Honouring victims of torture

When they came for me: The hidden diary of an apartheid prisoner by John R. Schlapobersky, reviewed by Dr Libby Nugent.

In the winter of 1969, John Schlapobersky, a second-year university student, was arrested by the South African security police for his opposition to Apartheid. He was then tortured, detained and deported. This book is a testimony of what happened to him during this period, and acts as witness to both the worst parts of human nature and the most beautiful aspects of soul, community, family and relationship.

I approached this book with a degree of trepidation. I was aware there would be description of torture and was not relishing being taken to dark places. However, Schlapobersky offers a slow stepping into this part of the story, reassuring the reader of his thriving family life. By the time I arrived at the central piece, his diary, I felt cognisant that this is not an account of retribution or voyeurism but a space that invites connection and understanding. This is achieved by Schlapobersky’s meticulous inclusion of everyone in the story. Everyone matters. Schlapobersky’s generosity in offering details of all he encountered shows how their lives interweave, and that these experiences happen by, within and to communities.

There is insight into the historical context Schlapobersky is speaking from. His family were not new to the horrors of supremacy and oppression, and this embodied understanding and the savvy insight of his family was very likely the reason he was not killed.

The ‘diary’ itself is an approximately 100-page account of his 56-day interrogation, torture, solitary confinement, negotiation, release and deportation. As expected with a trauma experience, the narrative functions in two realms. The majority of the physical account is constructed from memory of intermittent blocks of time, supported by some written recordings. This is matched with a highly detailed landscape of intense feeling. The combination is immersive and deeply moving. I found myself humming along to Simon and Garfunkel lyrics; crying at a quote from Ecclesiastes, and horrified at the sudden realisation that the guards were trying to kill Schlapobersky via a coerced ‘suicide’.

A moving epilogue underlines the understandings he has taken from his experience at the hands of an authoritarian state. As a renowned group psychotherapist, in 1985 Schlapobersky helped establish a London based organisation: the ‘Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture’ (now known as ‘Freedom from Torture’).

First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

When they came for him, Schlapobersky had people to speak out on his behalf. That is why he survived. But many in his situation did not. The majority of torture victims do not survive, which is why this book is so necessary and important. In writing his memoir, Schlapobersky speaks for those who have been killed and honours them. He also writes for those who are being tortured, detained and deported right now.

- Reviewed by Dr Libby Nugent, Clinical Psychologist and Group Work Practitioner of Group Analysis

Read an interview with Schlapobersky’s daughter Hannah Sherbersky, a family therapist and psychologist, via thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/december-2021/family-story

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