The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Essays

Ladies in Waiting

Becca Rothfeld

On the Phone, 2006, by Franziska Neubert (b. 1977); private collection/Bridgeman Images.

Waiting, which renders everything provisional, which suspends progress or conclusion of any kind, is worse than clarity.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
—W.S. Merwin11xW.S. Merwin, “Separation,” in The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993), 15. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation website:

In the most memorable scene of the 2002 film Secretary, nothing happens. The protagonist, Lee, sits as still as possible, her hands planted firmly on the desk in front of her. She has been instructed by her lover, who is also her sexually sadistic employer, to hold this position until he returns. For over ten minutes, a period that represents entire days in the movie’s internal timeline, Lee remains faithfully immobile, wetting herself in the process.

Lee offers up her violent passivity as proof of her love, and her physical humiliations are like religious devotions. Hoping to gratify her lover by depriving herself of food, she declines into hunger-induced delirium in which she experiences a hallucinatory vision of her therapist. He explains, “There’s a long history of this in Catholicism. The monks used to wear thorns on their temples, and the nuns wore them sewn inside their clothing.”22xSteven Shainberg (director), Erin Cressida Wilson (screenwriter), Secretary (motion picture), distributed by Lions Gate Films (2002). Like centuries of monks, nuns, and mystics before her, Lee transforms her inertia and hunger into an active occupation through the performance of sacrificial pain.

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