Feverish: A Memoir, by Gigi Fenster

Feverish: A Memoir, by Gigi Fenster (Biography)

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 Swaziland is where you think, for the first time, maybe if I got brain fever I would be able to stop worrying. I’d lose control and, maybe then, I’d understand my friend’s mind.

In an attempt to break free from rationality and make her life a work of art, Gigi Fenster decides to induce a fever in herself. Fever, she surmises, is a ‘particularly writerly thing’. What follows is a captivating memoir of that attempt.

Feverish ranges over Fenster’s childhood in South Africa, her relationships with her psychiatrist father, her troubled friend Simon, and her mother and four siblings, through to New Zealand and her relationships with her two teenage daughters. As she traverses her life, Fenster asks questions about bravery, transgression, vulnerability and the value we place on art.

This memoir is a witty, intelligent, original examination of what it means to be a compassionate human being. ‘Without empathy,’ she writes, ‘one cannot tell the full story. There can be no proper care.’

Cover by Keely O'Shannessy             

From: Feverish: A Memoir, by Gigi Fenster

One

I have a friend who thinks a lot about Velcro.

Not in a sexual way.

I feel I must state this, though I cannot imagine how Velcro could possibly be used in a sexual way—it’s so clingy. But then, I cannot imagine how many things could possibly be used in a sexual way. My tastes, it seems, are vanilla.

And that, said my friend, was part of the problem.

We were sitting in a café. She was telling me about Velcro. I was struggling to get on her wavelength. My vanilla tastes were holding me back. My vanilla tastes were preventing me from seeing the joyful potential of Velcro.

Just imagine, said my friend. For once, open your mind and imagine.

I said, Okay, okay.

Right, said my friend. I want you to imagine a long, thin room. Completely papered in Velcro. Walls, ceilings. Not the floors. Not the floors, she said again, not the floors.

That’s when I knew she’d really thought the Velcro through. She’d imagined what would happen if the floors were Velcroed. She’d seen the problems this could present. I found this comforting. I told her so and she said, You bet I’ve thought it through.

So, she continued, on one end of this long, thin Velcro room there’s a giant catapult type thing—big enough to catapult an adult.

Not so comforting.

There’s also a trampoline, a ramp, balls of various shapes and sizes. Think of the possibilities, she said. Think of the possibilities.

And I did. I did start to see the possibilities.

My friend was talking about hanging off the ceiling, swinging from a Velcroed swing by her head, leaping off the trampoline. She was rolling down walls on Velcroed balls. Catapulting herself from one end of the room onto the Velcroed wall on the other end. She was Spiderman. Catwoman.

I listened for a while and it sounded like fun for her. But then I said, What if you got stuck?

Huh?

What if you got stuck? What if you were right up near the top of the wall—you’ve catapulted yourself there, you hit the wall kind of hard and your body is aching. You’ve got bruises and you’re stuck to the wall and you can’t get down. What if that happened? I asked.

Why would I get stuck? she wanted to know. This is a fantasy, remember.

She sounded irritated that I’d raised this possibility. She looked a bit sad. So I said, Forget it, forget it, you wouldn’t get stuck. And if you did, you could always call Zoe.

Zoe is my friend’s teenage daughter. They’d been fighting. Earlier my friend told me how her daughter was never home and, if she were, it was just to fight with her mother. Zoe was seeing some bloke—some 20-year-old with a concave chest. Some kid who hadn’t even finished school, my friend had said.

Mike, I said quickly, to distract us from Zoe. You could call Mike.

Mike? Ha! Mike would be outside in his studio. He wouldn’t hear me. I’d be stuck up there and no one would help me.

For a moment we sat quietly and worried.

Maybe you could free a hand, I said at last. Velcro-hair by Velcro-hair. You could free a hand.

But then what? she asked. What do I do then? If I use my hand to pull the rest of myself free, I’ll fall. I’ll fall and it’s quite a drop. No, she said, all freeing a hand would accomplish is give me something to wave with. She smiled and said, I could wave my hand. Like the Queen, or Michael Jackson. I could wave my little hand and call and call.

Your voice would get fainter and fainter, I said.

My hand would get tireder and tireder.

You might sing a little song to keep your spirits up.

I might try to reach a butterscotch lolly in my pocket.

That kept us busy for a while, and for a while it was as much fun as imagining the joys of the Velcroed room. But then she said, With you it always ends that way, doesn’t it?

What? How? What with me?

It always ends with someone stuck to the wall.

I said, What? Huh? I put on a confused expression. But I knew what she meant, and she was right. It’s because I have a limited imagination, I told her.

A writer with a limited imagination, said my friend. And I thought I had problems.

We thought about this for a while. Until she said, But it’s not limitations on your imagination that’s the problem. The problem is your imagination works overtime, dreaming up worries. Thinking up fears.

My friend was right. I told her she was right and I told her how, when I was at university in the feminist club, there was this mania for masturbation. All the girls were doing it and talking about how if you were ever going to be sexually satisfied and a decent feminist you had to do it, and the whole thing made me really uncomfortable. Not the touching yourself, I told my Velcro friend, or the talking about it. But the thinking up the fantasy to go around it.

My friend was laughing. She said, I can just picture it. You’re lying there, surrounded by candles. Chris Isaak’s playing. You’re telling yourself some story about how you’re on a . . . a . . . houseboat. You’re on a houseboat on a Venetian canal and the man of your dreams is there and the water is lapping and your legs are splayed and you . . . you’re—

Thinking about how stinky the canals are. Worrying how I’m going to get home, I said. And what was I doing there in the first place? Alone with some guy I hardly know in a country where I don’t speak the language.

My friend laughed. I wanted to laugh too, but I said, It’s because I’m scared. I blurted the word out. I could hear how heavy it sounded. I tried to soften it by saying, Scaredy cat. I’m a scaredy cat.

It still sounded heavy.

Maybe you are a scaredy cat, said my friend. So tell me, what are you scared of? First thing that comes to mind.

First thing that comes to mind—ending up in jail, obviously. Like I said—vanilla.

My friend put on an incredulous face. You? In jail? Why would you end up in jail? If you’re so scared, you’d never do anything criminal.

That may be, I said, but couldn’t I end up in jail anyway? For a crime I didn’t commit. Or without trial at all. I could end up in jail for being kind of odd.

Something Kafkaesque, said my friend, and I nodded, Yes, yes, something Kafkaesque.

But you’d be okay in jail, she said. You don’t have to worry about going to jail cos you’d be okay there.

My friend’s Gigi Goes to Jail story went like this: You’re in jail for a crime you didn’t commit. Your cellmate looks like a terrifying bull but on the first night you wake up and hear her crying. Turns out she’s worried about her children. What do you do? You write a letter for her. You write a letter to her children, and another one to the authorities. You write to the Minister and all the agencies. You’re writing away and a letter ends up on the right person’s desk and next thing your cellmate’s children are sent to live with her mother, which is what she wanted all along. Now she’s your friend for life. Your protector and fixer. She works in the kitchen and makes sure you have the choicest food. She keeps an eye out for you, makes sure no one bothers you. Of course, word gets around about the letters and next thing you know, they’re queuing for your services. Next thing you know you’re appearing in court on behalf of one of the prisoners. It gets in the newspapers. You win the case. Next thing you know you’re bringing a class action on behalf of all prisoners. You win them extra rights. You’re a hero. Now you have your own cell and you can order in as many books as you like. You’re writing papers from prison. You publish your prison diaries. You help a guard write a love letter to his girlfriend and now you have coffee in prison. Proper coffee. The guard brings you a cappuccino every day. You get to sit in the prison gardens whenever you like. You’re sitting in the prison garden, sipping a cappuccino. You’re catching up on all your reading.

You’re catching up on all your reading, said my friend, and I’m stuck to the wall. I’m still stuck to the wall.

I wasn’t sure I liked my friend’s version of Gigi Goes to Jail. Of course I would be only too pleased to be sitting in the garden drinking cappuccinos, but it’s not exactly rock ’n’ roll.

But you had the adventure on the way up, I said. You had fun. I didn’t even get to commit a crime before I went to prison. It’s because I'm boring. Unimaginative. Even my fears are vanilla. Everyone worries about going to jail.

She said, Everyone?

Well, everyone who studies law, I replied.

I told her how, once, at law school my friends and I discussed our reasons for studying law. It was one of those why-am-I-doing-this discussions. One of those discussions that feels weighty and momentous even as you are having it. The sort of discussion you have when you’re in your 20s and at university. When you move through the world like you’re a character in a play and every conversation is scripted for dramatic tension.

It was the end of the 80s in South Africa. A state of emergency was clawing at the country. David Bruce had just been sentenced to six years in jail for refusing to do his military service. There was going to be a concert that night, in support of Bruce and others. We were sitting in the canteen talking about going. Someone said the organisers had struggled to find a venue willing to host the concert. Someone said there’d be a lot of police there.

I was thinking I’d wear my ‘End Conscription Campaign’ T-shirt, the new one with the groovy graphic. I’d tie a jersey round my waist so I could put it on and cover the graphic if the cops arrived. Someone said, Don’t take dope with you unless you want to get busted, and looked at Anthony. She said, Do your skyfing at home before you come, Anthony.

He looked around at all of us and said, Soon we’ll graduate and my call-up will be waiting. He said, I don’t know what I’ll do. He hunched his neck into his shoulders. I don’t know what I’ll do.

There were two other boys at our table. All three were facing conscription. One, we knew, would be leaving the country. He had a foreign passport. He looked at his friends and we could see he felt bad about it.

We looked at each other. Just looked at each other.

Then someone said, Anything can happen between now and graduation. Someone else said, What about a Masters? Couldn’t you do a Masters? Or go travelling for a year or two. Or hang out in Mozambique for a while. Eat prawns.

Or you could just make the best of it, said a voice from a table nearby. We all turned. It was a boy in our class. He was sitting with a group of boys I recognised from Commercial Law. He said to Anthony, Me, I’m looking forward to going into the army. Two years in a cushy job learning about military law and acting in court martials. You won’t be some moron straight out of school. You’ll have a law degree. You can make the army work for you. He said, The army will make a man of you. He actually said that.

We all looked at him.

Or, he went on, or you could have yourself declared insane. Then he turned back to his friends who were getting up to leave, as if disgusted by the conversation at our table.

Anthony lowered his voice when he spoke to us. He said, You know, I’ve been thinking about it. He looked at me. D’you think your father could help?

I shrugged. Maybe. Best you ask yourself. Make an appointment. I’ll tell him you’re a friend. He won’t charge you. But after that I don’t want to know about it.

My father was a psychiatrist.

The commercial law boys from the other table were nearly at the door when one of them turned, walked back towards our table. I put on a dismissive face, but I was wary. And kind of relieved when, after coming right close to us, he veered off. He glanced at the table where they’d been sitting, as if looking for something, then walked back to the door where his friends were standing. He dropped something on the way out—a piece of paper.

My friend went to pick it up. She brought it to our table. It was a photo of a woman with gigantic breasts, wearing only a headdress. A photo of a Native American headdress on a naked woman with gigantic breasts was on our table. I didn’t understand what it meant. If it meant something, I didn’t understand what.

Oh, for fuck’s sake, said one of my friends.

What is this? asked another. Some kind of challenge? Some kind of moronic challenge? She tore up the picture. I took one of the little pieces and wrote my father’s work number on it and handed it to Anthony and said, None of my business.

The friend who’d torn up the paper was fuming. She said, He dropped that on purpose. I know he dropped it on purpose. I knew I should have studied Classics. If I’d studied Classics I’d never have come into contact with fuckers like that. Classics students don’t keep pornographic photos. Stupid, boring, not even exciting pornographic photos. Classics students don’t look forward to going into the army because of the powerful position they’ll be in. Why are we doing this? she asked us all. Why are we even here, in this fucking country, in this canteen, studying law of all things. Studying law with people who keep stupid photos of gigantic tits in their bags? Why? Why?

For my friends, the reason was obvious: because we were afraid. Of being conscripted; of a repressive government that was out of control; of an abusive ex-boyfriend; of ending up poor; of not being able to find a job; of being a single parent who couldn’t support her kids; of ending up in jail; of ending up in jail. My friends and I were all afraid of ending up in jail.

All terrified of going to jail, I told my Velcro friend. Surrounded by torn-up pieces of a naked lady with gigantic tits and terrified of going to jail.

Not such an unreasonable fear, said my friend, for South Africa in the 80s. She was right, but law school wasn’t going to protect us from that. On one occasion I had even pulled out my Criminal Procedure Act. When there was a policeman in my home, looking for my flatmate. I pulled out my Criminal Procedure Act and he said, State of emergency, so I put my Act down on the coffee table. Studying law wasn’t going to protect us from the state of emergency but it did provide some sandbags against our fears. It gave a new narrative to my fear of ending up in jail—one that had me drinking cappuccinos in a garden. But it didn’t answer the real question—the question of why we were all so afraid. Why, when the other students were looking at photos of gigantic-breasted women in headdresses, we were thinking about all the things there were to be afraid of.

It also didn’t answer the question of why we were all so damned cool. Us cowards. Definitely the coolest people in law school. We told each other that. The least conservative and the most alternative. Definitely the most alternative. We told each other.

And the most afraid.

My friend wanted to know what happened to Anthony and the other two who were facing conscription. I told her they were lucky. The one who had a foreign passport moved overseas and became an entertainment lawyer. The one who had money travelled and travelled, met a girl overseas and married her. He came back with his family in 1993 but left again after their home was broken into and the family locked in a bedroom for three hours by gun-wielding thieves. And Anthony, she wanted to know. What happened to Anthony?

He just never left university. He kept on studying until it was over and then he became an academic. Later, under the new government, he went into local government.

She said, Local government. And I said, Yup. City council.

My Velcro friend seemed a bit disappointed by this outcome. I wondered if I should have made up a different ending for Anthony.

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