I’d never heard of pheromones when I was ten. All I knew was that each month the large wicker basket in the bathroom on the middle floor of our chalet filled with softball sized, tightly-wound wads of toilet paper. These tissue bundles were evidence that—in biblical terms—the time of Our Girls’ Monthly Uncleanness was once again upon them.
Let me explain why I’ve capitalized those words. My late father, Francis Schaeffer, was a key founder of the Religious Right. My mother, Edith, was herself a spiritual leader—not merely the power behind her man, though she was also that. My parents raised me in L’Abri Fellowship, a sort of fundamentalist hippie commune before there were hippies, really not much more than a big old Swiss chalet where we lived, along with everyone who visited for “spiritual help” and/or to “find Jesus.” Mom divided everything into Very Important Things—say, Jesus, Virginity, Japanese Flower Arrangements, Lust, See-through Black Lingerie (to be enjoyed only after marriage), Our Girls’ Monthly Uncleanness—and everything else—those things that barely registered on my mother’s to-do list, like home-schooling me. So I’ll be capitalizing some words oddly in here. I’m not doing this as a theological statement so much as as a nervous tic, a leftover from my Edith Schaeffer-shaped childhood and also to signal what Loomed Large to my mother and what still Looms Large to me.
This was back in the days when a sanitary napkin was a fluffy and formidable thing, about the size and shape of a canoe. I knew God didn’t like the Menstrual Mummies because I’d heard Mom read from Leviticus 15 in a Bible study:
When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening.
So I never touched the Menstrual Mummies—except once. I unwrapped the tissue-tethered Unclean Thing and took a smear of blood from it to study with a small microscope that a kindly L’Abri student had given me. I wanted to see the egg that Mom said was “washed out each month unless it gets fertilized by the marvelous seed.” I didn’t see an egg, but I did observe several doughnut-shaped red blood cells after I dabbed a little blood on a glass slide and stained it, as per the student’s instructions.
About forty years after investigating the Menstrual Mummies in the wastepaper basket, I read an article in the New York Times science section about how humans’ sense of smell triggers physical responses. The article cited as an example the fact that women who live together—for instance, in college dorms, convents, and girls’ boarding schools—tend to menstruate at the same time. I don’t know if this theory of menstrual synchrony will stand up to the rigors of scientific inquiry, but I do know that our middle-floor chalet bathroom wastepaper basket seemed to fill and empty like some sort of metronome, keeping time with a cosmic rhythm as sure as the tides. Maybe Mom and my sisters reset the hormone “clock” of the women who stayed with us, from the helpers—cheerful, though virtual slave laborers working in return for room, board, and spiritual help for years at a time—to the students—who might stay for six to ten months or so.
These nubile, yet torturously unavailable young women filled our chalet with their pheromone-perfumed presence. And, as I learned from Mom’s Bible study on Leviticus, they were monstrously defiled as they plunged into their monthly menstrual freshet. I imagined that God was right there with me, in our middle-floor bathroom, brooding over the evidence of His Big Mistake: women.