Chloe Caldwell is an essayist known for her bold personal essays, resonant pieces about love, longing, addiction, and attempting to find meaning in mundanity. Heidi Julavits once wrote, in a review of Caldwell’s 2016 collection I’ll Tell You in Person, “Chloe Caldwell has written the ideal ‘female companion book’ – meaning, while reading I’ll Tell You in Person, I felt like I had a female companion with me at all times.” Her inviting and unpretentious prose imbues a strong sense of warmth into all of her work, allowing the essays to read like an assortment of polished diary entries.
I bought a copy of The Red Zone, Caldwell’s latest offering, at my local bookstore the morning after I had just gone through a massive heartbreak. Strangely, I had actually felt the end of the relationship arrive before it actually did. The idea of the “body keeping the score” (I’ve never read that book) was always something that I rolled my eyes at, before realizing that it’s actually very real. Prior to the relationship’s end, my body felt anxious and shaky at all times. No amount of food or affirmations could calm it down. Before the person came over to my apartment to end things, I felt unreasonably nervous, even though I thought I hadn’t been anticipating what was about to happen. After the heartbreak, the book I had been reading when it occurred suddenly became too miserable, too existential, too confusing. My fragile brain couldn’t compute any of it. Perusing the shelves at the bookstore, I remembered that Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You in Person had helped me during another period of tumult during the summer of 2021, and decided to check out The Red Zone.
Starting The Red Zone with “Fluffiness,” the first essay in the book, I thought about how much more mature this book seemed compared to her previous work. It makes sense, Caldwell’s earlier books were released during the personal essay boom, a time when shows centering on the foibles of millennial New Yorkers, like Girls and Broad City, had won the hearts of many (Caldwell actually has an excellent essay about Lena Dunham in I’ll Tell You in Person, entitled “Hungry Ghost”). The Red Zone arrives at a time when personal essay masters like Caldwell are being asked to reevaluate what an essay should look like, and what it should do. Caldwell is also older than she was when she released her previous books; while writing The Red Zone, she got married and is helping to raise her stepchild. Now that she’s no longer scrambling to find lasting love and stability like she was in the 2000s and early 2010s, Caldwell is entering a new phase of personal essay writing. In The Red Zone, she has decided to examine something that has been with her since youth; something that interferes with her moods, her relationships, and her career in ways that are distracting at best, explosive at worst: her period.
Consistent romantic failure can turn someone into a relationship fatalist, something that Chloe Caldwell knows quite well. In “Fluffiness,” Caldwell writes about being in her late 20s, surrounded by women who are happily partnered and considering having children, though these were the same women who once felt lonely alongside her. She feels left behind. “I kept talking about my friends’ coupling up as though it were a disease. I skipped over the parts of people’s essays where they wrote about their partners. Boring, boring, boring. Unrelatable.” Caldwell writes, swiping through lackluster profiles on Tinder and going on dates with said lackluster people, before wondering if she should finally just give up on finding love. When a friend says to her, “I just want you to know…you deserve someone who wants to sleep with you and make you eggs in the morning.” Caldwell is appreciative, but also “positive it would never happen to me. I was loose in the world for so long.” Then she meets Tony, a kind musician with a young daughter. They go on a date, and it’s successful. Then they go on another date, and it’s even more successful. Caldwell is immediately skeptical. One night in bed, Caldwell says to Tony, “I wonder how this is going to end.” To which he replies, “Why does it have to end?” In this essay, like many of the others, Caldwell clearly conveys what her skepticism is rooted in: past romantic failures, trust issues, and, as she soon finds out, her PMDD.
Caldwell describes experiencing PMDD, which stands for Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, as being in “the red zone.” “In the red zone,” she writes, “my heart beats faster. Emotions are on speed. Whatever is in my line of vision, I have a millisecond fantasy of throwing or smashing it, and am lucky when I don’t follow through. My breath is short and full of fire. I turn into a person I recognize as other.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a more official definition of Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, describing it as “a health problem that is similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) but is more serious…[PMDD] causes severe irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week or two before your period starts.” PMDD controls Caldwell’s body and takes hold of her moods. It overwhelms her, sometimes to the point of passing out. When she attends a reading in Brooklyn with some friends, a couple of weeks after starting Zoloft in an attempt to curb her mood swings brought on by PMDD, she immediately becomes nauseated and eventually faints. The red zone is an unpredictable beast she can’t control, no matter how hard she tries. One day she’s fine, but then her life will start to feel like it’s about to implode; she wants to set fire to her relationships, burn everything down until it stops making her anxious.
The weekend after I finished The Red Zone, I went with some friends to see Wet and Alvvays, two bands I like. When I got to the show, however, every little thing started to remind me of the person who had broken my heart. I instantly felt queasy and began chugging several club sodas, hoping that the bubbles would calm my stomach down. It also didn’t help that I had recently suffered a return to my poor eating habits (peanut butter toast for every meal), and had been forgetting to take my SSRIs. The lights, the crowd of people, the fact that I knew I should be having fun, all of it was making me feel sick. When I got home, I barely slept, and instead vomited throughout the night, expelling everything that made me feel terrible. The whole next day, I walked around like a shell of a person, unable to keep food down. Though I don’t possess a period-having body, I related to Chloe Caldwell on the fraught meeting of the mind and body, how anxiety can’t just stay in the brain.
Amidst all the anxiety that permeates The Red Zone, Chloe Caldwell gives herself a lot of space in this book, lots of room to process what she’s writing. The font is easy to read, and brief interludes separate the more emotional sections, featuring comments from PMDD support groups on Reddit and lists of things that helped and didn’t help (things that helped: “Jenny Hval’s albums Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl,” “Sliced turkey,” “10mg of Prozac”). Her writing is fragmented and repetitive, but in a way that naturally serves her narrative. Reading The Red Zone feels like a conversation, especially in a section entitled “The Linen Closet” wherein Caldwell interviews her “extended family” made up of her “aunts, cousins, students, [and] friends of friends,” and asks them about their personal period stories. Caldwell preserves the voice of each person she interviews, leaving in instances of text-speak like “LMAO” and “OMG,” making the accounts feel more real, like guest features in Caldwell’s narrative that enhance the text even more, far more than if she had just paraphrased their stories.
Part of what also makes Caldwell’s work feel like a conversation is her knack for bringing in what she was reading, listening to, and watching while entrenched in the experiences she writes about. Music seems to play a big part in Caldwell’s story (from I’ll Tell You in Person: “I walked around with headphones in my ears and, depending on whether my mood was optimistic or pessimistic, I’d sing along with Lana Del Rey, I want money, power, and glory, or It’s not about the money, money, money, wanna make the world dance, forget about your price tag by Jessie J). In each of Caldwell’s books, we get a sense of the fellow artists who offered her support and inspiration. While writing her experiences in The Red Zone, she found hope in Jenny Hval’s music (“Blood Bitch” is an album that also deftly and creatively handles the topic of periods) and in books like Motherhood by Sheila Heti. While revisiting both The Red Zone and I’ll Tell You in Person, I thought about the artists and authors that have helped to soundtrack my own heartbreaks, artists like the aforementioned Wet, as well as Erika de Casier and Lana Del Rey. Like Caldwell, the work of Hval and Heti also grounded me, which made me feel an even greater connection with her during the essays wherein she mentioned being a fan of their work. Caldwell allows us to have an even more intimate look at her process through her decision to share with readers the artists that inspired her.
A sort of unapologetic rage is found in many of the stories in The Red Zone, rage directed at her circumstances and the ways in which PMDD is attempting to destroy her life and newfound stability, something that she worked so hard to obtain. This rage, instead of being a source of shame, is celebrated throughout the book. Some sections feel like a conversation with a friend, others feel like a cathartic scream. This was perhaps the most authentically raw book I’ve read since Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock or Megan Boyle’s Liveblog, leading me to believe that more authors should publish work that feels like their unedited diaries. Though Caldwell has always known how to write a juicy personal essay, I found this book to be her most interesting. Her words felt as though they were coming directly from her heart, they didn’t seem to pass through anyone else’s judgment before making their way onto the page.
In The Red Zone, Chloe Caldwell asks us to examine the rage and distrust we feel in romantic relationships (and in general), but she doesn’t ask us to police ourselves. She also reminds us that, while it’s ok to be upset, there are people and communities who want to love us, and want to see us thrive. The ways in which The Red Zone blooms open to the outside world are beautiful to witness as the pages turn. During a time when I felt so alone, reading The Red Zone made me feel like I had become privy to a larger discussion, or even a celebration.
Finishing The Red Zone and thinking about it in the weeks after my heartbreak, I’ve found myself referencing it directly and indirectly in all the writing I’ve done since. The Red Zone, like Caldwell’s other work, continues to remind us that rage should not be contained, it matters and should be written about. During a time when many are examining how the body and mind connect during our worst mental breakdowns and arguments with others, The Red Zone is essential reading.
The Red Zone
by Chloe Caldwell
Soft Skull Press; 320 p.