The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood


The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood


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A mesmerizing, powerful, and deeply moving memoir about one coming-of-age against a backdrop of a subcontinent in transition, Glen Retief’s THE JACK BANK explores what it was like for a privileged white boy to grow up in a pitiless society. His unflinching story of South Africa in the late 1970s to early 1990s explores not only issues of race and sexuality, but abuse, violence, and retribution. Some of the adults Retief trusted most were warm to him but brutal to the rest of the world. A family friend who taught Retief how to use police lingo on toy walkie-talkies turned out to be Dirk Coetzee, the most notorious South African death squad leader, who later confessed to killing hundreds of human rights activists and dumping their bodies in crocodile-infested rivers. The government military-style boarding school that Retief was sent to was the scene for tender and sweet love, but also for stints of severe hazing and outright torture. The title of the book comes from dormitory life at the school, where an older student charged with supervising younger boys invents the Jack Bank—where “jacks,” or beatings, can be “deposited” and tapped to escape the next cruelty session. Retief explores the jack bank as a metaphor both for the way apartheid worked—young white boys were dehumanized, so they’d turn into vicious oppressors—and as a window into the human condition, where violence so frequently seems to earn compound interest. Retief reveals enthralling images of his family life in the Kruger National Park, where his father worked as a conservationist. In one gripping chapter, he and his siblings are held hostage by a lion while camping, as their helpless parents tell him to sit still. Later in the book, at college, Retief’s struggles with his place in a violent society are complicated by a growing realization that he is gay—an inner conflict that, paradoxically, provides him with philosophical clarity. Of particular historical interest in The Jack Bank is Retief’s description of his years successfully lobbying the liberation movements to ban homophobic discrimination in the postapartheid Bill of Rights: the first country in the world to do so. But The Jack Bank isn’t just about a world being turned upside down. Retief is interested in the human heart, its conflicts and yearnings. In the book’s riveting conclusion, he writes, “At some level, of course, this is not important. . . just one more horror story in this collapsing country, this world full of [jack banks].”

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St. Martin's Griffin

The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood