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Jani Allan in her own words: paying the price of public shame

Say the name Jani Allan and many people will say: ‘Oh, isn’t she the one who…’ Johannesburg books editor Alison Lowry says that’s right. Jani Allan is ‘the one who …’ was a classical piano prodigy at the age of four,  a Latin scholar who read Chaucer aged eight, and who became South Africa’s most celebrated,  and then most hated and reviled,  columnist and media celebrity ever. Allan is the one who was  accused of having an affair with South African rightwing leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, founder and leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a white supremacist group in the late 1980s. That allegation led to one of the biggest scandals South Africa has ever experienced, and reverberated around the world. It effectively destroyed Allan’s life as she knew it, and affected her health in body, mind and spirit. Her life path now has been directed towards putting ghosts to rest, and forging a ‘new way of living in the world’. Here in her own words are the steps on that path. – Marika Sboros

 Welcome, I’m Marika Sboros. Today, I’m speaking to a remarkable woman who has been on a journey I really wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy – although when I come to think of it, depending on the enemy, I just might.  She is Jani Allan, arguably the most famous newspaper columnist and media celebrity South Africa’s ever known.  She now lives in the US, and she arrived in South Africa on the 12th of April to launch Jani Confidential – her memoir.  It’s published by Jacana.   Somebody described it as “ravishing”.    I’ve called it riveting.  It’s a really riveting read – all the R’s.  Jani, thank you very much for talking to me today.

Thank you, Marika.  I’m a great friend of Biznews .

Thank you.  Jani, today I want to talk to you about the effects of an awful modern phenomenon – slut shaming.  It’s really, as old as the hills.  You were one of the very first and are one of the most well-known victims.  Others  spring to mind, like Monica Lewinsky and Justine Sacco.  You’re in South Africa now for the first time in 14 years.  I’d like to say, welcome home.   

Thank you.

Do you still consider South Africa home?

I don’t know.  I think home is where one feels safe, and I certainly didn’t feel safe when I was here last.

Where have you felt most safe?

Curiously enough, in the highlands of Scotland, probably one of the outer Hebridean islands, far away from people.  I found enormous solace in becoming part of nature.  You become part of the iconic thing of nature.

Nature is very healing. As I said, I want to talk to you about the effects of slut shaming on body, mind, and spirit.  Before you became embroiled in the sex scandal, what was your health like?

Perfect.  Perfect.  I was a horse rider.  I did Kendo.  I went to gym every morning.

In addition, you were a ballet dancer, so you were probably in very good shape.

Very strong.  But the effects of mass opprobrium are so damaging.  It’s all very well for people to say: “Oh, just laugh it off.  It’s just the press.”  It’s not.  Every time you think something (and I absolutely believe this), you have a thought and it creates an energy.  If everybody focuses bad energy on somebody, it will be so bad for them.

Thoughts certainly do have power.  There’s that old saying about “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”.

That’s a myth.  They do.  They totally do.

In your view, what is the driving force behind slut shaming?  What drives people to try and shame people into thinking they’re a slut?

I think there’s probably envy.  Envy is a normal, human thing but then there is schadenfreude, which I think Schopenhauer said –  it’s a delight in somebody else’s demise.  It becomes a group think, mob hysteria, and when you’re attacked by one newspaper, the other one will follow and it becomes a kind of de rigeur.  It becomes the thing to do.  When there’s such group hysteria, individuals do not take responsibility.  It’s like a snowflake not taking responsibility for an avalanche.

Right.  When you first started experiencing this relentless stress, what was the first physical manifestation?

The lower part of my spine went into seizure.  It went into spasm.

Excruciating backache?

Excruciating.  My thoracic cavity (my ribs) were aching.  I went to chiropractors.  I went for acupuncture.  I was carrying a little mattress around with me, which I’d lie on during the day when I was at the Sunday Times.  Then I had an epidural.

The same thing that they give to pregnant women?

Yes.  The doctor (whose name I’m not supposed to use) said it would be the only thing that might unclench the muscles around my spine.

You also had a bleeding ulcer?

Yes.  In fact, one inch, and (the medical reports)  said this in parenthesis: a  huge ulcer.

From what I read in your book, you came close to actually dying because a perforated ulcer can be absolutely lethal.

The amazing thing about this book trip is that Joseph Campbell says: “If you are following your bliss, helping hands will come from unknown places”, and this has been happening.

One of the great ironies that leaps out at me from your book is that you were this goddess-like creature; your newspaper editor put you on a pedestal; he was one of many people that elevated you to this incredible height; then you had this precipitous fall and you were accused of sleeping with Eugene Terre’Blanche, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader, when sex never loomed large in your life?

No.  To me, sex is a chore.  It was.  Now, of course, it’s unthinkable.  I think it’s like eating lobster.  It’s too much effort for too little reward.  All these magazines…”how to know if you’re good in bed”.  I don’t care.  I’m not interested.

There’s also a history behind this:  you were sexually abused when you were very young by a one of your mother’s foster sons?

This was the first time I even confronted it or thought about it.  I wrote in the book (Jani Confidential) about a pony.  We lasso our memories and I had let that pony go.  I didn’t want to think about it.  As I was writing the book, I started crying.  I thought that I’d tried to black that out for all these years.  It’s the personal thing that I find difficulty with – people who say things about me.  Every time somebody may tweet something really spiteful, I think: “You don’t even know me.” We must learn to be a more compassionate society.  Cyberspace is heaven for slut shamers.

I wanted to say that you were almost lucky, although it just didn’t seem the right word to use, that it was pre-Internet days. Bearing in mind the effects that slut shaming have had on the body, mind, and spirit I would hate to think what it would have been like had there been Twitter and Facebook, etc. around.  Jani, what have all these experiences done to your dreams?

I don’t have dreams.  I have nightmares.  Sometimes, I dread going to sleep because you can process things and rationalise them when you’re awake but when you’re asleep, I think your subconscious (the unsorted stuff) comes flying out.  I still have nightmares about driving down Oxford Road and seeing all the posters.  It was late Saturday night.  All the posters were saying ‘Jani and ET etc.’ I took them down.  I stopped the car at every single traffic light, took all the posters into my little flat, and then I just threw up.

I would have half expected you to go and burn the posters as some kind of pyrrhic victory.  But what do you think is your responsibility in all of this?  Why have you drawn so many people to you, who you thought were friends and they turned out to be anything but?

I think it’s because I come from a place of great emptiness.  I don’t have a family, so I was always looking for somebody to be that sister I never had.  The editor was the father I never knew.  I was trying to create a fuller support system.

Another odd effect on you in the US has been that you started coping with the stress by eating a lot of ice.  It’s called pagophagia, a form of what doctors call “pica”, which is a craving for foods that have no nutritional value. 

Right.  I’d go to McDonalds and say: “I’d  like a bag of ice.” And they’d say: “Oh, is your refrigerator on the fritz,”, and I’d say , “Yes,  it is.”  Then they’d say” “Can we carry the ice to your car?”,  and I didn’t have a car.  I would carry the ice to this little room I was renting and chew and crunch through a bag of ice.  I was so obsessive about it, I’d crunch angrily and my teeth are not American teeth.  They never were, but they are worn away.  My teeth are worn right down.  People say: “You’re long   long in the tooth.”  Not me, because I’ve chewed them down.  I’ve ground them down.  It’s terrible and obsessive.  Then I started Googling this ice crunching and I came across an ice crunchers bulletin board on the Internet.

A support group?

Yes, comparing which ice is the best.  Do you like the ice from McDonalds?  Would you like it form Sonic?  It was crazy.

It’s a very strange coping mechanism, but it has been suggested that people who chew ice have iron deficiency anaemia?

Yes, I’ve heard that.  I’m always self-analysing, too much, so of course I started taking iron but it didn’t help.  It has to do with your lack of control.  It’s similar to people who suffer from anorexia.  The only thing they can control is what they eat and what they don’t eat.  The ice was my way of taking control of an area of my life.

Somebody suggested to me that it might be nice for you if you met a new man on your trip to South Africa.   How would you feel about that?

It can’t be a friend, who suggested that.  The Poms would never allow it.

The Poms: who are they?

My three little American daughters – three Pomeranians –  whom I just live for, and they’ve taught me a lot about nurturing them.

Unconditional love?

Unconditional love, being reliable, and being even-tempered.

Dogs are at least one pack of creatures that you can be sure is never going to turn on you and do any slut shaming?

Well, you know that “dog”  is “god” spelled backwards.

Have you always been deeply religious?

I don’t like to say ‘religious’ because religion comes from the Latin word religare (meaning, to bind).  I am not religious.  I believe, absolutely, in a creator God.  I cannot understand people who don’t believe that there is a God.  Who invented all this stuff?  We did not come from pond spawn.  We know that.

Jani, the one thing you have not lost is your incredible sense of humour.

It’s preposterous.  I happen to have fetched up in a very atheist little neck of the woods.

What’s it like, working as a waitress in New Jersey?

It is brutal, mule work and this is an interesting thing:  many years ago, my very close friend in Australia (it was after I’d returned to South Africa) looked at my astrological chart.  He’s a professor of astrology.  He said: “You  are not living in integrity with your chart.”  I asked what he meant and he said: “You are born to serve,” and I said: “What on earth do you mean. What a horrible notion.  It’s horrific.”   I was squirming.  What do you mean?  How can it be?  He was so serious.  He said: “You are not evolving.  Your soul is not learning the lessons it needs to learn.”  Now I realise, there I am – a server.

Yes, I was going to say that if you take it literally, then you are a server.

Worse, is when Dr Ambrosini, who features in the book a little bit, told me…

That’s Mario Oriano Ambrosini, the IFP MP, who died from lung cancer last year?

He was in love with some girl and he said: “She’s an air hostess.”   I said: “Oh,   a flying waitress.” So he said: “You sound like my mother.  I hate my mother.”  Now the joke is on me because I’m a waitress and not even a flying waitress. 

At the end of your book, you have a short quote, which for me, sums up a lot.  You say: “I’m learning how to rock with the waves.  I’ve invented a new way of being in the world.”  Are you still facing waves?

Oh, yes, except that these ones are storms in teacups or storms in bain-maries.

Your new way of being in the world – have you found it?

I am trying to accept that everything will work out for the best if you are in integrity, if you are obedient (in my case, be obedient to the Lord), and just try to do good.  Just be kind.  What I do know is that it’s no good thinking about the past.  It’s like driving into the future with your eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror.

Jani, one last question.  If you have to come back in a next life, what would you like to be?

I’d like to be Jewish or gay.

Why?

To be Jewish is to belong to the best club in the world, and I’m very keen on tradition and predictability.  I think Edmund Burke said that civilisation was a contract between the dead, the living, and the about-to-be-born.  That’s what Jews do.  They uphold the tradition. The gay thing is because they all have beautiful complexions and have great taste.

Like you…  That was Jani Allan, author of her memoir ‘Jani Confidential’.  I encourage you all to rush out and buy it.  It’s published by Jacana.  

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