Her Blood Is Gold 20 Years On
by Lara Owen
In the spring of 1989 I was living on and off at my then partner’s cabin on the Western shore of Lake Tahoe in California. I was 33 years old and had been very ill the previous year after traveling in Nepal, and now I was spending time up at the lake convalescing. I needed peace and stillness. I was also opening up to being a writer with deepening intent, and I kept a notepad with me much of the time.
It was an unusual time in my life: I did not have to work and had few responsibilities. My partner was a wise man who encouraged me to write and was happy to support me. Intuitively he understood that something of depth was percolating in me and he was both encouraging and respectful, leaving me to figure it out while protecting me from stress and obligation.
My mind had been softened and opened by the long period of illness and retreat, in which I had done many hours of meditation including Buddhist dakini practice (the dakinis—sky dancers–are feminine spiritual entities of wisdom and right action). I felt very connected to the lake and the surrounding forest, an area sacred to the Native Americans
Sometimes in my meditations by the lake I would pick up a distinct impression of women going about their business, and felt they were the spirits or the land memory of the generations of women who for thousands of years had spent their summers on its shores. Some years earlier while I was still living in England I had studied with a couple of Native American teachers and taken part in many sweat lodges, and I felt an instinctive affinity with that tradition.
One May morning, sitting in the yard in the sunshine, there was a moment of breakthrough. All the thoughts and experiences I had been having for over fifteen years about menstruation suddenly coalesced. It was a true moment of inspiration, and within an hour or so I had scribbled down four pages of detailed notes, which were clearly the structure for a book. Even though at that time it seemed highly unlikely anyone would publish anything on what was still a taboo subject treated with disdain and disgust, I knew that what I had just written down was important. It quite literally seemed to vibrate off the page at me.
I had been consciously interested in the menstrual cycle since my early 20’s when I had begun to chart my cycle and use natural contraception. A decade of study and practice of Chinese medicine opened me up to different cultural viewpoints, and I specialised in the treatment of women in my work. Since learning how Native American women traditionally behaved during menses I had been taking time out when I had my period, and had been exploring what actually happened if, like them, I slowed down and became still while I was bleeding. But this was my private reality–I had never considered writing about it.
Those four pages were the seed for Her Blood Is Gold. I began to expand on my notes and fill out the bare bones from that initial burst of clarity. The inspiration was so strong that it propelled me through months, and then years, of research and writing. Progress was rather slow: it was my first book and it took me a while to figure out how to go about it. But I persisted and just kept writing: nothing knocked me off track, despite my uncertainty and ignorance about all aspects of the process of both creating and publishing a book. Sometimes it felt like many more women than just me were writing the book, and that the spirits that surrounded me at the lake were having their say.
I began telling people I was writing a book on menstruation. Many looked embarrassed, but some were appreciative and helpful. In those days, research still happened in libraries, and I spent some fruitful hours in the library at Harvard where my partner’s daughter was studying. Back in the Bay Area, contacts arose synchronistically, and the idea for a section on other women’s experiences developed. Somehow, I can’t remember how, I was put in touch with Tamara Slayton, and in the fall of 1990 spent an afternoon interviewing her at her home in Sebastopol. I met Hallie Iglehart Austen at a book signing in Corte Madera for her beautiful book Heart of the Goddess. We made an instant connection, and I went to her home at Point Reyes late in 1990 to interview her. Everything about these interviews, and subsequent ones I did with other people—the meeting, the journey there, the feeling tone of the day—happened in a great atmosphere of numinous grace. I knew that what I was doing was blessed and that somehow it would bear fruit.
I wrote to an acquaintance in England who worked in publishing to tell her about the book and to see if she would be interested in seeing the developing manuscript. She wrote back to say that coincidentally, her small, spiritually-oriented company had just been bought out by Rupert Murdoch’s burgeoning publishing empire at Harper Collins and that around the time she received my letter she had been told she was to come to the Bay Area to meet her colleagues at Harper San Francisco. So could she and her boyfriend come and visit me at Muir Beach while they were in the area? I could hardly believe an editor with great contacts was going to come right to my house. I expressed her the manuscript in progress so that she could see it before she came. She liked what she saw, thought HarperSF would be the best place for the book, and spoke about me and the book to them. I duly had a meeting with Barbara Moulton, an editor at HarperSF, in December 1990. Barbara was encouraging, but said that as it was my first book, they would have to see the whole manuscript first. So I carried on writing.
Earlier that year, Howard Rheingold, then editor of the Whole Earth Review, had sent me an email through the WELL, which I had recently joined. (The WELL, a pioneering online community and social network, was a friendly and welcoming place that nurtured writers and cutting edge thinkers.) The writer and composer Rabar Sender Barayon had seen something I had written there, (not on menstruation at all, but a piece on my family), and had tipped Howard off that I was a writer he should check out. On the hunt for new talent for the magazine, Howard wrote to ask what I was working on. I emailed him back, “I’m working on a book about menstruation. Shouldn’t think you’d be interested.”
“Oh, but I am”, he replied straight away. “Send me what you’ve got.” I had already extrapolated some of my material into an essay that I had sent to a couple of women-focused magazines, to no avail. It was called The Sabbath of Women. Howard loved the piece, immediately understood the common sense of my argument, and could see from it the depth of the conditioning that kept women from their own power and self-acceptance. He helped me hone the article into its best possible shape, and published it the following spring.
The article provoked more feedback that anything WER had published in years. Many people, men as well as women, wrote to me. I followed up on these contacts and some of those stories found their way into the book. One of the people who got in touch with me after the article was published was Wendy Alter, whose moving tale of her transformation from being a female astronaut who suppressed her menstrual cycle to becoming a staunch defender of its value is included at length in the book.
In the article’s customary little box about the author, it was mentioned that I was writing a book on the subject. I was now living in Portland, Oregon, (where I had gone to study process-oriented psychology with Arnold Mindell). One day I came back from attending a class to find a message on my answer machine. It was from Michael Pietsch. “Hi Lara, hope you don’t mind, Howard gave me your number. I’m an editor at Random House in New York. Loved your article and wanted to know if you had a publisher yet for your book. If not, I am very interested. Give me a call.”
As you probably know, getting a book published is not usually that easy. And in fact it turned out not to be quite so straightforward. Michael loved the whole concept and had faith in it without seeing the full manuscript, so I decided to go with him rather than following up on the vague promise of publication from HarperSF. We were just about to sign a deal when a woman vice-president saw the précis of the book and killed the deal, on the basis that saying anything positive about menstruation would set feminism back a hundred years. (Michael was so furious he quit Random House and went to Little, Brown, where he has flourished ever since, becoming one of the most influential people in American publishing.) But thanks to Michael, I now had a New York literary agent, and she sent the manuscript (now completed) to HarperSF. They gave it to a professional reader to assess and her comment was that they must publish the book and that it was very important.
By now, I also had a title. After putting in a series of fourteen-hour days to finish the book, I had just written the very last word when my boyfriend called me into the living room to see a documentary. As I walked into the room, the narrator said, “They say her blood is gold”… And I said, “That’s it! That’s the title of the book!” It was Alan Ereira’s documentary on the Kogi people of Columbia, who consider the gold in the earth’s crust to have been formed from the menstrual flow of the Great Mother. It was one of those moments in life when you know you are completely in the Tao. Luckily, Barbara, my editor, understood that titles are mysterious, liked its mystical and poetic flavor, and never tried to change it.
The wheels of publishing moved more slowly in those pre-digital days, and it was customary for a book to spend eighteen months on the journey between acceptance and publication. So it wasn’t until April 1993 that the book was released in the US. In the meantime, the UK rights were bought by Aquarian/Thorson’s, now owned by HarperCollins, and the book was published in the UK a couple of months after the US edition. So all came full circle.
I went to England to do some publicity and to visit my family, and after a couple of days my mother said, “I have never seen you so peaceful.” For several months I experienced a particular type of serenity that I think comes from having nurtured a piece of the collective unconscious mind, made it conscious, and then given it to the world. For some time, rather dramatically, I wondered if I might die, as I felt my life’s work had been done. Then I realized there was a lot more to do, but it was tricky to figure out the next step.
Publicizing the book was difficult: my publicist at Harper was helpful and understood the meaning of the book, but she was powerless against a media that, for the most part, could only respond to menstruation with ridicule or apathy. Remember that even as recently as 1993 the word menstruation was rarely spoken outside of a medical context and the term “the curse” was still in common usage. I did several horrendous radio interviews before I realized there was no point being laughed at by male talk show hosts in Cincinnati or Las Vegas. It was too easy for the interview to devolve into tampon comments and anti-woman “jokes”. The book did get some great reviews and mentions in major newspapers and magazines including Elle and The Chicago Times, but for the most part the media ignored it.
Heartwarmingly, I received many letters, forwarded to me by my publishers, from women all over the world, telling me how grateful they were for the book and how it had transformed their experience of womanhood, and these letters helped sustain my faith that the book was reaching its audience and doing its job. In the days before web sites, mass email, and Amazon reviews, getting that kind of feedback was a significant boost to morale.
I gave some lectures and workshops in the Portland area, and the following year moved to Los Angeles, where I began to develop a documentary on menstruation. I wanted to focus on how different cultures experienced menstruation and I interviewed women living in Japan, France, and England, and Orthodox Jews in LA who still visit the Mikvah near Pico and Robertson once a month to do their ritual cleansing. I visited the Navajo Nation, and was fortunate to be introduced through a contact to women who spoke with me in depth about the kinaalda, their beautiful menarche ceremony.
Despite being blessed with some early seed funding, this was in the days when independent filmmaking cost a lot more money than it can do today, and doing the rounds of television companies in the US and UK was incredibly frustrating. I worked in tv factual programming for several years, building up experience and contacts, but deal after deal fell through due to the fear of commissioning editors that the subject matter was too edgy. By 1998 I was running out of both steam and funds when I met independent filmmaker Roberta Cantow, who was just embarking on what would, ten years later, become her documentary series “Bloodtime, Moontime, Dreamtime”. So I decided to shift my contribution from making my own film to appearing in hers, and gave her a long interview that features in the Moontime part of the trilogy.
I carried on counseling individual women on their menstrual health and giving occasional talks when asked, but I didn’t feel it was right to focus exclusively on menstruation in my own work. I had to make a living and I had new ideas for books, and I could see that other women were coming into the field and beginning to create wonderful workshops and teach at the grassroots level. Meanwhile I would bide my time, stop trying to push the river, and wait for the collective to want more from me on the subject.
The book was sent in and out of print, as books often are. Each time, there were gaps when new copies weren’t available, but, unusually in the publishing business, a new publisher duly appeared, again in an atmosphere of synchronicity and blessing. Each time, the book was published through following the natural thread of my life rather than through direct assertion (and I learned much about how things happen for me by wasting energy trying to get it into print between times).
The second edition was published by The Crossing Press after the publisher met me at a dinner party in Santa Cruz, arranged by a friend for that purpose. I added a new section on natural remedies for menstrual symptoms and also included some of the research I had done for the documentary. Unfortunately the book was renamed Honoring Menstruation by a publicist who insisted that for the newfangled Amazon searches a book must have the main theme in the title (not anticipating the increasing sophistication of searches and ignoring the goodwill and known factor of the existing name). Happily, the original title was restored by the third publisher, Archive Publishing. That deal was struck after I met the publisher, Ian Thorp, on a group walk through a region of mystical sites in England organized by some mutual friends.
There were other helpful encounters. Dr. Christiane Northrup was a friend of some friends of mine at Findhorn, and just becoming widely known as an advocate for women’s health. In 1995, I sent her a copy of the book. She loved it, and phoned to say she was on her way to LA to give a lecture and would I like to have tea with her beforehand. I met her at her hotel room and we had a wonderfully vibrant and enthusiastic meeting. She became a great supporter and wrote the foreword for the subsequent editions of the book.
When Her Blood Is Gold first came out I had thought it was five to ten years ahead of its time, in terms of mainstream acceptance of the concept that menstrual attitudes are reflected in women’s self-acceptance and self-actualization, and that lifestyle choices around menstruation have significant impact on physical and mental health. I should have known I was being characteristically optimistic, because it has been more like twenty, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done.
Fast forward to 2012. Thanks to the pioneering and courageous work of many women, the menstrual landscape shows signs of significant development. We now have the Red Tent movement growing in several countries, a beautiful initiative inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel of the same name, erecting Red Tents at festivals and gatherings for menstruating women to seek quiet, seclusion, and community. Several moving documentaries have been produced in recent years highlighting the power of menstruation, and some wonderful books have been published on this theme. Since 2000 The Red Web Foundation, based in Northern California, has been gathering momentum, and is now advising the US government on menstrual education.
And I find myself with renewed vigor and sense of purpose for moving the field forward. I still counsel individual women and teach on menstruation, and nowadays, having gone through the initiation of menopause myself, I teach workshops on navigating this deep and often complex passage.
I remain very proud of Her Blood Is Gold and its contribution to our collective pot of wisdom, rather in the way one would admire and cherish a much-beloved child who makes her way in the world with integrity. To extend the metaphor, this child is now 20 years old, and becoming an adult who can have a real impact as a part of the work of hundreds (fast becoming thousands) of women to show how living the menstrual cycle with awareness harmonizes body and soul and brings women to true strength. May this timing symbolize the potent expansion of our united efforts to enlighten the world about the beauty and power of the act of menstruation–the sacred blood that brings wisdom, creativity and new life.
Blessings to all.
August 22 2012
PS: I wrote the first half of this piece in a hotel room in Bellac, a small town in France, in the very early morning. An hour after dawn, I went outside to walk my dog, and in the blue sky ahead of me were five dancing clouds that reminded me of dakinis. In the midst of them, a hazy cloud formed before my eyes, and within it emerged one of those mysterious vertical rainbows that seem to come at charged moments. A blessing for this work, indeed.
PPS: Her Blood Is Gold now has its own Facebook page where readers are welcome to post links and updates about menstrual awareness and teachings. Do join!
by Lara Owen, all rights reserved, first published 2012
Lara Owen writes and researches on menstruation, work, and feminism. She teaches and consults internationally.