Important: Trigger warning for child sexual abuse
The autobiographical work of Jan Groenewald hadn’t completely escaped my attention in its original Afrikaans format (Pruimboom), but I hadn’t been invited to view it, so I was delighted to be invited to attend a performance in its English version, the one translated by Clive Rodel and taken to the Edinburgh Festival.
Jan Groenewald is Afrikaans speaking and the one person play may well be better in Afrikaans. I certainly enjoyed the bits where he quotes or sings Afrikaans.
The subject matter is difficult. It deals with the age old tale of an older man who sexually abuses a pubescent and athletic lad. The hideous horror of sexual abuse of underage children is one that is all too familiar to far too many people of every generation. Modern children are trained to resist and report, but these things were swept under the carpet some sixty years ago, hidden and shameful for the “victim” (not “survivors” as these people are now known.)
The trigger warning is needed for many. It certainly triggered painful memories of my experience of “stranger danger” sexual abuse when I was six years old. I started wetting the bed again (Groenewald speaks of vomiting) and it was decided to send me to my aunt in Port Elizabeth for the holidays. There I was in the bath when two thieves broke in while my aunt and uncle were out and my oldest cousin had been left to look after us. She ran away to the neighbours with her siblings. I was left in the bath. The commotion afterwards left the image of my abuser, not two black thieves, on my subconscious. Ten years later I bumped into my abuser working on the plumbing in a neighbour’s bathroom. The police were unhelpful. I was a six year old when it happened and the passage of a decade wasn’t their idea of an easy case to prosecute. Somehow, while I had and still have perfect clarity about all three of these events, I have merged them into one “stew” which has left me unable to bath at night. This personal response is important to my perception of the storyline.
While the event of the sexual molestation and its aftermath ring true in my experience and understanding together with all its nuances of the repeated telling of the age, 13 years, 7 months and 7 days, the heart palpitations and breathing distress, the resolution of the matter into a victory for the survivor doesn’t resonate nor ring true for several reasons, not least of which is my own encounter and subsequent observations.
Groenewald lay dying at the age of 70. He needed to tell his unspoken tale to get it off his chest. Assuming that the work was written in 2016 (I can’t find when it was first performed), Groenewald would have been born in 1946 if he were 70 at the time of writing. That means it would have been 1959 or 1960 at the time of the terrible, monstrous incident.
There are two glaring anachronisms in the reported way of handling the situation. First, the Post Office savings accounts were limited as to how much money could be held in them. In the late sixties and early seventies this amount was R25 000. Surely under the older “pounds and shillings” system this would have been a much lower amount – a pound was roughly two rand? The second thing is that portable cassette recorders were not developed until 1962 and they were still large things by the standards of the later portable tape decks and the even later Walkman players. Never mind that a million pounds would be worth somewhere in the region of R500 million today, not a sum that even the super-rich have lying around not earning top interest rates to simply wire anywhere at a few hours’ notice.
The play has been beautifully scripted to lay bare a jumble of memories, much like real life. What I suspect that Groenewald has done, deliberately or sub-consciously, is relate the tale of how he would have liked to have handled things. How he gets his revenge and triumphs over the emasculating and crippling memories and the ever present shadows an event like this casts on the life of a “victim/survivor” may owe more to wishful thinking than actuality. My incredulity of the sheer temerity of the reported post incident reaction does not invalidate the work in any way – rather it adds pathos and demands compassion. I believe that few people who have not experienced this horror can truly understand how huge the scars are that this leaves in the life of the survivor or how much emotional and psychological work the survivor needs to do in order to deal with them.
With more and more people speaking out against past abuses in the past decade or two, voicing one’s experiences is vitally important. It brings its own form of healing and reconciliation. It allows us to scrutinise the event and the perpetrator for ourselves, to express our pain, suffering, anger, frustration, embarrassment and a myriad other emotions. It allows us to move on, whether in this world or the next. For every #metoo to reach out and empathise is also a form of healing. We are not alone in our memories of the abusive ordeal. One can feel this empathy in the audience. Groenewald’s story is not one which leaves one unmoved.
I am thrilled that the dying Jan Groenewald recovered to commit his experience into something that can resonate with his audiences. Thank you for sharing this harrowing tale. I didn’t notice credit given to a director but feel that this work could profit from some outside and impersonal directorial input.
Plum Tree, written and performed by Jan Groenewald, was translated by Clive Rodel. It plays at the Foxwood Theatre, 13 Fifth Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Do have dinner (it has an excellent home-cooked feel and taste) at the historic Foxwood House, built nearly a century ago for the Oates family, before the show. I attended on Wednesday 28 March 2018 and I had their delicious chicken pie prepared by a chef whose nickname is “London”. Meet with Groenewald himself after the show for discussion and a drink (they are licenced) and perhaps a quick tour of the house. It is worth seeing this gut-wrenching work and Foxwood House is a delight.