Magic Menstrual Mummies
I’d never heard of pheromones when I was ten. All I knew was that each month the large wicker basket in the bathroom on the middle floor of our chalet filled with softball sized, tightly-wound wads of toilet paper. These tissue bundles were evidence that—in biblical terms—the time of Our Girls’ Monthly Uncleanness was once again upon them.
Let me explain why I’ve capitalized those words. My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a key founder of the Religious Right. My mother, Edith, was herself a spiritual leader—not merely the power behind her man, though she was also that. My parents raised me in L’Abri Fellowship, a sort of fundamentalist hippie commune before there were hippies, really not much more than a big old Swiss chalet where we lived, along with everyone who visited for “spiritual help” and/or to “find Jesus.” Mom divided everything into Very Important Things—say, Jesus, Virginity, Japanese Flower Arrangements, Lust, See-through Black Lingerie (to be enjoyed only after marriage), Our Girls’ Monthly Uncleanness—and everything else—those things that barely registered on my mother’s to-do list, like home-schooling me. So I’ll be capitalizing some words oddly in here. I’m not doing this as a theological statement so much as as a nervous tic, a leftover from my Edith Schaeffer-shaped childhood and also to signal what Loomed Large to my mother and what still Looms Large to me.
This was back in the days when a sanitary napkin was a fluffy and formidable thing, about the size and shape of a canoe. I knew God didn’t like the Menstrual Mummies because I’d heard Mom read from Leviticus 15 in a Bible study:
When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening.
So I never touched the Menstrual Mummies—except once. I unwrapped the tissue-tethered Unclean Thing and took a smear of blood from it to study with a small microscope that a kindly L’Abri student had given me. I wanted to see the egg that Mom said was “washed out each month unless it gets fertilized by the marvelous seed.” I didn’t see an egg, but I did observe several doughnut-shaped red blood cells after I dabbed a little blood on a glass slide and stained it, as per the student’s instructions.
About forty years after investigating the Menstrual Mummies in the wastepaper basket, I read an article in the New York Times science section about how humans’ sense of smell triggers physical responses. The article cited as an example the fact that women who live together—for instance, in college dorms, convents, and girls’ boarding schools—tend to menstruate at the same time. I don’t know if this theory of menstrual synchrony will stand up to the rigors of scientific inquiry, but I do know that our middle-floor chalet bathroom wastepaper basket seemed to fill and empty like some sort of metronome, keeping time with a cosmic rhythm as sure as the tides. Maybe Mom and my sisters reset the hormone “clock” of the women who stayed with us, from the helpers—cheerful, though virtual slave laborers working in return for room, board, and spiritual help for years at a time—to the students—who might stay for six to ten months or so.
These nubile, yet torturously unavailable young women filled our chalet with their pheromone-perfumed presence. And, as I learned from Mom’s Bible study on Leviticus, they were monstrously defiled as they plunged into their monthly menstrual freshet. I imagined that God was right there with me, in our middle-floor bathroom, brooding over the evidence of His Big Mistake: women.
The-God-of-the-Bible—not to be mistaken for whatever actual deity might be out there—is appalled by women. According to the prophet Isaiah, God will mightily punish women who overstep their divinely ordained bounds: “Moreover the Lord saith: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” It seems The-God-of-the-Bible created his first female human as something of an afterthought, after squirrels, sheep, whales, and everything else, according to the Bible’s most familiar story in Genesis.
That said, when The-God-of-the-Bible hastily made the first woman as a sort of garden-warming present for Adam, He must have carelessly botched her plumbing. Soon after Creation, the Female Plumbing Problem began to weigh heavily on The-God-of-the-Bible’s Mind. Women brimming with bodily fluids—like shellfish, Canaanites, and the wearing of wool and cotton at the same time—are among the many things that got out of hand soon after The-God-of-the-Bible completed Creation, thus inciting His Divine Regret. So The-God-of-the-Bible expelled the first man and woman from the Garden; He sent a Great Flood; He killed at least as many unruly beings as the numberless descendants He promised Abraham. The-God-of-the-Bible issued countless factory recalls—for instance, miscarriages—and complex owner’s manual updates, replete with regulations and strict rules about how to deal with women, fix women, repair women, curb women, keep women in line, and, if need be, kill women if they didn’t keep The-God-of-the-Bible’s Women-Managing Rules.
The-God-of-the-Bible’s Women-Management Plan is particularly focused on controlling bodily fluids. The-God-of-the-Bible hates wetness! Certain kinds, at least.
There’s a lot in the Bible about menstruation, and it’s all bad. Blood isn’t the problem; just womb blood is bad. If a woman finds a stain after, say, cutting her finger, she does not become impure since the blood isn’t from her womb. Blood squirting from countless sheep and cows dying while being slaughtered as sacrifices to The-God-of-the-Bible is just fine. So is male mutilation: circumcision. Even better for Christians is the blood pouring from Jesus’ hands and feet. The Christian believer is encouraged to drink it, get to Heaven through it, and “claim” it! “Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?” ask the words of the old camp meeting hymn. “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”
The Bible is full of vengeful bloodshed. As the Psalmist says, “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.” Such “triumphal” blood runs in God-of-the-Bible-pleasing crimson rivers throughout the Scriptures—from the Slaughter of Midian right up through the Book of Revelation.
About thirty years after peering into that wastepaper basket full of sanitary pads, quivering with curiosity, my grown-up and terrified self was crouching next to my wife, Genie, at three in the morning. She was hemorrhaging. I’d already watched our three children being born. I’d seen a doctor cut her to make the passage wider when Jessica—the eldest—was tearing her mother’s flesh as she made her way into the world.
Now, on this night, after a year when Genie’s increasingly long periods became one long trial, it was as if something inside of her had broken loose. Even bath towels couldn’t soak up all the blood. I’d been squatting on the bathroom floor at her feet, watching her bleed dreadful clots that looked like slices of raw liver. I was zeroing in on them because one possibility we considered was that, long periods or not, Genie was somehow having a miscarriage. So—illogically—I studied those clots looking for little hands or feet, imagining that a face might stare back at me.
Waiting to be examined by a gynecologist, Genie was waxy pale. There was a smear of blood on her cheek that I washed off with a paper towel. I was gingerly perching on a stainless steel stool close to a short table with stirrups. I was holding her hand.
Next to me was a clear plastic bag hand-labeled “Rape Kit.” We’d been stowed in a gynecology examination cubicle reserved for female emergencies like ours—and, apparently, for gathering evidence from rape victims. I surreptitiously studied the bag without mentioning it to Genie. There was a fine-tooth comb for combing through a woman’s pubic hair to snag any pubic hairs from her rapist. There was a test tube with a Q-tip-type swab in it to absorb fluids. There was a sharp plastic stick, something like an overgrown toothpick, used to scrape under the victim’s fingernails to retrieve blood or tissue from the rapist, in case she put up a fight and scratched her attacker. Next to the rape kit was a Polaroid camera with a handwritten label taped to it that read “Evidence Camera. Do NOT Remove from Rape Room.”
The night-duty nurses kept us waiting for the doctor, a bleary-eyed gynecologist. He was a stranger to us, since Genie’s doctor was several towns away, and we’d made a beeline to the nearest emergency room. He smelled faintly of liquor. We waited for over two hours—plenty of time to study everything in the room twenty times over while Genie grew colder and colder. I asked for another blanket and eventually was given one that was as thin and useless as tissue paper. My wife was lying in a dingy cubbyhole dedicated to collecting evidence. I’d been Genie’s lover since we were teens, and by that night her menstrual blood was merely another drop in the ocean of bodily fluids we’d exchanged. What had once been a very big and titillating event—evidence of women bleeding—was, after twenty years of marriage, one more example for me of the intimate reality in the universe that binds man and wife. If I were asked to choose between any religion—let alone the woman-hating, rape-sanctioning Bible—and my love for the women in my life, by that night the choice was clear. A God that doesn’t side with women isn’t worth following, let alone worshipping.
Adapted from Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, published this month by Da Capo Press.