A couple of years ago a friend dismissed me with words I'd never have imagined could sting so deep. Her voice, distantly glacial, informed me, "You're just like all the rest."
My response was immediate, born of startled disbelief and a welling panic. "No I'm not. I am not!" I swore I would prove I was different from the others, even if I wasn't sure just what that meant. Yet I knew intuitively however wrong it must be, she'd made up her mind. There would be no dispensation.
Yesterday it came to me while reading Give Me Your Hand: In certain primal, irredeemable ways beyond my capacity to mitigate or alter, I am like my brothers. Sadly, I see now with a clearer eye how justly we deserve the consequences of our behavior toward our sisters under any conceit to the contrary. I owe this long overdue insight to Megan Abbott’s piercing, unnerving new novel, which spotlights one of the darker pockets of la difference. Jarring my Paleo impulses with a 21st-century sensibility, Give Me Your Hand does bring hope a greater understanding of ourselves may at least temper the vive at both poles of its spectrum.
And wouldn’t you know, to this end science is probing in a field so alien to me its density added significant weight to an academic catastrophe decades ago from which I’ve never fully recovered: chemistry. In this instance more specifically, biochemistry. The novel’s landscape of academic treachery and dangerous laboratories provides an ironic backdrop for Abbott’s masterfully dark tale of Kit and Diane, two brilliant young women vying for a shot at a highly coveted job researching the causes of premenstrual rage that drives some of their gender to self-mutilation, suicide, and murder.
Kit and Diane have sort of known each other since high school, running track, sharing secrets, competing scholastically—the smartest of their peers. Yet there’s something missing, or rather something present, that keeps them emotionally at odds. The specific “thing” that’s to blame is kept from us awhile, fairly obvious tho it is, but by confirming our guess early on, Abbott hooks us and reels our curiosity into deeper, uncharted waters. The expression suspense is killing me takes on pulse-quickening authenticity as her narrative sprints toward its climax.
Give Me Your Hand reads like a diary, and the intimacy of Kit's thoughts is as discomfiting as it fascinates. The sensation’s eerily akin to trespassing on someone’s privacy. Things we shouldn’t know. About them, about us. The “us” here is my gender, and we don’t come off looking so good. A cast of recognizable caricatures for the context, drawn with an embarrassing, Shakespearean accuracy. This motley crew of pricks, slicks, oddballs, and rogues comprises an appropriately nonsupporting cast that provides ballast for the novel’s essential theme, that the historical figurative screwing of women continues unabated. What gives the job that’s enticing Kit and Diane such precious cachet is the traditional dearth of interest in the scientific community for so vital a female mystery.
“Everyone will ask you why you chose to study PMDD,” Dr. Lena Severin says in a pitch for the research team she’s assembling. “And you will tell them how underfunded research into women’s conditions is. You will tell them there are five times as many studies on erectile dysfunction as on PMS and that you’re happy to play a role in changing that.” Here’s Kit explaining PMDD to us ignoramuses, who so dearly need to know:
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, that’s the subject of the study. A set of symptoms with no agreed-upon cause. Some kind of catastrophic monthly dance between hormones and the feeling and thinking parts of the brain. Striking every month, it’s like PMS only much, much worse. Debilitating mood swings, uncontrollable rage. Abnormal signaling among cells, that’s what scientists only recently discovered. An intrinsic difference in the way these women respond to sex hormones. After decades of doubt about whether it even existed, now science has proven PMDD is not only real, it’s part of the genetic makeup. The women can’t help it, are slaves to it…
At its worst, it’s led women to self-destructive acts. Or destructive ones. In the lab, we’ve all heard the horror stories: Women in its grip hitting their boyfriends over the head with frying pans, rear-ending their children’s teachers’ cars in the school parking lot. Road rage, baby shaking, worse.
“Behind their hands, behind their smirks, some of the postdocs call it Hatchet PMS. Medusa Menses,” she tells us of her lab mates. “They’re all men except me, and they can’t even talk about it without twisting their mouths or ducking their heads or making Carrie or Lizzie Borden jokes.”
Abbott describes in an NPR interview how she became interested in PMDD as a topic to explore in a novel. A deep, fearsome mystery science has merely scratched the surface of understanding. Educated fiction is a good place to start for the rest of us. At least it can give us a hand in stepping away from ignorance. We need more of that every day. I now know my friend was right. I was like all the rest. Still am, to some degree, though I’m not quite as dumb as then.