Review: Vivien Horler
Zephany, by Joanne Jowell (Tafelberg)
How do you cope when you discover, at 17, that you’re not who you thought you were, and nor is anyone else?
One summer day in 2015 Miché Solomon, who was in matric at Zwaanswyk High School in Main Road, Retreat, went to school as usual. Within a couple of hours her entire life, and that of her family, had been turned upside down.
She was informed by her school principal that it was suspected she was Zephany Nurse, the baby who had been stolen from her crib at Groote Schuur Hospital in April 1997. She was told she would have a DNA test to see if this was true, and no, she couldn’t go home. Her mother had been arrested. Her cellphone was taken from her.
She was sent to a safe house in Wynberg, where her bewildered father – except he wasn’t her father – met her and took her school bag. And then she stayed at the home of a social worker for two weeks, unable to communicate with her family or her boyfriend.
After having said an ordinary goodbye that morning to her mother – who wasn’t her mother – she did not see her again for well over a year. That was when she gave evidence in mitigation at Lavona Solomon’s trial for kidnapping. Today Solomon is serving a 10-year sentence.
We’ve all known the story of Zephany Nurse for years, how her devastated biological parents, Morné and Celeste, celebrated her birthday every year for 17 years, often with a photograph of themselves and a sponsored cake in the Cape Town newspapers.
And then we read of the extraordinary coincidence of her younger sister Cassidy also going to Zwaanswyk as a Grade 8 pupil, and people commenting on the uncanny resemblance between the two girls, which led, eventually, to the discovery that Miché was really Zephany.
Because she was about to turn 18, and as an adult could then have been publicly named, the teen went to court for an order to protect her identity. This ruling has made legal history in South Africa in that the law protected an under-age witness to a crime and even an under-age perpetrator, but said nothing about protecting the young crime victim.
Now, four years later, Zephany/Miché has chosen to step out from the shadows and tell her story, through the skilful writing of Joanne Jowell. Jowell fills in the details and the nuances, based on extensive interviews with Zephany/Miché, her social workers, her lawyer, a sympathetic teacher, a therapist, and her “father” Michael Solomon, with whom she still lives, along with her two small children.
Not interviewed are her biological parents, the Nurses, and her “mother” Lavona. The Nurses declined an interview, which is putting it politely, while Jowell was unable to get permission to speak to Lavona in prison.
After the truth was revealed, Miché was in anguish. “I had lost my mom and I felt like I was losing myself, the old Miché. I tried to keep a grip on her but I didn’t know who she was. She definitely wasn’t Zephany. I think I hated Zephany in the beginning. I was so angry with so many people, including Zephany. I thought she was a horrible person. And she definitely wasn’t me.”
She ponders what happened, and says Lavona will always be her mother, the woman “who was there for me every day, making lunch for me and my friends when we came home from school”, and the woman who, with Michael, provided a stable, religious and loving home for Miché.
Miché’s relationship with Celeste and Morné is considerably more problematical. She is fond of Celeste, but says: “Things are always up and down, up and down with her. And I wasn’t raised up and down. I was raised level.”
She has little time for Morné. After the truth was discovered, by which time the Nurses were divorced, they seemed to assume she would live with them, but she rejected this idea. Celeste and her three younger children spent some of their time with her mother, and the rest with Celeste’s boyfriend, while Morné had a girlfriend. Neither seemed to offer her the sort of home she was used to.
When Morné threw a big party for Miché’s 18th birthday, the first the family could have celebrated together, Miché stayed home with Michael.
Five years on, she says although she sees Celeste and Morné, they “don’t feel like family to me… I can see that they are my parents, but I don’t feel it… That’s why I wanted to write this book, so that people can see another perspective.”
Miché’s attitude to her biological parents softened somewhat when she had a daughter of her own, and tried to imagine the horror of her baby being stolen.
Now just in her 20s, and a single mother of two, Miché has thought long and hard about what happened to her. She concedes that what Lavona did was wrong, but accuses the Nurses for not being there for her in Lavona’s absence.
Miché has been drastically affected, even damaged, by what has happened to her. Yet she is fiercely independent, saying she has learnt to rely on no one but herself.
With a maturity beyond her years she says: “But no matter what you go through in life, you can’t always blame the situation – you still have a choice to be the type of person you want to be.”
One can only wish her the best of luck.-