May 25, 2010
By Jesse Bering
On a crowded mid-afternoon train from Oxford to Manchester several weeks ago, I found myself seated beside a smiling, elderly woman and—as such things go—we soon fell into conversation. Now, it’s easy for one to forget in such situations that one is in fact speaking to an animal; little old ladies are notoriously crafty at creating the illusion that you are conversing with something other than an anomalous kind of ape. But as luck would have it, I had been left immune that day against such deceptions owing to a peculiar conversation with an anthropologist colleague at Oxford, a conversation that left me in a state of mind in which even grandmotherly charms couldn’t keep me from noticing the spirited old ape before me. The hour-and-a-half journey to Manchester saw us meandering through stories of her childhood in Ireland, her many travels, a fruitless marriage to a now-dead husband whom she never really loved, her cats, her wayward niece … but throughout all this my mind kept returning to the one unutterable, burning question that I’d first boarded with at the Oxford train station: what did this old woman remember about having her first period?
My curiosity was inspired by the peculiar conversation mentioned before. That morning, my anthropologist colleague had called my attention to a fascinating study—a study now long in the tooth in its own right—published by University of New Hampshire psychologist David Pillemer and his colleagues in a 1987 issue of the Journal of Adolescence . Pillemer, best known for his work in the area of “flashbulb memories” (especially vivid memories of surprising, emotionally intense events that people can recall in extraordinary detail and with great confidence, although the accuracy of these recollections is often questionable), discovered that adult women who were uninformed as girls about the bloody practicalities of getting their first period had much more vivid, detailed memories of the event than those who had known what to expect. The women who’d been unprepared as girls could tell you exactly what they were doing when it happened, what they were wearing, who was in the room, and so on, whereas the women who’d been prepared in advance as girls could hardly recall a thing about their first period.