Extract – ‘Prison Child’: The Story of Vanessa Goosen’s daughter

Book cover. Supplied image.

Book cover. Supplied image.

Published Jul 2, 2023

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Blurb

In 1994 Vanessa Goosen is imprisoned for smuggling drugs out of Thailand after a business visit. Here she gives birth to Felicia in Lard Yao Prison. According to Thai law, Felicia had to be sent back to South Africa when she turns three.

In South Africa, Felicia is raised by her mom’s best friend and her husband. They love her like their own child and give her a stable home. But deep inside Felicia feels alone and she does not know how to voice her feelings. Years of rebellion and self harming follows.

In her student years, Felicia’s life turns around, and she becomes a wounded healer, reaching out to others and bringing the message that they don’t have to feel alone.

About the Authors

Felicia Goosen was born in Lard Yao Prison in Thailand. When she was three years old, she was sent to South Africa to be raised by her mom's (Vanessa) best friend Melanie. Today Felicia is a youth wellness counsellor, confidence coach and mental health advocate and speaker.

Deonette de Kock grew up in Durbanville and received a masters degree from the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Rapport and Sarie. She has been a freelance journalist for 31 years. She lives in Montagu, is married to Danie and has two grown sons.

Former Miss South Africa finalist Vanessa Goosen speaks during an interview about her experience of 16 years in a Thai Jail for drug smuggling. l Picture: PABALLO THEKISO

Extract

Felicia

“Mommy will be home soon. I promise!”

These words haunted me for many years. When I was sent back to South Africa, three years after my birth in Lard Yao women’s prison in Bangkok, my mother promised that she would follow me home soon. I believed her. As a child I waited year after year for my mother to return, but in vain.

The reality was that she was sentenced to life imprisonment at Lard Yao. Her story of having been duped into carrying books with 1.7 kilograms of heroin hidden in them made headlines worldwide.

When I turned three, in accordance with the rules of Lard Yao, I was sent back to South Africa where I was placed in foster care. Between the ages of five and 15 I visited my mother in prison four times. Because of the trauma of these visits, I blocked out my experiences and emotions after each visit – no doubt a subconscious coping mechanism.

Vanessa Goosen, left, as she is remembered by many people who knew her as a Miss South Africa contestant. She is now serving a 50-year prison sentence.

At the age of 24, I tried to put the missing pieces of the puzzle back where they belonged. It was as if a part of me was missing, and I didn’t know where to find it. I had to go back to Thailand, my place of birth, to find answers – in Lard Yao prison where my footprints echoed in every passage and around each corner.

But a part of my brain still protects me so that there are things I cannot remember. This I do remember: that Lard Yao was home. That it was a place of abundant love and attention.

That I had enough to eat, and that I was spoiled by everyone.

I remember hundreds of faces, those of the guards as well as those of the inmates. I can recall that I never felt dependent on anyone emotionally – not even my mother. I somehow felt like a grown-up.

Seeing the photographs of myself as a little girl, holding on to the bars of the cells in Lard Yao while looking outside, upsets me greatly. I can feel the pain of that little girl. The photos brought back the pain this girl felt when she had to leave her mom and all the inmates she loved. These were the women to whom I spoke Thai fluently, the language in which I was brought up.

There is another image that often haunts me: me as a little girl in Lard Yao looking at my mother. Of course, I did not know what she was thinking, but I could see she was sad.

Another clear memory is the image of myself leaving Lard Yao after visiting my mother, when I felt I had to be strong for her sake and not look back when I walked out that door.

The door to freedom. I remember the overwhelming pain. Later in life, I realised that those were the same feelings my mother must have experienced.

Somehow my mother’s emotions have always been part of my own. This turned me into a very sensitive child.

On my return visit to Lard Yao – some years after my mother had been released – and while trying to piece my life together, the words “Mommy will be home soon. I promise!” seem to echo inside the cold room with its light grey walls, silvery steel chairs and grey counter. I recognise the big fans that try to cool the sticky heat. The inmates with their light blue shirts and dark blue skirts are painfully familiar.

The realisation of being emotionally connected to this place hits hard. It feels like home.

I know it oh so well! I remember how, as a five year old, I ran up and down the stairs, excited to be visiting my mother.

Although it didn’t feel strange then, I now realise that the situation was abnormal. My playground was cold concrete and sterility, but the people inside lent a paradoxical warmth to the environment.

I meet an elderly lady from South Africa, who is about to be released.

She is in her late fifties or sixties with long grey-blonde hair. She has no front teeth. Her face is wrinkled: a landscape full of hardship. She stares at me through the thick glass partition, reinforced with burglar bars.

She and the other inmates who will remain behind bars had heard of my mother, Vanessa, who was in Lard Yao prison for more than 16 years. She had left a legacy of hope for each and every one of them. Not only had she been wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment and eventually set free, but she had also made a difference in many lives through her charitable work in prison. She had made positive changes and transformed many of the inmates’ lives by teaching them about the Lord.

The woman who sits in front of me is excited to be going home soon. But on her worn face I can see the naked fear.

What will life be like when she gets back home after so many years in prison? She is apprehensive because her children have stopped writing to her.

Her dull blue eyes are filled with remorse. As a struggling single parent, desperate to put food on the table, she’d plunged into drug dealing in Bangkok and ended up in Lard Yao.

This woman’s fear that her children might have rejected her is heart-wrenching. Their silence is deafening, and it breaks her heart. But she doesn’t cry. To cry is a waste of time, especially if you have only half an hour to speak to visitors. Each visit brings hope. The fact that someone from the outside cares and wants to spend time with you is something to be treasured. A luxury.

My mother often told me how every letter from me, her family, friends and even strangers from all over the world helped her cope and gather the courage to carry on, to face the next day.

“How did you handle it when your mom was still in prison and you were sent home?” the woman asks anxiously.

“It’s not as if your children don’t care about you or love you,” I explain.

“It’s difficult to write a letter to your mother in prison and only receive an answer two to three months later. So much happens in between.”

I add: “Just thinking of your mother in prison is so demoralising. You want to show you care but at the same time you have tried to move on with your life. You try to negate the overwhelming sadness inside you, so writing to your mom is extremely tough.

“That was the reason that I also wrote less and less over the years when my mother was still in here. It’s so difficult for a child. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your mother anymore. The only thing you can do now is to pray for your children.”

The woman looks at me with new hope in her eyes.

Grateful.

When I get up to go, she also stands. She puts her hand against the glass panel. I stare at her, rattled and touched. My mother would do the same thing when I visited her and had to say goodbye. I’d firmly press my small hand against my mother’s bigger hand, too sad to let go of it.

Suddenly a whirlpool of memories floods through me. I have to do something to comfort this woman, so I put my hand against the glass, as I did so often in the past. And then I quickly move away, remembering how hard it was for me to leave my mother after each visit.

I am close to tears, but I try to hold them back; just as I did each time I visited my mother, trying to be strong for her.

On my way out, short of breath, I suddenly have a crystalclear realisation that this is the reason my brain has been protecting me all along. Coming to the prison and visiting my mother was my life for many years. I couldn’t touch her and had to talk through a glass panel and bars. There wasn’t time to get to know her. Leaving her again was extremely hard, as was trying to establish a life at home.

I feel numb. I realise that I am angry with my mother, and that I have been angry for many years.

Why did she have to send me away as a little girl of three?

Why? Here, inside, I felt safe and loved. In my child’s mind, it felt as if she had cast me out into a big, unsafe world full of strange people and expected me to get on with life on my own.

Suddenly, I feel traumatised all over again, the same way I felt after each visit to my mother in Lard Yao. This feeling of rejection – that I was given away, discarded – has been a part of my life for a very long time.

I feel crushed, as if my heart has been trampled. Broken.

* Prison Child is published by NB Publishers and retails at R260.

The Saturday Star

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south africa