Self-portrait of me as a teenager in 1972

Now she knows what it means to feel bewitched and lamed, just like that- as if a magic berry put to sleep everything that is sensible, anaesthetised it and brought with it a euphoric glow.

Where does a person start when you feel too happy, too mixed-up to find a start?

Let’s say that I sacrificed myself to nature today; tore myself open and exposed myself to its powers. I did not deceive him-for once I was totally honest.

I took my dog. He was in such a hurry to run- dash through the grass, up the mountain, down the mountain, that it made me feel good just to put his leash on.  Along the way in the wild whirlwind, I picked up stones, threw them up, caught them. Again and again. And it made me happy. The sun came from the front, struggled through the clouds to bewitch me and later, when only open heavens stretched above me, it sapped all my power and strength away. I was thankful for the luxurious wealth of green around me; grateful that it was so never-endingly quiet there on top of the hill—so, so happy that I could come and lie here and repair and re-think all those weary days.

Thank you, thank you so much that I exist.

(Written in 1972)

SIXTEEN   1972

One day I may die of sentimentality.  Try to catch images on canvass my sole demands, but my flesh longs for more- thus I write. But pen and ink do not satisfy as much as reality.  As I sit here by the table I look out on the countryside. The morning mists have disappeared. It is afternoon now and I look to the North. There you are somewhere as if my very life depended on you. I long for you my love, and I can but pray. Youth lends itself to that magical world of praying to an outside force.

To love is to run through your own heavenly green fields with or without the one you love.    When he is with you your laughter is his and you hate no one.  When he is gone, the countryside that you run through changes to grey mistiness.  Through the pines.  The whisperings of the tall pines become your beloved’s voice. You want to fly up into space-, maybe become an angel- and touch his fingers and then his lips.   You want – most of all – to hear his voice desperately- wait patiently- … but what is pa­tience?   Why is the world so cruel and dark?

By the way, you look so handsome by a flickering candle at night- so beautiful in the dark, especially when we speed through the night on the open road and the moon lights up your face.

Please live to be a man, then I will live to be a woman- but, when I’m gone…do not worship my soul.  Love someone else and love her more.


Here where I am, the willows are overfed with wealth. I live in a whitewashed house 103 long steps away.  I come here often to listen to the wind.  The wind is broken by a mass of swinging green. At each tree it has to stop.  This is always my chance to feel overfed too and the wealth of the willows is blown into my body. Its spirit stays here, forever.  I refuse to let it out. It is summer.  And summer is health and so much love that I am twice as much in love with you and in love with this spacious beautiful world.  Here where the willows grow and swell, where water and green plants and sky are one. Like my body, his, yours.  Take my arm away and it will be deformed and hurt.  So leave this world in its warm place.

Today it is autumn.  I walked the 103 long steps to come here…and to listen.  Today the wind has not stopped.  Like a child, it peeps through the empty branches, around them.  It clutches, but only for a second.  Turning again, it tumbles over the trees, over the loose, useful earth and its companions, the brown leaves, the mustard ones and green-yellow ones too; the brown that soothes me so. And then, as I say “hush”, it goes away through thin, sharp air, along tepid waters, over other brown leaves.  The brown leaves have partially eaten up the earth and the earth has pressed it to its bosom.  When night falls, they are so safe. The cosy summer blanket does not cover them during this half-empty, half-mature season. And where is my friend, the wind?  It goes through thin air, whistling quietly. It will come again in the winter.

When winter comes I take a blanket with me to cover myself.  I am human, after all. I hasten to the beloved place, but I am prepared for that desolate, deserted emotion.  The wind is more than empty now. It has become hollow and it blows through only a skull.  The wide fields around me: they were so full in summer… I love this place, but I would hate it at midnight.  If I had to come here at that hour, the darkest one, the graves would surely have appeared under the trees and the skeletons would be having their feast on rotten leaves in the midst of this pool of icy, grey water.  I am so utterly convinced.  You, my friend, cannot change what is human and what is me. The wind blows through a skull and it is afraid to touch it.  Sometimes, somewhere, in this wind, some hope is left.

For today it is Spring and the wind is in love, not only with the tender green but also with the willows themselves. Body and soul.  My friend, I never want to die.  This is too wonderful.  I woke up this morning and I walked the 103 long steps.  Now I will never turn back- this is where I belong. This is home.

As I sit here the dreams fleet by.  They never stop.  I have a handful of fresh brown earth between my hands.  When I press it, the water runs down my arms. And always, always, the music blows through my body, to make mature this feeling of absolute bliss. Tomorrow it will be summer again.

Sketch of a forest walk by Hermien Zwiers 1973


“Do you love me?”

NO!! The problem is that if I allow myself to love you properly, I will be vulnerable and you might hurt me.  And anyway, I cannot relate to you properly whilst I am dependent on you in my mind.  I need to feel free before I can love you and I need to be able to love myself first. I am in a state of chronic anxiety and I cannot love anyone until that passes.  And so, you see, I DO love you, but…I do not know… If I could lose connection with you for a while, I might be closer to you, if you see what I mean.  Anyway…well… It is not fair of you to keep asking me these difficult questions. 


We   Searched For You Agapi

It is the remembrance of the best things that sometimes make me feel nostalgic. Happy too, yes. Al­ways, but mostly in dreams.

Do you remember the little nest we lived in there on top of the rough cliff by the sea?  At night we lis­tened to the waves that were struggling to break the rocks at high tide.  We felt so secure then.  Some­times I stood up at midnight when you were awake too, and we made coffee.  Just coffee with cream and a spoon filled high with sugar. That was wonderful was it not?  During the cosy winters, it was only you and I.  In the early hours of morning, you went out in the fresh blue world and came back again with dry logs of wood for the fireplace. Just for the moment, as always, you would look up and smile at me.

On Sundays I made such nice thick tomato soup.  You loved it. The quiet tickle of laughter over the yellowwood table was a firm tie.  There in our playhouse kitchen.  In the summers, when it was sul­try, we climbed down the cliff as children do.  You always took your torch with you; do you remember?  What a devil you were when the crab catch started!  Many times we just walked to feel the temperate water flow over our sandy feet.  The light wind always blew my hair in circles to make it a crow’s nest. We also had to stand still and watch- in awe and wonder when the white foam wanted, just wanted to flash through the dark.  Do you still know that calmness? How beautiful the world was in winter!  If there is one thing that I, strangely enough, will remember and will want to keep, it will be the white and the melancholy of those days.  It was as if the universe wanted to cast back the white.  There from the top of the cliff, everything looked so far away, so very far.  The sea too.  However, it was near, very near beneath me.  I could touch nothing.  The haziness and the mist and the moan of the wind were always escaping.

And those days when you became mouldy together with the manuscripts in the attic? That voice was always chasing you, was it not?  I brought tart and coffee.  The coffee grew cold and you spoiled ink on the tart.  I had to escape to the sea.  At night I preferred walking on the beach.  Up there it was Agapi and the manuscripts and down below, my soul and me.  When we sang, we searched for you, Agapi.  The sadness inside grew higher as your bundle of manuscripts grew.  I was actually relieved when the weather grew bad and angry for then I had the chance to shout out above the wind and the thundering waves at the clouds, bidding them to stop all their fighting.  All along the shining black rock I ran and watched as the massive stone bunk became one with the night above.  My breath chased and my haste burned with the climb back along the cliff.

There at the top I was at least inside the mad merry-go-round.  My senses whisper that you and the house by the sea are only a dream.

Just a dream.  Are you?   I feel the page of the book soft between my thumb and my other finger.  I feel unbearable pain.  Without looking where I last read, I stand up to make the coffee.

Coloured ink drawing by Hermien Zwiers 1973

10 February 1973


The evening is clear.  All around me the warm yellow light soothes the inky blackness of the night.  I am on my rusty bicycle, moving through the old part of Amsterdam, dreaming my puzzling dreams.

I pass people and I smile at them.  I might not see them again. Then I stop and try to calm a crying little Dutch maid, someone I know. She cries and I caress her.  Then I leave her behind on a cosy corner of a street.  Am I not like her? I look behind me and the lonely look in her eyes disturbs me.

Wonderful old Amsterdam is so calm tonight.  I am mute; I have no words.  So like before a big storm.  At 3999 Verhuizingen and Transporten I stop.  The light from the street lamps still plays on the water, on the rusty iron of my dated bicycle and on me.  I climb off my bicycle with neutral lifeless movements.  There are no more people around me.  The night seems to have become so silent as if it had become aware of me and was empathising with me.

Now I am walking across the bridge.  It seems strange that it is so quiet here on the bridge and how strange that it is dark here.  Nobody is rushing over the bridge as during the daytime or sauntering or running.  Nobody tonight, only the sharp sounds of a ghostlike figure’s feet can be heard.  Sharp sounds of restless feet.  Feet that belong to the restless mind of a glamorous young woman.  Then I bid the bridge farewell and my bicycle as well and left them behind in the dark.  I left them behind in the dark to go to a peaceful place, a glade in my mind.  Now my mind is calmer.  I have decided at last.  I enter 3999 Verhuizingen and Transporten.  Then I ascend the first flight of steps and open the old wooden door.  It smells here.  it smells of rats and old food and death.  My footsteps sound hollow in the passage.  I open another door and then I walk to my dead mother’s bed.  Softly I pick up her lifeless hand.  Dearest mother.  At least we had each other.  Now I have only myself.  Wait for me. Then the door is closed by me again.

A little later I am in my draughty room.  The wind has returned to move away the calm of the night. I close the door there too.  I take the contents of a bottle and swallow it.  Hungrily, willingly, losing some of my dignity as water runs down my chin.  And wait for the storm to break with all its might.  It seems as if the thunder is louder in my ears.  In the cafeteria…laughter, life, love and atmosphere…

Warm, yellow light soothing the blackness of the dykes…

The black inky water…The bridge in the dark and on it the rusty dated bicycle.

How unfortunate the little Dutch girl was- she knew no way to return, to relieve her pain. …I leave eve­rything behind in the dark and go to the glade.

It is light.  It is day.

People pass an old bicycle on the bridge.  Children run over the bridge and laugh.  The wind plays with the leaves on the bridge, teases them.

In one of the rooms of 3999 Verhuizingen and Transporten, the warehouse an old grandfather clock is ticking the time away.

And outside the wind is teasing the leaves in the silence on the bridge.

Still-life painting from 1973 by Hermien Zwiers

 May 1974

I saw a film. Only god can inspire this much. I don’t forget the four days when he helped me. I don’t forget a single day of the past. I see now and know now where everything led to. I’m staying here in Europe because I’d choke if I ever went back to Africa  (before I became a person), I’ll drown in graves, from rain and rot from ants. I won’t be weak and minute like other people; lose my magnificence.  Oh, no, it’s not just imagination. Other big thinkers WERE born.  No apologies for blowing my own horn. I was alone until here but too weak. As of tomorrow, I’m starting to live. Even if it is just until the following inspiration. I’ll be a newborn and not a disgusting, hiding-away mouse.  God, please hold my hand as in the past.  I’ll bury my past and only open it for those whom I can help- not to look for sympathy- Oh how exhilarating the baring of the future is. Tonight, in my dreams, tomorrow, I’ll cement my dreams, fix my days solidly, bury them, black on white- until I may die.

Hermien near the dam my dad built, Grahamstown, South Africa

1 May 1974

“To bear with unbearable sorrow” Whittaker sings. I wish to be relieved of all this dreadful sadness.

The inability to create anything. Because I fear you and myself.  I am frightened of my hands and what they do to my face.  Also of my appearance- afraid of reality.  Fear is darkness. And I see a dark hole every moment. And yet I can hide at night. I then rest peacefully with no one watching; blanket comfortingly up to my chin. I have actually become a joke, to myself, through these years. It’s all so ridiculous what I am doing to myself.

I stand now, in front of god, and know not how to approach him.

First time with my Dutch family in Drenthe, Netherlands after flying overseas in April 1974

The above is continued from my blog “FROM AGE FIFTEEN…. The 1950s–1970s, THE BEDFORD-GRAHAMSTOWN YEARS. All written by me, some as school essays, others just from the heart in journaling at ages 15, 16 and 17, in my teenage years, and quite ‘dramatic’ as one can get in those years. The blog will be continued withThe 1970s, THE AMSTERDAM YEARS“. I will continue to change names to protect people in the stories. As I do not adhere to organised religion and am spiritual but not religious, I use the diminutive “god” rather than “God”.


My sister was by now dating a Pierre N. My mother insisted behind their backs that he must have coloured blood in him because of his short curly hair. This was pure Nazi mentality as well as South African Boer racism. My father resented him because he was not jumping at their every command or request and he did not “offer” to help either. They also did to them as a couple what they did to me already: suspected them of committing the vile deed of sex in secret, checking out Greta’s flat every time they went there. How was I to know that they were hypersensitive about their possible loss of status in the community? Their eldest daughter HAD to get married, did she not? They had had her enrolled at Stellenbosch University and she dropped her Medical studies halfway and disgraced them after all their initial bragging four years earlier. My mum made sure I heard all the awful rape stories that were in the newspaper and I shrunk and clenched my fingers under the table until they were white. I also had to endure stories of Angie, our coloured maid, having sex with her boyfriend and how distasteful and yuck that was. They were thoroughly disgusted with a near-neighbour’s son having had sex with a coloured and that it served him right to be jailed for that. And thus I was initiated into the world of sex through the eyes of my parents. I hated not being able to talk about anything intimate to my parents. I felt dirty and ashamed of myself, having wet my pants in class in Grade 8 and having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a churchman, my friend’s father. It certainly did not help that my mother made sex dirty. The embarrassment even now, years after the pant-wetting event, at school, was connected with dirt. I did something dirty. In the years that were to follow, the result of my mother’s unspoken suspicions was that I became promiscuous in my own way.

The guilt and anger turned inward continued to lead my hands to my face, no matter how hard I tried. The destruction, the scratching, the fiddling; it was a bloody affair. At times I secretly had doubts about myself being human. Was I maybe a vampire that sucked her own blood? I was always sneaky about my awful deeds. I put thick cream on my sores so as to disguise them because I, unfortunately, used my bathtime in the evening to attack my face and I HAD to say goodnight to my dad. He usually sat reading the newspaper at the lounge table between the bathroom and my bedroom. I never could look my mum in the face when she came into my room or when I had to be with her at lunch or other times. Sundays I’d stay inside when the family had a barbecue. In the sun, or so I reckoned, my scars would look too visible. I hated doing gym at school, because I’ sweat all the disguising make-up off and I’d be forced to shower like the rest of the girls and then they would see my face in its raw state.

Back to January of that year:
Pierre N. and Greta took us to the Ster Drive-In to see “Die Banneling’, an Afrikaans movie. That week my brother and I went Ice-skating, something we did once every two months or so when we came to Port Elizabeth. I met Boy J H there and that evening he joined us on a walk at Happy Valley. We went swimming the next morning and there he was again. He escorted me to the fair, Playland, that evening and our family went for a last swim, then packed up and drove off. A few days later I received a letter from Boy, from the large farm in Somerset-West where he stayed. We officially became boy-and-girlfriend by exchanging a ring and necklace. It was all done because of some peer pressure to also be ’doing it, cold and distant, nothing more. Our letters displayed some passion, our one and only encounter later on pure emptiness and it ended pretty fast, with me demanding my jewellery back and keeping his.

March brought far more excitement in terms of boys. I travelled by train up to Irene, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Celia, my current friend and her friends Margaret and Althea were to spend the following 8 days in the holiday camp of the Full Gospel Church of God. I had not been going back to my childhood church, the Dutch Reformed Church for two reasons at that stage: my new friend belonged to a different church that was far happier, and I was distressed that my sexual abuser was a deacon at my former church. We met some nice boys at the camp. On the last day, we went to Celia’sAunt, Jacomina C. where I met my future husband-to-be, Petrus C. I quite liked him, although I found his brother the more attractive of the two at that stage. That evening, after fish and chips, we watched the movie ‘Love Story’ from their small balcony. It looked down into the Drive-in in the distance below. The next morning when the two cousins and aunt said goodbye to us at the station, Petrus said that he was going to write.

In April my family and I went to Hogsback, a beautiful green place in the mountains. And in May, on the 17th, Petrus and I officially became boyfriend and girlfriend. During the June holidays, he visited me in Grahamstown, having hiked all the way down from the Witwatersrand.

Monday, June 26th:

I woke up that morning and it was like every other day. I was not happy, but not sad either. I only had regrets that I did not look prettier. I later heard from my friend Celia that Petrus would be here roundabout 2pm.
Petrus phoned and I fell in love with his voice and was happy. Right after that, I phoned red-haired Vera and excitedly told her about him. I was crazy about him. I laughed a lot too. Yes, I was laughing so much that I needed to lie on my back; a pleasant, happy laugh.

When Petrus and Celia arrived a little later, she felt nothing for him and was rather disappointed with herself- maybe it was the shock of seeing him again, or in real life probably after months of romanticising through the medium of letters. I felt sick from reasoning about it. That evening felt more romantic, fortunately. School started a few days later but he was still there for a few more days because his school started later in the other province of Transvaal. In July I had some glamour photos taken of me in town at Herbert and Evans.

In September Petrus and I sneaked in a holiday together. My parents were overseas and I was to spend the holidays in the Karoo with my friend “Pit”. I am amazed at how much her parents put up with, in retrospect. We spent many evenings kissing and cuddling in one lounge whilst the older sister of “Pit” and her adult male friend did it in another part of the huge farmhouse. It was pretty innocent between Petrus and me. He was certainly more familiar with my breasts before I plucked up the courage to ask him to kiss me. It was a very unfeeling and restrained, unnatural kiss, that first one. We rode horses bareback in the day. He said goodbye to me in the room I shared with “Pit”. Goodbye, dear, wonderful, pure friend.

On the 13th of October, we put on a high school matric farewell. with masks, dinner and dance. It was the job of grade 11s to do it for the grade 12s. On the 17th my mum and dad arrived back from their time in Europe and at the Munich Olympics. The very next day my little cat drowned in the cement dam and the day after that was the school’s award night. Elmarie was appointed school head girl. I received a trophy for Art. Then it was my dad’s birthday and the engagement party of Greta and Pierre N.

I daydreamed that it was a carefree youth with self-made worries around self-made turns. Those worries mattered because I imagined that Petrus’ love would mature in the process. His love was like quiet autumn, calm yet stormy at times, but warm and rosy in its essence. I was enough for him in life; he needed nothing else to make him happier. He was young, seventeen. A young man should feel happiness chasing and pleasure surge through him. Was it in him? I could not tell, because he was sombre and quiet and always in deep thought. His life was to glide over the ice, sit by a playful mountain stream and ride horses. And for me? Those things were all wonderful. I wanted to climb mountains, ride horses, ice-skate, ski, just about everything, in any event, everything he was interested in., but more than that. The unrest in me was like a chewing rat. One day I truly wanted to find happiness in the quiet, blue clouds above. The unknown was like a mature man whom I admired, deeply admired, but did not love. It lured me. It was bewitchingly male- the symbol of all the ambition, ideals and the promise of spontaneous love for which I was waiting. Impatience, the unreachable, awakening desires: it rocks a man, a woman around on an endless ocean. I thought I loved Petrus, but I wanted his love to be different even then. I did not want it to be hesitant and insecure. I wanted him to be my master. His love was sincere. I knew that. But it was not the love that I imagined all teenagers would be showing. I needed a vibrant, mad love, without worries or fear, but still with unfathomable depth and purity in it…

Depression hit me at a stage and I questioned my god as to why I was here. What was I looking for? What? It was all so cold and dead around me. It seemed cold and dead everywhere else too. No place to run to. I was looking for warmth and sincerity. Would I find it in myself? You are cruel, World. How on earth would I find it in myself? Where must I start? Do I even possess love myself? It was so necessary. I wanted to die, but where would I go then? I’d be cold and full of mould. Rats would chew and chew…

The self-destruction led to a complete withdrawal. Things were bad at home. Mum and dad were continuing to threaten us with divorce, because, so they claimed, the kids wrecked things between them. The total taboo in our home as far as feelings were concerned, continued triggering off the withdrawal. We were not allowed to stand up for our rights. I never got a chance to make a choice AND get my parents’ consent at the same time. I had to do it sneakily. I became an expert liar and was disgusted with myself because of my Christian upbringing and value system. With this bad image I had of myself, close to a monster, so to speak, with hating my parents so much, lying, even stealing at times, sexually rotten, covered with thick slimy make-up, I continued the self-destruction. I could not show any aggression and could not solve the effect this had on me, namely to take the aggression out on myself mentally, and from there, physically.

I tried to be positive at times and felt inspired. Two days before the exams I wrote: Maybe it is wrong to feel this way, but it is the first time that I understand the situation and the workings of god as I understood god and the devil. Naturally everything will not come right instantaneously, but god works in me and I am therefore very thankful. There is something new in my heart now and I do not think that it should ever be allowed to slip away. It is too wonderful, it HAS to stay. I must have attended an evening service at Celia’s church or seen a religious Cliff Richard movie with her!

The above was continued from my blog. Previously “FROM AGE TWELVE:. THE EARLY DAYS…. The 1950s–1970s, THE BEDFORD-GRAHAMSTOWN YEARS. Written by me from a young age in Afrikaans and later translated by me. Most names have been changed.