Interview with Janet Berres by Diane Wilkes
In 1997, I left my job due to a disability. Not only was my physical health at an all-time low, I felt dispirited and my financial situation was equally depressed. But prior to leaving my job, I had gotten a brochure for the first World Tarot Congress and the list of presenters had astounded me with its length and depth. All of the best tarot minds, it seemed, would be in Chicago. Not only would Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack be in attendance, so would Brian Williams, Bob O’Neill, Gail Fairfield, Cynthia Giles, and Gary Ross (whom I knew from subscribing to Tarot Network News). So many others would be there, too! I was particularly excited at the thought of meeting Arnell Ando, whose Transformational Tarot had transformed me into a much better reader and with whom I had developed an email correspondence.
So, I bit the bullet and made a huge financial sacrifice to fly to Chicago and attend the conference. I truly see that event as life-changing—meeting and talking with such intelligent, funny, and wise people as if I had always known them, I felt I had finally found my people, my tribe. Best of all, after telling Arnell Ando a bit about my book/deck, Storyteller Tarot, my favorite artist in the world she offered to do the art for it. I returned from the first WTC rejuvenated, healed in mind, if not in body.
I know other people, too, found that event and other World Tarot Congresses equally life-altering. The whirlwind behind the event, Janet Berres, seemed to be everywhere at this, and the other two conferences, a force of nature who constantly spread warmth and joy. She was the ultimate Perle Mesta, a tarot hostess who truly seemed to care if you were having a good time. Her friendliness was genuine—you could be Eden Gray or a tarot novice, and she would interact with you with the same interest and kindness. Her presence added real heart and soul at these conferences.
But there is much more to Janet Berres than her vital personality. Only a true force of nature could have manifested three world tarot events. Celebrating the Tarot honors her as a Tarot VIP with this interview.
Diane: How did you first get involved in tarot? What was your first deck?
Janet: I saw my first tarot deck in 1968, I believe (it was a long time ago) and I don't know where I got it from, but I do remember sitting on my bedroom floor, holding the deck in my hand and being mesmerized by the pictures, turning them over in my hand, one by one. And I remember thinking to myself, " I wonder what this means?" as I looked at each one.
Diane: When did you become a professional tarot reader? I understand you were a very popular reader...what are the secrets of your success?
Janet: I became a professional reader in 1974 or 75. I am still a popular reader, although it seems some weeks I am more popular than others), and have made a living from reading cards (no small feat!) while supporting two sons. I think my success is due to three things: perseverance, being accurate in the majority of my predictions (and I do read predictively) and having good people skills.
When I first started reading cards, I had little confidence in myself-- when people told me things I had told them had happened, I was as surprised as they were! I also charged very little for my time and had self esteem issues that made me work way harder and longer than I had to, I know now in retrospect. But it was a great learning experience. Tarot was not accepted or talked about much back then, except in negative terms, so originally my clients were all word of mouth. That is still how I get the majority of my clients. When I first started doing readings, the answering machine wasn't even invented and, since I had only one phone line, I was often at the mercy of people calling at all times, day and night. The answering machine (and later voice mail and caller i.d.) really helped me to get boundaries back in my life-- something every tarot reader needs!
Diane: The first (and legendary) World Tarot Congress took place in 1997. How and when did you conceive of the conference? Who were the pivotal members of the International Tarot Society and how was it formed?
Janet: The first World Tarot Congress was thought up by
me after many years of going to astrology conferences and wishing there was
something similar for tarot people. In 1995, after 15 years of attending NCGR's
and ISAR's and the AFA's (astrology groups) conferences all over the country, I
decided to try to do for tarot what I had seen done in the astrology community.
Those conferences were so much fun, and so thrilling for me ---to meet the
authors of some of my favorite books. So, I compiled a list of people I wanted
to hear in tarot and either wrote to them directly or through their publishers.
(That's how I found out that Sallie Nichols of Jung and Tarot had passed
away). I had met Eden Grey in Chicago and she agreed to come. I then used the
NCGR mailing list of over 5000 members (by agreement with the organization) and
advertised the Congress. We got around 200+ attendees from six countries and 35
states! The point was that it was an idea whose time had come. Tarot had
arrived, and we were out of the silk bag and wooden box, so to speak.
Had somebody else put on big conferences, I would have gone to them and not done it myself.
The original Board members were myself as President, Thea Bloom, as Vice-President of the society, Read Greyer as Treasurer, Jeannine Margolis as Secretary, Barbara Krofel as Astrological Consultant, and Karen Jackson and Francis Camberis as Board Members. At the original first meeting, Tracey Hoover, who then lived in Milwaukee, was also present (she then moved to Texas and left the Board), along with several friends of mine who were not really into tarot, but came to give me support for my new undertaking.
Diane: You had also written a book, Textbook of the Tarot. What was your inspiration for the book? Who was your target audience? Do you plan to write another?
Janet: My book started out as three pages of mimeographed sheets of paper, which I used for classes I taught. When one of my students took my work and started teaching, after putting her name on the information, I was "inspired" to expand my writings and publish it myself (and copywriting it, of course) so that I would receive credit for my writing. After the fact, I was grateful she made me angry enough to rewrite my book. The self published book, written for students learning the tarot, is a very good basic primer, but it is now out of print (which means I sold the 1000 copies I had printed up). I am revising the book and it will soon be published by Llewellyn, as a new book and deck combination. It should be out in by next spring (if not sooner).
Diane: You made it clear during the conference that your reading emphasis is predictive. For a time, there seemed to be a cultural divide between predictive and psycho-spiritual readers. Do you think that's changed or grown wider? Do you think that most readers combine the kinds of readings they do?
Janet: I think there is a definite difference between predictive and psychological readers, although many people (myself included) do combine both methods. Our purpose in a good reading is to get the querent to "know himself". I recently attended a tarot lecture where the speaker who did psycho-spiritual readings said that "her clients do all the work." She asks them repeatedly what they think of the cards and what the cards mean to them and occasionally gives them some feedback. To me, that is a cop-out. People who get readings like that would be better served by a qualified, trained psychotherapist. While "fortune teller" has negative connotations in our society, I believe that by looking into the future, we tarot readers are doing a service for our clients.
I once wrote the following on the Tarot-L list several years ago, in defense of the term "fortune teller":
"And if it wasn't for people coming to get a predictive reading from a "fortune teller" in the first place, very few people would have ever even heard of tarot cards! Tarot cards would have been relegated to the back room of an art gallery someplace or remained the property of a secret organization or been used for gaming."
While I believe very little is etched in stone in the
future, the competent reader can discern paths the querent will probably follow
and can provide useful information that way. Eden Gray, I have to add, also felt
the same way.
Diane: Tell me about the second WTC. How did it differ from the first?
Janet: The 2nd World Tarot Congress was bigger and
included more speakers, several from foreign countries. We held it at a bigger
hotel and tried to incorporate new ideas (like a New Deck Room and a Friday
night cocktail party in the Atrium of the hotel).
Diane: The third WTC was originally scheduled for the weekend following 9/11. Tell us a little about that experience, and also the third WTC itself.
Janet: Well, it was quite a shock when I had to cancel the Congress, due to the bombing of the World Trade Center. I will never forget the confusion, angst and stress of that time for me. People were phoning me from all over the world, asking if the conference would continue; Canadians were telling me they couldn't cross the border, Japanese attendees were saying their flights were cancelled, our Italian friends couldn't get out of their country, and Americans were in a state of shock. I had no choice but to cancel the event and reschedule it for another time.
The hotel where we were holding it was also putting pressure on me to pick another date. In the aftermath, people needed money refunded and I needed to re-advertise and essentially re-do a lot of things. It was quite my personal nightmare!
But the third World Tarot Congress went off quite well, with the most loving energy (if I may be a little new-agey here) that could be imagined. Tarot people were just happy to be together with their community.
Diane: Later on, you and the International Tarot Society became involved in salvaging a tarot conference that involved a rift with the then-President of the American Tarot Association. This was truly an act of tarot community. Could you tell us about how and why you got involved?
Janet: John Gilbert, the then President of the ATA, had
come onto the scene almost from nowhere with a long line of pedigrees that made
no sense to me. He was very secretive (not unlike our present government) and
changed his story frequently about who he was. Valerie Sim-Behi had organized an
ATA conference in Sacramento, and it was being sabotaged by Mr. Gilbert who was
leaving the ATA to start another group (the Tarot Institute). Valerie Sim-Behi
asked me to help insure that the Sacramento Conference would be held, and with
the help of ITS treasurer, Barbara Krofel, we pulled off a small, but successful
conference. Having already put together three Congresses, I was good at working
with hotels, and ITS helped out with financial matters like the use of our
credit card-- we were later reimbursed for our expenses. It just goes to show
that tarot people can all work together in harmony!
Diane: You have quite a tarot collection. How many decks are you up to now?
Janet: As of today, I have 1056 tarot (and some divination) decks. I have been collecting decks since 1973, and often say that at the price of decks today, there is no way I could have a collection like this if I hadn't started collecting all those years ago. The Crown Jewel of my collection is Apologia Del Libro DeThot, an oversized, signed, limited edition Major Arcana deck published in Spain. I have tarot dice and tarot runestones that are quite rare, and several unique decks from Frank Jensen, another avid collector. The list goes on and on...
I love the different art work of the decks and while I still try to collect foreign and rare decks that I don't have, I don't have the financial resources available to get all the decks I'd like!
Diane: What excites (and disappoints you) about new
Janet: Whenever I see a deck that is crudely executed
or not aesthetically pleasing, I still honor the person for their effort to
express whatever they are expressing, by putting together a set of tarot cards!
Diane: What is the future direction for the ITS?
Janet: Sadly, I have recently made the executive decision to close down the International Tarot Society. I feel I can no longer give it the attention and energy I need to, to maintain it at the level I would like. I need to focus on personal projects, rather than group things, to ensure my security in the twilight of my life (which is approaching faster than I care to admit!). I am still enthused about putting on tarot conferences, and may do so again, under different circumstances.
Diane: It can be difficult to organize a tarot conference. What made the ITS conferences so successful?
Janet: I feel our conferences were successful because I
always tried to incorporate new people and inclusiveness; I did them in the
spirit of the betterment of the tarot community, and not for personal gain. I
also put tremendous time into insuring that everything would run smoothly
(although the fates often laughed) and tried to make everyone feel welcomed and
important. I had a vision, from the start, that we (tarot people) could be a
force to be reckoned with!
Diane: You have been a vital member of the tarot community for many years. From your perspective, what are the positive and negative trends taking place at this time?
Janet: To me, the positive trends are the friendships and connections between tarot people that are taking place all over the world. The downside is that I am seeing people who have not put in their time becoming "experts" in the field of tarot. As tarot becomes more popular, more people are jumping onto the band wagon.
On the other hand, that may not be such a bad thing,
because at least tarot is getting exposed to the (great, unwashed) masses! If we
can't keep our sense of humor, all is lost, I fear.
There’s no reason to fear that Janet Berres will ever lose her sense of humor and joie de vivre, or her warmth that permeated every one of the World Tarot Congresses. Valerie Sim-Behi had this to say, “I have had the pleasure of knowing Janet for about three years. I don't know what I appreciate more, her big heart or her wry wit. You never know what Janet will say(!), but you always know she cares. Talking to Janet is like getting several jabs in the ribs, a bevy of belly laughs and a warm hug.
“With the disbanding of the ITS, the world of Tarot sees one of its High Priestesses step temporarily away from her dais and into another role in her life. I know that whatever she does, Janet will do it with panache, and with her whole heart. I wish her well and cross my fingers that the tapestry of the Tarot is so completely woven into her being that she will not go too far or lose touch with her Tarot friends.”
Even noted tarot critic K. Frank Jensen enthuses about Janet Berres. He wrote, “I had heard for some time about Janet Berres and her tarot organization. A friend had sent me copies of a few ITS newsletters and a catalogue from the second congress. My built-in skepticism towards organizations of any kind, however, caused me to stay away. Then, one day in July 2000, Janet bid for and won one of my e-bay auctions. When I contacted her, she wrote back: "I have been looking for your mailing address. I want to invite you to come to our next congress and receive our third Life Achievement Award". What a decision I suddenly had to face! I had expressed my animosity towards tarot congresses in the last issue of my magazine "Manteia", and now I was invited to receive an award from one of them. The opportunity to meet several of my tarot correspondents in person did, however, settle it and I accepted the invitation.
As you all know, the third ITS congress didn’t occur on time due to problems caused by political/religious fanatics. But when it finally took place, it was a truly overwhelming and grand international event. In contrast to other tarot organizations, who from their names alone indicate a narrow national, if not regional, membership, Janet aimed for the whole world from the beginning and had success in attracting members to ITS from a great many countries.
When I arrived at the hotel, the lobby was filled up with people asking, "Where is Janet?" The answers were,"At the airport picking up some presenters..." or "Home to get something...” Janet is always on the go, holding so many threads in her hands, taking care of the many details to make an event of this nature function.
There was something for everyone at this truly international conference, regardless of sphere of interest. This was not a congress aimed mainly at tarot readers, even though they were also well-served.
After this hectic event, one would have believed that Janet retreated from the world immediately after the congress, but no. She and other ITS board members spent the following week showing me around Chicago, taking me to some strange places I would never have found by myself, including bookshops, where I was tempted to add further to my already large stack of books and decks to bring home. Janet’s four wheeler had the Illinois license plate: "TAROT 1", and I fondly remember her with one hand at the steering wheel, one hand on the cell phone, with a cigarette in her mouth. One of the most appreciated souvenirs I brought back with me was the same "TAROT 1" - plate which found a place of honor on my studio wall.”
We hear a lot of talk about the tarot community. As Geraldine Amaral says, “Before I met Janet Berres I didn't even know there was a tarot community. Her World Tarot Congresses provided an incredible gift, allowing people literally from all over the world, who were studying and using tarot on their own, to find validation, connection, camaraderie, exchange of ideas and more. Some of my best friends in the world are people I met through Janet's work.”
This is true for me, and many others. Some may still hope that the Perle Mesta of the Tarot World organizes another wonderful international tarot event. If she does, don’t miss it—and the opportunity to meet the warm and unique Janet Berres.
This interview initially appeared in the journal
Celebrating the Tarot.
Interview and page © 2004 Diane Wilkes