LAPA has shared an excerpt from the newly released Flesh and Blood, the true story of two sisters whose day job is cleaning up crime scenes, written by award-winning freelance journalist Riette Rust, with Eileen de Jager and Roelien Schutte.
Flesh and Blood is the sequel to the bestseller Blood Sisters, which was released in 2012, and is also available in Afrikaans as Vlees en bloed.
Crime writer Martin Steyn says the book is “fascinating” and “written with great detail, compassion and humour”.
The excerpt examines the psychological toll of what the sisters experience every day.
Read the excerpt:
Extract from Flesh and Blood, Riette Rust (LAPA Publishers, 2016)
Psychopaths and narcissists have a lack of empathy. The rest of us are deeply traumatised by the things the Blood Sisters have to confront on a daily basis. Not to mention the two of them. But if you had asked Eileen three years ago whether she was suffering from post-traumatic stress, she would probably have denied it. “I think I’m in denial because I’m someone who doesn’t fall apart easily,” she confesses now. “My colleagues need me every day to help with their franchises, their planning, and their work. I can’t afford to take a week off and tell them to make do on their own.”
But at least Eileen is aware of her stress levels and tries to de-stress as far as possible – especially since her colleagues have started noticing that she’s not a hundred percent herself anymore. “Apparently I come across as being ‘cold’.” This is in stark contrast with how people would normally describe her – as a warm, caring person. “I also have a shorter fuse,” she confesses.
Roelien acknowledges that she too is exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “I experience terrible moods and outbursts. One minute I’m fine, and the next I am storming out just to clear my head for ten minutes,” she says. “At other times I feel sorry for myself, and I think the whole world is against me.” Sometimes she gets sad or angry about it, and at other times she may even think that she’s silly to feel that way.
There are also other signs that indicate that the Blood Sisters sometimes experience high levels of stress. Although Eileen’s nightmares have decreased she still struggles to get a good night’s sleep. “For a long time now I haven’t been able to lay my head down on the pillow and sleep soundly until the next morning,” she confesses. “I usually wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I’ve heard something. Then I get up to check it out. It really irks me.”
This Blood Sister says she doesn’t want to dream that there are criminals in her house, or about a shooting, murder or suicide every night. Neither does Roelien. And she gets terrible nightmares. “I’d dream that I’m lying in a pool of blood, and can’t get up or escape. Or I’m at a scene, but I’m standing still and can’t run away. There’s always some danger approaching me, and then I fail to get away.”
In her dreams, Roelien also sees herself inside the houses where the crimes have taken place. “It’s usually dark, but I never know where to switch on the lights. I feel my way around. And I slip around in lots of blood.”
The morning after such a nightmare, she finds herself in a peculiar mood, Roelien says. “I don’t feel like doing anything. But then you have to pull yourself together again and remind yourself that it was just a dream. You simply have to put it behind you.” When she wakes up from a nightmare, there’s nothing for it but to have a glass of water.
Eileen likes to relax with a good book – particularly science fiction, or a Wilbur Smith. “I need to derail my thoughts from what I see on a daily basis – blood, pieces of brain, bones and teeth.” The more gruesome or gross the events she’s had to experience that day, the more she wants to see beautiful things afterwards, Eileen says. “My favourite search words to Google are ‘something beautiful’.”
Doesn’t this kind of work make you cynical and bitter? “Yes, getting cynical and bitter is very easy,” Eileen acknowledges. That’s why she specifically looks out for beautiful things on her way home from work every day. “The world is a very beautiful place; it’s humankind that makes it ugly.”
Roelien says she often feels as if there is no beauty left in the world – “people are doing a good job of destroying everything”. But, just like Eileen, she purposefully decides to look out for beauty. “You’ve got to be able to tell yourself: You know what? There are also positive things in the world.”
That’s not to say that the Blood Sisters don’t have lots of fun too. Roelien laughingly tells of the day she had to lean over a bucket to reach some chemicals. She continued cleaning up but the blood on the bucket rim had left and image on her overall – that of a smiley face. “A crime scene is supposed to be a serious place. It’s all about respect.”
But it doesn’t take long to be yanked back to reality again. It may be the smell in a butchery, or of a chemical substance the refrigerator in a shop has been cleaned with. That may be all it takes to transport you back to a crime scene, the Blood Sisters say. “Right there in the supermarket, you sometimes relive every bloody detail again.”
So what keeps them on their feet emotionally? “Sometimes it may not work, but we purposefully try to forget the details of the scenes. There is no other way to manage such horrors.”
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
No two people react to traumatic events in the same way, says registered counsellor Jacobie Müller. “In fact, only about 3% to 6% of the population suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Different people have different processing mechanisms. If you often talk to others about what you’ve seen or experienced, or cry about it, or perhaps handle the trauma with black humour, you’ll be more resilient, meaning you will be able to bounce back to normality faster than others, she says.
You may also get used to the trauma you have to confront daily. “In such a case you are desensitised; it doesn’t affect you as much as it used to.”
Even if you don’t have such good processing mechanisms, you may be able to remain calm during a traumatic situation, but will experience shock afterwards, like starting to shake, or your blood pressure may fall rapidly.
Jacobie says there are different signs indicating post-traumatic stress: You may get flashbacks or nightmares. “Bloody dreams may be a sign of unprocessed aggression. You may subconsciously attach value to people, and then get angry because they’re being killed in such gruesome ways day after day.”
You may appear “colder” than before, have a shorter fuse, experience outbursts, look for comfort in food, or suffer selective memory loss. Because you are subliminally anxious, you don’t remember things such as whether you’ve indeed locked the door or not. You may also be more aggressive than usual and get irritated more easily, especially if you deny that the traumatic events have had an effect on you. Due to anxiety and depression you may burst into tears more easily than usual, and cry for much longer than you normally do, for instance when watching a sad movie.