Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 264th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born at the start of summer on December 1, 1957, in Cape Town, South Africa. My mother described my birth as “the single most amazing experience” of her life. But even so, my existence was not enough to save her beautiful soul. To know my story, you must know my mother’s first.
Ingrid, whose maiden name was Jonker, was 25 when she met my father at Clifton Beach, one of the most picturesque beaches in the world. Situated at the bottom of a mountain with soft white sand, sparkling waters, and crimson sunsets, it was where my mother—a promising poet who had been writing from a very young age—would meet with her friends to discuss poetry, debate politics, swim, and, unknowingly, meet my father.
The first time my mother laid eyes on Piet Venter strolling on the shore, she was gobsmacked. Attracted by his flaxen hair wafting in the breeze and his magnificent physique, my mother told a friend, “He looks like a Greek god.”
Piet was handsome indeed. The fact that he was 17 years older than my mother, in her eyes, only added to his charm. The lovebirds were soon married, and after my birth, we all lived contentedly in a small “bohemian” flat.
But let’s go back a little further…
My mother came from an unstable background. My grandfather, Abraham Jonker, was an extremely intelligent man. He was married to Beatrice Cilliers, a woman of noble stock. However, accusing her of infidelity, he threw her out when she was eight months pregnant. Beatrice fled to live a threadbare life on the outskirts of Cape Town, where she gave birth to my mother, Ingrid.
To console herself amongst the childhood trauma, my mother wrote hymnals for the fisher folk. Her first poem was published on a local children’s magazine when she was only six years old. Four years later, her mother died from illness brought on by emotional strain.
Nevertheless, my mother grew up and gradually, gained recognition for her poetry, publishing her first collection the same year she met my father, 1956. After they got married, my father continued to work as a safari guide for a while before he was transferred to the Transvaal. My mother had no choice but to follow him. But without her friends and her beloved Cape Town, she felt lost. So, she returned to Cape Town and filed for divorce when I was two.
I do not know what life would be like if she stayed with my father. Instead, I can tell you what happened. With the help of a friend, she published three volumes of poetry, of which Smoke and Ochre won the Afrikaans Press-Booksellers Prize for the Best Afrikaans Book of the Year in 1963. I was six years old.
After a couple of months, my mother’s emotional state had become extremely unstable. She had a forced abortion (the tale that remains vague, even to me), and consequently, such mental anguish that she booked herself into Valkenberg (a mental institution) where she was given shock treatment and put on medication. This was when I went to stay with my father and his new wife Topsi, not fully understanding the whispers around me, but inheriting the air of uneasiness all the same.
With the money from the award, my mother traveled with the well-known writer Sir Laurens van der Post by boat to England to explore insights into the lives of great European poets like Dylan Thomas. Though, this too was cut short after she had suffered a breakdown. She was readmitted to Valkenberg where she underwent more shock therapy.
After that, she often tried to take her own life. She would cut her wrists or try to jump in front of a car. More than once she tried to drown herself in the sea. Watching my mother destroy herself was very hard for me to bear as a little girl. I loved her dearly. I felt responsible for her. I loved the beautiful poems she wrote for me like Pixie Love and Nevermind the Dark Man. I loved her eyes, and I loved when she smiled.
On a cold winter morning of July 19, 1965, I was quickly put on a plane to the Transvaal, where I was met by my father. That evening, he told me my mother was dead. I didn’t believe him. He vanished into the study and appeared seconds later with a tiny newspaper clipping in his hands. It read, “Poet Ingrid Jonker drowns in Three Anchor Bay.”
All I remember is feeling the presences of angels around me. I did not cry. I went to my room alone, with a broken heart.
I later learned that my mother left the small bachelor flat while I was asleep that morning. She crossed the road outside and walked into the Atlantic Ocean. She did not come up for air. Her body was found the next morning, washed out on the shore. Her black coat was pulled over her head, and tiny seashells graced her ears…
This is where my story begins.
No one mentioned my mother to me after her death. All I had left of her was a volume of her poetry. As a young girl, I loved dancing and reading, and I believed in fairies. I believed my mother had become a fairy because on earth she had been beautiful and pure. I hoped I could someday become one too. But that hope was not enough to shield my soul from the holes that began to form.
As the years went by, I became more introverted, feeling abandoned and uprooted, which was made worse by my father’s wife who made it clear that “I was not her child.” At age 13, I was accepted into Pro-Arte School to study ballet, however, a ballerina doesn’t learn much if they have undesirable behaviors and cannot settle down. It was then when I became extremely rebellious. I started smoking and bunking school until I eventually dropped out without even finishing Standard 8.
I eventually went back and took a course at a secretarial college, where I got involved with a boy named Johnny. He was a junkie and we loafed around the streets taking drugs, eventually spending our time together in a few different drug rehabs and mental institutions. I was 16 years old then.
Johnny and I were eventually released after we got employment, and we returned to Johannesburg. Although we had stopped using, we were directionless and quickly decided to get married and have a child. I naively believed having a child would fill the hole in my life.
I was 18 when my son Tyrone was born in 1976, but with no support from family and a deteriorating relationship with Johnny, I found that my heart still had holes. We divorced soon after.
Two years later, I married John Bowman, hoping this 22-year-old student would help take care of my son. But honestly, I was still “sick inside” and after a few years, I felt we had reached the end of our relationship. So, we divorced in 1984.
Soon after, I met my third partner, Steven, a second-hand freelance book dealer, and fell pregnant with my daughter who was born in 1985. Despite having my children, my soul was damaged. It was as if I was seeking healing in all the wrong places. Steven and I got involved in studying Black Magic, but over time we became argumentative and, to make things worse, we had very little money.
For the next several years, I lived in the confusion and uneasiness I had known since I was a child. I knew that my mother had not been able to thrive in sobriety, and I knew that I shared her spirit. To simply survive each passing day, I dove deeper and deeper into an ocean of addiction, eventually learning to float with the help of substances like crystal meth. Perhaps I thought drugs would save my “marriage.” Perhaps I was angry with the life I was given. Perhaps I wanted to die.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratic president in South Africa and he read my mother’s poem “Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)” [“The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)”] during his address at the opening of the first democratically elected Parliament.
The words of my mother that I had pushed into my past were now alive in the mouth of Mandela. Her power and legacy was the consequence of the pain she endured, the pain that I had since come to know, and I felt connected to her once again. Though she did not live on, I realized that she was still alive in her words and in my heart, and if I were to honor my mother, then I would have to live on for both of us.
I continued to seek the light in my heart that would give me the strength to lead a meaningful life, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. Then one day in 2002, I watched a film with some people practicing what appeared to be Chinese Tai Chi and I was extremely impressed. After some research, I read a book called China Falun Gong that had the same emblem I had seen in the film. With this spark of curiosity, I started teaching myself the exercises and meditation and tried to follow its core principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance.
It was as if the black cloud around me was dispelled by brilliant golden light. The teachings of Falun Gong urge its followers to stop smoking and taking drugs. I realized that my addictions and my happiness could not coexist.
I made up my mind to quit smoking and completely stop taking crystal meth, and within a fortnight, I started feeling much stronger. Unfortunately, Steven was still hopelessly addicted. I asked him to practice Falun Gong and get off the drug, but he couldn’t. I had no choice but to extricate myself from the relationship.
I practiced Falun Gong in all my earnest. I found myself gradually changing, physically and mentally. I followed the principles by restraining my temper and remaining truthful and compassionate in all circumstances.
It was exactly six months after I had given up all drugs that I received a letter from the Presidency inviting me to receive the Order of Inchamanga on my mother’s behalf for her contribution to literature and her fight for human rights. I can’t describe what it felt like to stand before my country to receive her medal, bestowed upon me by President Thabo Mbeki and other dignitaries, with a clear and beautiful mind.
From that day on, my life was transformed. I worked hard cultivating myself and purifying my mind and body. In 2011, the film Black Butterflies on the life of my mother was released, and since then, many book, music, plays, and documentaries have emerged from my mother’s life. In retrospect of her journey and my own, I saw light. I saw hope. I saw the meaning of life.
Today I continue to practice Falun Gong and continue to strive for the freedom of belief. I am thankful to Nelson Mandela, my mother Ingrid Jonker, and my Falun Gong teacher Li Hongzhi, who have helped me turn my life around and return to the light.
Like a lotus flower,
We rise from the mud,
Bloom out of the darkness,
And radiate into the world.
This is the story of Simone Jonker
Simone lives in Cape Town continuing to heal from her childhood trauma through Falun Gong. When Simone was seven, she learned that her mother, Ingrid Jonker—the famous South African poet—had killed herself by drowning in the sea. This caused trauma for Simone that led her down the path to drugs and self-destruction until she discovered Falun Gong, a type of yoga technique that encourages compassion. Through it, she quit drugs and found the energy to heal and learn about her mother’s story in greater detail. While Simone loves practicing Falun Gong, she was shocked to learn that people in China were being persecuted, jailed and tortured by the Chinese Communist Party for practicing it. She hopes that one day, the practice can be practiced freely and with the right state of mind. The practice is about inner peace above all else for her. Although Simone is sad to have lost her mother so soon, she finds strength in knowing her poetry lives on and inspires others.
This story first touched our hearts on January 24, 2019.
| Writer: Simone Jonker | Editor: MJ; Colleen Walker |