A Love Language for the Menstruating Body: Chloe Caldwell’s The Red Zone

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“There’s a quote I heard once,” Chloe Caldwell writes in her memoir The Red Zone: A Love Story: “Not everything can be healed or cured, but it should be properly named.” In her early thirties, Caldwell receives such a name in the form of a diagnosis, seeking to explain the significantly worsening symptoms and devastating episodes coinciding with her hormonal cycle: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). When the increasing paranoia, rage, and pain of Caldwell’s periodic episodes threaten to unravel her budding relationship with Tony, a pianist and single father, the two give it a name of their own: “the red zone.”

The Red Zone reads, in many ways, like a quest: a search for a language often silenced long before it gets written or spoken, beyond a long history of medicalization and misdiagnosis. The language Caldwell finds, indeed creates, is not one explained away by a diagnosis, but rather through entering a daring intimacy—with self and with others—is forged through writing and collective storytelling. Caldwell links this search for a language with other parallel searches, namely the forming (and breaking and reforming) of relations, navigating a heterosexual relationship with a queer identity, and making a blended family while coming to terms with the long shadow of her parents’ own divorce (“something I don’t have a name for was still lost . . . even now, twenty-one years later, I still lack the language”). As she goes on and off (and on, again) various antidepressants and experiments with other treatments, Caldwell discovers that healing comes not from one source or name, but rather by carving a radical space for self-acceptance, advocacy, self-discovery, and permission to feel.

In the same characteristically direct voice established in her earlier works Women, Legs Got Led Astray, and I’ll Tell You In Person, Caldwell’s writing reads like a concise and frank poetics. Her words land like those exchanged with a close friend (granted, a friend who wields language masterfully). Multiple times while reading, I laughed out loud in self-recognition, particularly when she referenced the gene whose mutations can cause heavy and painful periods, MTHFR: “did anyone else think of this as motherfucker?” (Every time.) Caldwell’s boldness is arresting and unavoidable—from the first page, a blood clot on a piece of toilet paper shown to Tony as evidence.

Without exhausting the menstrual metaphor of cycles, perhaps too obvious a form for the book’s content, there is an unmistakable cyclicity to Caldwell’s storytelling. She writes with striking reflexivity—sometimes narrating Red Zone episodes in-scene and sometimes as if observing them from another dimension. We travel with her into the darkest shadows of her Red Zone, and then climb out, exhausted, with the sometimes-humbling clarity afforded by distance or the follicular phase, which Caldwell calls “The Repair,” only to embark on the cycle once again. But there is also a directionality to Caldwell’s inquiry. She layers cycles upon one another, equipped each time with the insight of a writer not only observing the events of her life but also, critically and empathically, her own transformation. She moves, and the reader moves with her.

Above all, The Red Zone is a story of intimacy and love in both substance and form. For Caldwell, it’s an intimacy with others—most centrally in making a family with her now-husband Tony and his daughter, as well as with a broader community of individuals living with PMDD—but also, crucially, with her body and herself. She rewrites her own story from one of shame and humiliation to compassion and an openness to the spectrum of human emotion:

A theory: when I stopped numbing myself, which I had done from age fifteen to thirty in various and impressive ways, the uncomfortable parts of life, the stuff I’d never dealt with, the divorce I’d never looked at, came coursing through my veins. The paranoia, hypervigilance, and anxiety that I didn’t have support for when I was a teenager releases now once a month when my hormones crash, and those feelings of emotional unsafety come out as rage. Often people go into anger because they are afraid of what’s underneath. And often what’s underneath is terror.

For the reader, The Red Zone is an invitation into deeper intimacy with one’s own body in all its variations, into learning its language. The book speaks to a range of people living with the mystery of their bodies and moods, regardless of where on the spectrum of PMS to PMDD they find themselves, and whether or not they are the one menstruating. In reading, one cannot help but enter a zone of one’s own. Caldwell carves out this space by including many voices beyond hers, among them a Reddit PMDD subgroup whose members call themselves “the Werewolves” and individuals Caldwell meets at a PMDD convention.

In a chapter entitled “The Linen Closet,” which might be called a collective memoir, Caldwell’s voice recedes to center those of family members, students, and friends as each share the story of their first period. I read “The Linen Closet” while visiting my parents’ home, sorting through boxes of belongings from my girlhood. I was also in the midst of my own red zone, as it were (you can’t make this up). In a pile of old journals, I found an entry from my own first period, which arrived the same week I started high school. (Caldwell, who humorously notes the impeccable timing of her own periods coinciding with major life events, would surely have something to say about this.) Thirteen-year-old-me had written the word “period” so small in comparison to the other words that it was microscopic, and wrote around the word “blood.” On the page was a girl trying to both bear witness and erase the evidence, all at once. Reading my own story, with its seeds of self-erasure and self-censorship, alongside “The Linen Closet” felt like a reclamation, a salve, a rewriting.

With The Red Zone, Caldwell hits the high note of personal narrative at its best: the felt sense that the story being told is not only of one body and life, but of many bodies and many lives. Ultimately, the cure Caldwell finds is not the resolution or the erasure of symptoms, but connection: “It was a revelation . . . to realize I can be struggling yet still help those who struggle. Simultaneously.” Many will find solace, introspection, humor, and self-compassion in The Red Zone. The book offers readers a way to live with the unpredictable grammar and “punctuations” (as Caldwell calls her period) of a love story still unwritten for so many: that with one’s own body.

Alexandra Middleton is a writer and medical anthropologist based in Malmö, Sweden. She holds a PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. Alexandra's words have recently appeared in Entropy, and she is currently working on her first book, an ethnography exploring people's embodied relationships with experimental neuroprosthetic technologies. She also teaches embodied writing workshops that integrate yoga, breathwork, and meditation as tools for writing from, through, and into the body. Find her at www.liminalliety.com or @liminalliety. More from this author →