A Moby-Dick–Inspired Memoir of Menopause

On a quest to make sense of what was happening to her body, the author Darcey Steinke sought guidance from female killer whales.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In her new memoir, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, the author Darcey Steinke renders menopause as “a rupture, a metamorphosis, an all-encompassing and violent change.” Its physical intensity makes the experience so fearsome and bewildering, she writes; but equally disorienting is the lack of adequate cultural narratives devoted to making sense of it.

In a conversation for this series, Steinke explained how she turned to the animal kingdom for guidance when the world of human culture wouldn’t suffice. Her search for a menopausal role model brought her not to a writer or filmmaker, but to killer whales: a highly social, matriarchal species in which the females also go through menopause. Steinke followed her newfound obsession first to the Miami aquarium, where an orca named Lolita lives in captivity, and then to a kayak trip in search of Granny, a whale swimming wild in Canada’s Salish Sea. The whales’ example, she found, provides a clarifying counterpoint to women’s destabilizing transformation. We discussed the way animals usefully refract elements of the human experience, and how her quest formed the basis of a book she likens to a feminist retelling of Moby-Dick.

Steinke is the author of five novels, including Sister Golden Hair, Milk, and Jesus Saves. She lives in Brooklyn and spoke with me by phone.

Darcey Steinke: There are very few good books about menopause. Going through this difficult transformation—hot flashes, insomnia, disorientation—I found there was so little in the culture that was able to guide me, to help me make sense of my experience. The Change, by Germaine Greer, is quite good. I also think the novel Break of Day, by Colette, is probably the best novel ever written about menopause. But there’s also a lot of schlock.

What inspired me most was seeing an article in The New York Times about the creatures who go through menopause: human women and female killer whales [as well as short-finned pilot whales]. That fascinated me. I started to read everything I could and watch whale videos on YouTube. That was how I discovered Lolita, a killer whale who has been kept in captivity for 49 years at an amusement park in Florida—decade after decade spent in the same small concrete cell, where she’s forced to perform tricks for crowds. Something about those videos struck me as profoundly sad, and they affected me deeply.

If you don’t know anything about killer whales, which are otherwise known as orcas, you might assume Lolita is happy in her tank. But I probably read 50 books about them. I learned that orcas have brains that are nearly four times as big as ours, and their brains have spindle cells, which are the cells linked to empathy. The children never disperse from the mother, so the family remains the same their whole lives. These pods tend to include up to about 40 whales who spend their whole lives within inches of each other. They swim together, hunt together, and are just completely communal. When a baby is born, all the females gather around the birth almost like midwives, helping and sometimes even pulling the baby out. They have high culture and low culture, even fads. I read about one example where one whale was seen carrying around a dead salmon as a toy, and soon this fad swept the entire local orca population, and after a month it was gone.

So as I learned more, the idea of keeping a social, emotionally intelligent animal alone in captivity like that began to seem unthinkably cruel. There is one video where a newscaster plays Lolita the sounds of her pod, and Lolita sticks her head up out of the water and listens so carefully, the way a captive person might if you played sounds of their family talking at dinner. I guess the tragedy is that she has no way to be her own authentic self—she’s reduced to being a caricature playing a part in a skit for people’s amusement. And I think there must have been some kinship there, because I felt I was losing my natural me-ness. I’m in my late 50s, so as I’d moved into this time, I definitely felt like I was being mentally and culturally held captive by this idea of a postmenopausal hag or something—this idea controlled by all these outside forces.

I wasn’t a big animal person to start with. I used to say, “When all the people are taken care of, then we can take care of the animals.” But I became obsessed with Lolita. I learned that there are many different groups working to get her released, though I can’t vouch for the viability of some of these activist plans to bring a captured animal back to the ocean. And at some point, I decided I was going to go down to Miami and see her.

It was a terrible experience. Everyone is cheering; the music is so loud. And you know that this amazing creature, as vital as she is, has been hollowed out by suffering; years ago, her partner died by slamming his head against the wall of the tank. The whole thing was so upsetting—one of those moments when you’re crying, when you’re angry, when you almost don’t even know what you’re feeling. The next day, I stood with the protesters in the parking lot, trying to turn cars away from the aquarium. It was a very diverse group, ranging from housewives who just think it’s wrong to hard-core animal activists, and we cheered first in English and then in Spanish. At first, I was a little embarrassed. But I was reeling emotionally from the experience of seeing Lolita, and it helped to have a place to put some of that energy.

I think I became so fixated on those whales because I couldn’t find a human role model to help make sense of what was happening to my body. “Storylessness,” the feminist author Katha Pollitt once wrote, “has been women’s big problem”—and that was my problem, too. I lacked a specific sort of menopausal spirit guide. And so I latched onto killer whales instead.

Ultimately my interest led me to the Salish Sea, to an orca matriarch named J2, who was part of the Southern Resident J, L, and K pods of wild whales studied for menopause—the same pod Lolita was taken from. It was a real voyage to go and see them. I had to take a plane across the country, to a van four hours up the coast, to a two-hour ferry ride to the island, and then get in a sea kayak and paddle 10 miles out. But I ultimately got to see J2, [also known as] Granny, and be just a few feet from her. I got to look right into her eyes. And the thing is, it was not a moment of holy union. You don’t want to make the Born Free mistake—I love the animal; the animal loves me. The main feeling I got from the expression in her eyes was, What the fuck are you doing?

It was a look of contempt. But I valued that contempt so much. Because I lacked human stories, I just felt I had to grasp onto that animal story—even if I knew that identification would always be one-sided, could never be complete. I just wanted to get a feel for what it felt like to be a middle-aged animal. It’s not completely triumphant; they have their own struggles. But we have one thing that they lack, which is all the patriarchal bullshit. Killer whales live in a matriarchy, and no one’s lumping onto them these terrible ideas of what it means to be an aging woman.

It was hard for me not to see myself as a kind of Ishmael, seeking out my whale. Moby-Dick is a book that I love, one that always inspired me so deeply. Part of that is the role of the sea: the idea that when Ishmael is feeling depressed and run-down he needs to “get to sea as soon as [he] can.” I always think of that line when I’m checking my phone too much and I just feel rattled by the modern world and I want to sink deep down into the sea of myself—the place where I can do the work I was meant to do with my life. I identify so much with this idea of going as far and as deep as you can into yourself and trying to bring something back.

There’s one passage I love in particular, as Ishmael’s ship, the Pequod, is going down:

Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.

I love the idea that the coffin saves him. In this moment of intense, downward pressure, the coffin shoots up from the bottom and becomes his life raft. There’s something to that. Menopause has some pretty hard things about it physically. There can be a kind of physical desperation. But in a weird way, accepting that—really accepting that your mortality is closer than it was—is the insight that might actually save you.

Trying to get that feeling of sinking deep down into yourself is difficult. When I really want to make that space, I leave my phone at home and take a Walkman from the ’90s and my headphones, and I’ll go to Prospect Park, which is close to where I live in Brooklyn. I am so grateful to that park, for its wildness and weirdness. I try to do a kind of walking meditation, where you spend time looking at the shapes of leaves, trying actively not to think too much about yourself, paying attention to the animals. You see the most beautiful things when you look closely. This year, for the first time ever, I learned to recognize the fledgling birds, the ones that were just born this spring. They look almost like adults, but the robins will have a more speckled breast. Or when you see a sparrow feeding another sparrow, the one being fed might look like an adult, but that means it’s a baby. It feels so powerful to notice something like that.

I know these behaviors we witness among animals don’t necessarily mean what we think they mean. We project ourselves onto it. But there is something profound and wide-reaching in that. There is pleasure in seeing these other creatures and knowing that you are equally part of the earth.