Of Motherhood and Melancholia: a bilingual interview with Lou-Marié Kruger

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Lou-Marié Kruger’s photo is provided by the author

Of Motherhood and Melancholia – Notebook of a Psycho-ethnographer
Lou-Marié Kruger
Publisher: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press
ISBN: 9781869144340

Naomi Meyer vra vir Lou-Marié Kruger oor haar boek wat min of meer ’n lewensroeping is. | Lou-Marié Kruger talks to Naomi Meyer about Lou-Marié’s book Of Motherhood and Melancholia.

Lou-Marié, jy het ’n boek geskryf met die titel Of Motherhood and Melancholia. Dis ’n akademiese soort beskouing, maar dis ook persoonlik. Begin asseblief voor – vertel vir ons lesers van jou navorsing rondom stadige geweld, wat jy gedoen het om inligting in te samel (as dit die regte bewoording is) en wat jy ontdek het.

Perhaps the title is a bit of a misnomer. The book started out as a purely academic book about motherhood. The first title was Marginal maternities and the first version was a very traditional academic book with subsections on pregnancy, birth and motherhood. It was based on a very conventional qualitative research project with interviews conducted by my students with mothers in different stages of motherhood. As I started analysing the interviews and writing up the material I felt that I was losing not only the women, but also myself. I then started doing clinical work in the Dwarsrivier Valley in order to get more of a feel for the place and the people. The final product is based on hundreds of interviews conducted by my students and me, years of ethnographic observations (basically hanging around in the Valley and somewhat voyeuristically keeping a notebook) and countless clinical encounters (groups and individuals).

The different kinds of encounters did bring me closer to people, but being closer to people, seeing more and understanding more made writing more difficult. Although I continued to write academic articles, I felt clear that I was missing something.

I stumbled on how I wanted to write when I wrote an e-mail to a close friend about the hungry Wilmien Wilders who had left me devastated, helpless and ashamed of my profession (chapter on labour).

My wise friend replied with one sentence: “’n Koek, ’n kooi, ’n klong en ’n dweil. Ek stort ook ’n paar trane.”

I realised that that was actually what I wanted to write about – the very human endeavours of eating, sleeping, family and work – everything that renders people vulnerable.

I came to understand that I am not simply writing about motherhood. I am writing about poverty, the psychological experience of poverty and psychological responses to poverty, my own included.

So I started out writing about motherhood, but ended up writing more generally about simply being human. It is also ironic that I wanted to write about caring, but ended up focusing quite a bit on violence and being violated.

I also became clear that I wanted to write it in a way that people can “get it”. In the words of Rob Nixon, I wanted to write “to make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn out calamities inaccessible to the human senses”.

Die temas en onderafdelings van jou boek is wel baie universeel, is dit nie? Iets wat alle moeders, of almal wat moeders het op aarde, ervaar. Liefde, honger, angs (distress), dood. Hoe het jy op hierdie indelings besluit? 

The chapter headings (home, birth, love, labour, hunger, distress, death) are based on developmental economist Amartya Sen’s beautiful quote (in his foreword to Paul Farmer’s incredible book Pathologies of power):

[I]t may be difficult for us to imagine how restricted a life so many of our fellow human beings lead, what little living they manage to do. There is, of course, the wonder of birth (impossible to recollect), some mother’s milk (sometimes not), the affection of relatives (often thoroughly disrupted), perhaps some schooling (mostly not), a bit of play (amid pestilence and panic), and then things end (without a rumble). The world goes on as if nothing much has happened.

Interesting how an economist can so poignantly write about the psychological pain of poverty. And also interesting, these are the issues that people struggle with psychologically in all contexts.

Hoe het die proses van die skryf van hierdie boek gewerk? Hoe lank was jy daarmee besig en wat het dit alles behels?

The first book file that was opened is called Book Bellagio, I started writing the book when I had a Rockefeller residency in Bellagio in 2004. The second file was called Book Ciusdiono 2006, and so it went … (The irony of where I was trying to write does not escape me.)

I found it an incredibly difficult writing project, not only because of the material itself, but also because of my positionality as a white woman researcher and clinician in South Africa. At times I stopped writing the book for years – I felt too paralysed. (The first chapter of the book is an account of this process.) Then I had to convince myself that paralysis is a bad excuse for not getting involved, not engaging, not participating in important conversations. So I kept going. You are in trouble anyway, a friend said.

I still feel ambivalent about the book and about what its place and function is, whether it has a place or a function. Even though I have tried to be as self-aware and vigilant as possible, I am sure the book is still full of all kinds of problematic assumptions and unconscious prejudices and fears and fantasies.

#metoo. Jy het nie die boek alleen geskryf nie. Jy het onder andere neergeskryf aan die narratiewe verhale van vroue wat met jou gepraat het. Het sommige van hulle jou boek gelees? Wat was hulle terugvoer – is dit swaar, is dit bevryding, is dit melancholie?

Almost all people appreciate being heard and being seen, being paid attention to. Recognition and attentiveness are the basis of the success of a therapeutic relationship and of all relationships. I do think the women in the moment felt validated when telling their stories – they also said as much – but there are, of course, ambivalences that were not expressed.

I do hope that I can take my book back to the Valley and engage with the community about it. The response to the book is part of the process of the book – the book will always be in process.

We are starting a project this year where we will quite systematically go back to participants in the original studies, to hear how they are doing, but also to engage with them about what we have done with their stories.

We have started a small mental health clinic in the Valley called the Banghoek Care Centre. This is one small, but more indirect way of taking the work back there.

Jy skryf daaroor om ’n wit skrywer te wees, want agentskap beïnvloed nou alles. As ek dus sê ’n tema soos honger is universeel, verstaan ek dit dalk anders as iemand wat nie uit my omstandighede kom nie. Hoe het dit jou werkswyse beïnvloed?

I think the chapter on hunger is the most important chapter in the book.

The Afrikaans word honger, hunger, evokes powerful reactions in people. When we think of hunger we can see an open mouth, lips, teeth, tongue. A naked bony body with bones, an anorexic girl, kwashiorkor, an obese man.

American anthropologist Michael Jackson says, “You must remember that sometimes bread is just bread ... But hunger is also a metaphor.”

We associate hunger with discomfort, pain and distress (caused by lack of food or nurturance or love), but always, implicit in hunger is also desire (the desire to eat, to be loved, to be nurtured).

As such, hunger is always present in the work of a psychologist. Hunger is pertinent in a world of want and a world of excess. Sometimes it manifests as greed.

Hoe verskil niefiksieskryf van fiksieskryf? Want hoe kan ek weet hoe dit moet wees om ’n man te wees, soveel soos ek kan sukkel om te weet hoe dit moet wees om swart te wees? En die oomblik as mens iets neerskryf wat niefiksie was, word dit nie dadelik fiksie nie? Of oorvereenvoudig ek nou?

I think one always lies a little and one never fabricates anything completely. I think there is more non-fiction in fiction and fiction in non-fiction than we would like to admit. The line is fine.

I am not making excuses for bad research. I have not made up one thing presented as fact in this book, but I have selected certain facts, I have arranged them in a certain way, and I interpret them in how I present them and how I juxtapose them with other facts and theory.

I like Rob Nixon’s term “creative non-fiction”.

Jy skryf oor mense se woonplekke en hul aardse omgewings. Wat het jy gesien, was dit veilig, en kon jy dit neerskryf?

South African psychologist Sally Swartz writes how the concept of “home” is linked “to family, safety, enclosure and the co-operative use of available sources. In contrast is foreignness, unbounded space, the insertion of otherness and competition for resources”.

It was hard for me to be confronted with the fact that home is often experienced as a place of disconnection, unsafety, lack of boundaries, intrusion, competition, attack, violence. For instance, one of the girls in a therapy group wrote:

Dear Diary. There are problems at home. At the moment we are staying in the plakkerskamp (shanty town). My mother and my auntie had a fight and my aunt accused my mother that she tik (was on methamphetamine). I was very sad. We first lived with my auntie, then she put us out in the middle of the night and it was raining and we had to go and sleep with my mother’s friend in the plakkerskamp. We each now sleep on a thin single mattress. Me, my mother, my brother, my sister. It is very cold and it feels very sad to me. Why should some children suffer while most children have good lives getting everything that they want? Life sometimes is not fair.

However, then I am also acutely aware of how many children, women and men don’t feel at home and safe in their homes, even if they don’t live in a shack.

Veiligheid lyk dalk verskillend vir verskillende mense – domestic violence ook. Kan jy vertel watter soorte geweld jy teëgekom het?

Violence is everywhere. It seems like a kind of language. Men are violent, women are violent, children are violent.

It feels incredibly important that we focus on the emotions that lie at the root of violence, the emotions of shame, anger and rage. If we want to address violence we have to think how people have been and are routinely shamed in this country (their dignity taken away) and what they legitimately are angry about. We have to address the larger structural problems (slow violence) if we want to get rid of the violence of individuals.

Moederskap is dikwels iets wat mense romantiseer en verheerlik. Iets sag en wollerigs en snoesigs. Maar dis glad nie waaroor jou boek se moederskap handel nie. Brei asseblief uit op die titel. (Natuurlik gee die subtitel, “Notebook of a psycho-ethnographer”, ’n leidraad.)

Motherhood can, of course, facilitate women’s connection to their softer, more caring and more nurturing sides. Motherhood, however, is not simply blissful. For me as a psychologist working with women it is problematic that motherhood is so often romanticised and idealised. It means that women who can’t live up to the ideal and feel more ambivalent about motherhood experience distress and often anger.

Working with women in all contexts I am struck by how immensely difficult it is to be a carer. I am very aware of the stress of caring and how it impacts on individuals. (This is also true of fathers, teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, policemen.)

Motherhood can actually bring out the worst in women too: Their caring can become intrusive, destructive and dangerous. Depictions of the violent side of caring and loving, of mothering, are old and everywhere. Euripedes tells the story of the murderous Medea, who kills her children in cold blood; he calls her “woman of stone, ironheart”. Fairy tales are filled with mothers who are envious and become cruel and unkind – think Snow White and Cinderella. The American feminist poet Adrienne Rich talks about “the invisible violence of the institution of motherhood”. In her 1999 book Mother instinct Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes about the myth of the natural mother instinct and discusses the cruel side of motherhood, also in nature. In her poem “Hoe en waarmee oorleef mens dit” Antjie Krog powerfully articulates the impact that motherhood can have on women:

die kinders rand my aan met hulle luidrugtigheid
hulle vrese komplekse onsekerhede dreigemente node
kap my “beeld as moeder” steaksag op die plankvloer ...
          ek is dikbek soos ’n meelsak ...
deel slae uit halfhartig teen die kabaal.

Much has been written about depressed mothers; much less has been written about how angry and even enraged some mothers and other caretakers are. To deny women’s anger is to deny their agency.

Ronelda Kamfer writes about the power of a mother’s anger in her superb recent collection of poems, Chinatown:

ek exchange my ma se as vir gunpowder
vir die next generation
sodat hulle armed kan wees
julle gaan ons nie weer in ons rugte skiet
terwyl ons in vrees hardloop nie.

I hope my book also highlights how angry women are and how we should pay attention to the anger.

Jou boek is natuurlik nie ’n handleiding vir moeders nie. Of dalk is dit, maar dit hang af van hoe mens so iets bedoel. Vir wie het jy die boek geskryf?

I actually have an issue with motherhood manuals. Women are bombarded with prescriptions and instructions as to how to mother, causing great anxiety to women if they cannot adhere to the rulebooks. These prescriptions of motherhood come from the medical/psychological establishment (psychologists are particularly guilty here), but ironically, often also from women themselves.

I hope my book is read as an acknowledgement of the complexity of motherhood in all contexts, but especially in the context of poverty. Every woman has to figure out how to mother in a way that makes sense for her personally, but also in a way that takes into account the reality of her situation. Motherhood is at once an intensely personal experience, but also profoundly political, I hope the women’s stories will show that.

Ek het die boek geskryf vir almal wat in versorgingsrolle is en was en sal wees. Ek het die boek geskryf vir hulle wat verantwoordelik is vir die versorgers in die land. Dit is ons almal.

Hoekom dink jy is dit vir baie wit mense so moeilik om te lees oor plakkerskampe of oor ander omstandighede as dié waarin hulle hul bevind. Praat met my oor “white fragility”.

Ek dink mense ervaar dikwels ander mense se gevoelens as ’n beskuldiging of ’n aantyging. If someone is suffering or has a need that is not fulfilled I am implicated. And then I either withdraw or break down.

It reminds me of Ronelda Kamfer’s poem “laat die wit meisies huil” in Chinatown:

          die purity van die wêreld is in
          die secret formula van
          my trane is swaar en besoedel
          wit meisies huil as
          hulle tette te klein is.

American sociologist DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged – and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. She found that white people seemed offended when racism was brought up, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of racism.

The same goes for talk about poverty and inequality. Privileged people, me included, often feel implicated and accused when confronted with poverty. I can violently withdraw or break down in guilty tears and thus end the conversation.

Every chapter in my book starts with me entering the Valley; every chapter ends with me leaving in some way or another. Disbelieving defensiveness indeed.

In die hoofstuk oor swangerskap lees mens oor mense se verbasing dat hul swanger was, oor hoe sekere mense ingelig is rondom seksueel-aktief-wees en swangerskap en ander nie. Hoe staan sake in hierdie land? Hoe durf ek, as wit mens, sekere opmerkings maak soos dat meer inligting nodig is, sonder dat ek klink of ek vanuit ’n soort ivoortoring praat? Tog: elke kind het ’n lewe en ’n mens wil hê daardie lewe moet iets sinvols wees. Ek lees van baie armoede in jou boek. Hoe laat dit alles jou voel; wat dink jy oor wat ek hier geskryf het?

Die wit ivoortoring van beterweterigheid en moralistiese vermaninge – ons is al almal self skuldig daaraan.

Laat ek een van die vrouens self laat praat – Anna, ’n huishulp, oor haar werkgewer se reaksie op haar (Anna se) beplande swangerskap:

Then she found out that I was pregnant, then she asked but how can I think about falling pregnant again, because my first girl child mos got meningitis and she was left with a hearing problem because of it, the second one had cancer at one and a half years. Now how can I think of falling pregnant again? I felt, see, ons bruinmense, we don’t interfere in them white people's lives, now why must she always, she is always busy with me, she cannot think, how you can, how, you can, you can’t provide for the one and then you fall pregnant again. I say our school fees aren’t as expensive as their school fees and look, as long as we don’t lie in front of their doors for a piece of bread and so not for food or so and if I feel if I want to make another boy and that, then it is mos, I’m mos the one who’s going to struggle and not her. Struggle you just have to, if you plead for something from the Lord, then you must just believe, but our faiths aren’t the same. I survived … Yes, to think that she tells me how I can fall pregnant, she has two girl children and they were also eager for a little boy, got a little boy, but now she is pregnant again with the fourth one after preaching to me.

Anna is clear on why she wanted another child: Already having two girls of ten years and six years, she not only wants a boy, but also wants a small child to “cuddle”:

I think if your children’s growing-up years and the best for you is just to, while they are still small and you can cuddle them and they do just as you want them to do, but when they are now this stage then they don’t want to listen anymore.

She experiences her employer as intrusive and inconsistent. Implicit is also her awareness of how she as a coloured worker will not “interfere” with a white person’s life, thus suggesting that she is frustrated by the arrogance (the critical opinionatedness) that is associated with power.

Skuldgevoelens en afhanklikheid om erkenning te kry – dis universele dinge, of hoe? Ongeag jou sosio-ekonomiese omstandighede? Wil jy iets daaroor skryf?

American psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked with violent criminals for decades, is convinced that the most powerful way to provoke anyone into committing violence is by shaming him. Think Cain and Abel, the Trojan War, the Second World War and the Weimar. Violent interactions always start with someone or something being shamed. Also, Gilligan says, people resort to violence when they feel that they can wipe out shame only by shaming those who they feel have shamed them.

I certainly also see this with all the violent men and women I have encountered, regardless of the socio-economic circumstances. People are psychologically killed (their humanity is taken away) if they are being treated with contempt or disrespect, as though they are unimportant or insignificant, if they are not recognised as human beings.

In a country like South Africa people are not only shamed in their families, they are also shamed in more systematic ways – by racism, by poverty, by patriarchal institutions. We should not be surprised at the levels of violence, given the lack of respect and recognition our institutions have for people.

But they are also shamed in the context of their families, in the most intimate of relationships. People often have their first experience of being shamed in their families of origin, being physically punished by a mother or a father. In the words of Willem Anker in the novel Buys: “Elke man met ’n piel en ’n spies en ’n roer in sy hand het ’n ma” (Every man with a prick and a spear and a gun in his hand has a mother).

Think of the Afrikaans lullaby “Siembamba”. I quote the full song in the book; it is rather revealing:

Siembamba, mamma se kindjie,
siembamba mamma se kindjie,
          draai sy nek om, gooi hom in die sloot,
trap op sy kop dan is hy dood.

Siembamba, ek is ’n baba,
Siembamba, ek is ’n baba
– pas my veilig op in die nood,
sus my liefies op die skoot.

Siembamba, ek is ’n seuntjie,
Siembamba, ek is ’n seuntjie
maar jy sal sien ek is net nou groot;
slaan maar orige kêrels dood.

Siembamba, ek is ’n jonkman,
Siembamba, ek is ’n jonkman
– tel my nou maar af van die skoot;
ek slaan self die kêrels dood.

Siembamba, ek is getroud nou,
Siembamba, ek is getroud nou
– maar sy dink ek is nog op die skoot,
wil nie glo nie ek is groot.

Siembamba, almal babas.
Siembamba, almal babas
– al die mans is danig groot –  
Almal babas tot hul dood.

Kan jy stories uitsonder wat jou totaal bybly, of is dit ’n onregverdige vraag?

Alle stories gaan sit iewers.

Following a group therapy session, thirteen-year-old Chestline writes in her journal. Her handwriting is child-like, she uses no punctuation.

It was the morning my mother went to town and my two big sisters were at home and my dad and I were also at home and they said that I should go outside because they wanted to clean the house and so I went and it was an hour later and I got really hungry and I came back to the house and I go into the house and it was quiet and I called my sisters but they were dead quiet I then went on the stairs and looked for them there …

The handwriting in the journal changes, the letters are now leaning to the right, the writing seems rushed:

… And I then found them but I walked softly then when I got up there my father was busy with my sisters to ryp (rape) them but he did not see me they also did not see me they could also not talk because my dad said they moet hulle monde hou (must keep their traps shut).

The student therapists read the journal entry that evening and call me, distraught. I struggle to sleep that night. We cancel our sessions for the next morning and drive through to see Chestline. Chestline is called out of her maths class, seemingly pleased that we responded to her journal. “Yes,” she says, “I thought that you will want to come and hear.” I ask her where her dad is now, whether she is safe. “Yes,” she says, “he has been in jail for a long time now. That thing happened a long time ago. I was nog small. Not even five.”

“And you have never told anyone?” I ask. “No,” Chestline says, “my dad mos said that we moet ons monde hou (should keep our traps shut).”

We drive back. We are quiet. Glad, on the one hand, that the perpetrator is in jail and that it all happened long ago but also devastated by Chestline with the too big school uniform, the awkward little pony tail and the eyes far too tired for her years, the secret much too big for that small body. What stays with me most, however, is her reply when I asked her how it is going at home now. She says, “No, not so lekker, Juffrou. My mother scolds a lot. She scolds me a lot. And sometimes then I think if my father wasn’t in jail now my mother wouldn’t have scolded so much. Because he wouldn’t have liked it. He liked me very much.” She tears up. “Sometimes I wish net that he was at home again.”

Die storie van Wilmien Wilders in die hoofstuk “Labour” was ’n keerpunt in my proses. Ek het anders begin skryf. ’n Mens kan nie in akademiese taal oor honger skryf nie. Die boek het na daardie joernaalinskrywing anders geword.

Maar ek skrik nog steeds vir hoe mense seerkry op verskillende maniere. As ek ophou skrik daarvan, sal ek moet ophou werk as ’n terapeut.

Wat van mense wat na jou kom met hulle middelklasprobleme. Hoe lyk die menslike kondisie anders vir diegene van die Dwarsriviervallei versus sê maar hoëmiddelklas-Stellenbosch? Of raak ek nou te erg deur buurte op die naam te noem?

Pain is pain. Loss is loss.

The only problem is when there is not an acknowledgement of pain and when other people’s pain is minimised.

Middle-class people can be oblivious of the pain of poverty. Working-class people often can’t escape the pain and the needs of the middle and upper classes; their work involves dealing with it. Hegel writes how the slave’s life is ruled by the master’s needs and desires; her survival depends on knowing those needs and anticipating them. The master, however, can afford to ignore the pain and the needs of the slave.

Hoekom het jy die boek geskryf?

Frans Kafka wrote: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Ek moes my eie bevrore see besweer.

Hopelik sal die boek ’n paar ander mense raak.

Jy skryf oor mindfulness in terapie - voel jy daar was positiewe ervarings, closure (bestaan daar so iets?). Ek dink ek wil vir jou vra: Hoe oorleef mens moederskap in hierdie land? En ek praat van die hele land, nie net die klein borreltjies waarbinne ons onsself afsonder nie.

Ek sou nie kon aangegaan het met die boek as daar nie ook joy en hoop en ongelooflike resilience was nie. Daar is woede en angs en hartseer, maar daar is ook verskriklike liefde en verwondering – die vrouens praat in poetry as hulle oor hulle kinders praat.

Ek is ook verwonderd dat ten spyte van die verskille en die ongelykhede en onregverdighede, konneksie tog moontlik is. Dit gee my hoop.

Die postscript van die boek eindig met ’n storie, “The girl with the sweaty hands: A feast of brief hopes”. Die storie begin met twee quotes, een van Julian Barnes:

You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away and what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

En een van Czeslaw Milosz:

So what kind of prophet am I?

Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness.        
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,

I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
a feast of brief hopes.

Dink jy daar is ’n gevolgtrekking, of bestaan daar nie so iets nie? Gaan die narratief voort? Waar het dit begin en hoe ver kan ’n mens sien in die toekoms in? Want tussendeur skep mens net asem, met ’n komma, maar die sin maak nie klaar nie. Of dalk wil jy iets ten slotte sê.

My book has been a work in progress and will always be. As people read it and respond or not respond to it, the process will continue and hopefully result in some interesting conversations or thinking about the slow violence of poverty, inequality, racism, patriarchy.

Strangely, as I was finishing this interview, a friend sent me a poem of Tony Hoagland, one of my favourite poets and a very cynical man – he sadly died last year. The poem ends with the following lines:

          The world is Gorgon
          It presents its thousand ugly heads
          It displays its writhing serpent hair
          Death to look at it directly for too long


Your job is not to conquer it;
not to provide analysis;
not to make a wry remark

Your job is to be kind
Your job is to watch and take notes

Your job is to not be turned into a stone.

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