EXTRACT | Zephany: You think you know a person. Especially your own mother, right?

Zephany, written by Joanne Jowell, published by Tafelberg.
Zephany, written by Joanne Jowell, published by Tafelberg.

You think you know a person. Especially your own mother, right? You know when she's angry or sad or broke or planning a surprise party. She's so bad at surprises, your mom. You might not know exactly what she's up to, but you know she's up to something.

It's sweet. She just can't hide her own excitement for you. It's not as if she has a tell-tale twitch or a secret spot for presents in-waiting. It's just that, after all these years, you know her so darn well.

You think you know a person. Until you don't.

Zephany Nurse thought she knew her mother. Until her mother turned out not to be her mother. In all fairness, Zephany Nurse didn't know she was Zephany Nurse either until the day she found out that her mother was not her mother, her father was not her father, and she – who had always only known herself as one Miché Solomon – was in fact a whole other person altogether.

Let's backtrack. On 28 April 1997, baby Zephany Nurse was born to parents Celeste and Morné Nurse at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. On 30 April 1997, baby Zephany disappeared from the hospital. An exhausted Celeste Nurse had taken a nap. She woke to find her baby gone, apparently stolen by a woman posing as a nurse whom Celeste recalled seeing standing near the baby's cot just before she dozed off.

Five days after Zephany's birth, Celeste and Morné left the hospital without their daughter. Their search to find her lasted seventeen years.

Miché Solomon, born 30 April 1997, grew up in a happy home, the only biological child of Lavona and Michael Solomon of Retreat, Cape Town. An attractive teenage girl, she entered her Matric year at Zwaanswyk High School in 2015 amidst swirling rumours of a doppelgänger who had recently joined the school's Grade 8 class. Miché befriended young Cassidy Nurse who, she agreed, did look a lot like her and seemed to enjoy the company of the older girls.

Unaccustomed to especially positive or negative attention at school, Miché was mildly surprised to be called to the principal's office on an ordinary school morning. But mild surprise turned to brutal bombshell when Miché learned, right there in that office on that not-so-ordinary day, that her life was one big lie. Lavona and Michael were not her real parents. Miché Solomon was not her real name, and she would not be going home that night.

You think you know a person. Especially your own mother, right? Until your mother turns out to be your kidnapper.

It's confusing enough to get your head around it all when you're you or me, on the outside looking in. Imagine the confusion for the young woman at the heart of it all.

Miché is not her birth name, though it is the one on her birth certificate. Miché is not the name used by outsiders, though it is the one used by insiders who think they know her. Miché is not the name that we've been using to identify her since the story broke, but it is the one by which she identifies herself, and the name that she has chosen to keep.

And it is the name she is revealing today, having hidden it for long enough.

As we speak, a ground-breaking court order is in the process of unravelling – one which has protected the identity of Miché Solomon for the three years since she legally became an adult. The lawyers and social workers who fought to secure her this protection, enacted so soon after her world came tumbling down, did more than shield her from the piercing eye of the media. They gifted her with the space and privacy to manage a crisis which even the most experienced of psychoanalysts would be hard pressed to understand. Infancy, toddlerhood, adolescence, adulthood... none of these holds a candle to the psychosocial catastrophe for which Miché was presumably headed.

It's safe to say that we all encounter an identity crisis at some point in our lives, usually at a time of transition. How well we navigate it depends on our maturity, and on the coping mechanisms we have developed through our lives up to that point. Those strategies are the shining stars in the psychological firmament: grit, resilience, communication, self-esteem, mindfulness, affirmation, faith... I could fill a page with all the buzzwords we don't even know we have (or lack) until the opportunity presents itself for us to practise them.

Hopefully, pubescent acne, bitchy girls and Grade 9 subject choices were a good dry run for Miché as far as crises go because here's the clincher for her particular identity impasse: she never saw it coming. When Miché Solomon met Zephany Nurse and discovered that they were the same person, well... there's hardly a pipe big enough to smoke that one.

Zephany Nurse

I don't mean to lecture you on modern psychology and the relevance of Erikson's theory on the stages of psychosocial development, but you wouldn't be reading this book if you weren't stunned by what is, essentially, a feat of psychological wonder: how did Miché Solomon discover her true identity and survive with her wits intact? Can a seventeen-year-old girl, on the eve of matriculation and the cusp of adulthood, come through the psychological trauma of mistaken stolen altered betrayed misled identity, and keep it together? Of what tough stuff must she be made to ever trust another living soul? Surely she lost the plot, went off the rails, spun out? Wouldn't you, if you found out that your mother had lied about your identity your whole life long?

If the garden-variety identity crisis is about loss (of self-concept and who you've always understood yourself to be) and confusion (about who you really are), then Miché's case is a forest. In one giant felling she lost her mother, her family, her lineage, her name. She lost the physical and the existential.

I learned something interesting about Erik Erikson – the psychologist who coined the term 'identity crisis' and outlined the eight stages of development from infancy through adolescence to late adulthood. Erik himself was raised by a man who turned out not to be his real father; like Miché, he lived a formative part of his life under unwitting false pretences. His mother fell pregnant out of wedlock and fled her home town, leaving Erik's biological father unnamed. She later married Erik's paediatrician, who adopted him and gave him his surname – Homburger.

Erik only learned the truth in late childhood and remained scarred by the knowledge for the remainder of his life. The development of identity consumed both his personal and professional lives. His daughter would later remark that he only established his 'psychoanalytic identity' when he created and assumed his own surname – Erikson.

Aside from the obvious similarity with Miché's story of discovering The Truth about her parentage, the Erikson story begs that seminal question to which any identity crisis sticks like chewed gum to the underside of a school desk: What's in a name? Zephany. Miché.

The two names are not quite as different or as far apart as they sound. Zephany has its roots in Hebrew and means 'The Lord has hidden'. Miché is the feminine form of Michael and means 'likeness of God'.But dig a little deeper, below the surface of the proper nouns, and you'll find Miché in the form of a verb – an action word meaning 'to sulk, to hide, to conceal'.

Zephany, the Lord has hidden.

Miché, to hide.

Zephany. Miché. She Who Has Hidden. She Who Has Been Hidden.

The Hidden One.

This story is replete with double meanings and duplicate functions. There are at least two of everything, whether in nuance or role: mothers, fathers, families, protagonist identities. It's very confusing. For seventeen years, the heart-breaking case was delineated around three main parts: distraught mother Celeste Nurse, devastated father Morné Nurse, abducted baby Zephany Nurse.

Minor characters emerged from time to time – police investigators, false leads, shadowy nurse-figures – but the playbook line-up was pretty clear and limited. Then out came The Truth, and the story, once a three-tiered twig, quickly grew a tangle of roots and branches. It was no longer feasible to simply classify the one side of the family as 'biological' because how, then, to refer to the other side? Adoptive? Artificial? Pseudo?

This was made all the more baffling by the fact that 'baby' Zephany, while no longer a baby, was not yet of legal adult age (18) and could therefore not be identified by anything other than the name by which she had always been known: Zephany Nurse. And if Zephany could not be identified, then neither could her kidnapper with whom she had been living all this time and whose family name she shared. Identifying Lavona and Michael Solomon would point the needle directly at Miché Solomon, their only daughter and the unwitting kid at the heart of a kidnapping.

Zephany as a baby with her biological mother, Celeste Nurse. Photo: Netwerk24/Supplied

The media developed its own strategy to help keep lines from crossing. They built a neat wall down the middle of the story and grouped the characters into two camps: real and steal. Realmom Celeste Nurse and real-dad Morné Nurse; steal-mom (Lavona Solomon) aka the kidnapper, and steal-dad (Michael Solomon) aka the kidnapper's husband, though exactly who had done the stealing and who else knew about it was still to be determined over the course of a criminal trial. Throughout, the main character had only one name: Zephany.

Journeying down the twisted pathways of this story, I've relied heavily on the real/steal categorisation. But I just couldn't seem to get it right. In every interview or conversation about the story, I'd find the characters caught up in a frenzied two-step, crossing this way and that through my mind and on my page.

Real and steal would merge and separate without warning, like the wax in a lava lamp, changing density and viscosity depending on just how much heat was being applied. I wondered if it was the terminology that was confusing me, and I tried to replace real with 'biological' and steal with 'who raised her': Celeste, the biological mom vs Lavona, the mom who raised her.

All that did was side-track me with the definition of 'mom' and the question around what classifies one. Are mothers born or made? Are they the start-line or the finish? A default position or an earned one? Are they the point of origin, the journey or the destination? Never mind a two-step, this was a full-blown jitterbug!

I kept going back to the protagonist of the story, assuming that, as confusing as this must be for me, it must be infinitely more so for her. But as I made my way through the story's many tentacles, I came to understand that my confusion about who's who is not a mirror of Zephany's own confusion. It's a foil. To Zephany Nurse, no, to Miché Solomon, her steal-mom IS her real-mom. For the attachment she feels to her, the mom who raised her may as well be the mom who gave birth to her. Furthermore, Miché Solomon has no problem with being Miché Solomon, so how can she be found if she was never lost?

For close on two decades, Zephany Nurse captured our hearts and minds. Celeste and Morné's tireless efforts to find her ensured that, though her annual birthday candle went unlit for seventeen years, the singular ring of her newborn name never entirely disappeared from public consciousness. Zephany – wafting like the gentle breeze of the west wind along a trail run cold. Until the day that zephyr turned tornado.

We think we know her – this mythical creature risen like a phoenix, emerging unscathed from a kidnapped past. There she was! Hidden in plain sight for all these years. Though we are yet to hear her voice or see her face, though our image of her is still that of a day-old babe in arms, though we call her mom Celeste and her dad Morné and her sister Cassidy and her Zephany, we think we know her.

For close on two decades, we have been fed the story of Zephany Nurse from every perspective other than that of Zephany Nurse. But Zephany is a figment – a newborn-shaped hole seared into memory by trauma. Miché Solomon – now there's the blood and guts; there's the beating heart of the story. But we haven't yet heard that story. Isn't it about time we did?

* This extract is the prologue from the book, Zephany, written by Joanne Jowell and published by Tafelberg, in bookstores at R260. With an academic background in English and Psychology, Jowell began writing professionally at age 28. Zephany is her sixth book.

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