Feature image photos by JD Urban
I first read the novella Women by Chloe Caldwell when I was heartbroken over my first queer relationship, and it became my go-to recommendation for people to understand what I had gone through. I can only imagine her new memoir, The Red Zone, will become that book for many more people: ones with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), difficult periods, medical concerns that evade diagnoses, or even just people whose relationship to labels of all sorts is ever-changing.
Chloe Caldwell is known for her candor and honesty in her writing and The Red Zone more than lives up to that reputation. Chronicling her three-year journey to understand her PMDD, the book (and our interview) ruminates on periods, queerness, and the identities of “stepmom” and “wife.”
Analyssa: I’ve never done one of these before, so I just want to say that.
Chloe: Oh god, no problem.
Analyssa: It feels like if I address the elephant in my room, I won’t be as stressed. (both laugh)
Chloe: Absolutely, don’t worry about it.
Analyssa: And I have to get this part out of the way too, [our mutual friend] very sweetly — because I was obsessed with your book Women — got you to sign a copy of it for me, which I have on my dresser to this day. So I’m having a real out-of-body kind of moment. If you’ll indulge in this for one second, it’s a very funny little artifact now, because you signed it, I write in my books so I’ve written in it, but also I sent it to an ex who I was doing a long-distance relationship with and she wrote in it. Which kind of annoyed me actually. I was like “I didn’t ask you to do this, but fine.wp_postsSo it has those marks in it, but I also loaned it to another friend, and she put a glass of water down on the cover and it stained the cover in a way that looks like red wine. So it’s got this very collected assortment of memories now.
Chloe: I like that.
Analyssa: It’s very cool, it’s like one of my favorite things that I own now, I think.
Chloe: I love that, I love that. It’s funny, I’m just so not-precious with books. And like, to a fault. I just feel like they’re meant to be used and broken in. It’s so funny because my stepdaughter is a book collector, and she’s obsessed with reading. And I had my feet on the coffee table and she was like, “no toes on my books,wp_postsand I was like “oh my god you’re so crazy,wp_postsbecause I just think books should have stains on them and coffee and writing and whatever. So I love that so much. It’s really cool, because it became like a communal book.
Analyssa: Yes, both in ways that I wanted and ways that I didn’t. Which I don’t know, I think sort of fits with the theme of the book a little bit, or what I thought the book was about, too. It’s like “yeah I have this assortment of memories and some of them have continued to be relationships that flourish and some of them haven’t been, and that’s okay.wp_postsIt captures it all. Well, thank you for indulging me, I’m really trying not to gush too much, though I could.
I’m really into thinking of writing and this book as a kaleidoscope. So it’s like, turning the lens off of me and onto other people. And each person’s passage is another turn of the kaleidoscope, seeing a new period in a new way through a new person’s eyes.
Analyssa: So I wanted to talk about the section of “first period” stories but also the Reddit thread sections of The Red Zone, because I felt like it helped create this chorus of voices in the book overall. And I wanted to hear more about where that idea came from, how you knew you wanted to include that or why you wanted to include that.
Chloe: Thank you for pointing that out. A few people have been describing it that way, and it’s so interesting because I didn’t. It wasn’t an intentional, organized idea where it was like “oh I’m going to make a chorus of voices.wp_postsBut I’m seeing, now that people are reading, that it is. That’s one of the beautiful things about writing and sharing your work. You see it one way, and then you put it in the world, and people make all these beautiful connections.
So “The Linen Closet.wp_posts[the period stories chapter] I’m really happy that this chapter seems to be landing with people. Basically it started with a text thread, I think, with my mom and my aunts. My mom has eight siblings so I have a lot of aunts and a lot of cousins. And every year we do a mother-daughter trip, or we did for like 12, 15 years. So it was me and my cousins and all of our moms. And we’d be sitting on the beach in Gloucester, MA and just talk about stuff. We would talk about periods and first periods and how old people were, et cetera. So I think originally the chapter was just going to be my aunts, my cousins, and my mom, to see what that looked like. And then from the text thread, it grew. So then it was an email thread, and I brought in more of my aunts and some more people. And then from there, I just started to see how the years were spanning from the sixties into the nineties, but I thought it would be so cool to expand that even more and go through different generations and different decades. So I wrote a kind of survey and I sent out a mass email to everyone in my life, tons of students, and whoever responded got in the book. I sent it to students, friends, acquaintances, people from my past, people from my present.
So from there, I started to organize it and really look at it and how everything was evolving, how attitudes towards periods were evolving. I was really interested in the period technology of the menstrual belt all the way up to period underwear.
It just blows my mind. And when I started the book, my youngest cousin hadn’t even had her period yet. She was like 16 or something. And by the time I was turning in my edits, in 2021, she had finally gotten her period. I was like, “Great I need you!wp_postsSo she’s the last one, and she’s in 2018. I just thought it was so interesting to get people from all different ages, all different generations, all different locations, different genders, and just look at that. What surprised me so much is how most people’s first periods were really kind of negative.
So in some ways, there’s so much funny stuff in that chapter, and it’s also very sad. There’s a few people who had positive experiences, but most people didn’t know what they were doing. So it sort of kept growing, and I thought of it as a mini anthology. And we thought a lot about cutting maybe the weaker stories or cutting some people, but in the end we ended up just leaving it as this sprawling chapter. What I love about it is that you could skip that chapter, if you wanted to, or you could skip around in that chapter. It’s kind of just there. I thought it was really fun. I’m really into thinking of writing and this book as a kaleidoscope. So it’s like, turning the lens off of me and onto other people. And each person’s passage is another turn of the kaleidoscope, seeing a new period in a new way through a new person’s eyes.
Analyssa: Did you think at all about the kaleidoscope in including the Reddit threads? I feel like it allowed for the PMDD part to not be just your story, and bring in more perspectives and more experiences in the way “The Linen Closet” does for first periods. Did you think about that at all when you were including those?
Chloe: For the Reddit threads, those also grew in the book over time. At first, I just had the PMDD Reddit thread. I was so relieved and excited to see that other people were going through what I was going through, so I feel in some ways I probably put that in because it’s like “See! It happens to other people, I’m not making it up. I’m not crazy, this is actually a thing and other people are really struggling.wp_postsI feel like it was more of a defense mechanism.
And then from there, one day I found myself in the PMS thread, and I was like “this is totally different.wp_postsAnd that was really interesting to me too, because it really proved to me that PMDD is such another animal — it’s not PMS. So then I thought it would be so cool to use that as a way to show the difference, instead of me having to attempt to articulate the difference. Which I do, a little bit, but I feel like the Reddit threads do that job for me of like: “Here’s what the PMS one looks like, and here’s what the PMDD one looks like.”
And then from there, including the PMDD partner Reddit thread didn’t occur to me until a little bit later. I had read it before, and I knew it existed and I thought that was really cool and I had shown it to my husband. But I think that was included later because I thought, this is really hard on people’s partners, and wouldn’t it be so great to give them a voice. And Tony, my husband, doesn’t really use that Reddit thread or use Reddit, but he’s one of the people in [that section]. I asked him to answer the question, to describe what PMDD is and how it affected him, just to give a little of his perspective too.
I have a sort of complicated relationship with labels. I think they’re so incredibly helpful and at the same time they can be misunderstood.
Analyssa: The reason I think I called it a chorus of voices is because I’m about a year and half into a twelve step program, and pretty early on in attempting to be sober, I read Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering and I think that is such a point that she makes in the book. There actually were a lot of similarities to me in The Red Zone, of being able to point to other people’s stories and say “See, it’s not just me,wp_postsor “Oh, that’s why I feel like this,wp_postsor any number of reactions to hearing your own experiences reflected back and in different ways, that kaleidoscope effect again. I was really struck by the moment in the book where you’re at the PMDD conference and talking to all these people about their own experiences. All of that stuck out to me because of the times I’ve gone to meetings and been like “Oh I’m looking at someone who looks like me, I bet I know their story,wp_postsand then they talk and totally blow you out of the water with something you didn’t expect at all.
Chloe: Totally, yes.
Analyssa: And I think there’s something so similar too, about having the language, which comes up in a couple of different ways in the book. Having the language to be like, yes I have this or we all experience this can also be the double-edged sword of how then people think they know certain things about you. There’s a lot of that in the book, not just about PMDD, but your thoughts about being identified as, like, “a stepmom,wp_postsor queer, or about being perceived as Tony’s wife before you were married. Some of those connections are really explicit in the book, like queer and stepmom, but it echoed the wife bit and even some of the PMDD stuff. I wondered if you’d thought about those all connecting in that way.
Chloe: Thanks for picking up on all that. It’s complicated, right? I think what I’m realizing about this book is that a lot of the stuff I wanted to write about is because it is very nuanced and our culture is moving more and more away from nuance, because of the internet. So there’s not a lot of space to hold multiple truths at once, I feel. You think about how people use social media, and how they’ll put their identity in their bio, like they’ll put their pronouns, if they’re a stepparent, their sexuality, their work and all these really hard labels. I’ve never felt that way about anything in my life. I’ve never felt drawn or compelled to do that. So I have a sort of complicated relationship with labels. I think they’re so incredibly helpful and at the same time they can be misunderstood.
I’ll give you an example: I’m a stepmom. That word brings up a lot for people, and me being a stepmom is probably so different than what someone is picturing. So on one hand, you get to say “yeah I’m a stepmom,” but labels are shorthand, right? So that can be helpful. I can say “I’m here to pick up my stepdaughter,” and it’s helpful. And then at the same time, it does lack the nuance of what my relationship actually is with her. And that’s okay.
It’s similar with the word “wife.” I think what happens is my relationship with these words ebbs and flows. I think with all labels, it’s like maybe if they’re helpful to you, you should use them as much as you want. And if they’re not, then don’t. And I think that that changes day to day, month to month, year to year with our lives.
And where we’re at in culture, there is new language, and there are new words being created, so I think that’s really helpful. Stepmom is a great example of that. People say “bonus mom.” People get really creative with it. And at the end of the day, I try not to get attached to any of my quote unquote labels and just live my actual life without really thinking about these words, except when I have to. I don’t know if that makes sense, it was a tough question you gave me.
Analyssa: Well, I don’t think I gave you a real question to start with. All of my questions are like, “really long thought, question mark at the end,wp_postsdoes that make it a question? Do you feel like that resistance to labels has always been something you’ve felt personally? Or does it also come from writing and putting things down in firm print? Social media bios, you can change those super easily, but once you’ve published — I’ll speak for myself — an article about something or an essay about something, there’s more thought about what happens if that changes.
Chloe: But that’s the thing about essays. For me, it’s the opposite of what you’re saying. I don’t worry about that at all. I’m writing essays saying “I don’t know.wp_postsAll my essays are like “maybe this, maybe that.wp_postsThey’re meditating on things and they’re wondering. I’m not writing from the position of knowing. I’m writing from the position of wondering and being curious.
So for me, with all my books, I don’t think I come down firm on anything that I wrote. My books are more like “I’m all over the place!wp_postsEven in Women. Right, there are so many books about coming out, and they kind of run linear like, “I wasn’t gay and now I’m gay,wp_postswhereas I don’t feel like my book really had that at all. So that’s why the medium for me of books and being able to go long and wonder and meander, that’s my medium. Instead of all these people on Instagram that have created these commodities and businesses out of…even “stepmom.wp_postsI keep going back to it. There are stepmom influencers, you know, and to do that and to succeed at that, you have to really believe in that identity and talk about it all the time and think of yourself as that. Whereas for me, I don’t do any of that on social media, and I do that in books.
Books give you the space to just sprawl and do what I call in writing “Perhaps-ing.” So you’re like “perhaps this, perhaps that,” but there’s not really an answer. My book doesn’t end “Well, I’m a wife and a stepmom.” That would be hilarious. “And I have PMDD!” I don’t think that I always have PMDD. I think that some months it qualifies as PMDD, and I think other months it doesn’t. I think that’s something that ebbs and flows as well. That’s what’s so interesting about PMDD. It’s not like, “oh you have this and you have it for life and you’ve always had it.” It’s nothing like that. It can be exacerbated. So in that way, PMDD kind of fits in with my fluid way of thinking.
Analyssa: You talk a lot, too, about PMDD as like punctuating your life and sometimes it shifting to being a bigger punctuation than other times where it’s just like, “yep it happened.wp_postsObviously some of that is you deciding how to write about it. But when you’re talking about getting married and being on your period at the wedding and at the honeymoon, that’s just like “Yeah that was happening,wp_postsversus when you’re at the PMDD conference and it’s like “it took me out for a day.wp_postsAnd what that sort of management and adjusting to it looks like.
Chloe: It was such a strange time in my life, because my period was punctuating everything. I couldn’t make it up, it was just the craziest thing. It would be like, I would get on a plane, I would get my period. Just anything, any kind of event. I remember Tony was orchestrating this opera, and we had a big party with all our family. I had my period. It was just every event, every travel thing, everything. And that doesn’t happen anymore. It was just this weird timing thing. And that’s really partly why I wanted to write this book and structure the book only over three years, because it was just such a strange time in my life where I feel like my period was just like “Look at me, listen to me!wp_postsSomething weird was going on! And it was in my face in ways that I really don’t remember my period ever being in my twenties. It just suddenly started to really dominate me.
Analyssa: I imagine that sort of lent to talking about your period a lot more with people in your circle. It’s so ingrained to be ashamed of your period, or talk about your period shamefully or not talk about your period at all, and now you’re getting asked to talk about it a lot. Do you think about it at all anymore, or is it now totally like “yeah I just talk about it all the time”?
Chloe: Yeah, I was talking about it all the time, and then obviously I was writing about it, and now I’m in a different phase of life. Because I started the book in 2017, now it’s 2022 and I’ve really moved through it and I’ve mostly healed it. You know, mostly. And it’s not at the forefront of my life anymore. What’s interesting doing these interviews is I have to really get back into that headspace and really remember and really get in touch with that time in my life. Because I think it’s really easy once we grow from something to be like “Oh maybe it wasn’t that bad.”
Chloe: Right? Actually, when I first started doing interviews a few weeks ago, I felt really out of touch with my book, because I hadn’t thought about it in a while and just don’t deal with PMDD at that same level, and my focus has shifted. So I had to read a little bit of the book. I looked at some older emails. I seriously was like “I need to remember this time period in an authentic way, to be able to speak to this.”
And then I did end up having a really bad period with PMDD a few months ago, and I was like “this is good for my interviews, this is actually good.wp_postsBecause you do forget, especially if you get your shit figured out. You kind of can dismiss it or just not see it for what it was. But then I have it all there documented and I just have to go back into the recesses and really remember.
Analyssa: It’s interesting we’ve hit on this because that’s another thing I felt was a runner in the book: memory overall. You have some stories of period memories where you have such a touchpoint of something you remember. I remember that when I first got my period it was for the summer, and I was with my dad for the week. I grew up in a home where I visited my dad some weeks in the summer, and I mostly lived with my mom. And I remember that I got my period in my dad’s home, and I really panicked. But past that, I have no memory of what happened next. I remember lying on the couch in my dad’s living room and being like “how do I tell my mom about this when I’m not going to see her for four more days?”
Chloe: I just am like, “What’s up with this?wp_postsbecause all of my friends who I talk to are saying the same thing. I had a coffee with a friend yesterday, and she was like “I’ve always had really bad cramps and really bad periods, but I literally don’t remember my first period or any of my periods in middle school or high school.wp_postsIt’s a very common thing, what you’re saying. And I feel like that’s when people begin to shut down to their period and to their bodies. Because like, you get it and you don’t have support around it, so you just ignore it.
Analyssa: And the thing you noted a couple of times took me right back to middle school in some points like, trying to hide a tampon up your sleeve or trying to figure out how you can subtly go to the bathroom more times than you normally would so nobody knows that you are on your period. But it’s also important that people know you have your period, because that’s being a grown up, in some ways.
Chloe: It’s like you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Analyssa: Absolutely, and I feel like in middle school I talked so frequently with my friends about how to hide your period, but nothing about having our periods. It was like, “you should keep your pads herewp_postsor “I go to this bathroom because no one is ever in this bathroom,wp_postsall of this whisper network silliness of young teenagers, but also none of us were talking about what it felt like.
Chloe: I don’t know about you, but I barely knew what was happening or why, which is crazy if you really sit with that. Having these interviews is kind of blowing my mind, because we all had such a similar experience. I feel like only now people are growing up differently, but there was zero support for people. I mean there was zero support. No one understood why it was happening. And then to think about how young some of these kids are when they get their period, like I was 11. To have to cope with bleeding and figuring out tampons and pads. Eleven is young, that’s a kid, and then you’re dealing with this massive thing. And like, blood? And on top of that, you have to hide it. The emotional labor of that is so crazy to me, and my heart kind of breaks for everybody in the 90s and 2000s.
I was just so shut down to my period until it started screaming at me in my thirties.
Analyssa: I think “The Linen Closet” is so interesting, because it spans not only generations but gender and sexuality. And I thought something that was cool about The Red Zone was how many different queer or trans narratives there were throughout. The tampon in cultural imagination is the cis straight woman playing tennis while wearing a Tampax, you know?
Chloe: With blue blood.
Analyssa: As a queer person, I’m used to reading “she and her wife,wp_postsbut I found in the period stories even having to adjust my own thinking a little bit, a couple of times. And I was like “why is that?wp_postsWell, because the person I imagine getting a period is like a really fit, skinny blonde woman doing jumping jacks with the blue blood coming out of her.
Chloe: That’s so crazy. Like the blue blood is just what? Like seriously, why would you give us a totally different color? You want to talk about gaslighting? That’s gaslighting. Your blood is blue, if it’s red you’re a freak. That’s so fucked up, I just can’t believe it.
Analyssa: And it looks like Windex, it’s not even the consistency of anything that would—
Chloe: If you’re so scandalized by red or burgundy, like at least give us a pink, it’s closer. But we didn’t question it. Why would we question it? You’re kids, you’re teenagers, you’re not thinking that way. And that’s kind of what this book was too, like woah, I was just so shut down to my period until it started screaming at me in my thirties.
Analyssa: I’ve thought a lot more about my period in the days that I’ve been reading and thinking about this interview than I have in a while.
Chloe: That’s what everybody is saying. It’s getting everyone to look at their cycle, it’s hilarious.
Analyssa: I’ve had an IUD for a long time, actually, and that’s something I think about too. You’re saying only now people are growing up with different period technology, but there’s also contraceptive technology being used to combat periods. I don’t know that we know yet how that’s gonna affect people’s bodies when they’re not using it, because certain technologies haven’t been around as long.
Chloe: Sure, because they develop so quickly. Or, for so long they didn’t, but now it seems like they are. I love period underwear, I think it’s just genius. And I’m just so happy that people who are 11 and 12 get to have more support and hopefully don’t have to hide pads and tampons in their pocket. Although my cousin who did get her period in 2018 who is in the book said it was still like that in 2018 at her school.
Analyssa: The things change but they also stay the same, I think.
Chloe: Well said.
Analyssa: I wanted to talk about one more thing because obviously the book is subtitled “A Love Storywp_posts— and I think it’s a love story in many aspects — but there’s also the throughline of your relationship. It’s funny because you have in the beginning this thing about reading books by people who get married [in the end] and what that was like.
Chloe: Oh my god, yeah, the fucking worst.
Analyssa: I kind of have a similar thing, that sort of journey that’s like, I used to read books and be like “Ugh, got married.wp_postsI’ve had to stop myself from making too many connections to Women, because I’ve read that book so many times, and it came into my life at such an important time. It’s sort of become this hallmark of my life. So I had to stop myself from making too many parallels. But there’s a section about Tony where you talk about how you chose to write about him. Like, “he has his own issues, but he didn’t have PMDD. I’ve tried to list [his flaws] but it feels cheap.wp_postsAnd it really called to mind the opening lines of Women, where you write: “I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I’m looking for a shortcut.”
That change over time is interesting to me. Not just, on one hand, “I want you to understand and love her the way I dowp_postsversus “I don’t want to list all of his flaws in a cheap way.wp_postsBut also just not looking for a shortcut. There was something that stood out to me about that. Obviously, I’m thinking about that in a very specific way, but how has writing partners, or partnership, changed over time as you become more – I’ll just speak from a personal standpoint – more stable in your relationships but also more understanding and more just instead of just adoring?
Chloe: You know what I thought you were going to say? I thought you were going to say, “and I thought that’s hilarious,” where Finn [in Women] is like “I think you’re going to end up with a man.” Which is shitty, but I thought you were going to say that. And I was like, that’s so fucking funny. I thought you were going to be like “So how do you feel? She was right.”
Analyssa: Well, now that you mention it. (both laugh)
Writing memoir is like stopping time.
Chloe: I think making connections is interesting. What you pointed out is super fascinating, and I think what’s happening…I published three books, but I was single during all of that. You know, I dated, but I was really single, lived alone, lived with girl friends. I didn’t have anything at stake in that way. Finn was out of my life, across the country. I’ve written about so many people I’ve dated, but they were all exes. I think the way you write about an ex is kind of easier, because you’re liberated from it. You don’t live with that person.
But having to write this and bring my family into it while they’re in the other room is just a lot more fragile. It has a completely different feeling, and I think it’s more challenging. I think there’s so much freedom when you’re single and you owe nothing to anyone and you don’t have a stepdaughter, you don’t have a partner, you don’t have in-laws, so I was super free in my writing. I’m still incredibly free in my writing, because my husband does not care about anything that I write. No, he cares about it but he’s so supportive and loves it, so there was nothing of that. But I was also like, this isn’t the book where I go into my husband’s flaws, it just doesn’t feel right.
But I was worried because I hate the cliché of the crazy bitch and the rock husband. I even say that in the book, and then I had an interview where literally the person led with “Tony seems like such a rock.wp_postsI’m like sure, yeah. It’s not that he’s a rock, it’s just that he doesn’t have PMDD, you know what I mean? So there’s something to that. I really didn’t want it to come across as cliché. But I think there’s definitely much more room and freedom about writing about a toxic relationship, an ex with all this passion and stuff who you’re never going to see again versus your partner who is literally in the kitchen.
Analyssa: Are you a Taylor Swift fan at all?
Chloe: Sure, yeah.
Analyssa: So Instagram has decided that I would like to watch Taylor Swift reels, which I guess now I am watching them when they give them to me, so I’ve told them “yes, correct.”
Chloe: “You were right.”
Analyssa: I’m like yeah okay sure, you’re right, but I think if I were given other videos, I would watch other videos. I’m just watching what they give me. But there’s one where someone asks her: Are you worried about writing songs about exes? Which is such a trite thing to be asking her at this point, but her response is like: “No, because you don’t write a song about someone unless it’s totally over.wp_postsAnd so much of her new stuff has been written while she’s been in a relationship, famously, so that’s what that made me think of.
Chloe: I can totally see that. There’s a huge difference, and back to what you were saying it’s like, sometimes you read a memoir by someone, and you get really invested in their relationship, and you look that person up and you’re like “oh, they got divorced.wp_postsThat’s hard for me, when I read, but it challenges you. Again, back to nuance, it challenges you to be like “life continues.wp_postsYou can keep growing, you can keep evolving. It’s okay to change your mind. You don’t owe anything to anyone. Just because you wrote a book that you got married at the end of doesn’t mean that you need to stay married, just because it’s in print. You see this all the time in memoirs. I’ll look up the person later and be like, oh, they broke up. But it’s like, yeah because this is life.
And I mention that a bit in the book, because Molly Wizenberg, who wrote The Fixed Stars, she had written a book where she was happily married with her husband and their kid, and I think some kind of cooking type book. And then her next book, The Fixed Stars, was about the demise of that marriage and how she found herself really attracted to this woman, and now she’s with that woman. And she has that quote like: “How do you write the truth when the truth is continually changing?wp_postsAnd you don’t! You try, to the best of your ability. Writing memoir is like stopping time. It’s like, here’s this time of life. Is it always going to be that way? No, but that’s why I captured it in the time that it was.
The Red Zone: A Love Story is out now.