You can tell when someone is hungry. People who are hungry have dry lips. Chapped with dry bits that stick every so often when they talk. They do not pause to lick them, the frayed seams at their mouths. Most of my clients at (POWA) People Opposing Women Abuse, a women’s crisis centre in Johannesburg were hungry. In that gnawing frantic way when someone literally hasn’t eaten proper food in days. It made me feel both guilty (for not being hungry) and helpless because there were strict policies in place about client-counselor boundaries. We were, for example never to dispense money or food. Apparently it feeds dependency and we were trying to help women become independent. These were the official rules and I was shocking at adhering to them. I lack self-restraint when confronted with someone who is starving when I have say, cash in my purse or a sandwich in my bag.
On this particular day, Nolwazi, my client was not only stomach-clenchingly hungry, she was quiet with fear. I’d seen her twice before – once with a broken finger I noticed had never been treated, now locked in a crooked curl, and once with a broken rib and split lip. Today I noticed tufts of her hair missing. With enough force behind it, the human hand leaves an almost perfect imprint on the body. When she lifted her blouse, her torso was patch-worked with a tapestry of contusions. With careful sorrow she said, ‘Every time was a comma, this time it’s a full stop.’ It startles you every time – how a woman who has never been to school or read a book can sprout a bouquet of lyrics.
During the years I worked as a legal counselor to raped and battered women at POWA, stories like Nolwazi’s walked through our doors on an hourly basis. Hers was an ordinary case. The ones that shocked me with an invigorating wince always had a twist to them – a particular gruesome contortion of violence, a fatality, a child. The few available shelters we nagged for spaces were always choc-a-bloc with waiting lists that makes becoming an organ recipient seem like the 12-items-or-less queue at Coles. Without this observation taking anything away from my love of small helpless furry creatures, there are more shelters for homeless animals than there are for abused women. I looked haplessly at Nolwazi. She looked back at me. We both knew the score here. We already had a domestic violence apprehension order in place. Her husband had simply ignored it. He’d spent time in jail before – petty theft, car theft, assault. Our AVO bothered him less than the emptiness of his beer bottle.
If we were trying to locate the silver lining to this black cloud, at least Nolwazi had left her relationship alive. A woman can die (in a manner that would rate low down on one’s lists of ‘preferred ways to die’ as death by a hammer to the head or a chisel in the chest tend to) trying to leave a violent relationship. ‘Separation assault,’ as it is known, is common and often fatal. Abusive men, their thuggish proclivities aside, are terrible dogs in the manger and would rather murder than be walked out on. A few weeks before, another one of my clients, Zuki with a honeyed complexion and the face of an angel – the half that hadn’t been permanently disfigured - had been thrown through a glass window by her husband in full view of their four-year old boy of. But she didn’t want to divorce him or have him to sent to jail. ‘I just want him to say sorry ….’ she uttered. I was still reeling from the loss of a client several weeks before in bizarre circumstances. Yvonne had come to see me to secure a maintenance order from her husband who worked as a prison warden. He had threatened to kill her if she went ahead with her claim, so we took out an AVO. On the day of the maintenance hearing, he was allowed through security with his firearm – after all, he was a respectable prison warden. There in open court, he shot Yvonne Ramontoedi dead, in full view of the magistrate, knowing he’d be out of the overcrowded jails within the year (without having to pay a cent of maintenance – all around, a win-win situation for him). Assimilating that degree of misogyny is like trying to absorb broken glass through the muscle wall of your heart.
What happens when you hear enough horror stories, is that the brain performs a fascinating neurological trick. It anaesthetizes the natural response of shock, the way flesh will concede a certain numbness if hit enough times. People often pass out into a state of unconsciousness, to protect the psyche and the body. Without my realizing it, this is what was happening to me. It’s a form of burnout. But that word doesn’t do justice to the incremental withdrawal of emotion from life, a detachment which over time, fragments the integrity, the inner stitching of the spirit. Now you might be asking yourself why on earth I was sitting across from women like Nolwazi, listening to horror stories, not being able to help them, and feeling guilty, helpless and at times, furious and mostly very sad. It’s a good question. My father asked it of me often.
‘God you look like hell,’ he’d say.
‘I’ve had a bad week at work,’ I’d mutter.
‘Met any nice abusers lately?’ he’d joke. I’d scowl.‘Why on earth do you put yourself through that?’ he asked. ‘It’s making you bitter and twisted. Not to mention angry and exhausted.’
Of course my father was right. I was all of those less-than-delightful adjectives. A young woman in her mid-twenties should not be fielding accusations of bitterness, twistedness, anger or exhaustion. It’s not an appealing quartet of adjectives, especially when one is, despite feminist denials to the contrary, eager to get a date with a man with spectacular abdominal muscles. The way my father described me, I sounded like a spinster. A loser. Someone fat and unlovely with no prospects of ever living with or loving anyone other than a couple of over-fed cats.What was true was that since I started working at POWA, I always felt a hair’s breadth away from uncontrollable fury. Chilled and mellow were probably the last two words that would have sprung to mind to describe my response to vaguely sexist remarks about a woman’s appearance, life choices or sexual preferences that did not involve her enslaving herself to patriarchy by say, getting married.
And turning to my father, forgetting for a moment that he is a decent and wonderful man, I’d sort of yell at him: ‘Because women are being raped and battered all day, every day, behind closed doors, and because ordinary people like you think to do nothing, say nothing and rather just pretend the problem doesn’t exist! You’ve got three daughters, this is also your problem!’
‘My darling, have some smoked salmon on a bagel,’ my mother would interject.
And seething, I would.
The worst life experiences have a way of settling, over the course of time into an emotional resilience, presuming they do not break us. I am not a fan of the idea that ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ but I suspect there is an element of truth to it, as long as it doesn’t glorify suffering. I abhor suffering of any kind, especially when inflicted on women and children. In a choice between being ennobled by suffering and leading a perfectly untarnished existence, no-one but a fool would choose agony over easy street.
When I stopped doing this work, I did so as a matter of my own survival. I vowed I never wanted to see another battered woman as long as I lived. Fourteen years later, contemplating the options for my next book after the success of Secret Mothers’ Business, I came across a letter given to me by one of my clients at POWA many years ago. It was written in pencil, like a child who hasn’t graduated to her pen-licence, with little love-hearts and smiley faces all around the border. ‘I will never forget you or what you did for me,’ she wrote, promising me that someday she would find a way to repay me for all I had done for her. If I remember correctly all I had done was make a few phone calls to arrange for her and her lesbian lover to get into a shelter that would accommodate them and for her daughter to be assessed by a doctor for possible sexual assault.
That letter bored its way into the Pandora’s box of my heart and unleashed a chaos of memories I thought I had so masterfully repressed. For the first time in over a decade I began to wonder about all those women whose stories I’d borne witness to, and whether any of them had escaped the violent cyclonic hell of their lives. And suddenly I remembered her. A woman with a neat leather handbag, who had come to tell me that her sister whom I had seen a few days earlier had been stabbed to death by her boyfriend with a pair of scissors.
A day later, I wrote the opening line to the book that would become Things Without A Name: ‘There are not many useful things you can say to someone whose sister has been stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.’ Faith, the voice through whose eyes the story takes place is a counselor at a women’s crisis centre, who has, like I had, seen too much pain etched on women’s faces and bodies and has lost her faith in love.
Despite the darkness of the book’s setting, I wanted this to be a story of hope and deliverance. I wanted readers to love Faith because she did not love herself. But in writing her, I think I helped Faith to love herself better.
Things Without A Name is a story about names: the things we name, the things we cannot. I made the decision early on to name all my characters after real people who have lost their lives in gender violence. Right at the back there is section detailing in one or two sentences, the circumstances of each person’s death. Despite my publisher’s concerns about this inclusion because it might make readers ‘uncomfortable’ and is somewhat voyeuristic, it has thankfully survived, a signpost for those who choose to know the path I traveled through this book. Though this is a novel, I don’t want people to forget that Faith’s story took root in a place of real pain and human faces across the table from someone whose sister was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors. While I scrounged for something useful to say.
I also wanted the title to echo the withheld emotion and unexpressed loss through which Faith moves towards the hopeful whispered exclamation at the end‘…There is a name for this, what I’m feeling…. I just know there is a name for this.’
In naming the desolations of our history, we are able to claim them, and bury them, rupturing the silences that hold us back. Because, as Faith comes to understand, ‘things without a name, still matter.’