The Jack Bannk
The struggle of The Jack Bank is less one for self-discovery than it is a journey in spite of it. Glen Retief is writing from a world of racial, political, religious, and sexual oppression, a world that inspires discrimination through violence. As a gay man, Retief is unable to break free from this cycle. The discovery of his sexuality, discovered by most of his childhood friends in games of rugby and war, is kept from him. In his memoir essay “The Castle”, Retief builds a metaphor out of the dormitory in which he is housed for his first year at the University of Cape Town. In the castle, Retief’s discoveries collide. It is the first time he is free from the perverted hazing of John and from the Catholicism of his mother, open to explore himself. But it is also the first time he is exposed to the minorities the South African government has oppressed for so long. It is the first time he is given the opportunity to engage with “nonwhites as equals”, a new chance to explore the other side of the Jack Bank and forge a new identity for himself.
Given the walls of his new castle, both mental and physical, Retief takes the gift of distance from John and his Jack Bank and uses it as a modem for understanding and internalizing the meaning of the beatings. The memory of the Jack Bank fills him with “sickening dread” but also a confusing “exhilarating eroticism”. This understanding only leads to further doubt, confuses his sense of bravery and cowardice and stirs up the beginnings of his homosexuality. The castle, his college dormitory, became a site for his new identity, a place where he could explore himself in search of discovery.
His first challenge in the castle comes with his jockish roommate, Bill, a boy who both lounges in the nude and beats gays who hit on him at the bar. After Bill’s fight, the words “queer” and “sick poofter” are trapped in his head. He sees again the cycle of violence that the Jack Bank created in is future, a fear that one day he too will “clobber the weak” to make himself feel better. This presents Retief with a new need to bury his identity, to prevent his own self-discovery. The alienation he suffered in Krugar National Park at the hands of his perceived difference, his preference for the Lord of the Rings and nonviolent sports like tennis over rugby and war, is renewed amidst the whites of Cape Town. Here, he is surrounded by rich whites, asking him what he thinks of Venice or Paris, how he likes caviar, how much he has traveled. As a student at the University purely by his own merit and not his cash, Retief finds little in common with them. His differences are expanded. This isolation drives him further into himself, presuming to drag out discovery.
Yet, from here Retief meets Aubery and his journey of self-understanding is misdirected. Living in D flat, the residence segregated to blacks, he meets Aubery, a student who asks him the most important question of his life: “you really don’t understand yourself, do you?” This truly is the fact the dominated the strain on his sexuality, but here the racial importance in The Jack Bank becomes significant to Retief’s discovery. He identifies with the “black man”, with Aubery and his cronies. Retief flashes to John’s abuse, remembers how John called him a “waste of white skin” and takes on the identity of blacks, understanding this to be the reason for his difference and not his sexuality. He though that it wasn’t being “and English boy in an Afrikaans village” or a “country boy in the city”, it was a new and different system of values that set him apart from his culture. In a way, he was correct in setting himself apart from his culture, understanding that he was a minority, but he was deluding himself in aligning himself with the oppressed blacks, much as he would with Cecil years later.
Here, Retief’s sexual identity has been covered by his identification with the black struggle and the sexual and political collide. He becomes absorbed by black life, forgoing white culture for his new friends. Weirdly, he visits Aubery’s mother, herself a housekeeper like the ones employed in his village back home, representing a certain penetration of minority culture. Unsurprisingly, he is taken be a culture that, according to Aubery, could never have anything like a Jack Bank. A culture that, in fact, would be the victim of the Jack Bank. In a way, Retief has created an identity for himself that is as much a victim of Jack Bank society as he was to John in high school. At this stage of the memoir, Retief is still running from self-discovery, punishing his true identity with a few more deposits into the Jack Bank by rejecting his true nature.
Retief’s alliance with the racial element of South Africa still affects him on a sexual level, threatening to draw him out into the light. Aubery brings him to drunken debauchery, to seek women at bars and prostitutes on street corners, a brutal attempt to bring forth Retief’s sexuality into the heterosexual world. Retief’s realization of his homosexuality seems to take a backseat in this essay to his attempt to fit in with some heterosexual avenue of society. Both he and Aubery seem to want this for him, yet in the beginning, Retief hides behind the morality of Catholicism to protect himself from venturing into a sexual awakening. Instead, he retreats within himself and hides his homosexuality to everyone, even himself.
This essay is one of protection, of hiding from self-discovery, of building a castle of false identifications to prevent the truth from manifesting itself. “The Castle” becomes a barricade of lies, a construction that makes Retief black, Catholic, and straight. The events of this memoir provide no real discovery for Glen Retief, they do, however, show through later to be a side effect of the Jack Bank. The beatings he received in boarding school take on new meanings here, manifest themselves into something to hide from. They bend him straight, force him to hide behind false identities. Only later does he realize that these were delusions that kept him away from true discovery.