Shattered Lives

The Story of Advocate Barbie

by Liezl Thom and Laurie Pieters

(TCB Publishing, R200)

Apparently Barbie cried when she heard about this book.

Little wonder, considering this harsh judgement from co-author Laurie Pieters: “She looked like an inhuman, emotionless doll. I was looking for a sign of humanity and there just wasn’t one. I could visualise this stone creature hurting children because she came across as heartless, totally devoid of emotion.”

Ouchie.

Barbie, or rather, Cézanne Visser, has split public opinion for about a decade. There are those, like Pieters, who have not an ounce of sympathy for her; others, however, feel that she, too, was a victim of Dirk Prinsloo, an abused, battered woman let down by the system.

It is Visser who has held our attention – and not only because she was left to stand trial alone after Prinsloo fled. Largely, it’s been because she is an enigma: a conservative girl from a broken home; an advocate; a sex offender.

Although the authors of Shattered Lives: The Story of Advocate Barbie try to find the story behind the headlines (and despite books by her mother and stepfather hitting the shelves), the truth about Visser will probably not be known.

And so, because there is no clear explanation of how or why this could happen (Prinsloo’s narcissism and dangerous sex obsession do not provide the clear-cut answer; nor does Visser’s battered woman syndrome defence), we continue to be fascinated by this case.

If, after 10 years of minute media coverage, your curiosity has not been satisfied, this book should add to your trivia collection on the saga.

Former Eyewitness News reporter Liezl Thom, having covered the trial in the Pretoria High Court, provides the factual information, while Pieters, having worked for Visser and Prinsloo for a while, offers the personal observations (she was also a key witness for the prosecution: “I know that my testimony damaged Cézanne’s case. I understand that I am partly responsible for her being incarcerated today. This is a burden I must bear.”)

With the two viewpoints, the book strikes a balance between knowledge and interpretation. Even so, don’t expect earth-shattering revelations. Of course, the salacious details are there – how could they not be? But there’s little – apart from the story of Jeannine du Plessis – that hadn’t been covered by the media before.

It’s in the telling of the story of Jeannine, whom many regard as the most tragic victim in a sad, sordid tale of broken lives, that the book’s strength lies. Du Plessis was one of the girls the then-advocates invited to their home, where she was molested. She fought a losing battle with her demons for years, and with the wrongs committed against her by others; she killed herself last year. But there are more questions than answers.

There are gaps, and one can’t help feeling dissatisfied at the glib explanations and categorisations: throughout the book, it’s good versus evil; innocent victims falling prey to cardboard-cutout villains. Shattered Lives offers little real insight.

It could have done with more proofreading. One should not be giggling at such phrases as “one foul swoop”.

The verdict? Although the book does little more than scratch the surface (or perhaps because of that), it revives the debates that raged during the trial – was Prinsloo really behind all of it? Why did Visser do all those things with children? And asking those questions is not such a bad thing.