Hunting bullfrogs – The man behind My Only Story
It's Thursday, November 28. The last episode of the My Only Story podcast has just dropped and it's the morning after the night before for Deon Wiggett. The survivor/investigator/creative/artist has been up for hours finishing off the series. The loft of his suburban northern Joburg townhouse is disheveled and he's distressed that I will write about what a state it is in.
The clear plastic box with green handles which stores the index cards he speaks about in the podcast, is discarded to one side. Remnants of the year-long investigation lie scattered across his desk where he has spent hours hunting down "a bullfrog" as the predator became the prey. A Smashing Pumpkins poster stares melancholically down from the wall above.
Deon is barefoot and in floral shorts when he meets me in the driveway of his home which he shares with his husband Riaan. Ever the investigator, he had dryly joked that he would send me a series of cryptic clues to find my way there. We sit down on the patio outside where he rolls cigarettes and drinks cooldrink from a coffee mug.
I first met Wiggett at the start of the year at a restaurant in Linden to discuss his podcast idea. I got the distinct impression then that he knew exactly how he wanted the project to play out and it has gone according to plan. My Only Story, published in collaboration with News24 over the past month, has seen many other survivors of former teacher and Media24 executive Willem Breytenbach come forward. Several have signed affidavits and a police investigation is underway.
"It has been the most intense month of my life," says Wiggett, his lungs full of smoke. "But also the most meaningful."
It's difficult to describe how anxious and jumpy Wiggett is. It's not just now during the interview, but always. His legs do not stop bouncing, his hands fidget and his eyes flutter. If you've listened to the podcast, you'll know that he speaks in an awkward staccato, at times mulling each word, at others firing them off in rapid succession. He's self-deprecating and wry.
The process of exposing Breytenbach has been driven by justice, activism and art. He admits in the last episode of the podcast that it was also driven by revenge.
"I've had this compulsion to stop Breytenbach since I realised that he's still doing everything he always used to do. But I wanted to find meaning in what had happened to me. I wanted to find a way to make this mean more than just a guy coming forward with rape allegations 22 years later. Because I have a certain set of expressive skills and as an artist, I've been stifled my entire life without understanding what it is that stands between me and seeing the truth," he theorises. "I'm sounding like such a fucking wanker!"
It was the death of Wiggett's father in 2018 that set him off on this journey. He was beset by grief and debilitating depression, when he allowed the memories of his rape as a 17-year-old to resurface.
He describes his upbringing as "extremely happy" and his parents as "extremely kind". His father was a businessman in the automotive industry while his mother is an interior decorator. His sister runs a non-profit organisation. Deon was born in Port Elizabeth but finished school at the prestigious Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch. It was while he was editor of the school newspaper at Paul Roos that he met Breytenbach through the mentorship program he was running for Media24.
"2018 was about my overwhelming grief for my father but also my debilitative depression as I recalled my sexual abuse and what it has done to me. So I knew I wanted to do something about it and gradually it crystalised through the latter half of 2018 that I want to do an investigatory podcast. It was an incredibly therapeutic process."
Wiggett knew he had to find other men who could add their voices to his and he set out on a quest which saw him lying his way into the Grey College archives in Bloemfontein and sensitively approaching others who may have cross paths with Breytenbach.
"People can choose not to believe one person or two people or three but how many men would have to say the same thing until you go 'Wow, this must be true'? If everything that has happened with Breytenbach has not convinced you that he is guilty, that he has done all these things, what would it take to convince you?" he begs.
Deon felt that instead of writing a memoir or a blog, a podcast was an interesting way to approach the expose. He was considering that fundamental journalistic debate – it may be in the public interest, but is it interesting to the public?
"I wanted to talk about what happened to me and the layers of complicity that make this possible while at the same time doing it in a way that people have to pay attention because they can't stop listening."
Wiggett isn't a journalist but he is one at heart. He always wanted to be one and was one for a little while – for 15 months around 2001.
A year and three months to give up his passion
"Lots of people in high school don't know what they want to become and I never had any doubt whatsoever. I wanted to be a journalist. I love writing, I've always loved words and I love the way that words come together and shape and merge and morph and all that falls apart are syllables and then it all comes together again. Words are a phenomenal tool. You can hear the kind of thing that I'm writing by the sound of my typing. I never had any doubt about what I wanted to be a journalist. And then I met a journalist…"
In Stellenbosch he joined Die Matie where he hung out with a "gang of journalists" including News24 editor Adriaan Basson, Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser and the late Mandy Rossouw. He was going to do a Master's in journalism but instead went to work as a junior reporter for The Citizen newspaper. It took a year and three months before he gave up his passion.
"I realised that I can't be a journalist because it frightens me. I didn't know what was frightening me. I knew that it didn't make me happy. That is the weird thing with repressed memories of sexual abuse. That is the thing that makes you anxious but you don't know what that is. So you spend your life trying to find the root of your anxiety and looking in all the wrong places and making a fuck ton of unhealthy decisions along the way because you know that you are frightened and you know that you're not a bad person. But why are you scared and why do you feel like a bad person?"
Retrospectively, he has no doubt that he left journalism because of Breytenbach.
"Every day I was doing things that in some way reminded me of him without consciously being reminded of him. There was too much conflict in journalism for me. I felt extremely vulnerable and emotionally ill-equipped to deal with such an explicitly adversarial environment."
Running from the anxiety
Instead he pursued a career in advertising where he won awards and was very successful. But he was always on the move, running from the anxiety. There was a brief three-year sojourn in London but he says, he loves Johannesburg and this is home. Almost on cue, as if a sound editor had added them for emphasis to a podcast, the Hadedas in the garden screech in chorus.
"There's this dark fucking passenger at the edge of my conscience that keeps screaming in a way that I can't quite grasp," he explains. "It's not like the past 40 years of my life have been unmitigated heartache and hell. I have been happy and often."
Now on the verge of turning 40, Wiggett has in a way returned to his life's passion with My Only Story.
He has been heralded a "hero" by some. "Courageous and brave." Some may be expecting a hagiographic profile by News24 considering the coverage of the past few weeks, but I have some difficult questions for Wiggett about the way the story has rolled out. I am sure to tread carefully though, with empathy and sensitivity.
The criticism I have heard most about the "live investigation" style which he has pursued is, why didn't he go to the police first and allow authorities to investigate rather than doing it himself. It's the question he gets asked most often. He did open a case with the cops but only after the podcast launched.
"Because now there's a tried and tested method, hey!" he shoots back sarcastically. "Well why do I have to go to the police first? I mean, this is my trauma that I'm dealing with and I know that if I go to the police and lay an isolated charge that nothing will come of it because it will be a little droplet of a statistic… So my feeling was, nobody in the police has the capacity or the drive to put together this big an historical investigative operation. But maybe I can."
But what about the law and the criminal justice system?
"How did I not follow the law? The law doesn't state that I have to lay a charge before I can take any of my own activist action. People have this obsession with going, 'Oh well you must tell the police and only the police have investigative capacity'. These are the same people that go 'Oh, I bet you the police did nothing." So what do you people want me to do with the police?"
My primary criticism perhaps, is one that he addresses in the first episode of the podcast. Why does he – a middle class white guy from the 'burbs – get to do a series like this with so much attention and coverage? Has he leveraged his elitist connections in the media in a self-indulgent pursuit of his own "monster"?
'These men are everywhere'
"The entire podcast was a product of privilege," he immediately acknowledges. "I am a white middle class man. At least I'm gay so I have some 'outsiderism', but I am connected. And this is part of the point that I would like to make and part of the model that I'm trying to develop because for me, with some resources and with extremely privileged and elite connections, it has been almost impossible to catch a sex offender that is as brazen as Breytenbach. So a woman with no resources in Soweto or a high school boy from Bryanston might not have those same resources but maybe I can help because they're fucking out there and maybe someone should go for them."
"Now that I have this profile, I sincerely hope that I find the financial means to turn it into a platform. Because these men are everywhere. I know about all these other teachers now and there are people who will help me figure out their stories now. This is not just my personal vendetta against Willem Breytenbach. It's activism against patriarchy and toxic masculinity."
On whether or not the podcast series is "self-indulgent", he feels pretty strongly about that too. "The fact of the matter is people create memoirs of their own traumas all the time. There's a genre – it's called memoirs. This is my memoir and if you think I'm some privileged knob who shouldn't get to say these things, you really don't have to listen. There's 750 000 podcasts and this is just one of them. And if you're lucky it will be my only story. So, fuck off. Don't listen."
Also for the record, no one was paid for working on the podcasts, including Wiggett.
Throughout the series, he struggles with how to describe himself and by the end of it, I'm uncertain too whether he is a journalist, a survivor, an artist? He isn't quite sure but goes with "a writer and a creative". So do journalistic rules apply to him too then? And by journalistic rules I mean ethics.
"Yes, of course. Half of the study of creative non-fiction is the study of ethics. Because I don't ever want to do something that creates a wrong impression, but I have to select facts in a dramatic order in terms of collecting life into acts and beats," he says.
I tell him I don't think I agree, journalistically, with how he used a cover to get into Grey College – he lied and told the school he was working on a documentary about school newspapers – to get access to yearbooks and names of potential victims.
Wiggett is not defensive about my questions. He knows he has put himself in a very public position "but that doesn't mean that I am public goods now". He is proud of what he has achieved and doesn't know what the future holds. For now he wants to get Breytenbach out of his head. He's at risk of being retraumatised.
"I believe I get to deal with my trauma in the way that I want to and not the way that other people think I should be dealing with it. This is about activism. This is about asking these questions. Because this is not about me and about Willem Breytenbach. He's the conduit for the story. But this is about men helping themselves to boys. It's about toxic masculinity and the environment, including Media24 which enabled it."
"What I'm looking for are answers from the people around him. Willem Breytenbach will do what Willem Breytenbach does because that is what men like him do. But the people around him are not like that. They are normal people with empathy who one day decide to turn a blind eye and let something slide. And the consequences reverberate through generations."