/ 3 September 2022

Book explores gender-based violence and healing after the hurt

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At first impression, the noun that most aptly describes Latifah Jacobs is not “survivor”. A contemporary gladiator waging war against perpetrators of violence. Perhaps. A crusader for the rights of the elderly, women and children. Definitely. 

With her formidable presence and “take no kak” attitude to any form of disrespect, Jacobs seems to envelop everyone who encounters her, simultaneously in a sheath of armour and fleece, as softly protective as it is fiercely combative. But survival, on the most profound metaphysical level, is the fulcrum around which her life revolves. And in A Letter To My Perpetrator survival constitutes the pathway to forgiveness and healing. 

A Letter To My Perpetrator is more than a book; it is a guide, manual and collective journal – a compilation of letters, poems and narratives from survivors – and their loved ones – who have lived through unspeakable forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. 

Published by Haroldene Tshienda, it was conceived by Jacobs about three years ago through a Facebook page she had established for victims of gender-based violence. 

It has been published at an appropriate time – the end of another toothless Women’s Month during which, despite the political platitudes, the violent scourge against society’s most vulnerable continues, sickeningly unabated. 

The statistics on gender-based violence remain staggering. Over the last five years, police statistics reveal, a woman in South Africa was murdered every three hours and 10 minutes. Yet, according to Cape Town’s Women’s Legal Centre, conviction rates for perpetrators of violence against women and children remain abysmally below 10%, for reasons too perverse to enumerate in a book review. And most cases don’t even make their way past the first port of call for survivors: the charge office at the local police station. 

Even the acronym GBV has assumed a bland neutrality – an all-encompassing, politely generic term to describe atrocities on the basis of gender, age and sexuality without direct acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are male and that the victims and survivors are predominantly women and children of both genders. Their voices are muzzled or rendered mute by a system that has yet to fully comprehend the complexity or magnitude of these crimes. 

“The survivors almost never get the opportunity to say directly to the perpetrators how they feel about them,” Jacobs explains, “and that’s one of the most important components of healing – being able to say how that person made you feel. But not everyone is able to put it in words because sometimes the pain is so deeply rooted that the words become muddled.” She adds: “I have discovered through my own healing workshops that writing about it truly helps.”

Jacobs herself bears testimony to this. She is an active member of One Billion Rising SA – part of a global organisation against gender-based violence – as well as a community activist and the founding director of Aurorah – a movement that conducts healing workshops through writing.  

Currently completing her degree in community development, since 2015, Jacobs has completed her schooling; run soup kitchens for disadvantaged communities, particularly during Covid; lobbied for changes to the narrative of survival and earned multiple awards along the way – all this as a single parent. 

Putting out a call for contributions from survivors throughout southern Africa, the book was initially going to be titled  365 Letters to Perpetrators – a reference to the 365 Days of Activism that are annually advocated by the anti-GBV sector. But Jacobs and Tshienda eventually decided to compress the content and frame it in a more direct, unmitigated, accusatory format

The result is about 45 contributions from survivors both within South Africa, and as far afield as Lesotho, proudly signed or anonymous, with some survivors even naming their perpetrators. Jacobs hopes this will be the first edition of subsequent volumes with contributions from survivors around the world. 

She explains that the aims of the book are:

1. A movement of healing: Walking a journey of healing in writing and workshops. 

2. Economic empowerment: Survivors get the opportunity to sell the book at cost price, creating an income for themselves.

3. Collaborating with the Department of Correctional Services to engage with men convicted of perpetrating GBV, in order for them to understand the full impact of their crimes. Prevention is also a key objective.

But, as the stats confirm, most perpetrators go unpunished, especially when it comes to intimate-partner violence, where the home is no longer where the heart is but, rather, where the hurt lies. 

The letters, poems and essays are direct, unmediated, unfiltered, one on one, intimate, angry, striking in a place where a gasp, a sob, a scream and a shudder coalesce. Some are penned in the mellifluous prose of the academic; others are short, sharp and visceral. Some are scribbled on shards of notebook paper; others are structured missives. Some have been bandaged over time; in others the bruises from the bludgeons are still visible and the wounds still fester. 

None have been edited and the inevitable grammatical errors made in moments of intense, raw pain reinforce the authenticity of these testimonials. And the overriding question is: “Can we forgive those who caused us tremendous hurt and suffering?” Equally importantly, can we forgive ourselves for our choices, for succumbing to and, ultimately, for enduring the violations of our bodies, our psyches and our dignity for as long as we did?

A measured response to A Letter To My Perpetrator is difficult; not resorting to the trauma-porn terminology to which reporters often, inadvertently, succumb. In fact, the book makes for agonising, albeit essential, reading. Each contribution is a potential trigger point, with emotional bullet casings still strewn around, blades freshly sharpened or blunted from the rust of suppressed memory. Each is an unvarnished, uncensored record of pain, love turned lethal, and the complex and convoluted manifestations of trauma, both immediate and residual.

After all, trauma is the loneliest space in the world, especially when it is misunderstood or disbelieved. It is a place of shame, anger, confusion and unspeakable sadness. It is most important, therefore, for survivors to be believed. With belief, comes catharsis and the hope of healing after the hurt.

A Letter To My Perpetrator by Latifah Jacobs is published by Haroldene Tshienda, R200, (with a percentage going to the contributors).