“I Am and Have Always Been an Animal”

What can women learn from how other creatures experience menopause?

Photo illustration of a female gorilla holding a fan to stave off a hot flash.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mknoxgray/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Max_grpo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This essay is excerpted from Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, out now from Sarah Crichton Books.

Long before Darwin uncovered the evolutionary forces that linked us to animals, menopause itself was associated with the ineffable, the bestial, the base. A French medieval alchemist explained that if you took a hair from an old woman’s mons pubis, mixed it with menses, and planted it in a dung heap, “at the end of the year you’d find a wicked venomous beast.” Edward Tilt, the author of the popular 1857 book The Change of Life in Health and Disease, associated the change with violent behaviors, drinking binges, stealing, suicide at­tempts, and recklessness with money. One of his patients, he claimed, believed the devil had lodged inside her womb. “Something is sent to the brain,” he wrote, “so that women are no longer the mistresses of their own actions, she is fuddled with animal spirits.” Tilt, a medical educator and member of the Royal College of Physicians, wrote that hot flashes were preceded by “strange sensations, which resemble pulses, like a live animal throbbing in the stomach.”

One of my menopausal correspondents wrote to me: “Re­porting that I finally get the whole animal thing regarding menopause, suddenly my physical body is very present. Heart palpitations. Strange bloating. Shape shifting like a motherfucker.”

The anthropologist Ernest Becker has written that menopause is an “animal birthday,” a reminder of our “creature-liness.” Other animal birthdays for woman are menstruation and birth, but both, unlike menopause, come with captivating and all- consuming new worlds. Sexual desire rises with menstruation, along with physical pleasure, intimacy, the vagaries of romantic relationships. Birth brings the transformation of motherhood; our brains are reworked so that a new and tiny person’s needs supplant our own.

Only menopause arrives without absorbing directives. Instead of new obsessions and responsibilities I feel a nothingness, a negation. It’s a void created in part by an oversexed patriarchal culture that has little room for older women. The message, never stated directly but manifesting in myriad ways, is an overwhelmingly nihilistic one: Your usefulness is over. Please step to the sidelines. Counterpart to inner emptiness is an outer invisibility. One woman told me that after she turned 50, she felt herself becoming more invisible each day. In the novel Calling Invisible Woman, Jeanne Ray writes about Clover, a 54-year-old housewife who discovers that a pharmaceutical combination of hormone replacements, calcium tablets, antidepressants, and Botox has made her and other women her age literally invisible. The novel’s real horror is not the invisibility itself, but that no one, not even her husband, notices that she is missing.

Menopause brings the sense of being animal. As one woman breaks into a full- body sweat at a parent-teacher conference, she feels like “a trapped animal.” Another feels like she’s finally able to accept her corporeal form: “I am conscious that I am and have always been an animal.” For most, including myself, a sense of the animal is connected to mortality—that we are creatures inside a life cycle. For the first time, I feel I have a time stamp, an expiration date.

“A lot of people ask,” the primate researcher Sue Margulis tells me, “if the post-reproductive gorillas are grumpy.” While she and her team can check hormone levels, there is no way for them to assess if the older gorillas are physically uncomfortable, no way to tell if they endure menopausal symptoms like moodiness or hot flashes.

Margulis, who teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and spends mornings studying gorillas, tells me there is still considerable controversy surrounding the question of menopause in nonhuman primates. She and her research partner, over the past 20 years, tested the hormone levels in 30 older female gorillas living in zoos across North America. Several times a month, keepers collected fecal matter, packed it in dry ice, and mailed it to Margulis, who tested the waste for hormone levels. Most of the females were living in potential breeding situations with their silverback, a sexually mature male with a thick coat of silver-gray back hair. In the wild, gorillas live in harems with one silverback male to several females. Their menstrual cycle is much like humans’, lasting about 30 days. Estrus, or the time during which females can become pregnant, lasts two to three days. During that fertile time, keepers also took note of when the females masturbated, inspected their genitals, or gave their silverback what is known as “the look,” the one that says in no uncertain terms, I want sex.

What Margulis found was that “menopause” in gorillas is not as clear-cut as menopause in humans. Hormone levels do drop, and, like women, gorillas also become less fertile with age. Margulis tells me that part of the reason it’s so hard to be certain about primate menopause is that in the wild, most females die before they stop cycling. Quality of life for the older females is grim. Female dominance depends on having babies, so once a female stops reproducing, she falls to the lowest rung of the social ladder. “They lose interest in the silverback,” Margulis says, “and the silverback loses interest in them.” Just like humans, gorillas suffer from arthritis and osteoporosis, but the thing that often kills them is starvation. Once their teeth rot and they can no longer chew, they starve.

Dian Fossey writes in her book Gorillas in the Mist about a few older females she studied in the forests of Rwanda. Near the end of shy Idanno’s life, her silverback, Beethoven, slows his group’s pace to keep up with her, and in the last days of her life, though his group has younger females, he carefully builds his night nest of leaves and branches and invites the elderly female to sleep beside him. Even more compelling is the part­nership of silverback Rafiki and Coco. Coco is Rafiki’s only female. Coco, Fossey writes, has deep wrinkles on her face, a balding head and rump, a graying muzzle, and flabby, hairless upper arms. She is missing many teeth. One day, while Fossey watches, Rafiki notices that Coco has fallen behind. He stops his group and waits. When Coco approaches, they gaze deeply into each other’s eyes before throwing their arms around each other’s backs and walking together up the slope. The two also share a night nest and “resemble a gracefully aging old married couple.”

Colo, at age 59, is the oldest living captive gorilla. [Editor’s note: Colo died in 2017.] Audra Meinelt, the assistant primate curator of the Columbus Zoo, believes that Colo is no longer cycling. She does not give “the look” to her silverback or to her male keepers. Neither Meinelt nor her co-workers have ever seen a gorilla menstruate. There is no labia swelling, like there is with other primates, and blood is absorbed and hidden by the animals’ thick, dark fur.

Colo, as the first gorilla born in captivity, had a long and cel­ebrated life at the zoo before, at age 45, she started to distance herself from her family. In the mornings when the family left their private sleeping quarters, Colo held back, sig­naling to her keepers she wanted to be alone. Colo’s new enclosure is next to her family’s, and she still makes clear, by vocalizing and running back and forth, when she disapproves of something the silverback does. Meinelt feels that Colo may have gotten tired of her silverback’s “theatrics.”

These days Colo moves a little slower. The steps to her habitat have been changed to ramps, and along with her regular diet, she is given cranberry juice for urinary tract infections and whole grains to battle constipation. On her 59th birthday, while spectators sing to her, Colo runs a finger through her birthday cake’s frosting, brings it to her nose, and sniffs. Under her deep-set brown eyes, the skin is wrinkled, and the hair on her head is silvered. Her fans want her to open her presents, but it’s clear, as Colo pulls down the colorful paper chains and drapes them around her neck, that she isn’t going to rush for anyone.

Even though menopause has pushed me back onto my ani­mal frame, I don’t kid myself that now I am one with them. In the presence of animals, I am thrilled by their physicality. But I also feel their deep inscrutability. “Nothing, as a matter of fact,” Georges Bataille writes, “is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended.” He felt the only way to speak of it overtly was through a poetry that slips toward the unknown. The writer Lydia Millet also warns against shallow interspecies enlightenment and claims that the fact we cannot fathom animals is a great and precious gift: “I cherish the reality that other animals are us, in that they have sentience and are not us, in that the nature of that sentience is an eternal mystery.”

In Break of Day, Colette’s 1928 novel, the main character, also named Colette, agrees that no matter how much time goes by, animals remain mysterious. “The passage of the centu­ries never bridges the chasm which yawns between them and man.” As she ages, though, and moves into menopause, her sympathy with animals increases. “When I enter a room where you’re alone with your animals,” her former husband tells her, “I feel I’m being indiscreet. One of these days you’ll retire to a jungle.” She is attuned to animal emotion: “The tragedies of birds in the air, the subterranean combats of ro­dents, the suddenly increased sound of a swan on the war­path, the hopeless look of horses and donkeys are so many messages addressed to me.” Colette claims, at the age of 54, that she no longer wants to marry a man. “But I still dream that I am marrying a very big cat.”

Book cover
Sarah Crichton Books