Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Tag: a lonely man

Essay 33: Potential, Potential, Potential

I used to know someone who thought I was very smart. It was, he made clear, the big deal about me. I was so clever, I had so much potential, I was remarkable for my age. It is possible that he was a little bit in love with me. I was very young, and I thought he was just the bee’s knees.

He would raise his eyebrows at things I said. He made a series of weird remarks about the clarity of my soul. My friends were sure that he wanted to sleep with me. I was sure that they were all the worst kind of sexist pigs, sexist bitches, for saying that. How could they think that he wanted to sleep with me when all he was doing was telling me over and over again how smart I was? It was so typical of this terrible world, really, that an old man couldn’t tell a 23 year old girl how brilliant she was without some dreary old naysayer, some mom, suggesting that there might be something else going on there. It didn’t occur to me that I was wrong.

If you haven’t heard of negging, it’s when a person gives with one hand and takes with the other. This is done with an eye to future sexing. Negging is when, for example, you are in the club and you see a girl. She is standing there chatting to her pals. You go up to her and stand on the fringes of the group. No one thinks this is weird or embarrassing. You nod along for a bit, and then you look at the girl’s friends and say, like “Wow, do you ladies ever get a word in edgewise? It seems like she never stops talking,” thus indicating to her that you are not interested. Thus making her feel the bitter sting of being just like everyone else. Negging is when you make her think that her looks have no power over you. The idea is that you “lower her social value in relation to yours” and she has no choice then but to give you the first of many blowjobs. This is all freely available on the internet. Anyone can read this.

There are lots of men who swear by negging. The internet heaves with them, all of them on forums writing “I am right, negging works, tell a girl she looks like your little sister and it’s BLOWJOB TIME, PAL. It WORKS.” A normal person looks at all this crazy bullshit and wants to dismiss it out of hand. Any normal person, surely, wants to believe that it’s a myth. I so, so wish it was.  I have never been negged in the club, but I have been subject to a sustained campaign of negging by the man who thought I was very smart, and I am telling you that it works. It made me feel like shit, but it also made me think I was in love with him.

His version of negging was to tell me that I was so, so smart, so much potential, but that it was always going to remain as potential. I was always going to be the girl that wasted her giant brain, because she couldn’t do any work. She couldn’t get it done. See how good that is? Smart, but a fuck up. Brilliant, but who cares?

It works. It made me think all kinds of stupid shit, like for example that he was the only person who understood me.  Like maybe we should just get married.

It took about five years for me to realise what was going on, there. I got sick of it all at once, just bored with all this stuff about my beautiful dying brain. A person with a more robust self-esteem would have got the shits with it much earlier. Still.

It took another two years for me to stop being angry. It was so long ago, and as it turns out, I am grateful to him. He was such an old creeper, and I ended up disliking him in a way that made it possible for me to dismiss everything he said. The whole business of whether or not I was smart just went out the window. He made it so I never, ever wanted to think about it again. As it turns out, this was a gift. I haven’t thought I was smart in years. I haven’t worried about my potential once. It just does not come up for me, anymore. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and all it took was one old creeper.


Essay 31: Bigger than the Beatles

Primal scream therapy is when you hark back to your shitty childhood and just scream it all out. The way it is supposed to work is that the patient re-experiences past Pain (the word is usually capitalised in the literature) in a safe and healing environment, expressing fully the feelings relating to the Pain, and thereby resolving the Pain. I don’t know. It is supposed to be the full-on cathartic experience.

I write “is” when really it should be “was”: no one does primal scream therapy anymore. It was huge in the seventies, all these tormented upper middle-class people bent over double in therapy sessions, their chunky silver medallions banging against their shins, screaming their absolute heads off. Everyone was doing it. John Lennon was, briefly and very publically, a believer. He said at one point that the therapy was “more important to [me] than the Beatles”. You know that song Mother? Stop what you are doing and listen to Mother right now. Isn’t it insane? Isn’t it the best? Listen to him howling away at the end there. That’s primal scream therapy. John Lennon wrote it after he’d been living for four months at the Primal Institute in California. Four months! He sounds like a man who has worked through a thing or two.

Primal scream therapy has been savagely and fulsomely discredited. Mainstream psychology washed its hands of it a long time ago: too weird, too obviously based on total bullshit, too much a man in a turtleneck and a waistcoat telling you what is up. Also: in 1973, there was a “birth simulator” introduced at the Primal Institute: “a 10-foot-long adjustable pressure vinyl tube. The patient was covered with a slick substance to simulate birth.” That about did it, in terms of primal therapy’s credibility. Grown-up people pretending to get born out a vinyl tube. That about put the final nail in the coffin. But I don’t know. Birth simulators aside, surely all that screaming must have done something? It surely must have had some value. Patients would have walked out of their sessions feeling all watery and light, at the very least. I’m not saying it’s anything other than pure, high nonsense. Of course it is. All I am saying is that I can see why people got into it. Rolling around on the floor, having a good scream. I bet it felt excellent.

I went to normal therapy twice a week for a year and felt nothing. Not even watery and light. I can’t remember a single thing we talked about, or a single way I felt, and really I am not sure I would recognise my therapist if I bumped into her in the supermarket. It wasn’t a “bad experience” or anything. It just didn’t work, if that is a thing you’re allowed to say.  It didn’t work, and the other problem was that it was extremely, extremely expensive. My god. I could have spent all that money on clothes, and been so happy, if that is a thing you’re allowed to say.

I left therapy for no good reason – I was just bored, as well as increasingly aware that a moment of catharsis was not going to show up anytime soon. Therapists have told me that this isn’t how it works. Therapy isn’t like that. Most people don’t get the big breakthrough, where they roll around on the floor and get born out a tube and go home and write Mother. I know that. I’m not an eight year old. Wouldn’t it be lovely, though? I for one would welcome it.


Essay 27: The Edge of the Herd

I’m going to London next week. It’s been five years since I was there, which seems wrong, but is nevertheless true. Five years. I can’t stop saying it to myself. How can it be five years since I have seen so many of my pals? It makes me sick. My godson, when I left London, was two weeks old. He was a little baby with sweet fluffy ears. Now he is a proper kid, with habits and opinions and a small brother. Before he was born, his mum and me shared a peanut butter and honey sandwich on the grass at the women’s pond on Hampstead Heath, and read a Heat magazine, and I remember that like it was two days ago. Don’t tell me it’s been half a decade.

This is not a lament about the terrible passing of the years, though. Or not only that (it is bullshit though – the passage of time; it is a bad joke told by my enemy). This is more a question of probabilities. It just seems unlikely that this is all so definitively In The Past. Surely not, when I can effortlessly recall everything that happened. I can remember what I ate, even. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday. I remember what I felt like, and what I wore, and the expression I made when I looked in the mirror. It’s not right. Five years should have some respect. I remember what books I took out the library, and in what order. It’s oppressive. I remember the exact depth to which my heart sank, as well as what shoes I was wearing, as well as the bus I was on, when I realised a certain person was never going to love me back. Those eight months, in that city, are more vivid than they have any right to be.

It’s tiring, all this, especially for a person who believes that emotions are better left repressed. When I was about 15, my mum delivered one of her stunningly accurate character assessments. This is something she is known for, I think. If not, she should be. I have almost no insight into myself, and so it has been jolly useful over the years to have a mum who just comes out and tells me what I am like. I imagine that it must be gratifying for her, as well, to have a child who is just knocked the hell out by things she says. On my 30th birthday, she gave a speech at my party in which she mentioned that I did not like, as a rule, to be labelled or categorised. I could hardly say my own speech, I was so floored by the clarity of her judgment. She told me, when I was fifteen, that I bottled things up in an unhealthy way, and that I couldn’t do it forever. The first thing I thought when she said it was This woman is some kind of psychic. I think I might have actually stepped back and clutched my head, like in The Matrix. The second thing I thought was Why, though? Why can’t I just bottle things up forever. I quite like it. I like to repress things as if they never happened. This neatly takes care of almost every horrible thing I’ve ever done, every stupid thing I’ve ever said, every time I have felt my heart sink into my impractical shoes or rise up and spread out along my collarbones like a vine. It does not, however, take care of eight months when I was 25 years old. I still have all that. There is apparently no getting rid of it.

I’m fine with this. I was so miserable, mostly, and so tormented it actually altered my posture. You could see from the back of my neck that I was having a bad time. But I was also myself, just pure distilled Rosa Frances Lyster, to a degree not reached before or since. It was really something. In London, I had none of the weapons that usually protect us from ourselves: no job, no family, no partner. Just me, then.

There is a quite unforgettable scene in Planet Earth. You know the one I mean. Not the little bird wearing pants or having feathers that look like eyes and making a noise of a typewriter. Not the “Caves” one where the ground is blanketed with cockroaches, like heaving with cockroaches. It’s the bit with the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. They are getting ready for winter, and how they do that is they all huddle together in a circle. The little weak ones go in the middle, and the stronger good ones go on the outside, for protection, and the really shit ones get slowly edged out over four months or so, in the snow and the wind.  The edging out is not deliberate, I don’t think. It happens so, so slowly. It’s just that there is no space. It’s just that there’s only space for the sweet little ones, and the good tall strong ones. No one else. No other kind of penguin is suitable. It’s continuously dark, David Attenborough says, and temperatures drop to -70 degrees. Surely, he says, no greater ordeal is faced by any animal. Poor penguins.

I have watched Planet Earth a hundred times. Before I went to London, I sat through the penguin scene with no trouble. Poor penguins, I always thought. Poor old guys. This robust heartlessness deserted me shortly after I arrived. In London, I couldn’t watch the penguin scene without crying. Without sobbing, let us face it. It wasn’t that I felt sad for them, although I did. It was a problem of over-identification. I felt as if I actually was a penguin. One of the rubbish ones, obviously, getting edged out in tiny, tiny increments. Nothing personal, of course. No one was edging me out on purpose, but it was happening all the same.

Five years later, and I am not one of those penguins anymore. I’m fine. These things stay with you, though, and that is as it should be.


Essay 21: The Young Virgins of the Lost City

I never caught RP in the act of delivering a letter. No one did. This girl in human resources said she had actually met him, but after a brief interrogation I was forced to conclude that she was lying to me and to herself. When I asked her what he looked like she said I don’t know, just normal. Old. When I asked her what his clothes were she said Just pants and a jersey. What kind of shoes? Just shoes like an old man would wear. What kind of face? Just a normal old man. What did he talk about? How long the lift took to come.

Please. Anyone who had spent five minutes alone with the letters of RP would have known that she had the wrong man. They came two or three times a week. Hand-delivered. Envelope flap stuck down with a small frilly bit of the sticky paper that edges a sheet of stamps. RP couldn’t lick the envelopes because he’d used up all his bile on the letters themselves.

His repertoire was compelling in its simplicity. RT would not be diverted. Secret Jews, non-secret but still highly sinister Jews, The Banks, The Blacks, The Catholics, The Devil. He once signed a letter “RP, Eugenicist”. He suggested on repeated occasions that to have a non-literal interpretation of the Bible was to shit all over Christ Himself. He once wrote a letter which included the phrase “the Satanic Jane Goodall.” He drew little pictures in the margins – a little ark, a little bird, a detailed rendering of the young virgins of Atlantis, Lost City. It is needless to say that he was not keen on women.

The newspaper published a letter of his about once every two months, in highly attenuated form. If you took out all the racism, all the sexism, all the bits about the young virgins of the Lost City of Atlantis, you were not left with much. They did not convey the spirit of RP, and this was probably for the best.

No one at the paper seemed that interested in him. Everyone just sort of rolled their eyes and said Shame. A lonely man. My best friend at work said that she bet his wife had died. Men can get like that, she said. When their wives die. I stored this information away.

I say that I never saw RP with my proper eyes, but when I imagine him I get a very clear picture. He has one of those shiny faces that a certain type of old man can get, like James Brown or someone. He looks like he had been carved out of an unpopular type of wood. He has running shoes and slightly flared pants and you think he has a flat hat on, but you are mistaken. A flat hat, for the RPs of this world, is an affectation. He smokes. He is always sitting on a bus and looking right into your face. I sometimes practice this face in the mirror. You make your teeth so it’s like you’re just about to start smiling. You do not follow through to the smile itself. You tilt your head slightly to the left or the right. You remind yourself of a parakeet that has been neglected for too long, all hopping up along your perch to the bars of your cage and trying to get your head through. Your one eye can roll slightly if you need. You must cast your head passionately about, looking endlessly around in a big circle. You must convey an impression of intense and unsettling interest in everything that passes under your gaze. You make the strangers around you worry that at any second you will start speaking to them. You will say things like What are you reading? What’s that you’re listening to? Do you like that song? Are you aware of the Satanic forces that reside within the Holy Roman Catholic Church? Like that.

I know these men. I walk among them. After I stopped working at the newspaper, I started working in the archives. My worry – that I would never encounter again in my working life encounter an RP  – was unfounded. They are all over the place. They are there in the reading room every day, asking too many questions, looking too thin and shiny in the face. I saw a good one the other day, sidling up to the front desk and asking the tirelessly nice archivist whether she had any information on his grandfather. She said You’ll have to look him up on the system, and he said Well but he used to be the president of the harbour so what can you tell me about him. She said The computers are through in that room. He said He was the PRESIDENT, though. Of the HARBOUR. She pointed to the computer room. I was next in line. She looked at me, shook her head, and whispered There is no such job as the president of the harbour. Poor man.

Maybe his wife is dead, I thought.

R Pism reaches its pinnacle in the archives. In the files relating to the activities of the South African apartheid-era censors, specifically. You cannot move in there without running up against an RP type, writing a letter to the head of the censorship board, demanding to know why a certain novel or magazine or song or really a birthday card with a penis on it had not been removed from general circulation. You would not believe the things they write.

Here is a classic of the genre

“Dear Sir,

I wish to draw your attention to the advert for “Shield” – some form of “intimate” female deodorant[1] – which I have just heard on the radio.

The background music for this is the music from the pop record “Je t’aime” which was banned, even in permissive Britain, by the BBC. It is the sound of a man and woman engaged in the sexual act, put to music, with grunts, groans, and other sounds. The purpose of this recorded version in the “Shield” advert should be obvious, and I would be grateful to you if you could take steps to have it withdrawn. It has unpleasant memories for me.


Not RP But Very Like.”

I read letters like this every day, nearly, and I never tire of them. This is the best job I’ve ever had.

[1] He is talking here about just normal Shield deodorant.