Harrowing story of a ruined childhood

2018-04-26 16:00
Suzan Hackney, author of Tsk-Tsk, The Story of a Child at Large.

Suzan Hackney, author of Tsk-Tsk, The Story of a Child at Large. (Ian Carbutt)

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“A child at large” is how Suzan Hackney describes herself on the cover of her newly published book,Tsk-Tsk, in which she documents a harrowing and loveless childhood, culminating in her being removed from her family at the age of 13 and placed in a place of safety, ultimately ending up at an industrial school in Paarl in the Cape.

Born in Pretoria, Hackney was adopted as a newborn baby and brought to Pietermaritzburg where she lived until the age of 13 and where much of her book is set, featuring people who still live here. It’s clear that Hackney never experienced that mother-daughter bond that should have come naturally. Undeservedly, she takes some responsibility for the toxic relationship between herself and her mother, who died when Hackney was 17. “If you adopted a baby and she didn’t want anything to do with you, if that baby cried every time you held her but not with anyone else, how could you bond with it?”

I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that this lack of love from her mother right from the beginning could have been the catalyst for Hackney’s behaviour throughout her childhood, a desperate cry for attention. She says she first ran away from home when she was in nappies, taking her bottle with her, and her first major act of rebellion at the age of seven was when she tried to burn her neighbours’ house down in response to the rage she felt at witnessing their happy family.

While her mother comes across as a cruel, cold and unloving woman, Hackney was reluctant to blame her, saying: “I know what I was like. I didn’t even make her look that bad, as I left out so many things, but I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I think we were just a bad combination; a bad fit.”

Read book review here: Absorbing and powerful

After being expelled so many times that eventually no schools would take her, her mother finally gave her an ultimatum: she would have to choose between her boyfriend and her family. She chose her boyfriend, thus ending her relationship with her family. As a ward of the state at 13, Hackney spent the remainder of her childhood in an industrial school, specifically set up by the government to educate children who were removed from their families for various reasons.

Stephanie Saville, who read and has reviewed the book, came with me to meet Hackney because she wanted to “ask her some questions about the book”, wondered where she got her courage from. “I don’t know,” Hackney said. “I was just born that way. It would have been easier for me if I had just listened, but I had an unbreakable will.”

Hackney said the book, which she first wrote in 2010, was originally meant to be about her older brother who died in what she considers to be a tragic accident at the age of 10. “I didn’t want anyone to forget about him, but by chapter four his life was over and I had much more to say,” she said.

The original draft was written by hand, filling four foolscap books. After rereading it, Hackney said: “I thought it was pretentious and wondered who would be interested in it, I wasn’t a famous person, so I burnt it.” It was only when a friend, a freelance editor, encouraged her to starting writing it again that she finished it and submitted it to “about 100 publishers; I nearly gave up”.

Having had a patchy and incomplete formal education, Hackney said that she had no idea that she could write until she started writing. She attributes her talent to her drama training at school and her love of books and reading. “I found that writing is like music. Once I recognised that there’s a cadence to it, a kind of rhythm, I could recognise notes that jarred, that didn’t quite fit in, and change them, so that the rhythm continued,” she said.

Instead of being a catharsis though, Hackney said, that in fact the book has proved to be the opposite, causing her to relive the difficult parts of her life. “I’m actually a very secretive person, so the book is out of character for me. It’s like a diary, in which I expose myself.” She said that nobody knew any of what’s written in the book and although she had moments when she wondered what she had done, she has no regrets now.

As for the book’s title, Hackney said that initially she wanted to change the title as when said phonetically the words “tsk-tsk” would normally relate to a mild transgression and didn’t seem appropriate to describe the “s**t that went down in this book”; however, the publisher liked the title and so it stayed.

Tsk-Tsk, The Story of a Child at Large document’s Hackney’s life up until the age of 19 when she left the welfare system. Now 48, not in the book is how, at age 21, she looked for and found her biological mother, met her half-siblings, what happened when she contacted her biological father and reunited with her adoptive father, met her biological grandmother, how giving birth to her first child at age 21 was a turning point in her life and why she’s currently unemployed and living in Ladysmith. Perhaps these stories and the many others that define the following two decades of her life will be in her next book, a sequel to Tsk-Tsk, which she is already working on.

• Linda Longhurst is the books and features editor at The Witness.

• Suzan Hackney has been invited to this year’s Franschoek Literary Festival to sit on two panels; one discussing memoirs and the other discussing adoption.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  features

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