Yesterday I wrote the first of a four part review of Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood, and shared an excerpt about the shadowy sense of privilege the author sensed as a child, but could not name.
The central incident of the book revolves about Retief’s time in a state-run boarding school and the violent abuse he and other students suffered at the hands of a few of the older boys. One prefect in particular devised a sinister banking system of “jacks” or punitive beatings with a cricket bat. Boys lined up for him to beat them in advance of doing anything punishable. The jacks accrued interest over time with the promise that boys could cashed in on their investment whenever he got in trouble with the prefect. This jack bank serves as a metaphor for the interest earning violence the South African Apartheid government perpetuated on Black South Africans.
With violence of this kind the collateral damage spreads and affects all. Systems of oppression, be they in a home or a homeland often suck both victims and perpetrators into more and more deepening oppression. Glen brilliantly reveals this in a passage where he reflects on the effects of the violence he suffered. He raises questions that resonate deeply with me in regard to the religious terrorism I faced in Conservative anti-gay churches. His questions also haunt me and pull at the fringes of awareness of how I have been misshaped by the race, class, and gender oppression in the America of my childhood. As a memoirist, Retief’s reflection and vulnerability inspires or perhaps tempts us to partake in some of our own.
He is a sample:
It happens both quickly and subtly, our defeat and terrorization: delicate as a first winter chill, sliding down from the crisp, tawny highveld plains into those subtropical valleys; unexpected as icy, crystallized spiders’ webs. At what moment, exactly, does it occur? On what precise sweltering afternoon—in the whirring racket of the overhead ceiling fans, as we stand around amongst those metal lockers clutching our running shoes and chewing Dentyne Spearmint gum and listening to F.R. David songs on our Sony Walkmans—do we lose ourselves?
You can pre-order the Jack Bank on Amazon and get it by the end of next week if you are in the US. It is also available on Kindle in the US.