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Rosemund Handler

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Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

A hairy debate

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian



Years ago, the young son of a good friend approached me. His mother was making tea, and he and I spoke on the balcony. He asked me if I would tell his mother that he was gay and, to boot, HIV-positive. Shock on my part; heated persuasion on his. In the end he agreed to tell her – in my presence.

Much more recently, the daughter of a friend asked if she could have a private chat. A memory of the previous encounter surfaced and I hedged. ‘Why me? What about your mom?’

‘Her? You must be joking. I wouldn’t tell her if I was nine months pregnant!’

Ominous. ‘You aren’t, right?’ She giggles. ‘No, I am not pregnant and if I was, what would you do?’

‘Tell your mother.’

‘No, you would not, I trust you. You’re nothing like my mother.’

‘Surely,’ I say despairingly, ‘if this is a private matter, your mother is still the best person to speak to.’ All of 15 years old, she laughs again. ‘Would you tell your mother that you watch porn with two of your friends? That sometimes we play at being porn stars ourselves?’

Put like that, no, I wouldn’t. ‘Why are you watching porn? You may think you’re 25, but you’re still a kid!’

‘That’s what I want to talk about.’ She bites her lip. ‘I want to shave.’

I roll my eyes. ‘You already do.’

‘No! I mean down there.’

‘You mean you want to shave your vagina.’

‘That’s not what they call it at school.’

Sigh. The c-word and p-word are pretty banal these days, even when rolling off the tongues of babes. The weird part is that I have just read about a teenager who shaved off her pubic hair and lacerated her labia in the process, which turned into a medical emergency. Apparently, the craze among teenage girls is to remove all body hair, especially pubic. As in the harems of sultans.

‘My boyfriend keeps telling me it’s much sexier down there without any hair. It reminds him of the baths he used to take with his little sister. He says it will also be safer for me.’

‘Safer? How?’

‘Well, he wouldn’t – you know – force me, because I remind him of his little sister.’

‘How old is this guy?’


‘What movies is he watching? Has he forced you before?’

She avoids my eye. ‘No, but he is a good – talker.’

‘About what?’

‘He likes us to watch porn together. And do – stuff.’

I don’t want to hear anymore. I want her mother to do the listening; I’ve done mine. But I do tell her two stories, which probably won’t help but make me feel better.

Back in the day when my daughter was 12, she demanded to shave her legs. I inspected the fine gold down and informed her she would be embarking on a life sentence and should wait until she was 14. If she still felt the same way, so be it.

She would have none of it. It didn’t seem worth another pitched battle, so she began shaving. Today, a vocal feminist, she hasn’t shaved her legs in years and is proud of her hair wherever it’s located, like the European women who have flaunted their body hair for decades and haven’t lost an ounce of style or sex appeal.

Then I tell the girl about a man whose first wife was German and his second French. He said the best thing about both was their pubic hair – blond and dark. Secret, suggestive; sexy.

‘Yuck!’ says my young companion. ‘Smooth is in. My friend has a ring through her labia and still manages to shave around it. I would love a labia ring but I’ve got a low pain tolerance, she said it hurt like hell …’

We women owe a vote of thanks to good old Gillette. In 1915, Gillette declared female body hair unsightly, launching the ‘Milady Decollete’ razor for women, an ‘innovative’, very successful marketing campaign to rid women of their hairy scourge.

Even my pragmatic mother-in-law began eyeing her sparse facial hair with a jaundiced eye and plucking out the odd bristler in front of a mirror.

‘Here’s the ugly truth,’ I say, aware that I might as well be talking to myself. ‘If you’re dark, you have dark body hair, and dark people – like you – are more hirsute. If you’re blonde your body hair may be lighter but you could have a nice gold moustache to make up for it.’

‘I know,’ interjects the girl, ‘a kid in my class has wispy blond hair above her upper lip and the boys call her Pubic Lips. That is the worst!

It’s crappy, but not the worst. The worst is that females are viewed as nothing more than marketing targets – the very fate feminists have harangued us to avoid since the dawn of feminism. Judging by what I’m hearing, what’s on TV screens, online and in the flocks of gaudy magazines on the shelves, being female continues to be less and less about becoming womanly and more and more about staying girlish.

I take a deep breath and dive in. ‘Let me say this: you should try very hard to separate what you really want, what makes you feel comfortable, from what others tell you to want, and from all the noise out there. Try to see your entire body as something to be proud of. It’s yours, after all, nobody else’s, so you have to take care of it. And only you should make decisions about what you do with it. If my daughters could manage it, so can you.’

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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The sound of one male ego flapping is enough to banish a whole pride of lions

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian



In my tiny tent, wrapped in darkness and my sleeping bag, I revisit the images of the day: lion cubs cuffing one another and their mothers, demanding to play; a herd of red lechwe fleeing as two elegant cheetah stride past; a ground hornbill peering down curiously at our little group from a bole in a jackalberry tree.

Chill air rises from the river. The night is deep and dense and silent, the stars miniscule shards of light, the moon a hazy peel of orange. The quality of quiet is bush-quiet, unmatched by any other – balm to the spirit, to sleep, to uncluttered dreams. An owl hoots softly, a nightjar calls. I close my eyes.

A low, monotonous buzz severs the silence. I sigh and turn over, reluctantly awake. The Buddha of the bush, in his tent 20m away, is expounding yet again; no doubt his acolyte and partner, beautiful Melinda, 23 years his junior, is as attentive as she always is.

Our small group is a mixed bag of nationalities, unfazed by the rough and tough of true bush – so-called wild camping: no showers, a bush toilet, meals prepared from scratch, lots of lifting and carrying. It takes a few days to observe that one man is making almost no contribution; instead, his partner works doubly hard in an apparent bid to make up for this.

Melinda is easy to talk to. Over the next day or two it emerges that her partner is a kind of guru, though this word is never used. Invited to speak at conventions in the United States and parts of Europe, he is highly respected in his movement. Beautiful, gentle, intelligent Melinda met him while attending one of these conventions, and it is easy to see why she appealed to him. It is less certain why she worships this strutting man, is dazzled by him and honoured to serve him.

The guru insists on choosing first, each time, the best site for his tent at our little camps; he dives for the choicest chop on the braai, treats the snorer among us as if he had leprosy, jumps the line at immigration. He is watchful of whatever small privileges he can garner above the rest of us. Argumentative, short-tempered and greedy, he makes no bones about his rights.

According to Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering, and the craving for material goods and pleasure can never be satisfied. Spiritual bliss is the ultimate goal of nirvana, enlightenment; karma refers to the good or bad acts a person makes during a lifetime.

Our guru, who presumably seeks to influence others to these ways and holds a prominent position in his movement, seems the very antithesis of these tenets: competitive, envious and generally dismayingly neglectful of his karma, let alone of the opportunities for enlightenment in the bush.

As the Voice from the tent buzzes on, I think about some of the religions of the world: Catholicism, with its straight and narrow, too narrow for many, especially some of its priests; Judaism, which emphasises the importance of leading an ethical life but whose leaders do not always lead by example; Islam, in which Allah’s ways must be strictly followed, and for a few this means killing in his name. The list goes on. As does the Voice.

I climb out of my sleeping bag for a toilet visit, just outside the tent; the bush toilet is too far and the night feels cold and slightly dangerous. When I return to my tent, the Voice is finally subsumed by a snore. The guru’s snore – surely less offensive than anyone else’s? – is infinitely preferable to the Voice.

After five minutes of shivering in my sleeping bag, I am finally warm. I feel myself drifting off.

A deafening roar shatters the night. I sit up, shaking, and switch on my head lamp. Just past midnight. A lion on the prowl behind my tent. I hear snuffling, far too close, and a rustling of dry leaves. Something is out there. My karma assures me it’s only a honey badger and it isn’t after me, but my trembling tells another story.

Surely the lion will want the prize of our little group? After all, what predator wouldn’t choose a guru above a skinny creature like me? A second roar reverberates through the dark and my bloodstream. Then a third – roars from all directions like a crowd baying for blood at a soccer game.

Lion brothers. My heart feels like a football, bouncing between them. They’ll make mincemeat of all of us and the guru won’t do a thing to prevent it!

But they don’t. They leave. And believe it or not, I finally fall asleep. The next morning, the guru eyes my bleary face with apparent concern. “You had a bad night, my dear?”

“It was the lions,” I say. “Surely they kept everybody awake?”

He compresses his lips. “What lions? You heard lions in the night? I think you must have been dreaming.” The others heard nothing either. How could anybody sleep through that?

Melinda appears behind her man. “I was terrified – they were right behind our tent, my love. But I knew your karma would protect us.”

She smiles beatifically. I succumb to bleariness.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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The mysteries of marriage

Married people are like insects, though that’s not what the movies tell us. The likes of Kim Kardashian, who leapfrogs marriage like a flea, and Angelina Jolie, the queen bee who stays put in her union and extends it to the children of the world, are not typical; yet thousands of variants agilely reinvent themselves for some and for others, solidify in concrete. The diversity of the institution is the enigma, and for this reason alone, I advised myself to stay away. But recent encounters with married people compelled me to change my mind – and to speculate yet again as to why on earth people get married.

Back in the day, marriage was the only realistic choice of partnership, certainly if you wanted to have children. Now anything goes when it comes to partnerships, yet still, people get married. The real question is why. Is it about hope, high expectations, belief in an elusive, illusory goal of fulfilment and joy?

Despite its track record, marriage has endured, which means the institution works for some (fewer as I grow older!) but not for others. I’m told on good authority there would be many more divorces if people didn’t choose to stay – for reasons beyond my ken – in moribund marriages. On the other hand, many who are widowed or divorced go back for seconds.

Shakespeare, Jung, Jane Austen and a countless host of renowned writers and thinkers have liberally covered the marriage ground with their views. Feminists balk – and who can blame them? – at many of the classic male writers, who often portray the little woman as the honey trap who turns sour and becomes a parasite. ‘A young man married is a man that’s marr’d', says Shakespeare, and Lady Macbeth, wife and mother, is murderously marred; in Hamlet, it is ‘with mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage’. But in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare takes a different view: ‘Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee.’ And in Much Ado About Nothing, he advises ‘Thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife!’

Jung believed we are unconsciously influenced by our parents in our choice of partner; that children are driven in a direction that must compensate for what was missing in their parents’ lives, including the so-called dream partner – an imagined ideal of a loving relationship. He defined conventional marriage as an instinctive choice, ‘an instrument for maintaining the species’, claiming that in the second half of life marriage begins to move from passion and duty to ‘an intolerable burden – a vampire that battens on the life of its creator’.

I thought of an acquaintance I bumped into who had just arrived home after a long flight. The tip of his nose was red and swollen and I asked if he’d picked up a cold on the plane. He shook his head. ‘No, that’s from my snore mask. I alternate between two different masks each night because my wife can’t sleep if I snore and I can’t sleep if I don’t.’

We said our farewells, and disturbing images of ‘battening’ hove into view. He was clearly the kind of guy who sleeps in the bed he has made, no matter what, and if sleeping in a separate bedroom seemed like worse torture than wearing not one but two medieval-type masks to silence himself, who was I to question his choices?

Charles Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Catherine, after 20 years of marriage and 10 children. Without informing her in advance, he had the marital bedroom divided in two, and then demanded a legal separation from her. Although he supported her well, he described her as ‘an incompetent’ mother afflicted with ‘a mental disorder’. In fact, Dickens was already involved with Ellen Ternan, whom he met when she was 17, and with whom he remained involved until his death in 1870.

I can only imagine the feelings of Dickens’ abandoned but ‘well supported’ wife, though reams have been written about her husband, who was dictatorial, selfish and intolerant in his personal capacity while amply demonstrating his social conscience in his writings. Perhaps taking care of his repudiated wife and children salved his conscience in the same way another man, married for 43 years, salves his. Bored and out of love with his wife, whose friendship he claims to enjoy, he has indulged in numerous affairs over the years. The marriage has creaked on, despite his wife’s sporadic threats. Lately, he has begun to feel that he needs to make reparations in some way. Since they both steer clear of confrontations these days, not to mention religion, his way is to find voluntary work which will make a contribution and (pointing skywards) ‘improve his chances’ up there’.

Maybe Katharine Hepburn was right when she wondered if men and women ‘really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then’. Like the married couple who share a home, yet dislike each other and have very different interests. Their solution is they each have their own study, and conduct most of their communication via email.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s character abjures ‘Lizzy’ not to marry without affection; in the same book, she writes ‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’. I’m not so sure: Graca Machel comes to mind, her grace and devotion in the face of multiple pressures; also the woman in Woolworths who smilingly overhears my husband and I engage in one of our more civilised skirmishes. Eighty-plus, she tells us she was married to her husband for 58 years. She took Jane Austen’s advice and did not marry without affection, but she says marriage is a combination of luck and hard work. ‘My husband and I argued often, shared everything, never got bored and trusted each other implicitly. He made me promises for 58 years that he never broke. Except for one: he promised never to leave me, but he did. He died last year. I still haven’t forgiven him for that.’

Friedrich Nietzsche would have understood: ‘Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.’

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The dispossessed

What is the true meaning of the word home? How does leaving the home of your birth and upbringing to live in an adopted country impact your life?

Writer Roger Cohen of The New York Times, born in South Africa, and critic James Wood, born and raised in England, have both spent many years in the US. They recently addressed the issues of leaving one’s birthplace from the experience of their own lives. Cohen movingly describes his childhood in South Africa as a landscape ‘of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood’. He concludes that there is no realistic possibility of returning to the place you called home decades ago. Home is to be found in the acceptance of inevitable change and in the connection with friends and loved ones.

In spite of this assertion, Cohen’s longstanding residency in New York, his work and American citizenship have not gifted him with the place of his ‘deepest connections’: if he had a few weeks to live he would go to Cape Town, to his grandfather’s house near Kalk Bay, a place of happy childhood memories. Wood has lived in America for 18 years. In his essay On not going home, he harks back to an interview with Christopher Hitchens long before he died which yielded similar thoughts: in spite of decades spent living and writing in the US, Hitchens expressed a longing to return one day to Dartmoor, where he spent his childhood.

It’s clear that the word home has multiple interpretations depending on individual experience. ‘Immigration is a widespread modern condition,’ says Cohen, ‘perhaps the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety.’ Wood writes that if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress may be linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: what he describes as displacement anguish.

The exile chosen by both Cohen and Wood, however, is the ‘softer emigration’ of voluntary homelessness. Like Wood in the US, I often encounter in South Africa people from all over the world who are homesick for their native countries, who miss family and hometown, but would never seriously think of returning, preferring to visit when they can. Some have integrated their lives and the landscape of South Africa in such a way that the longing for their birthplace has diminished to almost nothing. These are the fortunate expatriates who do not dream ceaselessly of their past, and whose childhood places await them should they wish to return.

I don’t debate the ‘truth’ of displacement anguish or the nostalgia of immigrants – I have been an ill-fitting one myself, and that anguish never completely heals. Coming home was the right decision for me, but the scars of displacement are not easily erased. I still have dreams of waking up in strange places, the intense feelings of alienation as unwelcome as they are familiar.

But it is the fate of the forced exile, the refugee deprived of his homeland owing to oppression or persecution that takes on the dimensions of tragedy. Edward Said’s essay, Reflections on Exile, differentiates between the exile and the émigré. He describes the experience of the former as ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’

The words of an Afghan exile stay with me. ‘Part of my life,’ he wrote, ‘is lived in a place of unassuageable sorrow and yearning.’ There is the Zimbabwean refugee in Johannesburg who almost lost his life for leading a march in his village and can never hope to return in safety, but worries about the fate of his widowed mother; the Iranian medical specialist who hasn’t mastered English sufficiently to qualify in the US and sells jeans from a stall in downtown Los Angeles; the Sudanese teacher who cleans toilets in Israel. And the boat people, lost and found, almost universally abused.

Wood describes his unforced exile as ‘no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there … and I wonder: How did I get here?’ On a realistic level, he knows the answer: he brought himself. He was not obliged to abandon his home. He had free will, he made the choices of an educated man and both the world he left and the one he entered recognised those privileges.

Not so for the countless millions of displaced people from all over the world. The refugees who have a present, but no attainable past and at best an uncertain future; who must wake up every morning with a sense of bewilderment and anxiety all the greater for being immutable. These exiles are mostly unwelcome in their places of refuge, and do not have the luxury of Wood’s ‘afterwardness’ – a Freudian concept that describes the recognition of something too late to change or undo.

They are the truly dispossessed.

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