This is part three of a four part review of Glen Retief‘s memoir, The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood. (275 pages, St. Martin’s Press) Here are reviews (with gorgeous quotes!) Part One–A child takes on his world and Part Two–Losing ourselves to violence.
One startling aspect of Glen Retief’s memoir is the way he chronicles the cycles of oppression he experienced growing up as a white gay boy in Apartheid South Africa. Retief reveals how the violence perpetuated against him within his violent culture bred violence in him. You may have heard of Stockholm Syndrome, where someone like kidnapped heiress Patrica Hearst transforms from captive into a terrorist. In similar fashion, after hanging with his “captors,” Retief becomes the very thing he hates and fears.
After five years of getting tortured by older boys in his school, Retief becomes a prefect with the responsibility to address bad behavior among the younger students. In this new position of power could become a protector of other boys, a reformer of the system, a voice of reason in that violent boyhood madness. Instead Glen reenacts the suffering he endured but this time taking the role of his former abuser, John, by brutally assaulting Waldo, a boy under his charge. In breathtaking honesty, Glen recounts the scene with the accompanying intoxicating euphoria that fills him as he commits the violent act.
Later, what I’ll recall most vividly about the moment is the enormous, surprising pleasure. Violence is glorious. I crash the cricket bat forward with every ounce of my strength: Waldo’s head knocks forward against the wood. He gasps; he struggles to breathe. On about the fourth blow he begins to whimper and cry softly. I do not care: in fact this satisfies me. He deserves this, the little prick—now he will respect me—the triumph in my muscles and sinews is sensual, physical
What is it that makes me realize I’ve become John? Perhaps it is Waldo’s kicked-donkey, helpless look, the way he leaves without making eye contact. Perhaps the dribbles I see on his chin: he has been unable to keep his mouth closed. Or maybe Paul’s comment, a reality check:
“Yissis, hey, but you have only two settings. Either you let them walk over you, or you donner them until they can hardly walk anymore.”
As Glen grows into young adulthood he hears the calls to violence and sublimation of Black South Africans coming from the white supremacist society around him and the Apartheid government. In part, Glen’s growing awareness of his sexuality–gay in a society that views homosexuals as deviants and subversives–helps him begin to break out of the cycle of oppression into radical activism that seeks topple destructive and corrosive regime. In order to do so, he first needs to plunge into worlds very different from his own.
You can pre-order The Jack Bank at Amazon or get it from your local bookstore. Oh, and tell your library to stock it!