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Another lovely review for This is how it is. Thank you to Margaret von Klemperer and The Witness, who published this review on Monday 14 October 2019. 'Accomplished and entertaining work'. If you somehow don't have a copy, stocks are limited so buy now direct from us for the discounted price of R220. Simply email admin@liferighting.com to place your order. While stocks last...

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Open by Andre Agassi (Knopf, 2009) and The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005)

At the end of Andre Agassi’s superbly written memoir Open, there are two pages of acknowledgements. In those pages, it becomes clear that there is another writer behind this extraordinary autobiography: a man who goes by the name of JR Moehringer. But his name is not on the cover.

You are unlikely to have heard of him, even though he’s won a Pulitzer Prize and written his own memoir, The Tender Bar.  But rest assured of one thing: he can write.

Agassi writes that he was reading Moehringers’s ‘staggering’ memoir during his final US Open in 2006 and that he phoned him to request a meeting after his first round match. They meet, Moehringer moves to Vegas, where Agassi lives, and 250 hours of interview time and a friendship later, this sports memoir of note emerges.

First things first: you don’t have to love tennis to appreciate this book. The story of the man who claims he hated tennis, forced by a manic father to face his demonic ball-machine (aka The Dragon) from the age of seven, has all the makings of a tragedy from the start. Physically, he barely survives: there are several passages where you wince at what he does to himself in the name of the game. The very first chapter, called The End, is a case in point.

Emotionally, he’s not always entirely balanced either – witness the weirdness of his first marriage to Brooke Shields. But what becomes abundantly clear is that his second marriage to Steffi Graf saved him in many ways. As did his remarkable support team in the form of Gil Reyes and Brad Gilbert.

Some have called this biography ‘risible’. Perhaps they had some sort of moral axe to grind about the famous ‘crystal meth’ episode – small fry compared to the drug debacles now common in professional sports. To me there may be the odd laugh and yes, Agassi is a showman of note, but it becomes increasingly clear that much of that posturing was simply a search for identity and meaning on a circuit that is viciously gruelling. It is no wonder Esquire named it one of the Top 30 Sports Memoirs of All Time last year. It absolutely deserves to be right up there.

So what of Agassi’s ghost collaborator’s memoir, The Tender Bar? Well, clearly JR Moehringer is nowhere near as famous as Agassi, nor is he a sportsman of any sort. What he excels at – and this is both the heart and the horror of the book – is drinking. This is because his primary father figure is his Uncle Charlie, who presides over a bar called Publicans in his home town of Manhasset, Long Island. And seeking father figures in the absence of his own equally dissolute DJ father, aka The Voice, he ends up spending a lot of his time at Publicans, or with the lovingly characterised and eclectic denizens of this eponymous 'tender bar'. These same characters stand witness, together with his fairly crazy family, to his surprising progression to Harvard on a scholarship and his rather less surprising descent from it to selling tableware and, to be fair, eventually becoming a trainee journalist of sorts at the New York Times.

For anyone who has had to deal with addiction in their lives, this may be a hard read. Not only are Uncle Charlie and his entourage all alcoholics, but it becomes pretty clear that Moehringer is too. Indeed, one of the great sadnesses of the story is the loss of his first great love to her assertion that she "had been apprehensive about a young man so enthralled by a bar". It’s not difficult to agree with Moehringer’s own assertion that her apprehension was understandable.

But don’t be too put off. The writing is excellent, the schadenfreude touching. In particular, you feel for his utterly devoted mother, to whom the book is dedicated, and who must have struggled, at times, to make sense of her son and his desperate search for alcoholic father figures to guide him. A search that, to mangle Auden’s definition of poetry, ultimately leaves one with “the clear impression of mixed feelings”. The result may not have the breathless pace and drama of Open but it does have a tender semi-Dickensian heart with a range of quirky characters to which you do genuinely warm. But the chill of his addiction – and that of many of his father figures – is never far away.

At a recent Life Righting Collective Follow-up Group (aka FUG), I got to thinking about the sort of healing that writing can initiate.

One of us wrote about writing off a car at the age of 21 – and the subsequent loss of dignity, mobility, cash and car that initiated: leave alone the potential loss of life and/or limb it might have caused if the driver had not been wearing a seat belt.

Another writer talked of a different type of loss – a wife gone missing, the husband calling a counselling service to talk it through, unable to communicate clearly exactly what had happened. Still another talked of the losses (and gains) of being a mother; while another woman talked of the loss of dignity, power and voice in a difficult and overtly sexist episode whose violence was implicit rather than explicit. What, in these cases, prevents us from speaking out when we know that our lives depend on it?

This loss of dignity and freedom was writ large on the final piece another woman read to us – a multi-layered draft of a play about an abuse of authority inflicted on her at an airport, just because she ‘looked like’ a terrorist.

These incremental losses – of things, of people, of love, of integrity, of opportunity, of hope, of faith – affect us all; but perhaps even more so in a world subjected to institutionalised violence in many states – even, perhaps especially, the United States of America, despite its on-paper constitutional freedoms.

Much of the writing in our first anthology – This Is How It Is (Jacana, 2018) – finds itself grappling with such losses. There is, for example, a deeply poignant story of a first kiss and dance with a charming neighbour, who within a month is dead.  This is echoed in Siya Khumalo’s extraordinary debut memoir You’ve Got to be Gay to Know God (Kwela, 2018), where his first boyhood crush on a green-eyed, copper-haired boy is scythed down by the boy’s early death from meningitis.

In that case, and in many others, these were losses that could not be fully expressed or explained – Khumalo was in the closet at the time – but now, through writing, this and other losses can be processed and grieved, both privately and publically. For myself, bereaved by suicide several times, the taboo around particular types of loss – to AIDS, to suicide, to violence and murder – is particularly close to home. So much so that I chose to use a pseudonym for a piece in our anthology about suicide – because I knew that there were people who would read it that I had chosen not to tell; and perhaps to protect my family from making such a tragic loss public. These sorts of subterfuges, however well-intentioned, keep us hidden, feed our shame and – often – make us ill. Blowing open these taboos – even if there is some collateral damage – is almost always, ultimately, more healing than harmful.

This is because all of these types of loss – and many others – are intertwined with feelings of guilt and shame, which prevent us from declaring our losses, for fear that we – those left behind – will be judged. And yet the more there is silence around these taboos, the greater the hold they have and the less opportunity we have to share our experiences and heal. It is no accident that one of the earliest Act-Up activist slogans around HIV and AIDS was 'Silence=Death'. If we do not speak out, who will know we are hurting? Is our shame worth hiding when our sanity, our loves and our lives are at stake? History seems to tell us not.

Today we have treatment for HIV, if not yet a cure for AIDS, and there is no doubt that the trajectory of the research that has brought us here is due to the sacrifices that gay men made in the first years of the pandemic. In much the same way, the slow – to my mind, way TOO slow – movement towards some sort of accommodation of the concept of euthanasia is another step towards eradicating the shame, guilt and taboo that remains around assisted death, which others still wish to call suicide. Sad to say, South Africa has a long, conservative way to go in this regard. At the same time, constitutional freedoms for LGBTIQ people are by no means vote winners and are hugely under threat from the proto-fascist moral majority – again, Khumalo talks wisely and chillingly to this point.

I have an interest in these particular invisible losses, of course – I too am gay, have worked in HIV education and have lost loved ones to both the virus and to suicide. All of these leave their scars. But it is my firm belief that the work the Life Righting Collective does helps to heal them as we give the people who live in this damaged country of ours the chance to talk of the hurt and the anger they feel, as well as the indignities and losses they have suffered.

I am running a Life Righting Collective Memoir Course in November, from Friday November 15th to Sunday November 17th, in Table View, Cape Town. If you would like to write out, about and through some of the loves, lives and losses in your own life, you are most welcome to join us. Please write to admin@liferighting.com and check out the courses section of our website on www.liferighting.com/courses.  You will be amazed how when we read to each other about our lives, how much more connected, heard, witnessed and healed we can feel.

Image credit: -sandid-from-pixabay.jpg

Logical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin, published on 10 March 2017 by Harper Collins: R291.00

This is the long-awaited ‘real story’ of the much-loved Tales of the City author, Armistead Maupin. Perhaps best known for his much-lauded and much-copied coming-out letter ‘Letter to Mama’, Maupin’s warm, witty and inclusive style has helped several generations of queer folk come out and find their ‘logical family’, which may not always be – and frequently isn’t – their biological one.

Armistead Maupin appears to be, loosely, Michael Tolliver of the Tales of the City series, although Maupin has confessed more broadly that "I’ve always been all of the characters in one way or another."Logical Family confirms this, plotting his life path from a conservative, naval, Southern background, through to San Francisco where he found himself and his ‘logical family’.

"Sooner or later, we have to venture beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us," he writes. "We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives." In finding that life, he faced homophobia and the HIV pandemic, which hit hardest and earliest at the US gay community. He confronted both head on, controversially outing Rock Hudson, who he knew and who later died of AIDS, in the process. His activism is a matter of record but he is still best known for his novels, including two outside the Tales series, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, the latter of which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.

So this, finally, is the official author-penned tale behind the Tales that has, in its short, twenty-chapter format, much the same accessibility, wit and pathos (clichéd but absolutely true) of his fiction. It is a crucial companion to his fiction work and will delight – and, occasionally, reduce to tears –  anyone who has read any of the Tales series, which first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976.

It’s an important book because Maupin is a critical figure in the LGBTI literary world and, I would hope, in the literary world as a whole. Comparisons with Dickens are frequent and fair, though Maupin trumps him on camp hands down.

It’s 1995 and we’re on the 2 633 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with a young woman who’s using 1 100 miles of it as life repair. She’s in the middle of nowhere, her feet are a bloody mess (in all sorts of senses) and she’s lost her boots, irretrievably tumbled down a mountain. And this is just the wonderfully written Prologue…

The PCT runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border through unforgiving mountains, breathtaking scenery and heart-stopping wildlife. Combining gruellingly long, hot waterless stretches with ice-cold peaks and, to be fair, those spectacular vistas, this is - to mangle the cliché - nowhere near a walk in the park, even if she staggers through a fair few national ones along the way. Quite the contrary. It’s a body-mauling, soul-stretching, character-battering-yet-forming pilgrimage dedicated to her mother, whose early loss to cancer 26-year-old Cheryl has not grieved. As we will find out.

Strayed wrote and published this enthralling memoir 15 years after the events she writes about: she clearly wrote good journals and – spoiler – there are bears, rattlesnakes and dodgy characters aplenty;  but there aren’t any Sasquatch, bigfoots or yetis. There are some warmer, nicer characters too; but they are mostly bit parts. Our heroine, centre stage, is Cheryl. With the PCT a close second.

Wild is an honest appraisal of a life more than a bit off the rails and needing some serious introspection and processing. Most people would go meditate up just one mountain or talk to a therapist. Cheryl Strayed changed her name – read the book to find out why – and then went serious walkabout in the wilderness to piece her chaotic life back together.

Here’s an extract from the middle of the book: a chapter called The Accumulation of Trees. She’s good on chapter headings – try Corvidology; Range of Light; Lou out of Lou and Box of Rain. In this one she writes about: "…what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild…" A wild, she goes on to say, that "would both shatter and shelter her".

So this is a story of woman vs Nature and also woman vs her own nature. Is it redemptive? You’ll have to read it to find out but I can promise you one thing: it will be well worth the journey, lost boots and all.

Published August 2018 by Jacana/MF Books

Desirée-Anne Martin is a force. For recovery. For self-love. For hope. Witness the last three sentences of her book – in the Acknowledgements: “And to all the hurt little – and grown-up – girls, this story is for you. There is always hope. Always.” But don’t be fooled. This is not a sweetness and light story. Precious few fairies appear in it. In fact you need to hang on tight for a rof-and-ready roller-coaster ride of note. And this, by the by, despite a comfortably middle-class and lacking-for-little background, as the chapter entitled “Don’t swim after eating” implies. That stopped me in my tracks: my own mother used those very same words on many an occasion. But the swimming-pool-in-the-back-garden social veneer, it turns out, is very thin.

Here, as evidence, is the structure - deceptively ordered at first, except for perhaps a hint of trouble in the middle... Part 1. The Rules. Part 2: Breaking the Rules. Part 3: Fuck the Rules. Part 4: The New Rules. Part 5: Bending the Rules. As you can tell, Ms Martin is not one for rules… Nevertheless, each chapter is carefully named and the typefaces used in the book are elegant; but then there’s that dystopic cover… and that less-than-romantic byline: “A girl who searched for love but found destruction instead.” Not exactly Mills & Boon then.

Like I say, few silver linings. And so, along the way, the language pulls no punches; the shattering descent into addiction is graphically described. Immediate, visceral, utterly believable, she paints a dark picture of a deeply unstable, tortured life of multiple addictions. But then, somehow, miraculously, she survives.

You will be relieved to know, there is some – though not much – dark humour as well, as her back cover bio hints: “A recovering addict, she believes caffeine, cigarettes, chocolate and bacon are the four major food groups.”

Hang in there for that humour – it saves this memoir from being unrelentingly brutal and hopeless and allows, finally, as the LRC's Dawn Garisch describes it, for this lovely summary: “Desiree-Anne Martin has spun the straw of addiction into gold.” Bearing in mind how tight a hold drugs and addiction have on South African lives, we really need these flashes of gold, those “true words that will, somehow, begin to heal that which has been broken.” Between the covers of “We Don’t Talk About It. Ever.” you will find those true words. Go read them.

BUY DESIREE'S BOOK ONLINE HERE

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story directed by Daryne Joshua and scripted by Amy Jephta, released September 2018

If you’re daunted by the prospect of two hours of despair and partial redemption, don’t be. Watching the story that you thought you knew is an education and a privilege. Witnessing the torture of a mother plagued by her tik-addicted son, you do not feel the time passing. Indeed, you wonder at first at some of the missing pieces – her other two sons feature minimally, though this might be by choice as they are both still alive. And you don’t really get a good sense of the motivation of her lawyer, Andries Samuels.

But these quibbles apart, the tragic story is sensitively and credibly told, with the two primary roles of Ellen Pakkies and her youngest son, Abie, being played with particular pathos and skill by Jill Levenberg (pictured above right, with Ellen Pakkies) and Jarrid Geduld. Both sides of the addiction rollercoaster are gruellingly portrayed – the addict’s awful spiral into a deranged and destructive state versus his mother’s desperate but ultimately fruitless struggle to get help for him.

For those who do not remember the case, which goes back a decade to 2007 when the action of the film takes place, this last point – the state’s failure to provide adequate protection and support for both addicts and their families – is cited as a primary reason for Ellen Pakkies’ sentence of 280 hours of community service, rather than going to prison for murder.

Elements of the story that I did not know make her desperation more understandable; but perhaps the saddest thing of all is the distinct feeling that the grip of the gangs – according to ongoing news reports – has if anything tightened since 2008. Certainly access to state-sponsored rehabilitation facilities has not improved, so far as the reviewer knows; and nor have conditions in places like Lavender Hill.

Although this film is not, so far as I know, based on a book (there has been a play), its script is undoubtedly life writing and its message, I suppose, one of hope for those still grappling with the grim upshot of freely-available drugs and, in particular, the horrors of crack cocaine addiction. Everyone who lives in Cape Town, has experienced addiction or has been a mother or parent, should see it. That covers an increasing number of people. The lessons here are, in that sense, universal – regardless of the story’s location. And, of course, the most important of those lessons, is that, with a little faith and hope, there is always a chance of a second chance.

Ellen went on general release in South Africa on 7 September 2018.

Thank you to Helen Grange, the Argus and Independent Newspapers for this very positive review. Now tell everyone you know - if you haven't already! And thanks to all the LRC writers for sharing their equally vital stories with us and the world. Onwards!

Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King, published August 2017 by Jacana/MF Books

I read this dramatic memoir a while back. Out of the MF Books/Jacana stable, it is a searing transcontinental, cross-racial memoir with a series of grim and bizarre twists that, true to life writing, is way stranger than fiction.

It kicks off with little Karoline being born, in 1980, under apartheid’s twisted Immorality Act. Under that legislation, both Karoline’s white mother and black father could have been arrested and imprisoned –and the child taken into care.

In a further twist, Karoline’s biological mother, who doesn’t come out of this tale too well, is already engaged to a white South African who is today a well-known wine farmer. This, in and of itself, as a bit of a wine fundi, got my mind whirring.

But there’s more. Karoline’s mother goes ahead with her pregnancy, which could, after all, be her fiancé’s.

So they wait and see. Karoline is born; she seems fairly pale, as is sometimes the case with mixed-race babies, but as the weeks pass, she darkens – as do the marital clouds.

What happens next leads us to the title – and I won’t tell you more (plenty of spoilers above), except to say that she comes back to life in suburban South-East England, riding ponies – as you did in the 99% white middle-class Home Counties of the time. However, increasingly Sara-Jayne (as she is now called) struggles with her identity, with consequences that threaten her emotional, physical and spiritual health.

The bizzarreness – and tragedy – do not stop there... and includes the rocky path she treads to reconciliation with some of her biological family; but you will have to buy the book to find out about that. And it’s very much worth the cover price to do so.

Her journey encompasses family tragedy, alienation, self-harm, addiction and time spent in rehab clinics so is, to clobber a cliché, a cracking good read. And it more than delivers on the questioning promise of its eye-catching cover.

What happens when the baby they buried comes back to life? Trust me: it’s one helluva rollercoaster ride finding out.

#JustMen directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer and featuring Johan Baird, Loukmaan Adams, Sherman Pharo and Thando Doni at the Baxter Theatre 13-30 June 2018 (but hopefully reviving very soon).

As with all our reviews, this is very much a personal one. Also, we felt this production deserved a review because its very reason for being is life righting. As such, it is important to record that this extremely powerful production touched me deeply, calling out as it does any violence against women and children.

Here’s why it hits home. In #JustMen, each of us will find echoes of our own lives, either as men or women, in what we hear. And what we hear, and very much feel, is a series of dramatised personal testimonies by four heterosexual, racially stratified men – white Afrikaaner x 1, black Xhosa x 1, brown Muslim x 1, brown gangster x 1. I’m not sure if gangster should have a capital G: add it if you want. These are, in any case, my artificial boxes, although the production makes something of them too. And also breaks them down.

That, of course, is the point of the title, because, at bottom, they are all just men. Indeed, the production was designed originally, perhaps optimistically, for male audiences only. That took a turn along the way, such that at the final performance we attended, it was probably 50/50 men and women. Audience notwithstanding, #JustMen is at pains to universalise the male gender’s role in the South African societal challenge, which is, of course, multi-faceted in the extreme. Witness, for me, the moment that moved me most: Sherman Pharo’s relating of the loss of his mother, we assume to long-term abuse-related injuries, when she was just 36.

Through this, just one tip of the twisted male psyche’s iceberg is revealed – the relationship between mothers and sons (a whole production waiting in the wings in itself). The point is that I have precious little in common with Sherman Pharo in terms of my life experience, but at that moment I had everything in common with him. That is the power of this production. It is, by the by, also the intended power of the Life Righting Collective’s work, #justsaying…

In both these contexts, if just one part of one story connects with you – and remember these are real stories told by the actual men still living those stories – then #JustMen has done its job. It has, one hopes, in doing so, shifted people – and more specifically men – to consider themselves differently and to stand up, as the production asks of them, to consider how they can contribute to changing the existing toxic dynamic.

Except that my partner and I – and we are both men – did not respond to the show’s call to men in the audience to actually, physically ‘stand up’ at the point in the play where we were asked bu one of the actors to do so. Why? On reflection, because there is, despite their very best intentions and the absolute correctness of the focus on heterosexual machismo and violence against women and children, as well as the mention of homophobia and corrective lesbian rape, something missing.

Firstly, two mentions of homophobia and its consequences (I stand corrected: it may have been a couple more) is not enough, for me, to acknowledge the LGBTI community’s intersection with straight male oppression. Secondly, the production missed a trick in not having at least one actual homosexual or even bisexual story to tell. You need ALL men on this crusade and I am not sure it is correct to assume that all gay men will automatically toe the non-misogynist or non-violent line in this debate: not all gay men are pacifist feminists. These things are not binary. So there was a layer missing, for both my partner and I – even though there were stories that connected viscerally with us.

Please don’t get me wrong. Gender-based violence is statistically more prevalent than homophobic rape or murder – and so requires the focus that this powerful and essential production bravely puts on it. It just isn’t, for me, 100% of the story.

NOTE 1: This production has already been to a variety of schools and communities, playing to all-male audiences, as well as precipitating an impressive Youth Day march against GBV, and intends very much to continue doing so, with the support of the City of Cape Town.

NOTE 2: It was suggested to me that I should write this review from MY place of hurt in relation to my own felt oppression; and I think I have touched on that – but to write that story in full is a whole essay or possibly long-form poem in itself: one that may yet appear on this website.

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