A Novel About Rebelling Against Toxic Positivity
Lucie Britsch, author of "Sad Janet," on embracing sadness as a useful emotion
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Janet, the acerbic narrator of Lucie Britsch’s debut novel Sad Janet, is a resister. She’s sad—has been for most of her life—and doesn’t want to take the pills that big pharma, her mother, and the culture at-large is pushing on her to “fix” her. She’s content with sadness, and she’s not into the “h-word”—happy—and taking pills to be that way, a new normal she wants no part of.
After an intervention orchestrated by Janet’s mother, probably with the support of her boyfriend, Janet breaks up with him, reclaiming her ability to eat pizza and watch bad TV alone. She works at a dog shelter, a job that was supposed to be temporary, but she doesn’t want to leave because of the dogs, who make her the closest to happy she’s ever been, and because of her strong, unsentimental boss, Debs.
The toll of Janet’s sadness shows, despite her sarcasm and humor mixed with a dash of vulgarity and quips like “When life throws you lemons, remember there are dogs.” It’s the Christmas pill that finally gets Janet, a pill specially designed for people like her who can’t stand the hype and family drama of Christmas. Just resolving to take the pill makes her feel lighter.
Sad Janet feels like it could be set anywhere through Britsch’s wry capturing of drug advertisements, the pervasiveness of medicating, and the Christmas-fueled capitalism that feels more draining than depression. Janet’s world rings true for anyone who takes pills, has seen a drug commercial, or been alive during the holidays.
Britsch and I exchanged emails about big pharma, Christmas spirit, kooky families, just being you, and—of course—dogs.
Sarah Appleton Pine: What is it like to release a book so of this moment in the world?
Lucie Britsch: It’s so long between when you write a book and when it comes out, so I wanted to sneak a few current references in there and hope they were still current. I love it when you read something and there’s actually a reference you get like that, like a song you were actually singing the other day, so it’s more relatable. I didn’t know of course just how of this moment Janet would be. I joke that I wanted the world a bit sad for my book but not this sad.
SAP: Can you say more about this moment and how Janet is a part of it?
LB: She would see all this sadness and anger now and be hopeful for real change. I didn’t know the world would be like this when I wrote it and it would be as apt and we’d all be struggling more than ever to feel happy about anything, but life is hard and being human is hard, being sad is a fundamental part of it. I remember on The Good Place Janet said something about humans are ultimately sad because we know we’re going to die, that about sums it up.
SAP: For the most part, Janet describes herself as being sad—not depressed, not a goth. It seems like sadness and depression (and being goth) often get conflated. How do you distinguish between them?
LB: I think it’s just she doesn’t want to be labeled and doesn’t identify with any group, it’s just who she is. Depression is something clinical that can be treated whereas sadness is a feeling, for Janet it’s a natural one we should embrace. There’s this idea of the happy existentialist, someone who sees the void at the heart of existence but accepts it and is free, that’s something I’ve always been interested in and strive for. For Janet goths are part of something and she doesn’t feel part of anything.
SAP: Janet is okay—happy even—with her sadness and doesn’t view it as a problem like just about everyone else does. Does sadness serve a purpose?
LB: Sadness definitely serves a purpose, it’s a cliché but without it how would we know what’s good. You can’t only feel the things you want to feel, you should feel the whole spectrum of human emotion. I always say if you don’t feel every emotion in one day are you even alive? Everyone knows a good cry is cathartic, we need to feel these things not block them.
SAP: Janet’s sadness has a grunginess to it, which I think contrasts to a glamorized sadness we sometimes see, especially in drug advertisements, like Janet points out. If anything, Janet’s life is the opposite of glamorous.
LB: Yeah I definitely wanted to move away from glamouring depression, I think we’re all bored of these pretty sad people manipulating us to sell stuff.
SAP: And big pharma seems especially eager to sell us stuff. “There’s a pill for that” feels like a mantra throughout the book, like pills are the only answer—some people are pretty quick to take them, then take more of them, which doctors encourage. Janet pushes against the efficacy of that. Fortunately, her dad and a couple of other people in her life embrace Janet’s sadness rather than see it as something that needs fixing, with pills or otherwise. There’s just such a push for one-dimensionality, eradicating sadness and feelings on that end of the spectrum. Is there ever a point where we have an obligation to encourage treatment? I think this sort of comes up at the end of the book, but I don’t want to give that away here.
LB: I think you have to find what works for you, Janet is just trying to find what works for her and stay true to herself, she accepts other people’s choices and just wants people to accept hers the same. She wants people to know you don’t always have to take a pill, there are other options, you can tell your doctor to fuck off, you can work it out yourself, but if you can’t, that’s ok too. It’s this monetising of normal feelings in a sad world Janet is against.
SAP: Besides sadness, I notice other emotions in Sad Janet—the occasional laugh, fury, jealousy, sarcasm (is that an emotion?)—but, of course, sadness is so essential. How would you describe this sadness?
LB: Janet’s can’t believe everyone isn’t sad or mad all the time. I always say that if you’re not a difficult woman, you can’t be living in the same world as me. Life is difficult, especially for women.
SAP: I think about that all the time, like all the little ways and big ways the world is more difficult for women. And Janet deals with some of that, too, like her mom wanting her to be more feminine, or at least brush her hair, and her ex-boyfriend’s expectations.
Her mom is perpetually locked in a mid-life crisis and (mostly successful) attempts to foist her ideas on the people around her, and meanwhile, Janet’s brother seems like an immature 12-year-old boy rather than a grown man with a family. These family dynamics are hilarious.
LB: I love books about dysfunctional families too, I mean for me that’s what family is. It’s messy. We all have our sadness and we all cope with it differently, some can’t cope without medication and some can’t cope with the thought of being medicated, we’re all just muddling through. People have to let people do whatever works for them, in a family, in the world, we all want the same things, to not feel so shitty all the time.
SAP: Janet’s family seems especially messy at Christmas, particularly with her mother’s obsession with it, so Christmas seems like the perfect choice for the pill forced on the Sad Janets of the world. Your description of the Christmas obsession is so vivid. You really capture the capitalist spirit of the early build up with carols and cookies and mall Santas to the insistency on it being this big, dramatic day and how tough that is for some people.
LB: Yeah, I think we’re not far off this sort of pill to be honest—it’s coming, you wait. People would want it, that’s the problem, there’s already a market.
SAP: Janet’s doctor hones in on the Christmas pill being a perfect pill for Janet, even though he hasn’t succeeded in getting her to take anything in the past. He even tricks her into coming into the office to sell it to her. It’s kind of surprising given all of Janet’s skepticism about doctors and big pharma that she has zero concern about health insurance. A lot of Americans deal with insurance hurdles to see doctors, get medication, etc. Does the difference in British versus American healthcare factor in at all here?
LB: Thankfully here in Britain, we have free healthcare in the NHS, and when it’s working it’s brilliant obviously. And just seeing the amazing efforts through this pandemic has made me very grateful we have it. I know it’s different in America and I hope one day you guys get the health care you deserve, I mean it should be a basic human right. I think if you don’t have a problem with big pharma though, you don’t see what’s going on.
SAP: I think a lot of Americans are envying universal healthcare right now—whether they want to admit it or not.
I also found Janet’s tendency to label herself (and others) interesting. She splits herself up—Sad Janet, New Janet, Old Janet, Bad Janet—and the tension between a unified self and a self with separate parts feels notable.
LB: She can be kinder to herself maybe, like she can be outside herself and see she’s complex, changing, growing; she isn’t this fixed thing she has to hate always. We aren’t just one thing, we have all these versions of ourselves we have to live with.
SAP: Janet classifies dogs, too, so your cover caught my eye—a dog in a “stupid outfit,” as Janet would say. Did you have a hand in the design or any thoughts you’d like to share about it?
LB: The first cover they sent me didn’t feel right at all so I asked them to come up with something else and this one just felt right. I had rescue greyhounds a few years ago myself and they didn’t know this so it just sort of felt like fate. I don’t know anyone that’s immune to a dog in a sweater.
SAP: I still have a burning personal question: do you have a dog?
LB: I don’t have a dog right now, but soon hopefully, and it will be a rescue greyhound for sure. They’re the best.
SAP: Anything else you’d like to add?
LB: I have bi-polar but choose to not be medicated, and it’s fucking hard but it’s just who I am. I’m always open about it and if people can’t handle it, it says more about them. I don’t know who these people are that have good mental health?
Being human is the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do. The more people talk about mental health, the more people realize having mental health problems is the norm, not the other way round. I just hope people read my book and know they can be whoever they are and I’m rooting for them. Fuck being happy, be you.