By Moira Schneider
A newborn baby is kidnapped from her mother’s bedside and through a remarkable coincidence is reunited with her biological parents 17 years later. And they all lived happily ever after, right?
Wrong. Real life is seldom the stuff of fairy tales, rather a series of twists and sometimes excruciating turns and knock-out blows that leave the players reeling. It is such a story that is told in Zephany by Joanne Jowell, the true tale of Zephany Nurse that made the headlines in 1997 and again during the trial of the woman who raised her, Lavona Solomon, who is serving a 10-year sentence for kidnapping her as a three-day-old baby from Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. At one point in the book, Miché Solomon (born Zephany Nurse) states bluntly of her biological parents: “Celeste and Morné don’t feel like family to me.”
“It was very hard to write,” Jowell acknowledges, mentioning “the sense of pressure and expectation that Miché and by extension I have experienced with regard to how she should feel towards her biological family or the family who raised her.” Jowell feels that despite the fact that Miché has been found, the story is still developing. “Relationships are a many-layered and complicated thing and they certainly don’t have a clear end — I don’t think that Miché’s situation with the Nurses is by any means over. “I think that the sense that there should have been a certain outcome is thwarting them and getting in the way of building a realistic and reasonable relationship, which was always going to be a tough one to create, especially in the glare of the media spotlight.” One of the things that strikes one forcibly in the book is that Miché seems to be so ‘together’, almost an impartial observer as her world is turned upside down. Could one attribute this to her being incredibly strong or incredibly detached? Jowell feels it is probably a combination of the two, adding that at the beginning the feeling of shock was driving her. “There was a lurching from crisis to crisis,” she says, referring to Miché’s subsequent two unplanned pregnancies, “but clearly her coping mechanisms for dealing with crisis are very evolved.”
Another incredible feature of the book is Lavona’s husband Michael’s blind faith in her, his refusal to believe in her guilt, and his determination to wait for her. “She wouldn’t do things like that,” he says simply. He even goes as far as blaming himself, saying that if she did do it, it was possible that she feared he would leave her if she couldn’t bear him a child. “Michael is famously reserved and has said he won’t be giving interviews until Lavona is released,” Jowell comments. “That has been his stance all along — to batten down the hatches and keep to himself. Miché has also battled with this aspect. “He’s incredibly warm and devoted to Miché, (the discovery that she’s not his flesh and blood has not altered their close relationship one iota) but he’s not a sharer in terms of the emotional response to this trauma.”
Jowell says she likes to write stories that can impact the ‘greater good’. “It was so strong in this case,” she says, referring to the “huge” ongoing case at the Constitutional Court on identity protection for over-18s brought by the Centre for Child Law. The idea is that the lifting of an identity protection order would be at the behest of the child, now adult, (as happened with Miché), instead of the automatic lifting at age 18 as provided for in the current law. Two months before Miché turned 18, the Centre for Child Law had made an urgent application to the High Court asking for her identity protection to be extended, which it was until the publication of this book. “Without the identity protection order, for sure we would have seen the worst case scenario for Miché and an absolute obliteration of her best interests. Because she had the relatively quiet space to deal with the situation, her interests were protected to a degree,” says Jowell. Though the media knew who she was, they were prohibited from publishing Miché’s or the Solomons’ name. “The issue of missing children, traumatised children, reconciliation, bridge-building, single parenting – all the social and emotional elements that come into play in the Zephany story are ongoing and universal,” Jowell continues of the book’s potential impact. “I have this very strong feeling that Miché telling her story in the way she has, has a part to play in the broader picture.”
The feeling one is left with after reading the book — completed in February – is that Miché would prefer not to have been found and to have carried on with life as she knew it before The Truth emerged. “In the last six months, I think her feeling around that has been resolved a bit further,” says Jowell. “She is learning to embrace the Zephany identity because she realises it will never leave her. Zephany is a part of her and it’s best she learns to live with her otherwise she’s likely to tear her apart.”
Zephany by Joanne Jowell is published by Tafelberg.
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