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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Real and More Sinister Dr Shock

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

As a novelist, it is tempting to embrace the above quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson with a resounding “Yes!” Partly because fiction reduces complicated issues, developments and events to more human proportions, allowing the reader to more fully identify with the impact ‘reality’ has on individuals. And partly because ‘reality’ has begun to shift increasingly towards second-hand experience in the form of unvalidated information that bursts from our screen whenever we type a term into our browsers. But let me tell you something you don’t know.

Dr Shock – I was recently prompted to reassess this interplay of fact and fiction when I was alerted to an article on charges of sexual assault brought against Dr Aubrey Levin in Calgary, Canada. Dr Levin, now 71, moved to Canada shortly before the apartheid regime was dismantled. In the preceding decades, he headed the psychiatric ward at the main military hospital in South Africa, at Voortrekkerhoogte near Pretoria. He later became the apartheid government’s head of mental health. In those years, he earned himself the nickname Dr Shock by initiating various forms of ‘therapy’ that were intended to ‘cure’ homosexuals and other ‘deviants’, such as drug users and conscientious objectors, of their ‘afflictions’. The array of therapies included electroshock aversion therapy, hormone treatment, truth serum, and various other questionable methods. (For further details, please check the links at the end of this piece.)

Charged in Calgary – After South Africa gained democracy in 1994, Dr Levin refused to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was formed to hear the testimony of the victims and henchmen of apartheid. Dr Levin never faced trial for his work as ‘aversion therapist’, although a number of his victims did give testimony before the TRC. On arrival in Canada, Dr Levin soon resumed his practice as a psychiatrist in Calgary. He even lectured at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. In fact, Dr Levin regularly served as a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist in Canada, assessing the status of convicted criminals before sentencing. Dr Levin is alleged to have sexually abused some of the men in his care during these sessions. (Again, please check the links at the end of this piece for further details.)

The Big Stick – I have a special interest in Dr Levin because one of his henchmen features in my latest novel, which was published as Zacht als Staal by Nijgh & Van Ditmar in the Netherlands in 2010 and will be published in English as The Big Stick by Jacana Media in South Africa later this year. The novel tells the story of Staal Nel, a young gay man raised in a conservative Afrikaans family on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Staal’s family goes to great lengths to ‘bend Staal straight’ and, at wit’s end, they eventually decide to have Staal undergo aversion therapy with Dr Wynand Greefswald, a specialist working for the South African defence force.

Dr Greefswald does not exist. He was moulded on the basis of statements by South African men who suffered at the hands of Dr Levin and his henchmen. Many of Dr Levin’s victims were interned and ‘treated’ at the Greefswald military detention barracks, which was located in what is now Limpopo province, on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. And so the place became the man.

Facts, Fiction, Truth – As I was ploughing through news articles and reviewing testimony on Dr Levin, I constantly had to remind myself that, while the information seems to speak for itself, it only becomes evidence or truth when it has been rigorously tested. Fortunately, there are still institutions – legal, scientific or otherwise – that do their utmost to gather, validate and present conclusive evidence. Unfortunately, the manner and language in which these facts are presented by fact-finding institutions is often far too dense and expansive for the average reader to consume and comprehend. And to make matters worse, the outcome of such fact-finding missions is not always conclusive or, in the case of the social sciences, often ends with the phrase: “…further research is required to confirm…”

So perhaps Emerson is right. Perhaps fiction does reveal truth that reality obscures. But I also believe that every reader should decide this for her/himself. I have therefore posted Dr. Greefswald’s full, fictional statement from The Big Stick below, followed by a series of links to news articles on Dr. Aubrey Levin and testimony from those who suffered at the hands of Dr. Shock and his henchmen.

That said, I feel I should warn more sensitive readers that the ‘facts’ are a lot more sinister than the fiction you are about to read.


Chapter 19 – The Big Stick

“Obedient men have the blood of millions on their hands.”

(Unknown prisoner, Berlin)


Statement by Wynand Greefswald, former SADF aversion therapist

I’d only just graduated when I arrived at Voortrekkerhoogte. I did three months’ basics like everyone else and then they posted me straight through. I went down on my bare knees and thanked God that I hadn’t been sent to some infantry camp with idiots who can’t even tie their own laces, let alone shoot in the right direction. All I wanted was to finish my two years in the army without burning my fingers. That’s why I did my work with great precision and carried out orders to the letter. I didn’t want any trouble and I definitely didn’t want to get transferred to Kimberley or Phalaborwa or some other hell-hole.

When I arrived at the detention barracks of the army hospital they were using masturbation therapy on homosexuals. But they were also experimenting with hormones and aversion therapy. It was all a load of rubbish, in my humble opinion. And that masturbation therapy was quite messy, if you catch my drift. What it boiled down to was the guys had to jack off while they viewed gay porn. They were encouraged to swap the gay porn for hetero porn just before they ejaculated, giving them a more appropriate stimulus to come to. Well, you can imagine that no one was really keen to keep an eye on masturbating men playing porno shuffle. So that was given to them as homework, in addition to other forms of therapy. They were all keen to toe the line, because they wanted to get out of detention barracks as quickly as possible. And some of them really wanted to be cured of their deviance.

As I said, the army was also experimenting with hormone therapy. Which was quite dangerous, because there wasn’t really any solid empirical evidence that it was effective. Anyway, the commanding officer told us to form a small experimental group, who actually didn’t know they were getting hormones. We were ordered to tell them that they were vitamin shots. At the time, I informed the CO that hormones were quite risky and that the group was actually too small to draw any real scientific conclusions from the results. But the CO had gotten the order to try every means at his disposal, and we carried out his orders. What it boiled down to was that the guys were given male hormones so that they would develop a more manly, heterosexual balance. But within a month, one of the guys began developing abnormal physical symptoms. So we stopped the hormone treatment and eventually closed the programme down.

Actually, we had the most success with aversion therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sadist, but pain can get down really deep into the brain and can have all sorts of effects. The problem is that pain and fear are partners. Pain teaches people to be afraid of certain kinds of behaviour, which they then try to avoid. But it was my belief that homosexuality wasn’t so much the problem. It was fear. That was the problem. The fact that two men want to satisfy each other isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as they keep functioning properly. Within the military context, of course. We even had a whole platoon of elite commandos who were almost all homosexuals. That wasn’t a problem. In fact, a platoon like that can be quite impressive and pretty scary, because no enemy will rest easy knowing that they’re going to be raped first before they are shot, you understand?

So fear is the problem. And the sensitivity, the shyness, the lack of aggression that often goes with homosexuality. I repeatedly brought this up in meetings, but we kept getting orders to continue with the aversion therapy, the electroshock treatment. Look, I didn’t want any trouble, as I said before, so I just kept using it on our gays. But I didn’t get any enjoyment out of it, you understand?

I clearly remember the kid. Mainly because he hadn’t come in via the normal procedure, which meant we had to treat him differently than the other troopies. Our CO was friends with the kid’s brother, or something. They’d fought in Angola together, helped each other through thick and think, life and death, blah, blah, blah. So we had to work overtime in the weekend in exchange for a long weekend pass. That made it easier to bend the rules a little. And I knew the kid would probably end up with us anyway, when he was called up for the army.

He was like a lamb going to slaughter. He was standing vomiting next to the car, so I went up to him and tried to put his mind at ease. It told him we were going to help him so that he could live a normal life. All rubbish, of course, but the wheels were in motion. I had heard that he liked music, so I arranged a cassette recorder and some tapes. I also borrowed some comic strips here and there, and I told the orderlies to give him sweets and cool drinks. I even toyed with idea of not treating him at all, but I knew what would happen if anyone found out. We weren’t too popular with the orderlies, because they thought we had too many privileges, so I couldn’t take the risk that they would inform the CO.

So I checked things out first and then decided to adjust the treatment because I thought it was sad to give this poor kid the full voltage. He was so jittery and sensitive that he started screaming even at the lowest voltage.

The treatment was quite simple, really. You stuck electrodes on the patient’s forearms. Those electrodes were connected to a little generator with a power dial that ran from one to ten. The patient was given black-and-white photos of a naked man and asked to fantasize about him. Meanwhile, we gradually turned up the power. As soon as the patient started screaming or otherwise indicated that it was all too much, the power was turned down and the black-and-white photos were replaced with a full-colour Playboy centrefold of a luscious lady, who I would then describe in the most positive terms.

This process was repeated three times every session, if possible. We did a total of two sessions with the kid, but he couldn’t take the pain, as I said. So I changed the treatment the next day. Instead of gradually turning up the voltage, I let him fantasize for a bit and then hit him with a big shock. But he fainted and messed himself, you know? So that was all pretty useless, because you need them to view the positive stimulus, the centrefold.

Because he lost it, we gave him a shot of sedative. Then I called his brother, who came and picked him up that same day. The kid sat on his bed in a kind of catatonic trance all day, but he broke down completely when his brother walked in. I offered the brother a couple of our straight porn pics to take home, but he didn’t think it was a good idea, because he thought the kid might leave them lying around, you know? Which would have caused all sorts of problems.

I remember I was about to go back inside – we had helped take the kid out to the car – when the brother called me and asked if I could give the kid another shot of sedative. Which I did, because he was sitting there like a frightened rabbit on a highway.

That’s all I remember, really. I was just doing my job. Carrying out orders. Can I go now?


Links to articles on Dr Aubrey Levin and to testimony from men who suffered at his hands

Public barred from psychiatrist’s sex hearing
(The Calgary Sun, 1 June 2011)

‘Doctor Shock’ charged with sexually abusing male patient
(The Guardian, 28 March 2010)

Apartheid Military Forced Gay Troops Into Sex-Change Operations
(The Gully, 25 August 2000).

Chapter 3: Extreme Measures Used by the SADF to Cure Gay Soldiers in the 1970s, and Unofficial Glimpses of Gay Acceptance in the Army in the 1980s
(R. Sinclair, University of Johannesburg, date?)
Note: This academic paper was my primary reference for Dr. Greefswald’s statement in The Big Stick.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 19th, 2011 @01:52 #

    I know I've been less that active on the debating front recently, but doesn't anyone have anything to say about this? He cried plaintively...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 20th, 2011 @01:24 #

    Very much want to comment. Give me a day or so, I have a tender and four deadlines for tomorrow...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 20th, 2011 @11:50 #

    Very glad to hear it, Helen. Wishing you well with those deadlines.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    June 20th, 2011 @12:23 #

    Richard, it is a piece that deserves comments. But right now I'm imitating a chicken with head cut off. But I've hit like in hopes somebody more sane will come by.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ben Trovato</a>
    Ben Trovato
    June 20th, 2011 @13:53 #

    Nice work, Richard. I've just finished a screenplay based on what went down at Greefswald. Wrote it in collaboration with a friend who was there in '72. Also spoke to several other former "inmates" of Ward 22 and the Wald about their experiences. Looking forward to your book. People need to know about Dr Levin, that twisted, cruel, perverted abomination of a man.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 20th, 2011 @15:54 #

    How odd, Tiah, that that "somebody more sane" should prove to be Ben Trovato, whose news I find utterly intriguing. What a coincidence that we've been tackling such similar topics simultaneously, Ben. The Big Stick will be out in November, deo et jacana volente. When will the movie be out?

    I'm actually in the very early stages of a budding relationship with a Dutch producer, who may be interested in turning Six Fang Marks and/or The Big Stick into a movie. It'd be great to pick your brain on this, although I fully realise how messy that could get...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 20th, 2011 @16:43 #

    Richard, your "fiction" is quite mild compared with the grotesque facts... I'm glad you and Ben-T are addressing this insane chapter in our history, because it's been so comprehensively ignored. One of my housemates had to leave SA precisely to avoid the fate you describe here. A little-known fact was that if you were an officer (necessary if you were to practice as a chaplain, doctor or social worker while doing compulsory army service), and it was found that you were gay, you were stripped of your rank and dispatched to muck in with the troepies, unable to use your professional skills. Like I said, insane. Who knew that homosexuality could cancel out a MBChB? After leaving the country, my friend contracted a rare form of cancer and died 1000s of miles from home. It still makes me sad and angry.

    And in other news, this seems a good place to announce to all BookSA friends and fiends that Jacana has asked me to copy-edit a certain manuscript I persist in referring to as "Buns of Steel". I am thrilled to bits. Look out for it in November, God willing and Helen able. This is going to be great fun, and with luck, it won't ruin a beautiful long-distance friendship.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 20th, 2011 @18:28 #

    And such tragic, forgotten histories abound, unfortunately. Such a sinister coincidence that Dr Levin should resurface at this time. Although I'm not sure if Ben's film wasn't prompted by Levin's earlier arrest. Whatever the case may be, I can't help wondering whether the men who were subjected to these grotesque practices will welcome this long overdue attention.

    Glad and proud that you'll be helping me kill my darlings, and convinced that it will add metal to the concrete of our friendship, or sumfink.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">JeremyActon</a>
    November 1st, 2011 @22:37 #

    I have found my way here as a result of my research into the history of Dagga prohibition in South Africa (I am the leader of the Dagga Party of South Africa) , and along this pathway, I have come across the horrors of Greefswald, the TRC hearings, Project Coast, and Dr. Aubrey Levine.

    Firstly, a technical problem: the link to "Chapter 3: Extreme Measures Used by the SADF to Cure Gay Soldiers in the 1970s, and Unofficial Glimpses of Gay Acceptance in the Army in the 1980s" above doesn't load. I MUST get a copy of the document, so if you can forward me the pdf(s) that comprise this document, I'd be most grateful. Send it to

    In addition to now seeking justice for the SA gays and and concientous objectors who suffered at Levin's hands, I am also trying to find out more about Levin's dagga experiments and other experiments on dagga users, which apparently took place at Greefswald. I am also trying to find details of the secret fields of dagga and the extraction of THC by the Apartheid State for the manufacture of dronabinol, which was exported overseas for HUGE profits while ordinary citizens were prosecuted and jailed for dagga possesion.

    Any assistance or info or contacts you might have to share re Greefswald, dagga, the dronabinol programme, and Aubrey Levin's dagga-related studies would be most welcome.
    Jeremy Acton


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