It is painful to think and write about Suzan Hackney’s courageous memoir, Tsk-Tsk: The story of a child at large, around Mother’s Day when many of us celebrate our fabulous mothers or are cherished as such by our kids. The relationship between a child and a mother is not always one of joy, and Hackney’s story is mostly one of unimaginable heartbreak. She was given up for adoption as a baby by her biological parents. Still in the hospital, the moment she found herself in the arms of the woman who was to become her mother, she started screaming her lungs out. The scream was a foreboding. Her memoir reads like a reckoning with that primal anguish she experienced as an infant and the torment which followed. It is also a story of survival in the face of impossible odds, and of laying ghosts to rest.
“I was made in Coffee Bay. Right there on the beach, in the sand. To this day I despise coffee and adore the sea in equal measures”, Hackney begins her life story. Most of it will be characterised by the tension between loving and hating which she captures in these first few sentences. Her adoptive parents call her Susan – which she insists on changing to Suzan as an act of self-reclamation later on – and take her home to Pietermaritzburg, were everything is “extremely civilised here, and structured, organised, pristine, well-modulated, painfully polite and prim. This clashes somehow with my wild tantrums as it does with my poo-smearing pastime… Not even my dad is impressed with these early display of artistic genius and none of this is helping my mother’s nervous condition.”
What is described by the family as her mother’s “nervous condition” results in horrifying abuse. Instead of experiencing tenderness and care as a child, Suzan is constantly exposed to her mother’s rage. And from the moment she can, she fights back. Her father attempts to mitigate the torture, but one does not have to be a psychologist to understand how power dynamics in dysfunctional families go horribly wrong. Everyone suffers. The only stable source of kindness and love little Suzan experiences is her older brother Jonathan, who is also adopted. She smiles for the first time when she sees him: “Jonathan becomes my favourite person in the whole world and he happily takes on this role, as he does everything, in his caring, little boy’s stride.” But Jonathan is also only a child who is as much ensnared in the toxicity of the family relationships as everyone else involved, and there is only so much that can be endured. When their mother actually gives birth to a third child, the fault lines intensify.
Growing up, Suzan and her mother clash over everything: “Right from that first fateful encounter in the hospital, this mother and I are sworn enemies and no matter how hard I try to change it or how much I don’t want it to be like this between us, I’m incapable of doing anything about it. I love her with all my childish heart even though I am still small enough to fear her. Sometimes I also hate her.” The psychological and physical violence the little girl encounters is narrated in a seemingly casual and controlled way which makes it all the more shocking, and powerful. Cutting down to the bones of the story and revealing them in their most vulnerable nakedness, Hackney relates what happened but mostly refrains from commenting on the situation as an adult.
This is Hackney’s first book and, because of its intimate and deeply personal nature, probably the most difficult she will ever have to write on all kinds of levels if she pursues this career, and so the consummate skill she already shows in Tsk-Tsk is highly admirable.
Hackney continues her story until she is in her late teens. “I really am a dreadful child”, she writes about the internalised suffering, “I am defiant and cheeky, I speak way too loud, I shout at the slightest thing. I have wild and violent temper tantrums for apparently no reason at all and I can keep screaming for hours and hours… I’m smacked. I make fires, sometimes inside the house and sometimes in the garden.” At times, the book reads like a continuation of that screaming and setting things alight. The sorrow becomes otherwise too great to hold.
It gets worse; the accumulated misery persistently seeks a way out. As a thirteen year old Suzan is sent to a reformatory, the first of many, and eventually declared a ward of the state. A different kind of battle for survival begins for her. And it is not one she fights only on her own behalf; on her path, she encounters others she feels she needs to protect. And those who cannot be saved: “Kim also has to keep a suicide watch on Kerry 24/7. From very early childhood, Kerry’s father beat and raped her. When she was twelve, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a dying baby boy with no brain; Kerry’s intention is to kill herself, to be with her baby again.”
Suzan repeatedly runs away, living rough and getting involved with people who definitely do not have her best interests at heart. No matter where she turns, violence is lurking and pounces without mercy. The places where she is supposed to be kept safe turn out to be the most lethal. Hackney exposes how horribly the systems – our homes and the state – that are supposed to protect the most vulnerable members of society fail. There were moments when it was difficult for me to continue reading, and Hackney lived through it all.
Tsk-Tsk will make you seethe with anger, and it will make you cry. It is the kind of book that scars one’s soul, but should be read anyway. No child should be allowed to ever suffer like this.
Review first published in the Cape Times, 25 May 2018.