McIntosh Polela has written a startling, alarming memoir of his upbringing. But it is also an absolutely riveting read – once started, it is virtually impossible to put aside to be finished later on. By J BROOKS SPECTOR
Polela has one hell of a tale to tell. His life begins in what he remembers as a five year-old’s idyllic existence in a township near Durban, until he and his younger sister are unceremoniously uprooted, carried away and handed off to unknown relatives for a more Hobbesian existence way upcountry.
It is as if Polela has gone from being the pampered little prince to being the object of scorn in a rural KwaZulu-Natal version of Lord of the Flies – except that his agonies seem to never end. The adults – and, most specifically, his parents, despite his increasingly urgent, ardent prayers - never reappear to set things right again. They can’t, of course, because his father has killed his mother.
My Father, My Monster is a non-fictional version of the Bildungsroman – a story of survival, growth and education. In thinking about Polela’s narrative, there are inevitable comparisons to be made. Most obviously, there is a South African work like Don Mattera’s Memory is the Weapon. Then there are classics like The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (America’s most notable out-of-slavery chronicle), Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, Ulysses S Grant’s Memoirs, George Orwell’s early writing like The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia – and even films like Good Will Hunting and Antwone Fisher.
If My Father, My Monster is ever turned into a film, it will almost inevitably be compared to these two films by virtue of their shape and substance. As one early review of Antwone Fisher noted: “Hollywood is notoriously adept at punching emotional buttons that send a lump into your throat and make your eyes well up. But when was the last time those Pavlovian responses were connected to a lode of emotional truth volatile enough to resonate long after the movie was over?”
My Father, My Monster delivers many of these same waves of emotion – but directly from the printed page. Though there are many similarities, interestingly, the most telling difference is that by contrast to the main characters in both films, Polela must be both patient and psychiatrist.
As in Polela’s own harrowing journey from his bewildering, brutal childhood to his life as a man who has finally come to terms with his past, the common thread with other such stories is the author and main character’s movement from his state of innocence to one of experience and understanding. Actually, for Polela, it is more than just simple understanding. It is a greater self-awareness about his true nature - and what he must do to overcome what life has thrown at him so far.
Perhaps it is not so far from what Aurelius Augustinus (later, St Augustine, of course) had written in Confessions at his moment of self-awareness in thinking about his behaviour as a teenage fruit thief: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing.”
At first, Polela seems to be moving crabwise through his childhood and teenage years. The narrative is a record of remembered hurts and inexplicable agonies – and he seems trapped in a cage, unable to break free. He gains a bit of traction going forward, but then he must quickly shuttle sideways. Then there is the need to find a way around yet another obstacle. Polela doesn’t wallow - his life is what it was.
Polela himself has described his story, by saying, “This is my journey from about the age of five, when my sister, Zinhle, and I were moved from a life of relative opulence in Durban to extreme poverty in rural Underberg, in the Southern Drakensberg. Here Zinhle and I experienced brutal abuse. I found myself at that young age having to shoulder the responsibility of protecting my sister, while we waited for years for our parents to come and rescue us. But they never came.”
Pulled suddenly from his gauzy, comfortable existence at five, McIntosh was suddenly forced to make sense of a social Darwinian nightmare at an age when most of us have not yet finished first grade. He herded cattle, was bullied by every other child his age and above because of his soft, city ways, he was reduced to wearing rags and he was constantly hungry. He says he was so cold in winter that to get a few minutes of warmth he would curl up in the space where the cows and oxen had just been laying in the grass - just to extract a bit of warmth from the ground.
But at crucial moments along Polela’s journey, like a real-life Oliver Twist, Polela gets unexpected help via serial deus ex machina interventions from kindly adults – black and white - who take Polela under their respective wings at crucial moments in his life. This is presumably because they see the possibilities of the finished sculpture lurking within Polela’s as yet unshaped clay. At one point, a white couple running a trading store in the rural KwaZulu hinterland offers help to Polela and his sister with a form of adoption. In another moment, a nun warms to him (and he to her) when he helps her find her way and she compliments his English. In this she restores his confidence in his ability to become more than just one more aimless township youth.
Or as Polela explained it: “I was walking by aimlessly on a dusty street after having been disowned by my extended family for getting involved in politics. Sister Margaret von Ohr was looking for directions to the local school. She insisted that I walk with her to the school. It was during these fifteen or so minutes that she asked me about my life and insisted that I return to school. She gave me a job as a gardener at the local Catholic mission. She was also the first person to say I was good at something. She complimented me on my command of English. Having been abused so much and being told I was stupid almost on a daily basis, I felt it was my responsibility to repay Sister von Ohr by immersing myself in my books. Sister von Ohr’s actions saved my life.”
While he was at university, as things looked at their bleakest for him, individuals reached out with financial help. There were also crucial bureaucratic interventions as he found his way through an education at the Durban Technikon and the London School of Economics. Opportunities arose in the world of commercial television news.
Most recently, Polela has moved on to become spokesman for the Hawks special investigative unit of the police in South Africa. Except for the fact that there really is a McIntosh Polela, given the many turns where so much might have gone wrong but didn’t, one might even be willing to believe the whole thing was made up for the sake of narrative sizzle.
In describing his journey, Polela grows in his capabilities of looking inwardly, as he gets older. From the bright primary colours of childhood – this happens, then that happens, then, bam, yet something else happens, Polela begins to examine what it all means. Along the way, he begins to lead that life of self-reflection and develops the kind of introspection that allows him to be both the main character and the external chronicler of his growth trajectory.
In a true to life “pay it forward” philosophy, Polela argues: “My own experience taught me altruism. A contribution, however small, can change someone’s life. Something as small as a compliment, or reminding someone that they are good at something, can help lift their spirit and coax them to take another step.”
A key subplot in Polela’s story is how he begins to enter the intertwined worlds of crime and political activity, becoming an amateur but increasingly skilled armourer for teenaged ANC activists who are fighting their miniature but deadly combat with Inkatha Freedom Party counterparts. Again, when things could easily have spiralled out of control for Polela, “fate takes a hand”, as it says in Casablanca, and guides him back on to a path that has a future.
But throughout his narrative, Polela’s goal to be reunited with his parents hardens into a different kind of resolve. He needs to come to terms with the truth of his mother’s murder, to locate his father, to extract the sad truth from his relatives about what happened, to confront his father – and then finally to carry out cleansing rituals to allow him to let go of the ghosts in his past and the anger buried deep in his memories.
Polela himself has described his approach, saying “I thought that writing my story was going to help me put the past behind me. But it made it all very fresh. It’s almost as if it happened just the previous day. But at the same time I found that writing my story gave me some release. It heals me having to talk about it so often to so many people since the book came out.”
To speak with McIntosh Polela, now that his book has been enthusiastically embraced by readers and reviewers, is to find a thoughtful young man trying to understand the nature of the intense anger carried by so many other young men in South Africa today. Like most of the rest of us, Polela is at something of a loss to explain why they carry this around – and then too often act upon it – or why he has found a way to confront all the wounds in his own life and move beyond them and why others can’t.
Though he has no crisp, ready answers, he is increasingly convinced it is crucial for South Africa to find those answers before things spin out of control for so many others who have not been as lucky as he has been. DM
My Father, My Monster by McIntosh Polela (Jacana, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4314-0160-4)
- McIntosh Polela in conversation with Janet van Eeden about his memoir My Father, My Monster at Litnet
- My Father, My Monster - McIntosh Polela, a review by Michele Magwood at Bookslive website
- What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? at the New Yorker
- Antwone Fisher (2002); A Director And His Hero Find Answers In the Details at the New York Times
Photo: Polela's book cover