Winner of the Sala Novel Award
Winner of the Humanities and Social Sciences Award for the Novel
A cry for reparations for Lucy Lurie. She is the victim of an act of terrible sexual violence that devastes her life. Afterwards, she becomes obsessed with the author John Coetzee, the man who wrote the scene of violence in which she was attacked. Withdrawn and fearful of crowds, Lucy nonetheless makes occasional forays into the world of men in her search for Coetzee himself. She means to confront him. The Lucy in his novel, Disgrace, is passive and almost entirely lacking agency. Lucy means to right the record, for she is the lacuna that Coetzee left in his novel—the missing piece of the puzzle. Lucy plans to put herself back in the story, to assert her agency and identity. For Lucy Lurie will be no man’s lacuna.
This riveting, feminist reply to the book considered to be Coetzee’s masterwork is also a moving story of one woman trying to put her life back together after trauma.
Release date: January 11, 2022
Publisher: Europa Editions
Print pages: 253
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Alacuna is an unfilled space or gap.
My vagina is a lacuna that my attackers filled with their penises. They saw the lack in me and chose to supply what I couldn’t. Their penises were rough and dry and scraped my lacuna raw, bruising my cervix, and tearing my perineum.
Sometimes I dream that my rape is happening off-stage—in the manner of the ancient Greek tragedians. I am lying in another room and listening to it. I can hear my cries of pain—loud at first, then softening to whimpers. I can hear their grunts of frustration and triumph. One of them manages to ejaculate, which he does with a roar of victory.
I can’t feel what is happening or even see it, except in my imagination. The soundtrack on the other side of the wall lets me know how far they have progressed. Now they are taking a break. Now they have got their second wind and are starting again.
It is less harrowing than being in that room myself. Experiencing something at one remove is a pale shadow of the real thing. The ancient Greek tragedians were wrong if they thought that leaving the rough stuff to the readers’ imaginations was more effective than rubbing our noses in it.
But perhaps that wasn’t their intention at all. Perhaps they simply thought it was more genteel to keep ugliness off the stage. No one wants to watch stomach-turning violence at the theatre, especially over dinner. It can be very upsetting.
Was that what Coetzee was doing? Was he being genteel—tiptoeing around the sensibilities of his readers? Or did he believe it would be more effective for the rape to take place off-stage in the arena of the reader’s imagination? Coetzee apologists have suggested that he was making a feminist point by leaving that lacuna unfilled in the text—that he was illustrating how rape victims are stripped of agency and denied a voice.
I see it as a lacuna in his own literary imagination. He does not supply details on the page because his imagination failed him when it came to describing what happened to me.
You don’t want to hear this, do you? There is nothing more tedious than a rageful harpy ranting about some cherished grievance. It’s so 1981. So Andrea Dworkin. So Catharine MacKinnon.
Let me tell you what John Coetzee was like as a colleague instead.
I say colleague, but remember, he was the Rawlings Professor of Apolitical Close Reading while I was a junior lecturer on a one-year, non-renewable contract. In corporate terms, this would be the equivalent of the CEO of a multinational corporation being regarded as a colleague of the mould growing on the underside of the cleaner’s bucket. It is impossible to overstate what a gap in status there was between us.
Furthermore, he was a man and I was a very young woman. You might think this is irrelevant, but that would prove how little you know about the generation of academics Coetzee represents.
Coetzee and I interacted face-to-face on three occasions. I should describe them for you. Show, not tell. That’s Memoir Writing 101. Not easy for those of us trained in academic exegesis. We have been schooled to tell, with very little need to show.
The first occasion was at my thesis defence seminar, before I got the junior lectureship.
This is part of how PhDs are awarded at the University of Constantia: your thesis is read by a panel of your peers, before whom you appear in person to defend your work against such questions and comments as they might want to put to you. This is known as your thesis defence.
Mine went by in a blur, but some moments stand out. One is of Prof. Coetzee asking me whether I agreed that feminist literary theory had “run its course.” This was in the middle of my animated discussion with a professor from the African Studies Department about whether the particular strand of Afrofuturistic feminist methodology I had chosen was the correct paradigm to apply to the texts in question.
He also asked whether I was married or intended to have children, without explaining why these points were relevant.
Later I heard that my thesis had been passed—provided I expanded two sections and corrected a few typos—by a majority of five panellists to one. I had no doubt who that one hold-out panellist was. At the time, it didn’t trouble me. John Coetzee’s questions about feminist methodology and my marital status became comic fodder for me to recycle among my friends at the Cap & Gown pub near campus.
Prof. Coetzee was an anachronism. His time was up. He and the generation he represented were history. Coetzee’s failed literary ambitions were an open secret at the university. The unfinished manuscript was a running joke among undergraduates at the University of Constantia, who used to quote bits of its cringeworthy dialogue to each other.
Never did we imagine that he was a whisker away from writing the book that would scoop that year’s major literary awards. He was about to become South Africa’s next Booker Prize winner. First Nadine Gordimer, and now John Coetzee. We would have choked on our beers laughing if anyone had suggested such a thing.
The second time Coetzee and I came face-to-face was at my interview for the one-year rotating post of junior lecturer. As is common in job interviews, there came a time when the panel asked me if I had any questions to put to them. I asked if there was a chance of the post being extended into something more long-term. Coetzee responded by asking whether I was happy with the maternity-leave provisions in the contract or whether I would wish to see them extended. The message was clear. He wasn’t about to award a permanent post to a young woman who would be popping out babies at the first opportunity.
The third time was in the general office of the English Department. The main attraction of this office was its laser printer. Those members of staff who were too poor (like me) or too cheap (like Prof. Coetzee) to buy their own printers were allowed to send documents to the office printer. You had to be light on your feet when it came to collecting your document, or you might find it thrown into the recycling bin or scattered around the office.
On this day, I had sent a reading list to the printer. As soon as I pressed send, I jogged along the corridor to the office to pick it up. I found John Coetzee staring at the printer with an air of puzzlement as it spat out twenty-five copies of my second-year reading list.
I readied my politest smile as I walked up to the printer. This was the most senior member of the department, after all. He made no eye contact. Only when my print run was finished, and I reached into the tray to collect my reading list, did he speak.
“This printer is for the use of staff members only.”
“That’s right,” I agreed.
“Staff members of the English Department.”
There was a pause as he stared at me.
“I’m a junior lecturer.” My voice came out higher and younger than I wanted it to. “In this department.” Youinterviewed me, I wanted to add, before self-respect stopped me.
The accusing stare didn’t lift. The printer lurched into life again.
“Look!” I said. “Here comes your document now.”
Up to that moment, I had been under the impression that I was making a mark on the department with my diligence and enthusiasm. The bigwigs were noticing. If I made myself indispensable, my contract might be renewed at the end of the year. The realisation that a senior professor was unaware of my existence put paid to that delusion.
Imagine my surprise to find myself, a year later, one of the central characters in Coetzee’s novel. He even used my full name, Lucy Lurie. It was as though he were daring me to sue him, knowing I didn’t have the means or the resolution to do so. Lucy means “light” in Greek. Scholars have made much of his use of nominative determinism in the book. Lucy is the moral centre of the novel—an unwavering source of light and goodness. She is an unflawed character, apart from some amusing mannerisms.
She has a way of walking with her toes turned out like a duck—a legacy of her early training as a dancer. She blinks her eyes and screws up her nose when she gets tired or when her contact lenses irritate her. When she is talking to someone who makes her uneasy, she twists a strand of hair around her forefinger until it hangs lankly by the side of her face. When she believes herself to be unobserved, she sucks on her baby finger until it becomes wrinkled and bloodless.
These are my mannerisms. Only one who has observed me closely would notice them. I want to shrink when I think of Coetzee observing my hank of over-fingered hair. Mortification slaps me on both cheeks when I realise he must have walked past my office and seen me sucking my finger.
The man who pretended not to recognise me when I ran into him in the general office had been watching me all that time, cataloguing my habits.
The critics ate it up. It was so perfectly Coetzee-ish (yes, that is now a word) to humanise an otherwise angelic character by giving her a laundry list of bathetic qualities.
* * *
I don’t see many people from the English Department these days, but my friend Moira comes around sometimes. She asks whether I’m flattered to realise how carefully Coetzee had been watching me.
I tell her I’m not. Not at all.
But that’s a lie.
Something within me blooms under the warm, acknowledging gaze of a clever older man. I feel worthy. Validated. I feel like I exist. Like I matter.
And I despise myself for feeling like that.
Ihave a therapist. Of course, I do. Every middle-class white woman who gets raped has a therapist. It’s only if you are poor and black that you don’t need a therapist after being raped. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with it. Your feelings aren’t as tender as those of a middle-class white woman. Your scars don’t run as deep. Your trauma isn’t as real. You’re a coper. A survivor. Your skin is thicker. You shrug these things off faster.
They say that going to therapy straight after a traumatic event is next to useless. The trauma is too raw for that kind of counselling to be of any help. So I did it right. Shortly after the rape, I went for crisis counselling—the first-aid of the counselling world. It gets you through the immediate aftermath of the event.
Then, after more than a year, I started going to proper long-term therapy. I committed myself to putting in the “work” I needed to recover. That’s shrink-speak. When you go to therapy, you are doing “work.”
My therapist is a woman. Naturally. You wouldn’t consult a man after being raped. Her name is Lydia Bascombe, and she thinks I shouldn’t be so flippant about needing her.
“Why do you feel the need to compare yourself to other rape survivors?” she asks.
“It’s a natural impulse, isn’t it? When you’ve been through something life-changing, you want to know how other people who have been through the same thing are coping.”
“But you disparage yourself constantly. It’s as if you believe you have no right to therapy just because not everyone can afford it.”
“Do I, though?”
“Why do you feel that you don’t?”
Shrinks always answer questions with questions. I am not the first to make this observation.
“It’s a luxury,” I say. “An indulgence. You can dress it up as something else by calling it ‘work,’ but it’s an opportunity to talk about yourself for an hour. To someone who is paid to care.”
“There are other luxuries that not everyone can afford. Like a roof over one’s head and three meals a day. Do you feel unworthy of those too?”
“Perhaps I do.”
“But you accept them. You don’t put on sackcloth and ashes and start living in a shack. You don’t choose to subsist on mealie-meal and tripe. You don’t flirt with nutritional deficiency and hypothermia.”
“Aren’t you arguing with me now? You’re trying to persuade me to see things your way. Therapists aren’t meant to do that.”
She goes quiet. She is struggling with what looks like irritation. She is annoyed with my refusal to see the light—to get better.
“Rational argument can be part of the therapeutic process.” There is little conviction in her voice. She has overstepped the mark, and she knows it. I feel satisfaction at having rattled her. But now it is her turn to rattle me, and that won’t be nearly as pleasant. It is all part of the give-and-take of what she likes to call “the therapeutic process.”
“Perhaps you find it easier to focus on other rape survivors than on yourself?” The gentleness in her voice tells me she is moving in for the kill. She will make me cry today. She can sense my tears in the wind.
“No, actually, it’s harder.” Good. That came out steady as a rock.
“Why is that? Surely your own pain is the hardest to contemplate?”
“I can’t think about anyone else’s pain.” Less steady now. “It’s too much. I can’t make sense of it.” My voice is breaking on every second or third word. “Other women have been gang-raped. Other women have been through what I went through, only worse.” I’m sobbing uncontrollably now—gasping out words between sobs. L. Bascombe leans forward to hear better. “Some of them were stabbed and strangled as well. They had their bellies cut open and their guts spilled out and coated in dirt. The doctors had to wash that mess before piling it back in again.”
She nods to show she knows the case I am referring to. It was on the news a while ago. Astonishingly, the woman survived.
“It happens all the time to black women up and down the country. To impoverished women all over the world.” It comes out as impo-ho-ho-ho-vrisht. “None of them gets to see a shrink afterwards.When they’re patched up enough to walk, they’re sent home—often to the bastard who hurt them in the first place.” (Ba-ha-ha-ha-stid.) “And they have to get on with it—cooking, cleaning, looking after the kids, showing up for work. No fifty-minute hours for them. No sirree.”
Lydia Bascombe’s voice is soothing now that she is back in the driver’s seat. Her patience is infinite. “Your capacity for empathy in the midst of your own pain is laudable.”
I laugh. It comes out as a sob. “But that’s it. I’m not empathetic. Every time I think about those other women, my brain tells me they’re not really like me. They don’t feel as deeply as I do. I’m more sensitive than they are. They’re tougher, shallower. I mean, how can they possibly feel things as acutely as my precious white self? They’re just living the life they’re used to. Their trauma can’t compare to mine.”
L. Bascombe’s eyes are shifty, darting from side to side. I have made her uncomfortable. She swallows—a dry, clicking sound audible to both of us.
“How do you feel when it’s a white woman who has been attacked?”
“The same. I find reasons why it wasn’t as bad for her. She is probably not as bright as I am. Not as sensitive. She’s more of a coper. She’ll get over it.” I draw a breath that shakes so much it sounds like three separate breaths. “There can’t be that much pain in the world. It can’t all be equal to mine. I can’t stand it if it is.”
She lets out her own breath in a thin stream. Her world has righted itself. I’m not racist after all—just traumatised.
“Total empathy is impossible to sustain. You must realise that. We cannot feel all the pain in the world all the time without going mad. It’s a natural defence mechanism to find reasons for believing that someone else’s pain is not as bad as ours. This is something we are trained as psychologists to recognise in ourselves.”
“How do you cope?” I wail. “You specialise in counselling victims of sexual violence. How do you listen to these stories day in and day out without going crazy?”
“We’re talking about you and your pain.Why do you think you feel the need to deflect the focus onto me?”
And we’re back on familiar ground again. The classic shrink bait-and-switch.
Monday, 10.45, 17 May
Patient: Lucy Lurie
Diagnosis: bipolar, depression, schizoid delusions, borderline personality disorder, paranoia
Referred by: Dr. J. Coetzee
The patient is a twenty-eight-year-old well-nourished woman. She presents with a history of uncontrollable outbursts and delusions. She is trained as an academic and was working in this capacity until recently. She is not working at present.
She persists in her conviction that she was raped two years ago by a group of men who broke into her father’s farmhouse where she was visiting for dinner. This seems to be loosely based on the celebrated novel Disgrace by John Coetzee.
Ms. Lurie identifies with the character “Lucy” in the novel and has become convinced that Coetzee based his book on her experiences. Ms. Lurie and John Coetzee worked in the same department at the University of Constantia for a time, ...
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