There’s been much hype about Joanne Jowell’s new book, The Crazy Life of Larry Joe. At last week’s SACAP Monthly Psychology Talk in Cape Town, the South African author discussed the two-year process of researching and writing her latest novel and, to the attendees’ delight, was joined by Larry Joe himself, whose account of his past was enchantingly mingled with soulful melodies strummed on his guitar.
While Jowell’s biography traces Larry Joe’s life from the poverty-riddled shacklands of Douglas in the Northern Cape through the drug-sodden ghettos of the Cape Flats and the merciless South African penal system to stardom on stages as illustrious as that of Amsterdam’s famous Carré Theatre, this is by no means a straightforward tale of jailbird to songbird and all live happily ever after. Jowell is emphatic that the issue of transformation, the central tenet of the novel, is by no means a linear process where conclusions come neat and tidily packaged. ‘Transformation – be it of the individual or a country in transition – is no easy task. Change is hard. It involves resisting the pull of the past, an unwavering commitment to the present and the difficult reconciliation of the two. At best, Larry’s is a story of gangster makes good and tries to stay good. It is a story realistic hope.’ It is also a realistic story on how to change your life.
The book’s subject himself relates the challenge of shedding the cloak of his former ‘selves’ in an effort to find ‘the real Larry Joe’. ‘In the early days in Douglas I was known as “Mr Order” – if you wanted something, be it a cell phone or a handgun, I was the man to come to. I saw myself as the local Robin Hood but, really, I was the town’s most notorious gangster.’
When Larry’s unscrupulous supply-and-demand business landed him in prison for the first time, his induction as a member of the notorious Numbers gang began. ‘I was literally defined by a number – the higher that number, the greater my status, the more respect I commanded.’
Still compelled to reinvent himself, Larry emerged from prison and onto the streets of Cape Town as Faizel Thompson, a mandrax addict who bedded at night under a sheet of plastic on a bench in St George’s Mall. He would spend the next seven years on these grimy inner-city streets, allowing something that resembled love to momentarily intersect his drug-induced haze and result in the birth of two children. It was only when a serendipitous encounter with a group of vagrant buskers earned him his first bit of honest money, did it dawn on Larry that it was time to finally ‘face the music.’
‘I had a dream one night that I was sitting on a stage strumming my guitar to a crowd of 150 000 people in Madison Square Garden. The feeling I had in that dream was better than anything I’d ever felt in my life. I wanted it back and I realised that the only way to get it was to take responsibility for my life. For the first time I was my own leader.’
Compelled by the stab of his newly acquired conscience, Larry returned to his birth town of Douglas where he handed himself over to the police. Once again he entered the prison system, where he would stay for the next six years. But, this time, both his consolation and self-esteem were provided for by his guitar. ‘Now, when I looked into the eyes of my fellow inmates, it wasn’t respect for my number that I saw, but something else altogether. I realised that music could be the other side of the life I’d thought I was destined for.’
Larry would release his first album while still incarcerated and, on his release, would play his signature blend of melancholic acoustic guitar all over the world before kings, queens and archbishops. In many respects, though, celebrity became yet another guise and Larry is quick to admit that facing the responsibility of ‘life on the outside’ – of what it meant to live a ‘good, clean life’ – was no walk in the park. ‘In many ways, the expectations the world now had of me and the responsibility it placed on me was the hardest thing I’d ever had to deal with.’
Today Larry spends a vast proportion of his time working with the Department of Correctional Services in prisoner rehabilitation programmes and, it seems, that only here, as a self-styled ‘change maker’ who bestows hope by way of his own real-life example, has he found some measure of inner peace. According to Jowell, Larry’s is a daily battle to resist the temptations of the past, but, she says, his salvation – however tenuous it may be – comes not from turning his back on his former ‘selves’ but in learning to integrate them into his true identity. ‘His history is integral to who he is today,’ she says. ‘If Larry was to ignore who he once was, he’d effectively be living a lie.’
And therein lies the key to effective transformation, claims Jowell: ‘Change is not about burying your past identity but rather about learning to reconcile who you once were with who you are today.’
As for Larry, while he’s the first to admit that there are times when he’s not sure from where his next meal will come, he is not lost to the irony of the fact that, by acknowledging his past he is able to live authentically in the present. He recites Mandela’s poignantly: ‘I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’
‘But,’ he is quick to add, ‘We all hold the key to our own prisons.’
Find out about upcoming SACAP Monthly Psychology Talks – which are open to the general public and free of charge.