In 1967, the same year as the previously discussed Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was published and eventually climbed to Number Seven on the Best Seller list for that year. It then went on to become a successful feature film in 1968 directed by Roman Polanski and featuring John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow, and Ruth Gordon who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Reading the book today through the lens of an SMCR perspective it is surprising to note how references to the menstrual cycle play an important role, and not simply because it is about getting pregnant and suspending ovulation for a while.
As in Diary of a Mad Housewife, the use of the negative menstrual euphemism, “the curse,” dominates the narrative. But in this case it takes on extra layers of meaning. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the term with its association to the notion that menstrual and childbirth discomforts are God’s punishment for Eve’s bad behavior in Eden. The fact that the story is about Rosemary becoming Satan’s clueless handmaiden destined to conceive and bear his son, is a parody of the Christian story, including having the birth of the son of Satan take place on June 25, the opposite time of Christ’s birth.
The first indication, though it does not become clear until later, of a connection between menstruation and Satanic presence is embedded in a scene concerning the suicide of Theresa, the young homeless woman who the Devil’s disciples, Roman and Minnie Castevet, had taken in with the intention of making her the Devil’s breeder. She had jumped from a high floor to her death and by way of speculating as to the reason, Roman Castevet tells the police, “I knew this would happen . . . She got deeply depressed every three weeks or so.” It later becomes clear that she killed herself to escape the fate they had planned for her.
As the story proceeds, Rosemary’s monitoring of her cycle becomes an ongoing plot element. She deeply wants to become pregnant and dislikes contraceptives, in part a result of her Catholic upbringing, but also because “the pills gave her headaches” and “rubber gadgets were repulsive.” As a result Guy, her husband, “studied the calendar and avoided the ‘dangerous days.’” However, she sometimes manages to have sex with him, contrary to his wishes, on days of likely ovulation and is “disappointed and forlorn” when her period arrives.
Eventually, when the time is right, the members of the next door coven, which has by now recruited Guy into their cell by the evil manipulation of his acting career into successful roles (another actor who got a part Guy was up for is struck blind), arrange to drug her and perform a ritual in which she is impregnated by the Devil. Shortly, Guy, who witnessed the coupling and claims to be responsible for the scratches and pain she incurred from the Devil’s claws, notes that her period is late, a result of the carefully planned Satanic rape.
From then on the story concentrates on Rosemary’s painful pregnancy, the birth, her discovery of the nature of her child – his yellow eyes and sharp claws – and acceptance of her role as mother of a demon baby as maternal instincts kick in and replace her original repulsion.
The final effect is a nuanced recapitulation of an ancient set of fears and deep seated misogyny, that women are the agents of the Devil, that they are the source of evil in the world, and that menstrual pain is inextricably linked to their complicity with Satan’s wishes.
More striking though is the remarkable parallel between the two husbands in these novels which were published the same year and which both went to become Hollywood hits soon after. Possessed by narcissism and ambition, both men treat their wives as means of advancing their careers while the menstrual cycle becomes a trope to represent weakness and vulnerability.