Surviving a bleak and desperate childhood

Review: Vivien Horler

A Childhood Made Up – Living with my mother’s madness, by Brent Meersman (Tafelberg)

Brent Meersman is an accomplished man and an accomplished writer. He is the co-editor of Ground Up, a news agency which has a particular interest in the rights of the vulnerable.

He’s the author of several books including the hilarious novel Primary Coloured, about a bossy coloured woman who launches a political party in Cape Town. Back in the day the founder of the Independent Democrats, Patricia de Lille, hired Meersman as the party’s CEO, and she told me: “He didn’t use people’s real names, but I’ve read it and most of the stories are true… In his shout on the cover Richard Calland said it was ‘remarkably authentic. It’s as if Meersman was actually there.’ Well, of course, he was.”

A Childhood Made Up is a different book entirely. In a piece in the Sunday Times he said he first wrote it as a novel, and only after that did he see his way to write this memoir of his childhood in a dysfunctional family in Milnerton in the 70s and 80s.

There may be flashes of wry humour, but it is a tough book to read, and your heart goes out to the suffering of the little boy and later teenager at the centre of this narrative.

In his prelude Meersman says: Compassion is my default. I take great interest in other people, yet at the same time I can be uncannily absent in their company. It is how I protected myself as child, always placing a pane of glass between me and them, between stoic Brent and my family.”

Then, he says, he grew up and forgot his childhood, “almost all of it”. But when he approached 50, he went to a psychotherapist and in the course of their interaction memories came floating to the surface.

Brent was the second of two boys born to Shirley and Willy Paul Meersman. Shirley was a talented artist and in Brent’s early years she painted many bold canvases, her painting coming before any domestic duties. Willy was a Belgian-born artisan, and a man who knew something of art and music.

But the family had little money and Shirley was ill. She spent long periods in Valkenberg Hospital where she was subjected to electric shock treatment, which blew great holes into her memory.

For the times, Shirley was an unconventional mother, deeply loving and protective of her boys and determined to educate them on topics not covered in the Cape Provincial education curriculum. She wanted them to know about all sorts of things such as classical Greek and Roman civilisation. The Ancient Greeks understood beauty and poetry, she said, unlike the modern Greeks, who were now “just like the grocer woman”.

But while she was fierce, she was also painfully timid. Her illness ground her down. Willy tried to be supportive, but her illness ground him down too. He would go out to buy cigarettes or milk and then go off drinking, not coming home for two or three days. This drove Shirley to despair.

They were also desperately short of money, and lived in a small Milnerton flat where it seemed appliances were forever exploding and broken.

As a small child Brent wrote books; while his mother painted, he wrote. At Milnerton High School he did well academically, supported by perceptive and caring teachers including the late Guy Willoughby. He became the first head boy not to play rugby.

But inside, Brent was, as a he puts it, a churning mess. And his dawning realisation that he was gay was just another thing to worry about.

Shouts on the cover of A Childhood Made Up describe it as cathartic, courageous and poignant, and it is all of those things. But it describes a desperately bleak and heartbreaking childhood.

The book has a happy ending, of sorts, for Brent’s parents, and for Brent himself who is today a clever and successful man. But I suspect all the success in the world can ever entirely defeat the fear and despair experienced by that small boy in the Milnerton flat.

1 thought on “Surviving a bleak and desperate childhood

  1. David Bristow

    Well, boy, does this bring the memories pouring in. We had a bi-polar mother, but did not know it at the time. We used wonder whether the good mother or the evil mother would come home. At one time she took to bed for a year. I, as the youngest of three, dodged most of the bullets, but my oldest brother is dysfunctional as a result. Funny, also the intellectual stuff, ancient Greek and for us, stuff like Robert Adrey, and poetry …. I learned to make the family laugh, as a defence strategy, which led to 4 years of drama and nearly becoming an actor … But our nurse mother did become enormously successful and wealthy, until she lost it. All of it, every sous. That’s a story, but I’ve felt people wouldn’t believe it. And I’m not fucked up enough to write it.

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