Being Elsie

A CERTAIN LEVEL of cold-bloodedness seems a requisite in writing a critical biography of someone the author loved dearly, with the knowledge that strangers will read this book. And that the publisher wants a serious work on the shelves. But an enormous level of skill is necessary in yielding a piece of writing that ticks all the above boxes and still embraces the loved one, without slipping into maudlin soppiness. Clinical psychologist and senior academic at Stellenbosch University, Leslie Swartz has unequivocally succeeded in balancing on this thin line in his work, How I Lost My Mother, a tribute to his mother Elsie.

But there is something more. As you begin reading the material, you may think his writing to be peevish or self-deprecating, particularly in his description of the Jewish connections and his own path into adulthood and academia, but in truth, and as the book unfolds, you realise a depth of vision that pays tribute to Swartz’s late mother, as it does to his sophisticated thinking wrapped in a friendly text.

Swartz’s informal use of language is easy on the tongue. Sometimes it feels too easy. It enables you, as the lay reader, who might or might not have known his mother, to be there, in the presence of struggles, in a universal sense. Like Karen Brodkin’s significant work How Jews Became White Folk (and what this says about race in America) and Nicky Falkof’s vital 2015 research into South African whiteness, Satanism and Family Murder in Late Apartheid South Africa the book is as much about its subject as it is about its author. But still, it is no case study.

Unlike works that might on paper be compared to Swartz’s, such as Roger Cohen’s Girl from Human Street, which portrays the author’s mother and her psychotic illness somewhat transgressively, How I lost my mother skirts from preciousness and renders Elsie in three-dimensions. It allows the psychologist to unseat himself as a mental health professional and become a witness to his mother’s childhood, through a lacey haze of his own memories and his research based on gossip and hearsay, spying on the cruelty and complexity she faced as a ‘laatlammetjie’ of a large family.

And in skilfully placing his ideas within the malleability of informal words, Swartz is enabled to write about some very difficult topics engaging with the palliative care of a loved one, in a way that is neither intrusive nor preachy and often riotously, viciously funny. This is the consummate academic writing, not to impress, but to inform and educate his reader, with the kind of plain language that a sophisticated thinker can wield. Bringing in characters of almost mythical malice, the book is full of colour and verve that sometimes may make you cringe and at other times, shriek with laughter. This is the loving son experiencing the horror of a parent’s old age, as you or I would. Only he is able to intertwine it in psychological principles.

As a result, you have a book that paints a beautiful but never platitudinous portrait, not only of Swartz’s mother, but also of Swartz himself, in a way that is neither narcissistic or fumbling. It’s a paean to old age, with all its brokenness and filterlessness, with all its fallibility and inevitability. And above all, it presents the mother in question, Elsie Swartz nee Cohen, who grew up in Berea, Johannesburg and experienced loss and joy, beauty and sadness with her Elizabeth Taylor-blue eyes and sharp tongue, (who might have been a writer, in different circumstances) in resonant, harsh, thoughtful and ultimately deeply loving colour.

  • How I lost my mother: A story of life, care and dying by Leslie Swartz is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2021).
  • Disclaimer: Elsie Swartz (née Cohen), who is the focus of this book, is the first cousin of the father of Robyn Sassen, the writer of this review. The critical opinions in this review are in no way compromised by this family connection.

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