thankyou Carl Djerassi

3 Mar

THANK YOU CARL DJERASSI  a personal memoir by aline waites

‘This is my son, Jacob’ said the Jewish lady.          He was visiting from Israel and she had brought him into the office to introduce us.

‘Hello Jacob’ I smiled and held out my hand.

The young man gave a start and took a step backwards, putting both hands behind him. On his face was a look of disgust.

I stood for a moment with my rejected hand still held out and felt waves of anger and embarrassment permeate my being. I sat down and continued with my work.

When I asked the Jewish lady why her son had behaved in this impolite manner, she laughed as if it had been merely a charming eccentricity on his part.

‘He is thrum’ she said

‘What does that mean?’

‘I t is against his religion to touch women in case they are unclean’


‘He doesn’t know you. You could be menstruating’

She dismissed the event in such a frivolous manner that I could feel the killer instinct, usually dormant in me, rise to the surface. However, I restrained myself from physical violence and instead called another Jewish friend and told him the story.

‘She spoke of it as a perfectly normal thing to do.’

He took the incident seriously and was indignant not only on my behalf, but on behalf of his race.

‘It was not normal at all’ he said. ‘He could have been part of some fundamentalist sect, but this is the kind of rudeness that promotes racism.’

This incident lingered in my mind and triggered off a long forgotten memory – a traumatic happening of my childhood.

Until I was about four years old I accepted my mother as she appeared to all who surrounded her – beautiful – like a Goddess. Thick waves of hair the colour of burnished chestnuts fell to her shoulders. Her highly mobile face, with its retroussee nose and perfect teeth, was always lit up with smiles and her laughing hazel eyes were framed with the kind of eyelashes that they said, ‘could sweep the gravel path’. People argued about whether she was most like Greer Garson or Hedy Lamarr.

Although it was rarely put to her mouth, a cigarette appeared to grow between the fingers of her left hand. Its function was as a convenient prop to emphasise the gestures that punctuated her conversation.  A cloud of L’Aimant – her favourite fragrance, surrounded here wherever she walked. L’aimant – The magnet – it could have been named after her. I always think of her in the centre of a crowd of happy people. She was amusing with a sense of humour that was sometimes cruel but always funny, and often aimed at herself.  For instance, she bitterly regretted not being able to sing. As she reached for the high notes, her eyebrows would rise up into her forehead and she would stand on tiptoe as if to capture the sound above her head, but the voice inevitably came out in a kind of breathy wheeze. The effect was very funny and she used it to great effect at parties. It was admirable that she managed to turn her one failing into an advantage.

My father was tall and blond with a roman nose and forget me not blue eyes like Steve McQueen, he could sing and play the piano and spoke several languages, but he was shy, wrapped up in his books – neither so available nor so popular with their many friends. I got used to hearing people say as they looked at me               ‘What a pity she takes after her father. She’ll never be like her mother.’

Why is it people talk about children in front of their faces as if they were deaf? Anyway, how could I possibly aspire to be like my mother? She was a princess in my eyes.                Until I discovered there was something vile inside her.

My father had driven us to Leeds to do some shopping. He set us down in the middle of the vast shopping area and went off to look at masculine things like golf clubs.

My mother and I had tea in Fenwick’s – our favourite place. The café was not yet full but there was a muted buzz of conversation from the other tables which all added to the cosy atmosphere. For little people the management supplied special high chairs carved and painted like Disney characters. I always chose Snow White. I had decided to be Snow White when I grew up. Hair black as ebony, skin white as snow. I was blonde and freckled, but a girl can dream.

I took sips of my milk shake – a delicious malted concoction that frothed up in a special kind of long straight glass encased in a silver holder, with a handle that could be held like a cup. Toasted teacakes arrived on a silver platter with a domed covering to keep them warm. My mother laid one on a plate for me and the delicious smell of toast rose up – toast and butter and sultanas all mingled together and, hovering around my mother, the constant smell of L’aimant.

I liked to watch her as she poured her tea from a little silver teapot into the thin china cups – smaller than the ones we had at home. The sugar was in dice shaped lumps in a silver bowl and there were tongs with birdlike claws to pick up the lumps and drop them into the tea with a satisfying plop. My mother used the tongs neatly – although she would never have bothered to do that in the kitchen at home. Grown ups always did things differently when they were ‘out.’ The plop of the sugar into the tea made us giggle. We were good friends having a happy time together.

But as I gazed at her, my mother’s face changed. Her usually rosy glow disappeared and she turned a kind of plastic almost transparent yellow – the colour of Vaseline. She gave a cry and clutched her stomach.

She rose to her feet and snatched my hand, pulling me out of the high chair. Her usual springy step had turned into a curious staggering gait as she dragged me into the Ladies room. Ignoring the woman who sat there at a table with a bowl of money beside her, she opened the cubicle door and pulled me inside with her. She bolted the door, but before she had time to lift the seat, it happened.

I stood beside her and watched in fascinated horror as it seemed my mother’s whole insides were emptied out in front of me. The blood was dark red with bits floating in it and it had a curious dank smell which mingled strangely with the sweet powdery smell of L’Aimant.

I watched the disgusting mess pour out of her as she gasped and wept with pain.

There was a knocking on the door as the attendant called out ‘Are you all right?’  With a great effort of will, my mother pulled herself together enough to call out in her normal voice.

‘Yes, thank you. My little girl has an upset tummy. She’ll be all right in a minute’

I never quite understood why the blame had to rest with me. Many years later I realised that she could not allow her narcissistic image to be defiled even in the eyes of a lavatory attendant.

After a while the flooding stopped and she seemed to notice my stricken face for the first time. She smiled at me through her tears.

‘It’s all part of being a woman’ she said ‘you’ll find out one day’

She tried to put her arms around me but I flinched from her touch. She shrugged and pulling almost the entire contents from the toilet paper dispenser she, with unusual efficiency, managed to clean up the mess on the cubicle floor.

For months afterwards the smell of her blood assailed me whenever she came near me. It lingered in my nostrils. I drew back from her, was not even able to look at her without remembering the awfulness that had poured from her. Now I was glad not to be like my mother – or Snow White.


Shortly after the birth of my son, I was introduced to the birth control pill. To my joy, my periods almost completely disappeared.  Now I was in control of my own body. My mother was angry with me, she considered the pill was immoral and unnatural. So she continued with her heavy periods until they culminated in an appalling menopause and a hysterectomy. She was never my fairy princess again and I have never been able to smell L’aimant without the accompanying odour of menstrual blood. Incidentally, the perfume I use is called ‘Escape’

This story remained a secret until now. But the memory somehow reconciled me to Jacob’s hurtful and insulting behaviour.   The hostility received from a complete stranger was certainly no worse than my rejection of my own mother and for precisely the same reason.

Thank you Car Djerassi for inventing the birth control bill while other scientists were concentrating on the Atom Bomb.




Linda Anderson prompted me to write this.

The prompt helped of course – and the idea of linking sketches together with a single theme.  The first sketch is the encounter with the Jewish man, followed by the extraordinary reaction of his mother. To explain this away I needed another Jewish character to restore the balance.  I have many Jewish friends of both sexes and I discussed it with them. They all responded with the same shock horror so I condensed them into one. It was originally female, but I thought all the “shes” might be confusing, and besides, making it a man highlighted the difference in masculine attitudes.

The incident with the orthodox Jewish person was amazingly traumatic. I was deeply humiliated when he refused to shake hands with me and even more distressed when I heard the reason. It brought back to me the feeling that merely being a woman was something disgusting.

The second sketch begins with a description of my mother. Had I been writing fiction I would have inserted it drop by drop into the Fenwick’s scene, but as it is a non fiction piece and autobiographical, I felt a factual and fairly detailed description was required. I was trying to get over the glamour of the woman and I didn’t want anything to interrupt the feeling of extreme happiness in Fenwick’s which leads to the terrible climax of the story.

Originally, I had thought to carry the story on into adolescence, how my friends dealt with the onset of the curse, and my own reaction to it and to them. However, it turned out to be irrelevant and too long so I cut straight to part three. This was my refusal to follow my mother into the inevitable suffering of womankind by going on the pill.

It is no wonder madness and menstruation used to go hand in hand. Even the condition known as hysteria is named after the womb. I recently saw the film “Tom and Viv” again. The hormonal imbalance of T.S Eliot’s wife, Vivienne which caused her violent mood swings also caused her to have frequent periods. He was not able to conceal his repugnance and this drove her completely crazy. His guilt made him treat her so badly – he had her sectioned and incarcerated for the rest of her life. I believe Marilyn Monroe had a similar problem, causing her various absences and her often reluctance to go on set. However, this was hardly a suitable subject for Photoplay Magazine and her reputation suffered in consequence. So many women have suffered in silence because menstruation was for years a taboo subject.

Thank God for Carl Djerassi, the scientist who invented the pill while his contemporaries were probably intent on creating weapons of mass destruction..



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