‘I have a confession’ I said when I met Tracy Going properly this week after a brief, fortuitous meeting at the Franschhoek Literary Festival recently. ‘I haven’t read your book. I opened it at Exclusives and couldn’t get past the Prologue.’
‘Oh no! Why? That’s not a good sign. Was it that bad?’ she said, smiling warmly.
‘No, it’s just that it was about Oscar and…well, I have also written about it… from a different perspective…’ I trailed off.
Today is not even a week later. Here is my brutal truth about her Brutal Legacy:
The backdrop to Tracy’s story could not be more different from mine. Her childhood legacy is spent trying to escape the drunken and abusive clutches of a father whom she hides from under her bed, his crates of Lion Lager forming the playground of her youth, and protecting her mother who hides her cigarettes in the back of Tracy’s wardrobe, symbolic of her denial of the relationship which she endures for twenty years. But that was her way, reconciles Tracy in the book.
Years later, at the pinnacle of a successful career as radio and TV presenter, Tracy, despite vowing never to follow the same path, and never to be beaten up, finds herself at the mercy of a man who beats her horribly. He crashes her car, disregards a restraining order and finally, in what is supposedly drug- induced rage grabs her by her hair, and physically assaults her. He kicks her and holds her violently hostage for hours during the night. Despicable doesn’t describe it adequately.
However, what transpires from Tracy’s determination to stand by her own truth is to be caught up in the psychological trauma that ensues from the court trial when she tries to reclaim her sense of dignity and understand why.
By her own admission, had she known about the ‘tirade of abuse that lay ahead’, she may well not have taken the matter to trial.
‘I hadn’t expected not be believed. I hadn’t anticipated being disregarded, ignored and belittled. I had proceeded with legal action trusting that all would be fine; that the court was about upholding the law and that justice is much more than incidental.’ (156)
After more than two years from the date of the assault, he is finally sentenced but it takes nearly two decades later for ‘light, understanding and acceptance of self’ to find its healing in this book.
‘I still feel strongly, that we all need to take responsibility for our lives and actions’, she concludes.
The journey took a year, she told me, October to October and it must have been a hard and tortuous one, for she had to relieve the agony and pain, sifting through the reams and reams of court documents to ensure that she had captured it accurately.
And for this alone, she must be recognised and applauded. It reads so well. As Sisonke says in her review, Every South African should read it. For to relive the pain and hurt and humiliation is one thing but to have written about it and poured it into a book is quite another.
It’s damn hard work.
But Brutal Legacy, brought so many other issues to the fore and it is of these that I want to write:
About Oscar Pistorius:
Watching the trial of Oscar unfolding was the catalyst for Tracy to tell her own story. Seeing a similar personality of uncontrolled and reckless anger in Oscar as her partner had displayed and the way in which the legal system dealt with it all was her call to action in understanding what she needed to do and it became ‘Me versus Oscar’, and Me versus the System’.
For though (fortunately) I cannot claim the misfortune of being a victim in what is an overwhelming and utterly unacceptable number of victims of women abuse, Oscar and the utter circus of a trial that ensued held a strange fascination for me. Something about the legal system being on trial itself and the way in which the media and general population began to voice its opinions about the legal process, watching the actors on the stage and Oscar the puppet. Something about Oscar himself and the tragic figure he portrayed, having fallen from such heights.
But for some inconceivable motive, and despite that I do believe that Oscar killed her in a momentary and uncontrolled rage of anger and was ultimately properly sentenced, it was the spectacle of seeing him retching in the courtroom and the ludicrous suggestion of his counsel that he walk around on his stumps that made me feel a certain empathy. Tracy’s description of her vomiting during her trial reminded me of that. I felt that he had been punished enough and that the woman judge (Masipa) who sentenced him initially saw something too, despite the unfortunate misinterpretation of dolus eventualis. Vengeance and the possibility of rehabilitation are concepts which remain unresolved for me though I know also that there are men that cannot change: men that abuse and violate and humiliate and torture.
But I feel too that society is crying out for a greater sense of compassion. I feel that kindness and care are concepts far too foreign and that maybe just maybe, teaching compassion from a young age and then encouraging a more systematic method of community service would have greater benefits to society generally. (Perhaps the Fagan Report on Prisons is a source I need to turn to here among much other research- in another lifetime). Long term incarceration doesn’t really seem to have any real purpose. But then I also sometimes believe in the death penalty for some. It’s confusing I know but as Tracy says, on the need for retribution,
It cannot be otherwise – there are consequences to hurtful punishing actions. (167)
About the ethics and patriarchy of the legal system:
At the time of the Tracy’s writing, I was researching a commissioned book on ethics in the legal profession. I had spent months already, dealing with various members of the Law Societies, delivering a paper at a Law Teacher’s Conference but for various reasons, I decided to let it go.
At one point in the book she alludes to a kind of silent communication between the magistrate and the defence’s attorney about the evidence she was giving, implying that there was improper ethics at play.
What to say about that? I don’t have answers here other than that ethics is topic which is pivotal to ensuring continued respect for and legitimacy of the profession.
Likewise on the issue of patriarchy in the profession but this too is one of those hard topics. The legal profession (and particularly in the area of crime where you are dealing with characters that operate in different worlds, and often ugly underworlds) has hard edges. Walking past prison cells in court shoes and a short skirt to consult with a client convicted for murder to get him out on bail? Not for the feint-hearted.
And then there’s the issue of ‘Pottie’ , Detective Potgieter and the call in the middle of the night. It brought to mind a book by Liza Grobler entitled, Crossing the Line: When cops become criminals.
Just watching Carte Blanche last night, hoping for something about the Sunday Times Literary Awards where I knew Tracy was delivering the speech on the illumination of truths and seeing a story on rhino poaching confirmed the sad status of rampant corruption. Nothing more to say here other than there is so much work to do. So much work. Both men and women. (And what a brave woman that researcher?)
About the application of evidence and facts:
When I looked at the pictures of scars and wounds and bruises Tracy suffered, my instinct was to say to myself, but surely these were enough to convince the court? And yet I know it’s all about proof.
It brought to mind one of many legal Latin doctrines, the doctrine of ipse dixit , or more fully res ipsa loquitur which means “the thing speaks for itself”. It is usually applied to the law of delict (not crime as was the case here) and is used to infer negligence from the very nature of an accident or injury in the absence of direct evidence on how any defendant behaved.
And I wondered how interesting it would be if we could use it in criminal matters when it comes to matters of assault and abuse of women, knowing of course, that it’s impossible. The burden of proof in criminal matters (beyond reasonable doubt) is to be discharged by the State, which means that there is a presumption of innocence, unless proven guilty. It is then up to the State to prove an accused’s guilt. It cannot be otherwise.
But let’s hypothesize for a moment and say that imagine if the doctrine could be used in criminal matters to assist the victim/accuser when the wounds are blatantly obvious? So in a case such as this, where Tracy’s wounds looked very much like they had been inflicted on her with intent (it looked very obvious here, rather than his version of trying to defend himself and bumping her eye with his elbow) and she could positively identify her accused (in cases of domestic violence this is not difficult) then it would mean that the accused would have to bear the proof of showing that his actions were not intentional. The wounds themselves would mean that she could apply the ipse dixit doctrine.
Wouldn’t that be marvelous thing in turning the tide for countless and often impoverished victims of abuse not coming forward with evidence because mostly it is too traumatic (and time consuming and expensive and many fear they will not be believed or will be cut off from financial aid as often the male is their source of income)to be subject to cross examination?
It’s not possible of course, but it made me think about how changes in the law could assist victims of abuse.
About justice and fairness
One of the greatest misconceptions is that law and justice can be equated. Fairness and justice, though representing the cornerstones of any ideal legal system are never an exact science and though we all wish it to be, and want the baddies to be caught and the good guys to triumph, it just doesn’t work like that.
It all turns on facts and evidence and having enough patience and privilege to be able to delve into reclaiming what is rightly yours.
What then of the millions of women who have no voice, no privilege and no means to reclaim their dignity? And the dangers that come from within as Tracy writes,
“It holds the knife when we cook, it dangles the telephone cable as we talk, it strides down the passage when we sleep.”
We help these women to give them a voice. That’s all we can do. In whatever way we can.
About your love for your children:
In Tracy’s final words, though she initially wanted to write of the power play between an abuser and the abused, she realized that actually she was leaving a legacy for her children.
It’s in that concept that I can best relate to Brutal Legacy: the resonance of someone else’s story and someone else’s words despite our individual legacies being so different.
And that’s the power of books.
Thank you for your brave story Tracy. You so deserve to stand proud and resolute and watch the clouds lifting over Table Mountain. I’m on your side.
Here’s a little passage I want to end off with, from Elena Ferrante that I thought about when I closed Brutal Legacy.
Poor or affluent, ignorant or educated, beautiful or ugly, famous or unknown, married or single, working or unemployed, with children or without, rebellious or obedient, we are all deeply marked by a way of being in the world that, even when we claim it as ours, is poisoned at the root by millennia of male domination.
Women live amid permanent contradictions and unsustainable labours. Everything, really everything, has been codified in terms of male needs – even our underwear, sexual practices, maternity. We have to be women according to roles and modalities that make men happy, but we also have to confront men, compete in public places, making them more and better than they are, and being careful not to offend them.
A young woman I’m very fond of said to me: it’s always a problem with men, I’ve had to learn not to overdo. She meant that she had trained herself not to be too beautiful, too intelligent, too considerate, too independent, too generous, too aggressive, too nice. The “too” of a woman produces violent male reactions and, in addition, the enmity of other women, who every day are obliged to fight among themselves for the crumbs left by men. The “too” of men produces general admiration and positions of power.
‘The consequence is that not only is female power suffocated but also, for the sake of peace and quiet, we suffocate ourselves. Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves, don’t belong to ourselves. Our defects, our cruelties, our crimes, our virtues, our pleasure, our very language are obediently inscribed in the hierarchies of the male, are punished or praised according to codes that don’t really belong to us and therefore wear us out. It’s a condition that makes it easy to become odious to others and to ourselves. To demonstrate what we are with an effort at autonomy requires that we maintain a ruthless vigilance over ourselves.
So I feel close to all women, and, sometimes for one reason, sometimes for another, I recognise myself in the best as well as in the worst. Is it possible, people say to me at times, that you don’t know even one bitch? I know some, of course: literature is full of them and so is everyday life. But, all things considered, I’m on their side.