Raging Hormones



PALM BEACH, FLORIDA — Palm Beach, Florida. - Back when I was at the threshold of womanhood, menstruation was one thing you didn't talk about much, simply because that's the way things were. But if you were bold enough, and hip enough, and grown-up enough, you confided it to your best friend -- in a hoarse whisper, through pursed lips, with eyes rolled skyward. And then you were ironic about it: You called it ''my friend.''

''Kotex'' could elicit embarrassed giggles from girls already prone to hilarity. That word alone was taboo in some circles. A sixth-grade boy at my Catholic elementary school was expelled for writing it on a ledge in the school garden. It was the highlight of the school year.

No, menstruation wasn't a commonplace topic. It was rarely mentioned over sodas in pizza parlors, except to complain of insufferable cramps. It was hardly discussed in school, except perhaps in biology class or sex-ed or physical education when a girl was excused from dressing out. And it certainly wasn't the subject du jour on talk shows or the soaps. The mystery of menstruation was matched only by the mystique of the opposite sex.

No more. Menstruation -- or, to be more precise, what comes before -- has now entered the hallowed (and Ripleyesque) halls of justice and left its indelible, if dubious, mark. Last week, a Virginia woman was found not guilty of drunken driving after arguing it was premenstrual syndrome, not drunkenness, that caused her erratic behavior.

I don't know what my reaction should be -- a sigh of relief or a snicker of disbelief. Maybe a bit of both, though I truly wish it were more of the former and much less of the latter.

For those of us who grew up before the perky commercials on sanitary napkins made it to national TV, such a defense is as exasperating as the oft-heard excuse we hear from our children, who are so adept at shrugging shoulders and mouthing, ''I dunno.''

The prosecuting attorney in the Virginia case -- a woman -- called the PMS argument ''ridiculous,'' explaining that the defendant's behavior at the scene and at the jail was consistent with intoxication. The defendant's alcohol breath test came in above Virginia's legal limit.

The attorney didn't mince words: ''I think it defies common sense. We would all like to blame PMS. The men in the world I'm sure are just shaking their heads at this one.''

Now, I know a lot of men who shake their heads when the women in their lives fall off the edge once a month. I also know a lot of women who, in throes of doubling pain and despair, claim justice will never be served until men bleed and bear children. They believe empathy requires more than vicarious understanding; it demands first-hand knowledge.

But what if it's true? What if the fatigue, depression and irritability from an impending menstrual period caused the woman to drive her BMW smack-dab in the middle of the road? What if cramps and crankiness -- the soul mates of menstruation -- prompted the woman to curse, to try to kick the officer in the groin, to drop-kick the Breathalyzer table and to fight off leg restraints? What if she sipped four glasses of wine at a Thanksgiving party for the very same reason my mother used to pour a healthy dose of rum in the hot toddies she gave her daughters for cramps? What if the judge who accepted the PMS defense -- a man -- had been victimized by the monthly fury of tears and martyrdom for too many years?

Experts say PMS afflicts 5 to 7 percent of women seriously enough to affect their work and lifestyle. But certainly a much greater percentage suffers sporadically from the symptom. Almost every girl old enough to drive is old enough to recount a moody week in a particularly trying month.

Some questions, therefore, remain: Is biology destiny? Are we women doomed to define our roles and behavior by raging hormones? Is monthly crabbiness one step from illegal actions?

I dunno. Unfortunately, some men will surely shake their heads at us now and say, ''I told you so.''

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

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