Tales of 'gay-fixing' doctor's dagga past

Former Independent Newspaper journalist DICK USHER remembers the day he interviewed Aubrey Levin and then went to get a picture of him at his Durban home

Aubrey Levin, now there's someone I thought I'd never hear about again. Levin made himself a few South African headlines some years ago over disclosures that when he commanded the psychiatric wing of the military hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte he tried to "cure" gays with electro-shock therapy and experimented with drugs on conscripts who refused to bear arms.

I'm sure there was also some later nastiness at Addington Hospital while he was there.

Then he scooted off to Canada to continue practising and lecturing in psychiatry where last week he was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse of a patient

He first swam into my ken when, as recently appointed head of psychiatry at Addington Hospital, he wandered into the Sunday Tribune newsroom waving a dissertation for which the University of Pretoria was about to award him a doctorate. And, as it was about the psychological effects of dagga abuse, based on his observations of ganja-using troopies during his time in what was then the South African Defence Force, and as I was the acknowledged Tribune fundi on dagga, he got sent my way. It must have been around 1974 .

I had problems with the dissertation.

Levin claimed subjects who smoked more than 400g of dagga a week tended to display paranoid tendencies.

Now, 400g of dope a week sounded an awful lot to me. In those happy days smoking was permitted everywhere and a lot of people were given to smoking home rollers and it was quite an ordinary sight to see large packets of rolling tobacco sitting on desks. Many people smoked heavily but nobody managed to get through 400g of tobacco a week - even smoking all day and most of the night.

"So, tell me Dr Levin," says I, "how do you get people smoking 400g and more of dagga a week.?

"Aha," says Aubrey. "We ask them how many "stops" a week they smoke and estimate a stop at 10g. So if someone uses 40 stops a week then he's using 400g."

"But 10g is a mighty big stop. And, anyway, there's all the seed and stalk that you throw away," I said.

"But you could smoke it if you wanted to," says Levin.

"But you don't," says I.

"But you could," says he.

And so on.

Considering what later emerged about his military career, it's also possible any troopie going near him for treatment would have exhibited paranoid tendencies - even without the benefits of any dagga.

Anyway, the story gets written and chief sub-editor Brian Parkes decides he'd like a nice head-and-shoulders photo of Levin to go with it. So Peter Duffy and I pop off that evening to see Levin and snap a quick pic.

He is this short, squat, froglike creature, with a splendid- looking wife and both are over the moon about having his picture in the paper.

"Just a quick head and shoulders," says Duffy, lining up his camera.

"No, no," says the wife. "He must wear a suit."

They dart off to the men's dressing room - or whatever - where a long debate ensues about which suit to wear: the brown one, the green one, the grey or the blue...

All this is fascinating to Duffy and I. In those days some journalists were lucky to own two pairs of trousers - let alone a wardrobe full of suits.

They finally emerge with Levin resplendent in a blue suit and red tie and we think we're all set and can get back to the normal journalistic evening pursuit of quaffing a few ales, but, no.

It seems the academic gown is also necessary.

"It's just a head-and-shoulders," Duffy reminds them, but out comes the gown anyway. And then there's the question of the mortar board.

The mortar board!

It comes complete with tassel and this inspires another lengthy debate. Where does the tassel go? Down the back, down the front (good option, this, because it obscures Levin's face), to the left, to the right?

And still we're not ready.

Levin ducks out of the room again and returns with his officer's sword.

On the mantelpiece of the living room are ranged several polished brass shells presented to him for his time in the defence force.

Then, equipped with suit, tie, gown, mortar board and officer's sword, he arranges himself in front of the mantelpiece with one hand on the pommel of the sword and the other arm lovingly cradled round the shells.

And this is the oke who's in charge of psychiatric services at Addington Hospital.

It was decided, however, to drop the sword, as it were.

It did occur to me at the time to ask how much dope you had to smoke to induce such strange behaviour, but decided to let things lie, allow Duffy to pop his pic and get out of there as swiftly as possible.

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