How We Met: Susie Orbach and Gillian Slovo

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The Independent Culture
Susie Orbach, 47, is a psychotherapist and author of seven books, including Fat is a Feminist Issue. Founder of the Women's Therapy Centre in London and the Women's Therapy Institute in New York, she lives in London with her partner, Professor Joseph Schwartz, and two children.

Gillian Slovo, 41, is daughter of Joe Slovo, ANC National Executive member and, now, South African housing and welfare minister, and Ruth First, who was assassinated in 1982. A novelist, she came to Britain in 1964. She lives in London with her partner, Andy Metcalf, and their daughter.

SUSIE ORBACH: I first heard of Gillian from Joe, my partner, in 1976. He was doing a sabbatical at the Open University. They had a car pool, and he mentioned that there was a very interesting woman he drove up with - she would trouble to read the papers and have interesting bits of conversation. Later I discovered that the reason she was such a good conversationalist was that she felt that she wasn't very socially skilled, and so did her homework.

We first met to discuss a friend of hers who needed psychological help. I remember being aware of this absolutely gorgeous dark brown hair. She was quite shy. I'm a noisier person, but she had so much to say if you let her. At that time she hadn't the sort of physical presence that she has now. She was physically retiring, but very vibrant when she talked about her friend. I really liked her, and I invited her over. I think at that time she was breaking up with a boyfriend, and so we used to incorporate her into whatever was going on in our social life.

She wasn't happy at the Open University. She was considering going to medical school and was learning to play the saxophone, which I thought was great. I love jazz.

There were points in our history that intersected, not literally, but emotionally. Gillian came here when she was 12. Suddenly she was in a different country with a new set of rules, and with the terror because her father was underground. Although the situations were very different, I also came from a political family where there were a lot of secrets. My father was an MP. During the Suez crisis he was always going to the Middle East, and I was never allowed to say where he was. So I thought I understood something about Gillian's experience of holding secrets.

She became a novelist: novelists find ways to talk about secrets. I became a therapist who finds out secrets. So it was very formative for us, and we are both very good at keeping confidences.

She can be very, very funny. She plays straight woman and makes me funny, and I really like knowing that part of myself which I feel she's given me. We're also both terribly efficient, and we moan to each other about how difficult our jobs are. We've grown up as writers together, so we share that identity and the problems of it.

My girlfriends are a completely essential part of my life. With Gillian, I was probably big sister early on: I'm older than her, and when we met I had a stable relationship. But then her mother died, and she had to grow up very fast - Ruth had a state funeral, and Gillian had to deal with 8,000 people - so that changed. Now, if I'm freaking out about something, she is very thoughtful about how to intervene. When Fat is a Feminist Issue came out I remember a particularly dire interchange with the publishers - they wanted a different title. I couldn't handle it, but Gillian phoned up and dealt with it.

I love that about her: she'll have a take on something that is completely original. We'll be discussing video nasties or South Africa, the topic doesn't matter - it will be something I wouldn't have thought of that expands my thinking. I've never been to South Africa. I didn't feel I could go until the boycott was broken. But it will be lovely seeing her there now, even though it is still a very painful and confusing environment for her.

Gillian is a woman of our times, struggling with having a productive work life and a decent relationship and bringing up kids when the school system is falling apart - and trying to come to terms with what South Africa means to her.

GILLIAN SLOVO: About 18 years ago Susie's partner Joe and I used to drive up to the Open University together, and he would talk about her. I first met Susie when a mutual colleague had a baby, and we all went to visit at the hospital. Susie and Joe drove me home and I was very attracted to her. She's very outspoken; I was the opposite - quite shy - but she was good at drawing me out.

I have the world's worst sense of direction, except that I happen to know where I live, and I showed them a special route to Hackney which totally impressed Susie. I felt as if I'd deceived her, because she kept going on about this fantastic route. But the first present she ever gave me was a large scale Nicholson's, because by then she had got wise to my bad sense of direction.

We met properly when a friend needed therapy and I went to Susie for advice. She had an amazing combination of empathy and the ability to listen without pity, and I really warmed to her. After that, we started to be friends.

At that time my whole life was insecure; she was more grown up - she had a stable relationship - so in the beginning I think she looked after me. But the years have changed that. I feel that I've grown up with her. She has been a part of every important thing that's happened to me since we met. When my mother was killed I was on holiday in Spain. We went straight from the ferry to the airport. I had no clothes, and Susie arrived with a suitcase of her own things. So I went to my mother's funeral wearing Susie's dress, which meant a lot - I felt that she was there with me. I was in quite a state for a long time afterwards, and she allowed me to go through it in a very accepting way.

Now there is much more equality in the relationship. That's another thing about her I really admire - she allowed that change, she liked the way I changed and helped me to do it.

The success of Fat is a Feminist Issue changed her life. She had to handle all kinds of issues of fame and public presence, and it was very interesting watching her go through that change. She isn't scared to discuss things that we all experience but that we often keep quiet about because we're afraid of appearing weak.

In a way we come from similar backgrounds. Her father was an MP, and Susie used to tell me she could never say 'Egypt'. Her father was always going to 'EGYPT' - there was some secrecy, and this was the kind of code that went on. My whole childhood was bound up with that kind of secrecy. Susie saw past the glamour of what my parents were and the drama of my mother's death and actually saw the human cost of it.

She has enormous charm. She always says to me that I make her funny; I think she makes me charming. I think we've learnt things together. We both came to motherhood at an age when we had coped with the world already and we found ourselves having to cope with this other activity which raised all kinds of fears. I had Cassie by Caesarean section and after the birth was in no condition to breastfeed, so the first milk my daughter ever had was Susie's. She was very delicate about it: she thought it might be a difficult thing for me. But if Cassie had to have somebody else's milk, who better? Now the kids think of each other's family as family. For Cassie's first year she wore all Lucas's clothes and now Liana, Susie's second child, is dressed a la Cassie.

I was amazed by Susie's tolerance when I had Cassie. I thought I was being perfectly reasonable, but I now realise I was as obsessed as anybody who's ever had a baby. But I never felt that she was bored or that I'd vanished. She gave me permission to be who I was. She has always given me permission to be who I am.-

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