By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times:
Don’t be deceived by the cute cover of Love Sex Fleas God. Sure, it contains the “confessions of a stay-at-home-dad” that it promises, and it’s worth reading for these wry, perceptive confessions alone, but it also contains an astounding story of survival and redemption.
Consider that the title of the book was going to be The Chain Locker. The chain locker is a tiny, dank chamber on board Scientology ships where the massive chains for the anchors are stored. It’s also where disobedient children are stored for days, weeks, even months, marinating in bilge, scrabbled by rats. Bruce Clark’s teenaged sister once spent three days in a chain locker. He was fortunate, he only got thrown overboard and he at least could swim.
Clark is 55 now, a wiry, attenuated man with a rough buzzcut and the grainy skin of northern genes left out too long in the African sun. His home in Melrose is comfortable, crammed with photographs and children’s art, a jumble of dogs snoozing in a sunspot. Among the many photographs are some of his mother, Peg, a copper-haired, beautiful woman. She was, by his account, witheringly funny, irreverent, glamorous even, and a “completely useless mother”.
It would be too easy to mock Scientology here; what with Tom Cruise noshing down on placentas and grown people attached to “e-meters”, it has become fruit so low-hanging as to be scraping the ground. There’s a marvellous sequence in this book when Clark describes having to shout at an ashtray as part of his training. Still, many religions look odd from the outside – just read Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, about her life in a polygamous Mormon community. She at least had a close family. Clark reserves his fury for the way Scientology hammered his.
“Mother’s commitment to Scientology overshadowed anything and everything,” he writes. “Her [four] husbands came and went, while her children grew up and scattered to the winds. The only constant was Scientology; it outlasted all of us.”
By the time he was in Grade 7, Clark had attended 17 schools around the country. With his mother constantly away on “church” business, he and his sister were raised by their maternal grandmother Meg, a gentle, broad-beamed Scot. If what psychologists say is true, that if a child has just enough love growing up they will somehow prevail, then Clark has his Gran to thank. And he does. “She literally saved my life, she was such a loving, generous person.” He has happy memories of her shaking that broad beam to Al Jolson, baking, gardening and sewing, but they were dirt poor and he was mortified by their poverty, mortified by his home haircut, his stutter and wart-crusted hands. He was bullied and jeered by his schoolmates, humiliated by teachers.
They would look forward to their mother coming home for Christmas, only to receive a letter signed “Lots of ARC” which meant Affinity, Reality and Communication, the Scientology way of saying “love”. On one or two occasions Clark and his sister joined his mother on the elite “Sea Org” ships, where celebrities are “audited”, but they didn’t last in the bizarre environment. Instead of studying engineering, as he had been promised, Clark was made to swab decks for 12 hours at a time. At 16 he was kicked off the ship for his “bad attitude”.
Cut to an embankment near Pinetown, where Clark is camping. He is homeless, virtually uneducated and starving. His teeth are rotting in his head. He is thrown out of the libraries he creeps into during the day. The cops pick him up and beat him senseless, but just as he is about to be jailed, a kind man steps in and takes charge of him. “He’s just a boy – let me take him.”
And so Clark slowly builds a life, driving trucks, selling encyclopaedias, cooking in restaurants. He survives the army and afterwards takes up the offer of a computer course. He works in IT for the next 20 years, and subsumes his fury at the world in athletics. He has just run his 18th Comrades (“Ironically, malnourishment gave me the ideal body for running”) and has been a Duzi medalist four times.
Most “misery memoirs” – and I hesitate to use that expression, as this is not a misty-jacketed account of horror endured with cheesy Band-Aid endnotes – begin at the beginning and end in the triumphant present.
In Love Sex Fleas God, Clark tips us into his current life before working back to his childhood. He’s married to a good woman, a banker, and as he had been “let go” from his job as a computer code writer (no real qualifications, too old, too white, sorry for you) he has taken on the job of parenting their two laatlammetjies full time.
He is a natural writer and an astute observer. (A ghastly New Age woman is described as “smiling with peaceful teeth”.) Any mother will recognise the scenes of early parenthood, the hollowness felt waving your spouse goodbye at the gate as they go off to be Relevant, while the day seeps away into mundaneness. Clark is afflicted by a restless, rearing questioning as he parses the notion of masculinity, his fears of mortality and the vulnerability of his children. He keeps a virulent watch on the world they live in and drums compassion into them. He despises religion, despises celebrity and is relentlessly egalitarian. “I was a full-blown bigot before I was 10. I walked around the Scientology Org where my mother worked and, whenever I got a chance, would refer to non-Scientologists as ‘f***ing wogs’. The adults thought it was hilarious.”
Clark tempers it all with delicious, pithy humour. He declaims poetry to his tiny son, falls into Walter Mitty daydreams and invents deranged fairy stories for the children. He is at once tender and droll, and what is surprising is there is no trace of self-pity in him.
It took nine months for his mother to die of cancer, and in that time they grew close. For the first time, he says, he could see past his anger to how deeply he loved her. “She was such a kind woman. She just wanted to help everyone but she couldn’t see that the people right in front of her needed help.”
In a moving scene he confronts her about her neglect and the effect it had on his life. “I wanted to be someone . I wanted to live an honourable life.” He may not see it, but this book shows just what an honourable man Clark is.