A memoir about a gay South African man’s coming of age in the waning days of apartheid.
In his debut, Retief (English and Creative Writing/Susquehanna Univ.) recalls growing up in a middle-class world where nothing was quite what it seemed. Living on a game preserve, where his father worked as animal behaviorist, the author, an outside due to his English birth, found love, comfort and safety within the warm cocoon of his family. As he approached his teenage years, however, painful realities began to emerge. He found himself increasingly drawn to other boys, and especially his best friend Dirkie, in ways that both disturbed and excited him. Retief also discovered that his cultivated, slightly eccentric grandfather was a pedophile who thought nothing of sexually abusing the author's younger sister, Lisa. His education in the dark side of human nature reached its most horrifying climax when his parents sent him to boarding school. There, he experienced his “life’s defining trauma”—torture at the hands of a sadistic student prefect named John. The underground economy of violence implied in this brutality became momentarily institutionalized in the “jack bank,” a “treasury of cruelty” into which Retief and other first-year boys could deposit beatings and then withdraw them whenever they overstepped the unwritten rules of conduct that ruled their lives. This Lord of the Flies–style adolescent savagery was really an apparatus of apartheid, “whereby white boys [were] bullied when they were young so that later they [would] know how to beat blacks into continued submission.” For the author, victimization led to a self-destructive relationship with danger and an unconscious identification with blacks that fueled an intense desire for black men. Retief’s revelations are profoundly intimate, but making his story public is a social necessity. “If no one is ever willing to break the protective silence of what goes on in individual lives,” he writes, “how will we ever learn from each other?”
Visceral and emotionally complex—an impressive first book.