Kharys Ateh Laue

Mark Behr in the Fault Lines


On November 29, after months of silence, I received the email from t. Kharys, dear. Mark passed. Last night. /t

t: the man I fell in love with at a small liberal art college in America and afterwards had such trouble learning to unlove.

Later, I realised t was wrong by a day. Mark Behr, the South African writer and apartheid spy, died of a heart attack in Johannesburg on November 27. He had been in my time zone, not t’s.

It was 2015. At the time I was living in a small apartment above doctors’ rooms in Makhanda, days away from submitting my Master’s thesis. I rose and walked to the window and stood looking at Beaufort Street for a long time. Then I returned to my desk and reread t’s email.

There were two words I didn’t know what to do with. The first was “passed.” The second was “dear.”

* * *

I met Mark Behr in 2012 during my exchange at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. That semester he was teaching his Queer Theory class, one of the most popular courses on campus. Although it was full, my course advisor suggested I go see him. Our shared nationality, she said, might work in my favour.

Mark was big, big in stature and personality. One obituary describes him as “charismatic,” another as “charming and challenging.” But, above all, I remember his laughter. Deep, resonant, expansive. Something like an embrace.

When he heard my accent, he was overjoyed. His laughter took up the whole room. “My class is indeed full,” he said. “In fact, it has a waiting list two feet long, but I’m going to make an exception for you.” Then something in his expression altered. He paused, looked at me closely. “Are you religious?” he asked. I laughed. “No,” I said. He nodded. “Good. So you’re fine discussing cocks and cunts and fistfucking and the like?” I met his pale blue eyes without flinching. “That’s fine,” I said. “That sounds great.” And I was smiling, though I had no idea what fistfucking was.

* * *

On July 4, 1996, Mark Behr delivered the keynote address at a conference in Cape Town titled, “Fault Lines: Inquiries Around Truth and Reconciliation.” He was working at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo at the time and had flown in from Norway for the event. His paper was called “Living in the Fault Lines,” and it was no ordinary address. It was a personal confession of betrayal.

A few weeks before this, Mark met a group of friends from his Stellenbosch days. It was here—over dinner and drinks somewhere in Cape Town—that he first told the story of his betrayal to those he had betrayed. Did he plan it beforehand? How had he known when to speak? Did he call for quiet, or had it happened naturally, one word leading to another? And when he finally spoke, what words did he use? Certainly not those he would later use at the conference.

He says it, and saying it is like stepping off a very high building. He falls and falls. At first, there is silence, and then there is sound. Some of his friends rise and walk out (the house, the restaurant, the bar), and some of them stay. Those who stay let him speak. Sometimes they inquire after a detail or request clarification, but mostly they listen. They watch every movement of his hands, every expression in his face.

Then, with the sun rising and birds in the windows, they tell him to go public. Only with a public confession will they be able to forgive him. The whole country must hear him, and then they will decide.

* * *

When t and I met in January 2012, he was nineteen and I was twenty-one. “We were too young to meet each other,” he said a year later in an emailed voice recording. “We were too young. Too young.”

I first saw him in Mark Behr’s Queer Theory class. He was a striking man. Tall, athletic, watchful. A fine square jaw, green eyes. He introduced himself to the class in his rich Louisville accent, and he was very serious. It is a quality he has carried into his early thirties.

A week later, we met in the dining hall. It was near closing time and I was eating alone. I saw t come in. He disappeared into the buffet area and reappeared with a tray. When he saw me at the far end of the room, he paused. Imagine he sat at my table, I thought. And then he did it. He walked past four empty tables and stopped at mine and said, “Mind if I join you?” It is the only time in my life I have ever glimpsed the future.

See what happens when a boy dares to break his habit and sit next to a girl at dinner? Two people’s lives can be altered for ever and ever, always. (Email from t, July 2012)

Rereading t’s emails all these years later, I am struck by the literary quality of his prose, his blending of the spare and the excessive. Not even I, whose writing at the time was extravagant to the point of melodrama, would have used that phrase for ever and ever, always.

* * *

In each other’s company, t and I discovered a sheer, heady joy. “Time is of no consequence when I’m with you,” he texted a week after our first meeting. “Hours fly by and I’m not in the least concerned.”

If you are happy, I am. Or it would be truer to say I am unhappy when you seem unhappy. (Text from t, March 2012)

I’d really like to think of us as something that only happens now and may happen later. But it’s difficult to achieve that psychologically. I’m going to miss you. (Text from t, April 2012)

I was staying on campus in a room with a mentally ill girl. Almost every object on her side of the room was pink. Bedcovers, mat, lampshade, eraser. She was always slamming the door and often came in fuming, wild, shaky. One night she had an episode. She rose abruptly from her desk and, in silence, began picking up books and hurling them across the room. After that, I seldom slept there. I went to t’s instead.

t ran for hours every day. He would come in slick with sweat, his eyes wide, his body taut. At night his legs shivered and jumped against me, as if even in sleep he was running. Running, always running. Six months after I left America, he was still running.

Kharys, miles to go before sleep. I have run more than ever. I get lost in the music in my ears, the smash of my heels on the turf, the stitch that must be fought off in my side. I run like I’m running from something, something that could kill me, or an idea that is me. Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat feeling at my knees—it was a dream, only a dream. I can still run. (Email from t, November 2012)

Later, I discovered that the phrase miles to go before sleep was from a poem by Robert Frost. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep. I felt somehow betrayed, as if the concealment was intentional, an act of plagiarism or untruth.

But what does it mean to use these word—betrayed, concealment, untruth—in an essay about a much graver betrayal?

* * *

At the opening of the 1996 “Fault Lines” conference, Mark Behr walked to the front of the hall and stepped up to the podium. He was usually comfortable in front of audiences, but that day was different. That day, his hands were shaking, he was struggling to breathe.

He began to speak. He spoke about his novel The Smell of Apples. He spoke of memory, trauma, lies. And then he came to his point. “It is with the profoundest imaginable regret,” he said, “that I acknowledge that as a university student I worked as an agent of the South African security establishment.” He cleared his throat, looked at his papers. “From the end of 1986 to 1991, I received money for reporting mostly on the activities of the student organisation NUSAS at the university of Stellenbosch. In 1990, I brought this to the attention of the ANC in Lusaka and from then, until the end of 1991, I gave the ANC whatever information I gained access to.”

He further described the spying he had done for the apartheid regime. He explained what had driven him to it. He recounted how he had arrived at this moment, now. Then he asked for forgiveness.

Afterwards, some forgave him and some didn’t. There is such a thing as the unforgivable, said those who didn’t.

* * *

I soon realised why Mark’s classes were so popular. He had a talent for speaking, an ability to articulate difficult ideas in clear, vivid language. And his classes were events. They were spectacular, filled with his huge voice and laughter, and they were controversial. In one class, he had us chanting “penis” while he opened the door to make sure our voices travelled the length of the corridor. One of my notes from this class: “Deshame and demystify the penis and vagina.”

My Queer Theory exercise book is full of such pronouncements. I made more than a hundred pages of notes during his class, and now, as I leaf through them, I am beginning to grasp his preoccupation with the question of language. How we are shaped by it. How it functions as an instrument of power. And what it means when we refuse to use it, when we are silent.

Language is a broken instrument. It cannot reveal the truth. Alternative? Fluid, wide-open, provisional language. (Notes)

One afternoon, Mark came to class agitated. An Afrikaans family had asked him to support their application for asylum in the U.S., and, all day, he had been dealing with a non-stop stream of emails and phone calls. “But asylum on what grounds?” he asked, raising his hands. “Racial discrimination, they say, white genocide. All rubbish, of course.” He shook his head and laughed. “They know I’m Afrikaans and they know I’m a writer. If they knew the rest they’d never have asked.”

I can’t recall when or how Mark told us he had worked as a spy, but I know he did speak of it. Did he also claim that he had turned double agent? I seem to remember something of the sort, although that part is not at all clear.

Language doesn’t reflect reality, it constructs it. Our ways of seeing are determined by language. The body as text. (Notes)

Mark mentioned the Afrikaner family again a few days later. “I declined to support their application and so now there are threats,” he said. “They’re saying I’m a traitor to the Afrikaans people.” He fell silent for a time. “You know, I’ve been called a traitor before. I can’t seem to shake the epithet.”

Cannot maintain an ethical position by remaining silent. (Notes)

* * *

Now, ten years later, I sit poring over Mark Behr’s confession speech. I am looking for evidence that he travelled to Lusaka and confessed his activities to the ANC before the end of apartheid. That would show courage. That would demonstrate transformation. That would prove he was willing to risk his life in pursuit of forgiveness.

He does not give the exact date of his visit. However, he does imply an approximate date. “Directly after Magnus Malan’s astonishing claim in Parliament about Anton Lubovski’s [sic] political affiliations,” he writes. “I left South Africa under a pretence and consulted with the ANC.” Malan made the false claim that the anti-apartheid activist Lubowski was a Nationalist spy on February 28, 1990. A few weeks before this, on February 2, President F. W. de Klerk announced his reforms to Parliament. He unbanned the ANC, lifted the Separate Amenities Act of 1953, and announced that political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, would be freed.

What did Mark have in mind by emphasising Malan? Is it possible that, intentionally or unintentionally, he was directing attention away from the fact that he disclosed his activities to the ANC after de Klerk’s reforms?

I do not like this evidence. I do not like it at all. I send a lengthy voice-note to Mike Marais, my MA supervisor and mentor, describing the course of events that led to Mark’s trip to Lusaka. What was the political climate at the time? Was it still chaotic, uncertain? Mike’s response is unequivocal. “Sorry to complicate your life, Kharys, but it was quite clear at that stage that the apartheid edifice was crumbling.”

If we take Mark at his word that he left after February 28, he would have known the apartheid regime was on its knees. He would have known that, with the ANC unbanned and political prisoners soon to be released, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing collapsed. And, as a spy, he would have known he was in danger.

* * *

Mark’s classes shaped my and t’s relationship. The readings he assigned and the ideas he spoke of showed in the seams of our conversations, our text messages, our conflicts.

“You don’t have to shave for me ever,” t texted me one day. “You can have forests under your arms and it would not matter.” Later, he told me he liked my pubic hair. “Most American girls shave it off,” he said. “But I don’t want to feel like I’m sleeping with a child.” The next day, I shaved myself to the skin, not because I wanted to look like a child, but because I needed to rebel against his approval.

I blame men. I blame myself. I think oppressive systems tend to create oppressive institutions. When I walk around this campus, I hear men talking like they’re hunting for flesh to eat or mount. Half-cocked children trying to prove who can pee the farthest. (Text from t, March 2012)

One day while we were lying in bed, I opened t’s hand and pressed mine against it. “You have small hands for a man,” I said. His hand closed, his face closed. I knew I had done something terrible, but I didn’t know what.

We never shouted at one another. Instead, we exerted silence. We knew how to withhold ourselves and cut deep with the withholding. “I feel like you use the threat of leaving as a political power tool,” he texted me. And then, in another argument three weeks later: “No is better than silence.”

I have brought more than one person to tears with silence. But never t. t was more expert in that art than I was.

For hours after my remark, he would not—or could not—talk. When at last he did, it was to speak of his father and the expectations of manhood. He had spent his life trying to fill this thing called “man” and still could not fill it. I had shown him that much.

He wrote a short story and gave it to me for feedback. In it, a woman opens the hand of her lover and measures its size against her own. “You have small hands for a man,” she says.

I baulked. “It’s us,” I said. “You’ve written about us.” I meant there wasn’t enough fictionalising. Too much of me and him. But it may also have been that I just didn’t like how he had written me into words.

* * *

In John Fowles’ novel The Magus, Alison leaves her lover Nicholas and does not look back. In a letter to him, she writes, “Remember I walked all the way down the street and never once looked back. I knew you were watching. Remember I did this and I love you. I love you so much that I shall hate you forever for today.”

When t dropped me off at the Louisville airport, I, too, did not look back. I, too, wanted him to remember it.

That moment of leaving, that supreme effort of will, taught me very well how to leave men. No tears. No words. No looking back. I have done it many times since.

To know I will never find someone like you again. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. (Unsent email to t, July 2012)

* * *

Nic Borain, who employed Mark Behr at the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA), never forgave Mark for his betrayal. Eight days after his public confession, Borain wrote an article in the Mail and Guardian, “The Smell of Rotten Apples.” The byline: “Prize-winning author Mark Behr’s confession that he was a police spy is an audacious attempt at seduction.” Borain goes on to argue that “the sincerity of Mark Behr’s confession is doubtful” because, among other things, he has “preempted any possible criticism by exhaustively criticising himself.”

What makes Borain’s argument difficult to take seriously is its inaccuracies. He claims that Mark Behr “addressed himself to a conference of people interested in writing, where he was the star speaker, rather than the ex-Stellenbosch students he had betrayed and the anti-apartheid activists on whom he had spied.” And yet, Mark states in his speech that, before the conference, “hours and, in some instances, days of discussions” took place between himself and those he had “most directly betrayed.” Borain also states that Mark “revealed to close friends he was only coming clear because he was going to be named as a spy by a witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Who are these friends? And how can such a statement be verified?

In her essay, “Telling ‘Free’ Stories? Memory and Democracy in South African Autobiography Since 1994,” Sarah Nuttall quotes Borain approvingly. She concludes that, for Mark Behr, “the conscience of memory may be less at stake than the fear of exposure before the TRC in the present.” Since she cannot be sure Mark was not driven by “a burden of guilt,” Nuttall frames her argument as conjecture.

She is right that the fear of exposure may have been what drove Mark to confess. But surely the same could be said of all confessions. If every confession may come from fear of exposure, and such a possibility precludes forgiveness, then no confessor would be entitled to forgiveness. What does this mean for the act of confession?

During a call with my mother, I mention Borain and Nuttall’s refusal to forgive Mark. “You have to remember that spies were the most reviled people of the apartheid regime,” she says. “We all hated them.” She would know. She was a friend of the late anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett, who died in detention in 1982 after sixty-two hours of torture.

Pearlie Jobert, a friend of Mark’s and former NUSAS member, did forgive Mark. Her language in a 1996 Press Association article is striking. “I will have to forgive Mark,” she says—as if contained in the envelope of confession is the obligation to forgive.

* * *

At the 2013 National Arts Festival, Mark Behr took part in a conversation with Mbongiseni Buthelezi called, “Apartheid Wars, Families and Fiction.” As I page through an old festival program, I am struck by the date of this talk—July 4. Exactly seventeen years earlier, on July 4, 1996, Mark gave his “Fault Lines” confession speech.

If he mentioned this painful anniversary, I do not remember it. In fact, I remember very little of the talk, except that it finally brought home the horror of what Mark had done.

Later that evening, I met Mark for a glass of wine at the Rat and Parrot. Was he thinking of his confession speech while I talked about my Master’s thesis? Because it may have been then that I spoke of my first tentative ideas for an MA: to study race and gender in contemporary South African fiction, focusing on notions of surveillance and responsibility. But I am not sure of this now.

What I am sure of is that I spoke of my relationship with t. The silence, the longing, the despair.

In terms of ‘that part’ of the conversation, Kharys: move on. I promise you there are magnificent fish in the seven seas, many of whom are simply waiting for you to hook them. (Email from Mark, September 2013)

I was struck by this email. Struck not because it changed the way I felt, but because a writer like Mark had offered up such a hopeless platitude. He knew I knew there were other men out there. But none of them was t.

* * *

For years after returning from America, the first thing I did when I woke up was check my Gmail. My emails to t—essay—length narratives about my courses at university, my friends and family, my daily routines—mostly remained unanswered. When he did reply, his emails were brief, stripped of emotion. This withdrawal enraged me. And yet what stands out to me now is not my rage so much as the stiff, formal language into which I forced it.

I wonder that I continue writing to you, with such minimal reciprocation, with only the merest gesture of acknowledgement. I am not asking you to tell me stories—I do not demand or expect anything. Understand, though, that I am losing sight of you. (Email to t, July 2012)

But sometimes there was an email from him, and seeing his name, knowing I was about to read his words, was like a blow to the chest.

I go through fits of wanting to write you, then long periods of obdurate silence. Both feel like the right sentiments. (Email from t, June 2012)

Every other day seems to bring surprising thoughts about you and I, as members of the same sentence. (Email from t, August 2012)

I wanted to think I could do it without you, that I didn’t need you, but I do. For now, though, I’ve got to figure out a way to do it without you here. Your last emails suffocated me with the thought that you weren’t living without me. I didn’t respond because I thought you needed to feel, again, what it is like when I am not there, what it is like when I can’t help. You don’t need my input, you don’t need my presence, you don’t need me. (Email from t, November 2012)

* * *

In the emails Mark Behr sent me between July 2012 and October 2015, he was generous with his affection. Perhaps because he was, as he put it, “a raging queer,” he knew his warmth would not be misunderstood. Love, Mark / A huge hug, love, Mark / Love, hugs, kisses, Mark. And, when I was shortlisted for a scholarship, Big hug, big kisses, huge pride, great delight! Other names he went by in his emails to me: The Behroness, Ursus, Ursula.

Towards the end of 2013, I was making preparations for my Master’s thesis. In an email to Mark, I mentioned the possibility of using The Smell of Apples as one of my texts, citing “the hole in the floor of the protagonist’s room and the dynamic of surveillance there.” But now I find myself interested in other themes. Betrayal and disillusionment, for instance. Also, forgiveness.

The story follows Marnus, the Afrikaans first-person child-narrator and his friend Frikkie, both of whom are shaped by, and perpetuate, the racist patriarchal ideology of the day. The novel builds to the horror of the scene in which Marnus witnesses, through a hole in his floor looking onto the spare room below, his father raping Frikkie.

There is surely such a thing as the unforgivable. And I wonder if Mark, in his novel, was exploring an instance of this. Does Marnus’s father commit an act too abominable to be enclosed by forgiveness? Though perhaps one cannot talk about forgiveness in this context, since Marnus’s father, unaware that he has been seen, does not ask for it. But, say, after a different course of events, his father realises he has been seen and does ask forgiveness. What then?

Does forgiveness have a breaking point, a limit? And, if so, who decides what acts are too weighty for it?

* * *

In his confession speech, Mark Behr implies his involvement as a double agent. He also states in the author’s postscript that he “compiled an extensive inventory of [his] activities as a spy,” and “declared himself willing to appear before the Commission.” In the same postscript, he adds that he requested his “so-called handlers in both the ANC and the SA police to add to or dispute anything contained in the inventory.”

Nic Borain dismisses all this. “There is no version of the truth,” he writes in a 2013 article, “in which Behr underwent ‘a process of political radicalization’ or ‘turned double agent’ and spied on the South African government on behalf of the African National Congress—or any similar heroic, tragic nonsense.” Borain knows this, he says, because he was “connected to the underground structures that dealt with Behr.”

And yet surely Mark’s claims were verifiable. It seems unlikely that he would have risked his literary and academic career, and any future credibility, by stating deliberate untruths at a conference on truth and reconciliation. As Mark himself says, his words are “more broken and more suspect than others,” and therefore subject to more rigorous scrutiny.

I email t. Does he recall Mark referring to this part of his history? If so, did he ever mention that he was a double agent? Though t has been regular in his correspondence of late, he does not reply to this email. His silence looms large and I don’t know how to read it. It is, as always, illegible.

* * *

The only piece of creative writing I sent Mark Behr was a thinly veiled short story called, “The World After.” A woman named Christine falls in love with a man named Tom while travelling through a foreign country. Their last night together is not a good one. While Tom reads Camus’ The Plague, Christine lies in bed remembering their relationship. “Ever since she asked him the question, he has been unaccountably angry with her. He will not forgive her.” The question she asked: “Do you love me?”

When Tom drops Christine at the airport, she does what I did. “As she walks towards the sliding doors, she does not stagger and does not weep and does not call out his name. Nor does she look back to watch him go.”

Mark Behr was gentle with this overwrought short story. “Dear Kharys,” he wrote. “[A]n excellent piece. I’m just wondering what it means to end the story in dialogue, especially his apology. I’d have a few sentences or a paragraph of her alone after that scene.”

He would have known the story wasn’t fiction. Again, he was telling me to move on. He was asking me to write the scene in which I stand alone, free of t.

* * *

Midway through 2014, I did fall in love again. I was stunned. For a long time, such a thing did not seem possible, and yet there it was: the joy, the awe, the reckless yielding.

* * *

By the time Mark Behr died, contact between t and me was irregular. He had not used the word “dear” since our time together in the U.S.. When I had most wanted that word, most needed it, he had withheld it. Now it rang false. My reply was brief.

That is a terrible shock. I was in contact with him two weeks ago and we had planned to meet up while he was in South Africa. Thank you for letting me know. (Email to t, November 2015)

For the first time since I had left America, t’s response did not take weeks or months. It took hours.

Since our first meeting, [Mark Behr] has been with me, leaving impressions on everything I see, everything I own, each word I use. And, more than anything, I take solace and comfort in knowing that you tell of my proximity to him. He brought us together, after all. An accident, of course, but something that feels much more like an intentional, life-affirming gift. (Email from t, November 2015)

* * *

All these years later, our relationship has settled into something manageable. For a long time, I tried to dislodge t’s silence and make him speak, but now I am content to leave it intact. Such stillness no longer disturbs me.

I hope you’ll forgive me for struggling to be as forthcoming as your writing has encouraged. Or, if not forgiveness, I hope for understanding, which you often had—and maybe still have—in excess. (Email from t, February 2021)

It’s been years since I felt any anger towards you. No need to ask for forgiveness. (Email to t, February 2021)

But perhaps what I should have said was, “I forgive you.” Just like that, in those simple clear words. For I wonder what it means to withhold forgiveness. I wonder what it means to deny a person this thing, this ultimate acknowledgement of our human capacity to transform, for both the one who asks for it and the one who refuses to give it.




Kharys Ateh Laue is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. She is the author of Sketches (2023), and she has written for Pleiades, Isele, and Brittle Paper. She is the senior editor at Botsotso and currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town.