The Sad and Serious Story of Janet

Image © Maebh Murphy 2015


by Viola Nordsieck November 18, 2015

When Janet was thirteen years old, she found out about perspectives.

Like most children, Janet could not imagine being anything but a child. She regarded being a child as the normal state of humanity. But she had not realized yet that, although most of the human population are indeed children, the normal state of humanity is something else altogether which would remain to be taught to her. At the age of thirteen she had already learned that she was too young for nearly everything. But for something else she was now supposed to be too old, namely to enter a phase of life when you regularly go through mean red cramps that begin in the upper legs and move up into the stomach, only to perform an especially brutal swish through the lower back and then start a seemingly uncontrollable flow of bleeding which may feel like a minor to major accident but needs to be worked into a functioning routine of daily life without slowing said routine down.

The majority of Janet’s age group had now entered into this phase of life, and Janet’s mother, aunts and neighbours did not lose any more time in making clear to her that she was being late. They did this by screening her constantly, taking up every sign of an unusual or even a usual mood, of an unusual or even a usual bodily reaction, but most of all any wincing of stomach or twitching of face. Then they would exchange knowing looks, nodding and smiling, but never saying anything because urgent as the change obviously was, it must never be spoken of. Instead they told Janet almost daily to lie on her stomach across a chair until the pain receded, or else offered her a hot water bottle.

It was to be expected, maybe, that Janet would never mention real stomach pains. The acute appendicitis was only noticed when she was found near midnight vomiting into the washbasin.

Some things concerning so-called puberty might have been explained through situations like these, Janet, sadly, failed to think while she was busy screaming, throwing things, being offended and storming out of rooms into hiding.

“Menarche” was the term used by the doctor Janet was brought to, some chair-lying rituals later, to have the bones of her hand measured. This is a rather strange procedure which the objective tradition of enlightenment, science and progress subjects underage girls to if their inner clocks seem to go slow. Because if menarche – which is pseudo intellectual geek greek for “first period” – fails to come, the bones of the hand are said to give information on the young female’s further development of growth. The doctor threw an image to the wall with a beamer. “Have a close look,” he told Janet and explained how the divisions between her bones would close, the blood would flow and the machine would start working. Janet had a close look and tried not to worry more than was absolutely necessary.

When Janet was nineteen years old, she found out that it is rather convenient sometimes, while having a close look at representative images, to keep a wide perspective on the whole. She had become accustomed to her external view and her proportions, both of which the rest of the world seemed to respond to in an agreeable way. In that perspective, she was ideally placed to ignore most of her inner processes which she could always keep organized by a set of strategies. The screening process had been taken over by Janet herself who had understood that she needed watching. Apart from a secret aversion to white or light grey living room furniture, snoopy dogs, ludicrous advertisements in yellow, fluffy white and lime green without the slightest traces of red, but abundant in butterflies, sharks, and festival grounds without any real sanitary conveniences, daily life held no particular unpleasantness. If there were no tampons left flying around in her various bags, her friends would have some. They experimented with medication and alcohol, mostly for the fun of it, having not much experience yet with real menstrual pain. The one friend who was getting cysts each month was pitied and visited by everybody. But most girls were secretly convinced that she must be doing something wrong. Girls who drank too much were doing something wrong; girls who couldn’t count were doing something wrong; girls who overreacted were doing something wrong; therefore it stood to reason that girls who broke down with a temperature each month might have done something wrong as well. All of them had failed to put things into perspective. This was not discussed. The knowing looks those girls shared were a lot more knowing than any mother or aunt would ever be able to make them. They felt young and knowing, which is a lot more fun than old and knowing. They felt, for the most part, on top of things, beginning to have a view.

When Janet was twenty-three years old, she found herself in a doctor’s office in a little known part of a big city where her gynaecologist had sent her. This time she felt neither old nor young, but rather like she had fallen out of time. Although supervised with a calendar and controlled by hormonal doses, her inner processes had begun an independent development and now Janet was sitting on a different sort of chair and wondering about not having thought enough, not having counted enough, not having wanted enough, not having decided enough, not having worried enough after all, and on the ridiculousness of the situation which seemed to her to almost rival its discomfort. The one thing clear to her was that she had done not only something, but basically everything wrong and then she hadn’t even noticed right away because she obviously – she told herself before the doctor could do so, feeling, not quite, but nearly, like a five-year-old – couldn’t count.

From the waiting room came hysterical crying and Janet felt proud that she, at least, stayed calm, almost as she had over her appendicitis. The doctor gave a sigh that was more sad than strict. “This is really the last moment, you understand,” he said. “You’re late.” Janet felt that she was being told this rather often. “You had better not look too closely,” he said and turned the ultrasonic screen against the wall. Janet closed her eyes and tried not to worry more than was absolutely necessary.

Two days later she woke up for a moment on yet another kind of chair and got a slight impression of what birthing pains might be like. Luckily two female voices that were talking about her through many inches of wool and with heavy accents noticed straightaway and gave her more drugs. One of the voices looked in on her later. It belonged to a kindly, wrinkly elderly lady with an Eastern European accent who shuffled around in a white coat, whose hair was dyed blonde and whose eyes were friendly. She patted Janet’s head like a child’s. “Me too,” the voice said quietly. “Three times.” Then the lady brought Janet a drink of water and shuffled away.

Janet went back to her book. She was waiting to be allowed to go and, at this point, more annoyed than anything by this whole boring disturbance. She was reading Hemingway. One of her flatmates was studying American Literature and had pointed her towards the master of the short story. Janet was leafing through Fiesta and wondering would her short spell of unconsciousness make her learn to count, and also wondering whether the women in Hemingway’s novels had a period. If Brett Ashley was built like a racing yacht, did she ever leak? Would she leave long shiny traces of oil across the seas of the world? Would she pay old Spanish women clad in black to remove any disturbance within her ship’s belly? Could Brett Ashley, with all the martinis which Hemingway mercilessly poured into her, possibly count? Shortly before Janet left the surgery in the little known part of the big city, she came to the conclusion that women in literature usually did not count. They moved about like ships and below the waterline they seemed to have nothing but a kind of valve, allowing many things to enter, for example a hell of a lot of martinis, but never letting anything escape. Except, of course, some discreetly described nine month tragedies which would usually make them leave the main plot altogether, or else come to a violent end. Janet was rather glad not to be studying Literature and furthermore changed the brand of her pill.

When Janet was thirty-four years old, she found out how to feel herself ovulating. These days she sure did not feel too young for anything any more, but she did not feel quite old yet. Many of her friends had had a child by now and were wearing contraceptive coils, or else they had several children, having read in books on alternative midwifery that women do not conceive while they breast-feed. Janet liked to go visit them all, and she was just as happy or even happier going home again and congratulating herself on free possession of her own arms, legs, hearing and time. Being able to feel herself ovulating made her also feel good, really motherly and earthlike, without children but closely connected to the eternal female. At the same time she could snicker a little when misguided people rambled about myths like menstruating women being allegedly unable to whip cream, or to keep the dishwater foamy. Hormones! Who knows what those mysterious demons of modernity are supposed to do, those instruments for the explanation of anything or nothing.

When Janet was thirty-seven years old, she found herself hit fully by an onslaught of hormones and decided she wanted to become pregnant at all costs. You’re late, she was told, once more. Janet knew that she had heard this one before. But she was happy and, for a change, she knew quite well what she was about. She had worried, thought, counted, wanted and finally decided. She did not care that people thought she was being cliché. A certain experience of life had settled on Janet by now and helped her recognize that as a woman, you are quite often being thought to be something which does not necessarily correspond with your own perception at all. You are being put into perspective by sitting you on a chair next to a beautiful vase of roses, or a screen image of your own hand. You are written into stories, calendars and metaphors, preferably metaphors of food and transportation. If one listened to all that and believed oneself to be a rose, a cocoa bean or a racing yacht, if one kept to one’s chair looking ashamedly at the floor like a five-year-old who cannot count, one would never get anything done, Janet reasoned and became pregnant.

For about three months she had the most curious feeling. She felt as if her interior, usually at the same time screened and ignored, was dissolving altogether into a tiny small wonderful warm ball of insideness. Janet carried her tiny ball of wonder around, smiling contentedly, having no PMT, no morning sickness even, being happy and serene and saying things like “Anything resolves itself in time” or “Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time.”

Then she woke at five in the morning and felt she was being crucified on some awful archaic appliance. The demons of modernity were playing torture-chamber in her belly. Janet got up from the sea of blood that was her bed and went to hospital. In the cab she texted a few people. This time she had no books with her and there were no images left, either. “Just close your eyes,” a friendly voice said from somewhere. So she did.

When Janet was forty-two years old, one of her aunts had her uterus removed. They had found some knots and found them benign, but they wanted to make sure they could not spread. Janet and her aunt had come rather a long way since the knowing looks, the chairs and the hot-water bottles, and when Janet went to see her she felt they were actually speaking for the first time, about something that was no longer there. “Well it gives more bother than it’s worth, that’s my opinion,” Janet’s aunt said and gave a grin that was lop-sided and half devoid of teeth, but not in the least knowing. Janet gave her a hug in return. When she went home, she thought about feeling old and decided it might not be too terrible after all. It seemed to feel rather like being at the right place at the right time, or else feeling your inside instead of watching it. Even if it is only from a lack of perspective.




Viola Nordsieck lives in Berlin and writes mostly about art at and about philosophy. She holds a PhD from Humboldt University Berlin for her book Formen der Wirklichkeit und der Erfahrung (Karl Alber Verlag 2015). She spends a lot of time raising twins and also some time co-hosting “Poetry Island”, Kreuzberg’s (almost) only “Lesebühne”. As Alissa Wyrdguth, she blogs at trying to explain how some things go wrong, and sometimes, even to guess why.


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