Helena Dolny is an international executive coach, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the author of four books. Her first book, Joe Slovo: The unfinished biography was published by Ravan Press in 1995. In 2001 Penguin published her second book, Banking on Change, and in 2009 she edited Team Coaching: Artists at work, also published by Penguin. Her latest title, Before Forever After, is out this month. It is a ground-breaking exploration of the subject of human mortality, and how ordinary people deal with the inevitability of their dying, or with losing a loved one. It explores different themes, including the often difficult choices and revelations that follow death.
In this wide-ranging interview with Africa Book Club, Dolny talks about her involvement with South Africa’s African National Congress, what led to write her latest book, her personal story of losing her mother and former husband, and how this has influenced her.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up and what has been your life journey so far?
I grew up in a small town, Accrington, in north-east England. It’s a town in a basin, surrounded by wilderness, one of a series of towns which had cotton weaving and coal mining as the main industries when I was a child. I grew up as the Catholic child of Eastern European World War II refugees not really knowing ‘English’ people, as my schoolmates were all of Irish, Italian descent or like me. I took a gap year pre-university and did the UK equivalent of Peace Corps. I spent a year as an assistant teacher on a mission school in Zambia. I travelled every school holiday and went to Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya but ended the gap year by travelling through South Africa and catching a boat from Cape Town back to UK. Those three weeks changed my life. I joined organizations supporting independence for Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau as well as going to anti-apartheid demonstrations.
I studied Agricultural Economics and when Mozambique became independent I went to work there and stayed ten years. Then I moved to Lusaka to work on post-apartheid policy research and completed a PhD on land markets and their relevance to land reform. I worked in agriculture until 2005 when I changed professions, having completed a Masters in Executive Coaching. Now I try and work internationally. Besides the professional satisfaction of challenging work, it offers me a chance to maintain links with a family diaspora in Europe and the US. I have two daughters who are beginning their own families, one in Cape Town and one in Brooklyn and to date I have three grandchildren. But home is very much Johannesburg, where I live with my husband John Perlman, a social entrepreneur who founded Dreamfields, a soccer project for primary school children -as well as his being a radio talk show host.
Can you share with us how you came to be involved with the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement?
When I was nineteen I traveled through South Africa on leaving my volunteer assignment in Zambia. It was the first time I heard the word ‘kaffir’, the first time to be shunned by peers for having worked with black children, the first time to witness institutionalized racism in the signage of public amenities: toilets, park benches, railway carriages. I was shocked and moved to join political organizations as a student on return to the UK. I fell in love with a South African who I was married to for seven years and went to work in Mozambique. My British passport enabled me to easily do errands for the African National Congress. In 1982, I formally applied to become a member. I could make this application because of being married to a South African. By then it seemed clear to me that I could not see myself ever returning to the UK.
What was it like to be married to Joe Slovo, and to be by his side when he passed on? Do you share some of that in the book?
Being married to someone famous is not easy. Some people will court your friendship; others will shun you because of differences they have with your husband. I’m also not very good at being an ornamental appendage. Joe’s leadership world was overwhelmingly male and the conversational questions directed to me were often patronizing. I had to learn to keep a lid on my irritation!
On the other hand, I got glimpses of Eastern Europe pre 1990, travelled through the then Soviet Union and China and got a (albeit filtered) view of societies on the brink of seismic change.
I always thought Joe would die assassinated, as did his late wife and my colleague, Ruth First. But it was cancer, multiple myeloma that claimed his life. We had almost four years from diagnosis to death. I’m grateful for that time. It was the most significant time of Joe’s political career, and as a personal experience it shaped who I became and the choices I made and continue to make.
Do you feel that the enough progress has been made? Is today’s South Africa worth the sacrifices that you, Joe, and others made?
I have been known to weep myself to sleep in recent history after conversations about the state of our nation. Alan Paton decades ago wrote Cry the Beloved Country. We’re there again in a situation that is tear-worthy. Yes, there is much that has happened. People are enfranchised. We have a progressive constitution. We have institutions that are in place to prevent the worst abuses that happened under apartheid. But unemployment, poverty and violence as the legacy of apartheid are rampant.
Was it worth the sacrifices?
Yes. It was definitely worth it. I think it’s important to be humble. We are, as individuals, small cogs in the big wheel of history. Many of us look for the opportunity to influence the unfolding future – what that means at any one time will depend on what circumstances surround us Click & Tweet! .
So, what led you to writing your new book – Before Forever Ever?
My daughter Tessa experienced a death in her circles. It brought home to her how death can take you by surprise and this disturbed her deeply. She phoned me and asked me if I had anything to read that would help her to think with more equanimity about mortality. I had many books on my shelf because of my husband’s four years of cancer. But I couldn’t find the book that I would want my daughter to read, neither on my shelves nor searching online. One weekend, on impulse I sat down thought about what would be in such a book. I wrote a book outline and my writing journey began.
Does the process of writing get easier after the first one? What was it like working on Before Forever After, and how long did it take?
I’ve never found writing difficult. I’ve always enjoyed it -whether it’s been an article for a journal or my PhD. I lose myself in writing, time flies and I find pleasure in the crafting and polishing. I liken it to the carpentry of hand- made furniture. I’d like to think that I’m getting better at writing with the practice I’m getting.
I loved working on Before Forever After. I am an enthralled listener. It’s a privilege to listen to people telling me about their lives. The book took eight years to write, the first six years were sporadic. I’d squeeze in a half day on a weekend, or the mornings if I was away on holiday in the bush. But in 2015 I was awarded a Rockefeller writing residency in Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy and that was a sign to me to shrink my paid workload and focus on the book to bring it to completion.
What are some of the main themes in the story? – The choices we make about how we want to live this earthly life.
That even small nuggets of joy will make us want to carry on living even when life is hard and we’re very sick. It’s important to think through our personal preferences concerning not only end-of-life choices but also the rituals that follow after death, and write them down and make them known. In a modernizing world we’re not engaging with death in the same way as our ancestors and this has a psychological cost -it can make bereavement more difficult. Longevity can be challenging, if accompanied by increasing frailty and needs to be thought about. True love is about respecting other people’s choices especially when these differ from your own.
Are these all your personal stories?
About a third of the stories are either mine or those of my extended family.
The book began drawing on my experience and I expected it to be biographical. But then I wrote for a Sunday newspaper a series of eight columns called, ‘Let’s talk about dying’ with my e-mail address attached and many readers contacted me and started to share their stories and so the idea that other peoples’ stories would be part of the book took root. I asked people to sit with me, asked if I could use a tape recorder as we talked. I employed a transcriber to type up the conversations and the stories I crafted are based on the transcripts. Finally, pre-publishing, I sent the stories back to people to confirm they were comfortable enough with what I’d written.
The breadth of the stories speak to the many facets of death, and how each one of us encounters the difficult end-of-life questions in our own lives and those of our dear ones. In one of the stories, Joe: The Blue Aerogramme, you reflect on the one secret that Joe took with him. What was that and how did you come to terms with this?
Siring a child out of wedlock! It’s such an ancient story! Nothing new in this one. I’m amazed how many people have now shared with me, “well in my fifties I discovered I had a half-brother that I didn’t know about.
So my late husband Joe had two sons born out of wedlock some fifteen years apart, one born in South Africa and one born in London. The first was a casual, opportunistic encounter, a lawyer working on a case in a provincial town and two people make eyes at each other and end up in bed together that night!
The second son was from a long extra-marital relationship with a woman who was a fellow activist in the African National Congress.
I found it difficult that, at the time of his dying, I’d known Joe for almost two decades, and been his wife for the last eight years of his life. We had talked about so many things, so deeply, so intimately, that it was a shock to learn something I didn’t know -and which all the Londoner-exiles in our circle were aware of.
What made it difficult to come to terms with?
I asked myself how well did I really know the man I loved? I asked myself if I am overly judgmental and therefore what was it about me that meant that Joe did not talk about this? I had difficulty with the non-acknowledgment of a child -it’s something I found very difficult.
Now after writing the book, I’m more accepting of how family constellations work out and play out their roles in the theatre of life, and that pacts are made, lies are lived out. In the book, there’s the story of Elsa. She thinks she’s the second born younger sister, born when her sister was 13, but it turns out that her sister is her mother. There was a family agreement between parents and teenage daughter to keep this pregnancy a secret.
Why is it not easy for us to face up to our mortality and what are the most difficult stories to share?
I wanted to write a book in which the stories would be our opportunity for learning. We’re hard-wired to remember stories – our ancestors were story tellers- its only recent in the history of human evolution that we’ve learn to write.
So, I have shared personal stories and in some of them I don’t come out so well – or not as well as I’d like to – but I decided to include them because I hope they are of service to the learning of others. For example, my younger self did not pay any attention to ritual; my older self missed calling a priest in time for my mother’s last rites.
What can you tell us from your own experience and from the dozens of stories you collected?
Personally I learned four things. Firstly, that I, personally, need to “do” less and “be” more! It’s very easy for me to get involved in doing practical things, or always busy being purposeful, so my personal learning is about the importance of being present versus being busy, and that on important occasions, ‘doing, means doing nothing, but rather being with and feeling the moment.’ On family occasions and in the bush when there’s a special sighting, I think I take less photos than I used to, because I want to feel the intensity of that special moment and let my eyes imprint the visuals on my heart and mind rather than fiddling with a camera getting the frame and the focus right.
Secondly, I learnt more about “the joy factor” that you can be very ill, even immobile, but life will offer nuggets of joy that make you want to continue living. And that once these are gone, then there’s a readiness to go.
Thirdly, I gained insight into elderliness and the different choices that people make about their lifestyle during this time which, for many, is a time of increasing fragility. This has helped me clarify my own thinking, should I be privileged to continue to live into elderliness.
And fourthly I learnt that true love is about respecting choices, especially when your own choice would be different.
As a writer and life coach, how do you get people to talk about death, and share their deepest fears and emotions?
There’s a saying, ‘The more you listen, the more you get to listen.’ I’ve had years and years of special opportunities to listen to people. In my twenties, doing rural research in northern Mozambique, I’d have been sitting in the afternoon listening to a family tell me of their harvests -having spent the morning with them in the field picking cotton -a quid pro quo exchange of time. I guess over time there’s an ease to create rapport, a practice of asking questions that open avenues of conversation. I think also that while I’m clear that the time I spend with people is principally about them, I share something of myself, my own vulnerabilities and imperfections, so that we are in conversation about a shared humanity. I don’t situate myself as ‘the expert’ I’ve always been clear that whilst I may be a well-informed lay person, that’s what I am, a lay-person and that’s my readership: other lay persons.
Are you actively involved in life counseling, or helping people deal with the implications of death?
I expected I would be spending time as a Hospice support giver, that’s why I did my training, but the last two years my life was filled to overflowing with my own mothers slow dying, my professional coaching work and my writing.
2017 is a new beginning as my mother died last December and now the book is finished. I want to think carefully about how I can best contribute to my main purpose, the premise of the book, that if we were to have life-death conversations more readily we would live better, die better and there’d be less suffering.
Given your past involvement with DignitySA, was the book inspired in some way by your association with this organization?
The book was already work-in-progress and preceded my involvement in DignitySA. I’ve been very careful in writing the section of the book called Respecting Choices that this is not principally an advocacy book for assisted dying -although it’s clear that I am a supporter.
This part of my journey began with Joe’s death. At dawn of the day before he died, I watched him hunched up, pallid, his face a contorted pained expression of ‘I’m not enjoying one bit of life anymore’ and my thoughts were about how if this were my dog, my cat, I would be taking it to the vet to have it put down as an act of compassion. The insistence by some professionals, religious and medical, of prolonging life with medical treatment seems to me to be at times cruel and inhumane. And palliative care has its limits. Canadian physicians requested an inquiry into assisted dying because they said they could not always eliminate pain and intractable suffering. There also the question of identity and dignity. The functioning of my biological physical body allows me to be me, the fully conscious, joyful, conversational me. When I can’t talk with you, laugh with you, when I’m given opioids to dull the pain that obliterate my consciousness, then who am I?
I included some extracts in the book written by theologian Nancy Duff’s, I hope people will also read the longer lecture that she wrote in which she answers critics from a theological point of view.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
This book is a call to action. It ends with an invitation, “Conversations with ourselves” that offers readers these questions after you’ve read all these stories about others – what does this mean for you and the life you’re living? What decisions do you want to make and record and talk about?’
Where can readers get the book? Will it be available outside South Africa?
The kindle ebook version is available internationally on Amazon. In South Africa, print versions are available at most leading bookstores. We are also currently in the process of finalizing the Amazon “print-on-demand’ option which solves the problem of shipping books around the world, especially for African authors. More information is available on my website – http://www.helenadolny.com.