A poignant memoir of a humble and eccentric upbringing

Brent Meersman’s 'A Childhood Made Up' explores the effects of mental illness and alcoholism on the home

09 September 2020 - 10:40 By Margaret von Klemperer
'A Childhood Made Up' by Brent Meersman.
'A Childhood Made Up' by Brent Meersman.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness: 07/09/2020

Subtitled Living with my mother’s madness, author and journalist Brent Meersman’s memoir is a powerful and tender evocation of his mother’s schizophrenia and its effects on the entire family.

Meersman’s mother Shirley was an artist, but received very little recognition in her lifetime as she couldn’t handle the strain of coping with dealers and galleries.

She had grown up on a farm but later, married to Meersman’s Belgian father, the family lived in Cape Town, in poverty. The father had trouble keeping a job, and was dependant on alcohol, though obviously loved his wife and was not an aggressive drunk.

At one stage he moved the family to Belgium, where his deeply unpleasant-sounding parents drove Shirley into a state which required her to be institutionalised.

In the 1970s and 80s, schizophrenia was little-understood by the medical profession, and the treatment Shirley received makes for tough reading. Even when she returned to her family, it was to a far from normal existence. Father would sometimes say he was going out to buy the milk, and only return days later; mother hated to go out at all; there was no money to keep the boys’ school uniforms looking respectable.

Yet, though Meersman and his brother hated their home life, Meersman adored his mother and, once through the agonies of adolescence, could see the good points in his father. These emotions shine through the whole memoir.

There are moments of humour to leaven what would otherwise be a catalogue of despair. Meersman’s depiction of himself as a nervous, unhappy and unpopular child is a tragic one, but somehow, thanks to his fierce intelligence, he came through the experience as a caring, functioning adult.

For him, writing the book has presumably been a catharsis and a chance to order his own thoughts and memories; for the reader it is a sobering reminder of how difficult people’s lives can be.