Obtaining a doctoral degree is a remarkable achievement. But to be awarded a second one is quite something special. This is exactly what Prof Leslie Swartz, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at Stellenbosch University (SU), accomplished when he received another PhD, this time in English Studies, on Monday 14 December 2020 during SU's December graduation week, exactly thirty years after obtaining his first PhD.
At the same ceremony, one of Swartz's students, Maura Lappeman, also obtained a doctorate. A second doctoral student, Hildah Oburu, who missed her graduation in April due to COVID-19, was also present to accept her certificate. They are among the more than 40 doctoral candidates that he has supervised over the years.
Swartz has already scooped numerous prestigious awards for his outstanding contributions to the fields of mental health and disability studies. He says that his second PhD shows that nobody is too old or too well qualified to learn more and to grow academically, and that through life, everybody can benefit from the help and care from others (in this case, his supervisors).
Much of Swartz's work in mental health and disability studies focusses on issues of care. His doctorate comprises a memoir, How I Lost My Mother, which discusses care issues in an accessible and entertaining way, and a reflective essay on the memoir and process of writing. “Care is central to how society is organised and especially relevant to an ageing society and one affected by a pandemic," says Swartz. “Despite this, care is often made invisible or not spoken about, hence the need for a book like this," he adds.
The memoir is a story of an emotionally complex relationship between mother and son, and of the struggles we all face in negotiating our way between closeness and distance, tenderness, anger and retribution. The book uses humour and story-telling to discuss issues which may otherwise not be palatable to a wide range of readers.
“Many privileged people throughout the world live their lives, and go through the process of dying, supported by vulnerable and poorly-paid people (usually women of colour), and the book discusses the politics of this reality," says Swartz. “There is no other text I know of which deals as directly with the intertwining of emotional intimacy and exploitation of care workers in the context of debility and dying."
According to his supervisors from SU's English Department, Prof Shaun Viljoen and Prof Louise Green, the memoir emphasises how personal narratives can help us communicate complex social concerns.
Swartz says he hopes that by engaging in an emotional journey through personal and social history, readers will make up their own minds about how they feel about the issues he raises.
How I Lost My Mother is his second memoir, after Able-Bodied: Scenes from a Curious Life (2010) that chronicles his relationship with his disabled father, and introduces readers to key concepts in disability studies. How I Lost My Mother is due to be published by Wits University Press in March 2021.