovely to imagine. Great summer read.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Mary! I am in favor of anything lusty!