Zephany Two mothers. One daughter author Joanne Jowell, from Sea Point, hopes the book will bring the people at the centre of the story a reprieve from the huge amount of “public judgement” they have received.
“If there is one thing that I think people can take away from this book it is to reserve judgement until you understand that this is a story with points of view and everybody has one. Before you make your judgement you should probably know all sides.”
The titular Zephany was abducted from her mother’s arms in hospital when she was just three days old. Through a series of bizarre coincidences she was reunited with her biological parents, 17 years later.
Throughout all the media frenzy surrounding the reunion and court case which followed, Zephany remained deliberately silent. A ground-breaking court order protected her privacy. Last week, she decided to break her silence, have the court order lifted and reveal the identity given to her by the kidnapper – Miché Solomon.
In the book, Joanne transcribes a series of interviews with Miché, her “adoptive” father Michael, her social worker, counsellor, lawyer and teacher.
Joanne has written several books, all of them non-fiction and most biographical. Other than writing, Joanne also has a background in psychology.
“The drive to come out of hiding was very strong for her,” Joanne said. “And that is what put her in this state of readiness now and that’s why she is seemingly handling it and all the focus, the scrutiny and the public judgement, so well.
“She says in the book ‘I’m done with hiding. I want to be able to say who I am and love whom I love and move on. I don’t forever want to be the kidnapped victim of someone who was painted with a criminal’s brush’.”
The book is written chronologically and starts with Miché’s retelling of Lavona Solomon’s story.
Lavona was convicted of kidnapping and fraud and has already served four years of her 10-year sentence at Worcester prison.
After discovering that she had been kidnapped, Joanne said, Miché, was in a “very dark place”.
“Thanks to that protection order she was allowed to wallow in that dark place and to slowly come out, with lots of mistakes and hurdles along the way.”
Joanne was Miché’s eventual author of choice but initially she had spoken to several others before a “connection” was formed.
“She was in discussions with the publishers through her lawyer who was guiding her through the process.”
The interviews took place over a series of months while Miché was pregnant with her second child.
“The readiness to tell the story has a lot to do with the ease with which the story comes out but first and foremost we connected as human beings. She’s very easy to connect with,” Joanne said, describing Miché as “warm” and “open”.
Celeste Nurse, Miché’s biological mother, has told media that she was hurt by the statements in the book but Joanne defended this, saying Miché was very protective of the Nurses’ reputation.
“She was very protective but she was reasonable. There is stuff that we didn’t include. In our interviews we talked about everything. It was an open, safe space to literally say anything. But when it came to actually writing it, if what was said was not in the public’s interest or Miché’s best interests, we decided to leave it out. Everything that’s in there, is there for a purpose.”
On the flip side, there were also many elements that Joanne felt were worth including but Miché needed convincing. One example, was the disclosure that she considered terminating her pregnancies.
“She grappled with that a lot. It is a huge source of guilt for her. I felt people would resonate with that. I think that was worth pushing for.”
But despite the author’s hopes, the release of the book has caused a flood of “public judgement”.
On social media, people have accused Miché of disrespecting her biological parents, being immature and breaking her silence for money.
Joanne said the huge public interest in the story was understandable.
“You are two days postpartum and you wake up and find your baby is not there. There is not a mother in the world that hearing that, doesn’t clench her uterus and feel nauseous.
“As a mother, instinctively, your empathy goes to Celeste. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare that she endured for 17 years and so instinctively, if you’re going to pick sides, that’s who you are going to side with.
“But as I talked to Miché and got to know her and Michael, and got deeper and deeper into it, I felt I was opening in my heart towards Lavona. Our hearts start to bleed for them as they bled for the Nurses.
“This is what Miché finds so difficult to get across to people. She is being told, ‘You are only allowed to have feelings for your biological parents because the other side is a criminal side.’ How can you tell the daughter of a loving family to harden her heart to the person who has only ever shown her love?”
In the book, Joanne details her attempts to give the Nurses a voice.
“I did reach out to them but it was a thwarted effort,” she said.
She hopes that in time their reconciliation will continue.
“There’s an opportunity for bridge-building, there’s an opportunity for connections to be made. Miché’s intentions were never to destroy the relationship any further. I really hope that all the doors remain firmly open because I think all is not lost there.”
Overall, Joanne says, it’s been a huge privilege to write the book because the story is so unique.
“It’s the stuff movies are made of. That’s why I write non-fiction because life is ironic. Fiction can’t hold a candle to it. You can’t make this stuff up.
“I’m grateful to the publishers who allowed me to put a psychological hat on and go deeper. The story may be unique but the issues it deals with are not. Issues like forgiveness, identity, trauma, nature versus nurture, these are hugely relevant issues and I’m really glad that we were able to use the book to pick away at them.”
Joanne Jowell will be in conversation with Miché at the Fugard Theatre on Sunday September 8 at 10am as part of the Open Book Festival.
Tickets to the event cost R45 and can be booked at Webtickets.