Niki Smart is living, thriving proof that transformation is possible and that a horrendous childhood can be overcome.
Molested by her grandfather at 9, drinking by 12, having sex at 13, all the while living with a bizarre, scandalous, mentally ill mother incapable of mothering, Smart plunged into darkness to anesthetize her pain. And coming of age during the “party hearty” South Africa of the 1980s, followed by a decade when the apartheid regime descended into hell before collapsing, Smart found plenty of darkness to dive into.
In “Hell Camp: How to Chew on a Crazy Childhood and Avoid Choking,” Smart spills out her intense, cringe-provoking tales. While her own behavior is shocking, and her mother’s borders on criminal, Smart’s spot on, spunky, self-effacing humor keeps her story from turning into a “poor, poor pitiful me” saga. She will be reading from her memoir Friday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. at Laguna Beach Books, 1200 S. Coast Highway.
When her mother told her that she was “curvy” and that men liked women to strip for them, she showed her daughter how to sensuously cup her hands beneath her breasts. “Sadly,” Smart quips, “I had no breasts to cup. I was 8.”
With the neighborhood teens and her own children, Smart’s mother would drink, smoke pot and play “earn the burn,” placing a lit cigarette in between two contestants’ arms to see who would pull away first. (Smart’s mother almost always won.) On another day she would be teaching the neighborhood kids how to waltz and knit.
“Living with mummykins was torture similar to bastinado (an unsporting beating of the soles of the feet),” Smart writes. “It left no visible marks, but it almost incapacitated me.”
Crowned “Miss Teenager of Randburg,” Smart wondered if they would take back the prize if they knew she had stolen the dress she was wearing. “In retrospect,” she writes, “I should have been crowned: Miss Promiscuous, Alcoholic, Shop-lifting, Brimming with Rage, Mighty Miserable Teenager of Randburg….but I guess that would’ve been a tad wordy.”
And since she had never received healthy love, she had no idea of how to give it, burning through relationships by lashing out and shutting down.
Throughout it all, she played the guitar with the ambition of becoming “a famous singer.” By 15 she was performing gigs, singing out her pain. At 23, she was performing pregnant and by 26 she was a legitimate pop star playing in front of thousands with a toddler back stage.
So how did this enraged, sometimes violent wild child strip off the layers of self destruction to reveal the soft spoken, gracious, loving mother lying in wait at her core?
Smart pulled herself out of the hole with self-reflection, grit, kick-boxing, yoga and the help of a terrific therapist. But most therapeutic was writing out her grief, rage and outlandish tales at Laguna’s Koffee Klatch…”unloading the emotions of a painful yesteryear to feel better, not bitter. I don’t believe we are truly free of our past until we forgive those that have harmed us.”
Laced with history of how apartheid townships like Soweto came into being, sprinkled with Afrikaans and ending with a chapter illuminating the rampant rape crisis that exists in South Africa, “the rape capital of the world,” Smart’s book is not only a brutally honest and courageous memoir of one person’s struggle, it also offers a look at a country still in need of healing.
She fled her native country for the U.S. in the early 1990s as civilized society deteriorated into brutality, violence and rage. As a single mother with no job skills save singing and playing the guitar, Smart found moderate success with her music, got a job helping emotionally disturbed youth and created a stable home for her daughter in a good school district. By 2008 she had worked her way to where she wanted to live, in Laguna Beach. Her daughter, Samantha, now lives in Hollywood and is a college-degree holding assistant editor for a movie trailer production company.
Smart, 47, who currently teaches yoga and works at a youth shelter for emotionally disturbed teenagers, hopes her daughter doesn’t pick up a copy of “Hell Camp.”
Robin Pierson writes about her hometown.