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Rosemund Handler

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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

I hate my parents

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

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Parental alienation

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard A Gardner first identified Parental Alienation Syndrome in the 1980s. He defined this syndrome as the brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent, commonly in divorce and custody battles.

Dr Gardner expanded the meaning of this syndrome to describe a child’s support of the alienating parent’s campaign against the targeted parent, usually with no rational justification other than the influence exerted by the alienating parent on the child. Foul language and extreme aggressive/defensive behaviours are often manifested by both the alienating parent and the child he/she has “on his/her side”. The children are adamant they have come to the decision to take sides independently, so removing blame from the alienating parent. Friends and relatives are recruited to denigrate the targeted parent. In court, it is common for alienating parents to claim that they have no influence on the child’s decisions.

More recently, Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS, has been discredited. There is no such syndrome, say psychiatrists; there is just parental alienation, which typically occurs during highly charged divorce and custody battles.

According to Justin, in his case parental alienation has nothing to do with divorce. His parents have been married for 40 years; he hasn’t spoken to them in more than 12. They were not invited to his wedding, and they have not set eyes on their two young grandchildren.

Why such unrelenting animosity?

“My father has always been under the sway of my mother, who takes control issues to a new level. I am an only child. I found the best way to escape her need to control me growing up was to tell her very little; often, I resorted to lying. I work with a woman who admits to severe power struggles in her marriage which she has to win to sleep at night. Her husband loves her, but the strain is beginning to tell.

“The difference between her and my mother is that she admits to the problem, and she is committed to working on it; my mother has always denied that she holds the reins of power.”

“Maybe that works for some marriages.”

He smiles. “At the age of 22 I finished studying and had a business opportunity with the son of a friend of my parents. His parents got behind their son’s idea. I decided to approach my parents, not for a loan, but for surety so that we could obtain a bank loan. I spoke to my dad and he was delighted, promising to give me any support I needed, including a loan.

“At breakfast the next morning he had changed his tune: he said he felt I was a little young to be going it alone; also that their finances had to be secure for retirement, so he was forced to withdraw his offer. When I asked why he had changed his mind overnight, he was at a loss for words. He wouldn”t look me in the face.”

“Was your mother around?”

“She had sneaked out of the house without breakfast.”

“How did you know that it was her decision rather than his?”

“She made all the decisions in our family. When I wanted something badly growing up, it was always my mother I had to win over.”

“Yet, when push came to shove, it was your dad you decided to approach for support. In retrospect, was that a mistake, knowing what you knew about their relationship?”

“Like all controlling people, my mother is very manipulative: I knew at best she would give me some rope – which she could later withdraw – and at worst turn me down flat. Perhaps I hoped that for once my father would assert himself. Later, I confronted my mother and she denied responsibility; she made my father parrot to my face that it was his decision, taken for their financial security.”

Justin shrugs. “My friend’s dad signed surety and the business hasn’t looked back since.”

“It could have gone the other way.”

“Sure. But I felt betrayed, and I realised the feeling of instability was far too familiar: I had felt it my entire life.”

“So your children have no grandparents on your side?”

“My wife’s parents are loving and supportive.”

“Have your parents tried to make contact?”

“My dad has, repeatedly. He speaks with my mother’s voice and I don’t listen to that any more. I miss him, but I don’t miss her; that’s what’s sad. Yet I blame him almost as much as her: he gave her the power and he sacrificed me to his weakness.”

I have since had contact with other adult children who, for various reasons, have no contact with their still-married parents. The offending parent is usually the mother, except in one case, in which the father regarded his children as rivals for their mother’s affections and forced her to choose between them. She chose her husband and financial security. In some cases, the problem stems from mother-in-law/daughter-in-law incompatibility.

Losing a child is the most painful trauma conceivable for any parent. When that child is still living, the loss is unimaginable.

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

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A hairy debate

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

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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?’

‘16.’

‘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

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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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Masipa’s Pistorius sentence has trivialised the plight of female victims of violence

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

Oscar Pistorius’s sentence wasn’t a surprise. I expected it. It became clear to me fairly early on in Judge Thokozile Masipa’s involvement with his case that she was uncommonly mesmerised. The man or his disability, perhaps both, seemed to bring out the mother in her.

It was as if Pistorius, who had overcome so much in his life, had earned the right to be treated a little like a difficult child; that he was as different from your common-or-garden murderer as a dog is from a tiger.

Such murderers come from deprived backgrounds and have abusive family, or none at all, and most have addiction problems – all of which contribute to their murderous state of mind. These people are not achievers – nor, probably, will they ever be. They are neither rich nor famous, so no excuses can be made for them. Recidivism is a distinct possibility.

On the other hand, the pathetic, legless figure staggering through the courtroom must surely have aroused emotions in the judge that can only be described as maternal, falling in a no-man’s-land between compassion and admiration bordering on adulation. How else to explain her bizarre sentencing decision?

In her initial judgment, Masipa found Pistorius not guilty of murder but of manslaughter. In my view, she remained convinced enough of this judgment to levy an inappropriate sentence on a woman killer.

Even Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema expressed indignation that the blonde model did not receive the justice she deserved, casting blame on a racist system that favours whiteness, fame and wealth – though I have no doubt that had Reeva Steenkamp been a black model and a white judge had levied the same sentence for murder, his outrage would have known no bounds.

But here’s the thing that really irks me: women and children are molested and murdered every day in townships and rural areas, and sometimes shot to death by crazed husbands in the suburbs. Albino children disappear and are used for muthi in the belief that they bring good fortune.

So what kind of message is Masipa’s sentence sending to potential predators or perpetrators of violence against women? A few women I’ve spoken to put it like this: molest children, commit rape and murder and you never know – a smart lawyer, thoroughly versed in the manipulation of human emotions, might bring the justice system to heel in surprising ways.

A man like Pistorius, in Masipa’s compassionate view, had suffered so many losses already and was not at risk of recidivism – even if his real love affair, I’m told, was with guns, not his girlfriend. Well, murder victims don’t have time to engage with concepts such as suffering and the will to live; they’ve had all that taken from them by violent men.

I am haunted by that violence, and more so by the spectre of a justice system that trivialises violent acts against women and children. The faces of countless victims line up before me, reproachful ghosts pleading with those of us who are alive and unmolested to make somebody pay for their stolen lives.

A friend living in a township is attractive and smart, and is regularly hit on by men who then resent her firm rejection. She’s been burgled and threatened, and knows that some of the most persistent pests are married with children.

One night she worked late. She met a friend afterwards for a bite, and the two caught one of the last taxis home; the friend planned to stay over. The vehicle was almost empty save for two men sitting at the back. There wasn’t much traffic and they arrived at her street quicker than usual. They got off and the taxi moved on.

As they approached her door, the two men materialised out of the darkness and grabbed my friend. Not a word was said. She screamed. Her companion, in terror for her life – she is a lesbian who has been repeatedly threatened with rape and death – fled. The men let her go. While one stifled my friend’s screams with his hand and held her down, the other pulled off her jeans and raped her. Then they swapped places.

By the time her friend returned to the scene with two frightened old women in her wake, it was all over, the rapists long gone.

This same woman once broke a vase she loved. It had belonged to her grandmother and the loss brought her to tears. She tried for days to glue the pieces together, but it was a hopeless quest. “That vase,” she tells me, “is my life. It will never be whole again.”

We discussed the Pistorius sentencing. “What feels worst for me,” she says, “is that Masipa is a woman, an older, highly educated judge who is regarded as wise, empathetic.

“Yet she’s made me feel that what happened to me is insignificant, easily overcome. She has trivialised the cause of all women victims, not just Reeva Steenkamp. Her sentence feels like a betrayal not only of her sex, but of herself.”

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

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The lost self

This piece was first published in the Mail & Guardian

Judy is 49 years old when she finds what all women dread: a lump, in her right breast. She visits friends that evening and after much wining and dining, goes home and falls into a deep sleep. Late for work the next day, she dresses in a hurry and remembers the lump. To her distress, it is still there. Her morning is busy; during lunch she has a manicure and pedicure scheduled. The next day’s lunch hour is devoted to tinting her hair, which she has done every five weeks. Her period arrives like clockwork; the lump, not difficult to locate, is painless and not very big.

Finally, Judy tells a colleague, who urges her to get checked. She has a mammogram at a local clinic and is told she needs to return for a biopsy. The lump is more than 2 cm. She surrendered her medical aid when her credit card bills became too high for her to meet minimum payment; she decides the lump can wait.

A year later, it has grown to the size of a golf ball. She tells her sister, who was once a nurse, and lives near a public hospital in the city. Judy waits her turn for a week to get biopsied. The result is fourth-stage breast cancer. Before the breast can be removed, she must have chemotherapy to shrink the tumour.

‘Why on earth didn’t you get checked the minute you felt the lump?’ demands Judy’s sister. ‘I don’t know,’ is the reply. ‘There was a lot going on at work and I guess I hoped it would go away.’ ‘You’ve been married three times, you’re slim and gorgeous, you spend a fortune on the right food, your hair, your nails! What were you thinking?’

‘Nothing. I’ve always taken good care of myself, it’s like a habit,’ says Judy.

‘And now,’ declares her sister bluntly, ‘that habit might kill you!’

Ryan, on the other hand, has always taken his body for granted. He is obese, never exercises, eats whatever he wants, drinks up to 10 beers three or four times a week and is adamant that ‘he is not an alcoholic’. For up to year, after a toilet visit, he notices blood. He has had haemorrhoids before. He has some stomach pain and puts this down to indigestion. Then he has a massive bleed and goes to his GP, who insists on tests. Ryan is shocked when he is told that he has fourth stage bowel cancer. Without chemotherapy, he may die within six months.

Judy’s sister claims Judy’s terror of dying prevented her from even thinking about it. Now she thinks of nothing else. Her body, her best friend, has become her prison.

Perhaps it was always her prison. She spent much time and money grooming it, deliberately overlooking the obvious in favour of looking pretty. Ryan knows he took his body for granted before the cancer, but says it had never given him problems.

The inaction of both these individuals is not uncommon. People often define themselves by their appearance, like Judy, or have given up on it, like Ryan. What these two people have in common is a life-threatening disease, and their response to it. Consumed by fear, they react with animal instinct: they run, they hide from the danger. Unlike animals, they are equipped with awareness, which they choose not to exercise. Despite this, they cling to hope that they will beat the odds and their bodies will rescue them. As they always have.

Consciousness, of ourselves, of others, is what defines us, is it not? It is what makes us human rather than animal, individual rather than herd-driven. Yet behaviour such as Ryan’s and Judy’s brings into question not only the awareness of self, but its very existence. Are we truly different from animals, or do we, like them, rely on instinct for survival? Are we, whether king of vagrant, truly individual? We claim to be defined by our differences rather than by what we have in common, but our behaviour towards ourselves, towards one another, appears to demonstrate the opposite: rather than respecting the self, the conscious being we are privileged to be above all other species, we focus only on how we appear, or disappear, in the perceptions of others.

History tells the human story as one of slavery to an array of addictions, the most prevalent and pernicious of which have been, and remain today, war, power, money, religion. We are obsessed with what we can see, what we can lay our hands on, what we consume. Technology meant to enhance our lives in practice dominates them: yet another obsession. While purporting to improve our communication with one another, it distances us in ways yet to play themselves out.

We appear to place little or no value on the individual self, despite the noise about rights and responsibilities. Nor on what is invisible, the multiple organs beneath the skin, the spirit that ignites and motivates us that some call soul. When it comes to individuality versus the herd the latter wins. Hands down. The question is, at what cost?

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

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Body parts

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This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian titled “Don’t harden your heart”

Two men from different parts of the city wait for a kidney donor. Jack has been waiting for nearly three years for a match; Martin one month. They met going to dialysis: Jack daily, Martin three times weekly. They know the drill, and they get chatting. Liquids are one of their first subjects: how much liquid an apple represents, or a bunch of grapes, how little a dried peach. The amount of liquid they are permitted is measured to the last drop. Without functional kidneys, it doesn’t take a lot of liquid to cause damage, and even death. The two men find they have more in common than their illness: both are under 40, married with children, both have big plans for their lives and want desperately to live to see their children grow up.

Death is the last thing they talk about. But death stalks them, getting closer and closer. Unless a donor can be found.

Three months after they met, Martin, who has been waiting for a donor for four months, gets lucky. An unrelated donor match is found from a donor bank. The donor is anonymous, likely somebody who has made a living will in which it is written that should he become dependent on machines to breathe, or deceased, he wants his organs to be harvested and donated to save lives. Kidneys, corneas, heart, lungs, pancreas; any part that may save or improve somebody’s life.

Jack is happy for his newfound friend. Two days after his successful transplant, Martin inquires after his friend, saying he feels badly that he was so lucky after so short a time, and Jack has waited so long. His wife tells him that the day after Martin’s transplant, Jack went into a shop, bought a 2-litre bottle of Coke, and drank it down. He died soon afterwards. He simply got tired of waiting, and made a choice that caused terrible pain to those who loved him.

In another part of the country, a 19-year man lies in a hospital bed, in a coma. He suffered head trauma in a motorcycle accident and his grieving parents have been told there is no brain activity; no hope. Their son is brain-dead.

In the same hospital, a girl is dying, her damaged heart failing. Her family have been trying to find a donor for months and their daughter has run out of time. Yet if a heart transplant could be performed, her life could still be saved.

The doctors, aware of the desperate need, not only to save the girl’s life, but for the other lives that the young motorcyclist’s organs could save, speak with some urgency to the parents of the boy. These people are thunderstruck, horrified, despairing, but ultimately unyielding. Hope is their religion; they cling to it against all logic. Not a hair on their boy’s head may be touched.

The girl dies two dreadful days later. The boy breathes for two weeks with the aid of machines then, mercifully, dies. The parents remain adamant that their son’s body must be left intact, even though he will be cremated. The heart patient’s parents refuse to donate her organs on religious grounds. They say they want her to be buried whole so that in time she will be resurrected in her entirety.

There is an average of over 4,300 adults and children at any given time, waiting for an organ transplant in South Africa. Less than 600 transplants are performed each year and many adults and children die waiting for a life-saving transplant. The Organ Donor Foundation is passionate in its drive to help these individuals and their families. I’m told one organ donor can save seven lives by donating heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas; the quality of life of up to 50 more people can be improved by that same donor donating skin, bone, corneas and heart valves. Shockingly, in South Africa less than 0.2 percent of the population are registered organ donors, as compared to a country like America, where 40 percent of the population are registered organ donors.

There are a host of reasons people give for not becoming organ donors, most of them religious, superstitious or sentimental. The few people I spoke to shuddered at the thought of dying, let alone parting with an organ. One or two seemed interested in the idea of a living will, and one woman called and joined the Organ Donor Foundation. A man who has made a living will in which he stipulates that he wishes all his organs to be donated is uncertain that his wishes will be carried out. His children know of this living will, and do not agree with it on religious grounds.

The bottom line is that if your son or daughter needs an organ to survive, the rationales become null and void. Most of us would give anything we have to obtain the necessary organ; the rich, I am told, have access to a worldwide black market in organs harvested under suspect, even horrific, circumstances. But that’s a whole other story.

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

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The scent of a man

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This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, 15 August, 2015

The Mouille Point beachfront in Cape Town is a special place, the haunt of walkers, joggers, dog lovers and tourists. All have a stake in its often breathtaking beauty. On a clear, breezy day, inhaling the unmatched ozone in the air is pure joy. In winter, rain scours the air and the clammy mystery of a white-out fog makes Robben Island an illusion, lurking like a shark underwater.

Those who appreciate this once spurned stepchild of the Cape Town oceanfront are accustomed to the buffeting southeasters which transport pollution to other climes; and even on hot summer days, when the reek of sewage and doggy bins sours the salt and by night diesel from shipping hangs listless on the horizon, the beachfront remains unique.

These odours and more are well known to me, so it was a surprise on a recent genteel jog to be enveloped in chemistry so powerful and odoriferous that the effect was toxic. The smell burned and clung in my nostrils and infiltrated my lungs.

This invasive odour emanated from a young man I had passed some 20 metres back. The reek was of a fragrance counter at an airport, a harsh amalgam of musk and chemicals that made me wonder if he could smell himself.

What I could smell was the dynamic science of marketing. According to research, sales of men’s fragrances grew faster than women’s in 2014. Market researcher Mintel claims that 55 percent of men wear cologne. A staff member of a fragrance department says men aged 18 to 34 love to wear expensive perfume, the more expensive, the better; perfume is essential for male grooming – gone are the days of buying some pleasant aftershave that disappears (to the wearer) after about 20 minutes.

A pity. A subtle fragrance won’t overpower anyone near you. I’ve always believed that men smelling up a lift, which I find repellent, won’t turn other women on. It turns out I’m right – and wrong.

I spoke to a selection of mostly younger women about male perfumes. “I like a guy to smell of himself,” said Lisa. “My sense of smell is probably my best, and every guy I’ve gone out with has smelt different to me.” She prefers her men straight out of the shower, or fresh from a jog. A little sweat, she says, works for her. A guy friend uses very expensive men’s fragrances. “He hugs me whenever we meet and I stink of the stuff for the entire evening. Really not a turn-on.”

Jean finds men who wear fragrances a big turn-on. “My boyfriend uses male fragrances, but I like it best when he uses a dab of my perfume. It smells completely unlike how it smells on me. On me its vanilla, on him honey and a touch of cigar. Very sexy!”

The manufacturers of male fragrances know their target market and make much of the fact that men produce more sweat which, they claim, makes them more self-conscious. But according to David M Pariser, an American dermatologist who is also a founding member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, a group for people affected by excessive sweating, sweat doesn’t necessarily mean men smell worse. The sweat that can be measured, he says, is a watery, heat-induced type that has no smell. Both men and women produce odorous sweat, which is oilier and comes from the apocrine sweat glands, mainly under the breast, at the groin and at the armpits. The reason the odour of this sweat intensifies during hot weather is due to bacteria and yeast that flourish in these areas of the body in muggy conditions.

More illuminating is research on the psychological effects of the use of perfume on men. Such research suggests that men wearing a commercial fragrance demonstrate increased self-confidence. The effect of this is that women find them more attractive; rather than the perfume itself, it is this heightened confidence that works for them.

For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. They attribute the increased appreciation on the part of women to the so-called “Lynx Effect” (from a deodorant called Lynx) which makes men irresistible to women, and have stepped up their marketing accordingly.

People use perfume is to mask body odours they perceive as bad, but also in the belief that some perfumes contain chemicals that mimic human pheromones – mysterious, and possibly mythical, substances believed by some to play a role in mating. Some use it to fortify natural scent, thereby signalling sexual availability.

Every individual has his or her own smell. The sexes smell different. Women can glean information about a man’s social status from his smell alone. I spoke to women who believe men wear perfume to disguise their status in the same way a man might drive a fancy car he cannot afford in order to impress.

Research on women’s choices of fragrance indicates that women don’t choose the kind of smell they would like on a partner, or one that might mask an unpleasant odour, but rather something that reminds them of their own scent. Men who choose to wear overpowering male fragrances in the hope of attracting women might do well to bear this in mind.

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

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A Weighty Obsession

My mother worshipped in pounds and ounces. Every day of her working life in downtown Johannesburg, she prowled for a parking space, entered Stuttafords store and confronted her sentence, meted out by the huge, impassive face of the scale. Had she earned her daily bread? An ounce over – no bread; an ounce under, her single block of Cadbury’s chocolate was assured.

Her weight took precedence over punctuality and work obligations unless she was sick, and even then her dearest wish was that being ill would make her lose weight. She spent a lot of money at doctors who put her on courses of injections to induce weight loss, and endless hours sharing diet tips with her sisters and friends. A curvy, shapely woman, she despised her curves and longed to be skinny. ‘But you aren’t fat, mom,’ I often told her. ‘I feel fat,’ she replied. ‘And I want to feel thin.’

There is nothing new about dieting fads and fetishes, only creative salespeople and ever-inventive gurus and zealots. These kooks of corrective consumption, some better-intentioned than others, all share one characteristic: they are fiercely committed to their cause. The list is long, but there is no doubt that Banting, Atkins and our very own Tim Noakes and his team have created industries in their wake. They have raised our consciousness of health and diet to the status of a religion which has enslaved followers in ways that some regard as so invasive that their influence extends far beyond the dictates of good nutrition.

Walking behind a hiker on the Banting diet, I was treated to an amalgam of smells redolent of an over-used toilet. When he turned to chat, his breath was mephitic. He noticed my involuntary recoil. ‘I know I stink,’ he admitted, ‘but once my body adjusts – it’s called ketosis, you know, when your body begins burning fat for energy instead of carbs – it’ll be fine. And I feel fantastic.’

I didn’t. I couldn’t help wondering how his wife felt.

In the company of Julianne, I am treated to a diatribe of what superfoods do for her. ‘I feel so good all the time and people tell me how good I look. The Banting diet has saved my life!’ Holding her nose, she gulps down kombucha (a tea made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). ‘Ghastly stuff but sooo good for you!’ She pulls out a bottle of homemade kefir and invites me to taste. ‘Marvellous, isn’t it?’ she enthuses. ‘Puts yoghurt in the shade for probiotics!’

Julianne consumes a cupful of supplements a day, some of which cost R20 a pill – ‘it’s worthwhile paying for the best, don’t you think?’

Worthwhile for the nutritionist. Julianne is herself a Banting coach, and no student could wish for a more devout instructor. Those whose nutrition she is in the process of upgrading, she says, swear by her. Breaking her Banting diet with a small glass of white wine seems, by her expression, to be the equivalent of an alcoholic falling off the wagon. Almost biblical in her fervour, she grumbles and sips. ‘I know I’ll regret this, but my gym instructor will fix it.’ She follows this expert devotedly whenever and wherever he instructs.

Her eight-year-old son helps me cover potatoes in foil for the braai. ‘My mom never eats these,’ he remarks. He does a great job, and I ask him if he’d like to be a chef when he grows up. ‘Ja,’ he says, ‘but I’ll never cook healthy food.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I’ll never eat it, I hate it,’ he retorts.’ His brother agrees, and the three of us scoff a forbidden pre-braai feast of Aero and pretzels.

Miranda exercises strenuously daily, gobbles her Bubbly every evening and monitors like a Nazi every other gram she consumes. Her hip joints ache and her ankles tremble in anticipation of the next day’s price in workouts, but her programme never varies. Victor has over-exercised and dieted to such an extent that his dedication literally consumed him. He lost a fortune of weight, but his knees gave out. In agony as well as financial difficulty, he has taken to binge eating and is now enormous , diabetic and depressed. Tim Noakes’s new bible has failed to recruit him to the cause.

We are all born free, our minds and spirit unfettered. Today, more than ever, our socialisation seeks to pervert this freedom, to subject us to wholesale, subliminal indoctrination through marketing and technology, and a diverse arsenal of mind-bending tools. The purpose is to make us captives, to deprive us of imagination and individuality, of the essence of our humanity; to the point where we lose the capacity to know our own minds, or make our own decisions.

In his day, my father’s response to such pressures was to adopt a tried and tested, but still largely rejected, mantra: moderation in all things brings balance to body and mind, and liberation to the spirit.

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

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Can tattoos stand test of time?

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, 30 April 2015, entitled “Can tattoos stand test of time?”

Body ink is widespread, but will the tattooed feel good about their body art in old age?

In a department store in Los Angeles, a man leaves a sharp, woody scent in his wake. I do something I’ve never done before: I follow him. He is a familiar stranger, and I want to know why. Engrossed in selecting a tie, he holds an intricate specimen against his T-shirt and gazes into a mirror. At what I judge to be a safe distance, I observe a scorpion tattoo on the back of his neck.

Finally, it dawns on me: he’s a well-known movie star. In LA, they’re two a penny.

Recently, I followed someone for the second time – in a store in Cape Town, but not because I recognised her. I went as close as I dared, to see a tiny woman handling layers of sweaters and squinting at labels. She was without doubt a candidate for the biggest boob job on the planet: they ballooned from her flimsy tank top like twin characters in a Woody Allen movie.

Giggles behind me: “How does she fit into anything? She’s, like, a six or something, and those – things must be size 58!” The young woman who said this didn’t bother to lower her voice. Her companion hushed her. The breast queen was oblivious.

Three minutes later, in line to pay, I turned to grab a chocolate and was confronted by two enormous breasts – only this time they jutted from the well-covered body of a much younger woman. Her cleavage boasted dazzling tattoos atop each breast.

I couldn’t resist. “Are those paws your dog’s?” I asked. She smiled and nodded. “Did your dog have to go with you to the tattoo artist?” She nods again: “Ja. He was very well behaved. Four separate visits and they took hours.”

Openly eyeballing the rounded paws of the tattoos, I say: “That must have been incredibly painful.”

“Not too bad,” she replies. “I wanted to do it for a long time. I couldn’t wait to get it done.”

Couldn’t wait? She looks about 20. “Is he an old dog?”

“Not at all. But if he dies, these” – she brushes the paws with her fingers – “will ensure that I never forget him.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever get tired of them – there?”

She shakes her head. “He’s always with me. What could be better?”

A lot of things, but that depends on your attitude to body art. Pain is one aspect clearly not a problem for many, considering the proliferation of the culture. Affordability is another: I’m told wage slaves save up for months for bigger tattoo works.

But it’s the permanence that keeps me pondering. What happens when change comes along, a new partner, perhaps children? Above all, the unwelcome but inevitable spectre of ageing? Those massive reconstructed breasts on that minute body, ludicrous now, would become even more cartoonish with advancing years. Tattoos on arms and thighs and God knows where else will sag along with ageing skin and musculature.

Yet in the United States one in five adults has a tattoo. I’ve inquired: here in South Africa, the numbers are vague. Judging from passers-by on a street in any South African city, they’re high. Once deplored, they are now reduced to relative insignificance.

A young guy with a complex sleeve of a nude woman and a colourful network of mermaids and dragon-like creatures on his back claims his tattoos make him feel different, individual. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask. He answers: “She loves my tattoos. She’s got a black and red chess set on her back – it looks great, you know, original. A fashion statement.”

A man tells me his tattoos have given him a new lease on life. “I have vitiligo,” he explains. “My entire life I’ve been trying to cover up hideous white blotches. A tattoo artist saw me on the beach, hiding under an umbrella, and offered her services.”

Then there’s the young woman who sells space on her skin for profit – to advertisers of cosmetics – and the man who lost a lower arm to a shark and has a tattoo of a shark’s head on what’s left of it. Samantha Cameron, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, has a dolphin tattoo on her lower ankle, perhaps a discreet way of promoting the cause.

For many tattoo fans, discretion is not the point. And the future after 40 barely exists. Tattooing and body-sculpting have everything to do with the present, with youth, hope, identity. It’s a way to attract the eye – to display, in the way a peacock displays his magnificent plumage or a gorilla beats his immense chest.

But growing older for some may become scary. Dorothy, slim and muscular, is tattooed in every visible place on her long-legged body. Her workouts, she says, are not saving her skin.

She shrugs. “I never thought about the future much.”

I wonder how many tattoo fans do.

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

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Us and Them by Rosemund J Handler
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Listen when your body talks

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 27 March 2015, entitled “Listen when your body talks”

We may be too busy with email to bother reading our own bodies’ messages. It’s a form of illiteracy we can ill afford.

He has an audience of four and relishes it. Words pour from him: saliva flies, he shakes slightly. Obsessed with finding the elusive snow leopard, he besieges us with details of two unsuccessful treks to accomplish this quest. I find his passion infectious, and the snow leopard’s almost mythical status is compelling. But the other three listeners are immune: fidgeting, facial twitches and even the odd sigh telegraph their disinterest.

Eventually, one of them, clutching a full wine glass, mutters about “a refill” and takes off in mid-sentence. The other two follow. The enthusiast turns to his remaining audience – me. “Damn rude, don’t you think? Why didn’t they just say they’re not interested?”

They did. Enraptured by his own discourse, the body language of his audience, which I found distracting, hadn’t registered. He failed not only to engage them, but also to gauge them. Rapid eye movements, small gestures, lip-biting, all semaphored desperation to escape – and all completely escaped him.

As annoying as it is to be bored stiff, the victim of someone else’s egotistic spouting in a social setting, it is insignificant in the larger picture. Far more dangerous is a failure to observe, listen or reflect on what our own bodies tell us – or changes we may observe in those we love.

Our bodies are in constant conversation with us and, sometimes inadvertently, with others. They talk away, day in, day out; most of the time we tune them out, to the point that we have become desensitised to the diversity and significance of the messages. Our stomachs hiss and catcall after a big meal; grumbles and rumbles signify a need to eat. The digestive system is our most vocal messenger; our sensitive brain does not brook being ignored.

In spite of this, a friend of a friend experienced worrying symptoms for a year, including regular bleeding. Eventually, he reluctantly consulted his general practitioner, whom he thought of as “alarmist”. Needless to say, the doctor was not: the patient, finally convinced to investigate further, was found to have bowel cancer that had over a year to spread to the liver.

The plaints of a myriad other organs are easier to ignore: a tension headache, aptly named, will pass if we rest. A headache that lasts two or three weeks may not. Through pain, the body is texting us: something is amiss and needs attention.

Last week an acquaintance experienced such a headache. Despite the discomfort, which at times became debilitating pain, he thought it would pass. It didn’t. He had a massive stroke and as a result his body has split into two halves: the right side won’t work at all – the doctors say the likelihood of recovery is small – and the left works poorly. A formerly active man, not yet 60, he is destined for an old-age home.

His body had been dispensing information for some weeks. If only he had bothered to heed that information, interpret it and act swiftly to stem the damage.

“I’m convinced,” says a dermatologist, “that some men are blind. They are the ones who die of melanoma because, unlike my female patients, they ignore lesions until it’s too late.” She thinks it’s part fear, part ignorance.

I think we may be too busy with messages from smartphones and email to bother reading those of our own bodies. It’s a form of illiteracy we can ill afford.

There is the physically fit medical professor whose life-threatening pneumonia was only diagnosed when a colleague observed that he couldn’t make it up a few steps. There was a doctor who specialised in sports medicine and became obsessed with running. The mother of two children, she ignored the stress messages of her exhausted body; by the time she dropped dead during a run, aged 43, those messages had long since expired.

Then there’s the teenager who ate enormous meals and made frequent visits to the toilet during and after. Her mother didn’t notice; nor did she hear her daughter’s agitated, increasingly raspy voice. She adjured her to eat less or she would gain weight and “boys didn’t like plump girls”. The teenager went on vomiting. Irregular heartbeats didn’t stop her but, eventually, a ruptured oesophagus did. She almost died.

Most organs in our body have their own voice; some, unfortunately, are silent. “So many body parts,” an old woman bemoans, “and now there’s a different doctor for every single one.”

As we age, the cacophony can become deafening, and more significant changes are sometimes disguised by lesser aches and pains. By the time real pain asserts itself, it can signal an advanced threat to health.

Separating out the messages of our bodies, taking the time to read them intelligently, can be disturbing. But it is essential, and it may save your life.

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

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EAN: 9780143530282
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