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18 March 2018 14:06 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Will the real Oscar Pistorius please stand up?

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

Oscar Pistorius’ time on the stand is bringing out the pop psychologist in many of us. Of course, we’re never likely to get anywhere close to the “real” Pistorius from watching him testify, or hearing the evidence led in his prosecution or defence. The former seek to portray him as an angry, narcissistic, responsibility-shirking gun fiend; the latter as a humble, religious, respectful young man. Neither version is likely to be wholly accurate. By REBECCA DAVIS.

There’s a piece currently doing the rounds which suggests that murder-accused Oscar Pistorius is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. It’s not written by a trained psychologist, but that hasn’t stopped it being shared enthusiastically. The piece seems to have struck a chord with many who feel fundamentally distrustful of Pistorius’ emoting on the stand. The majority of these, it must be said, appear to have pre-judged him guilty of premeditated murder.

Narcissistic personality disorder is defined as “a condition in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance, an extreme preoccupation with themselves, and lack of empathy for others”. Among the symptoms are a reaction to criticism with “rage, shame or humiliation”, “unreasonable expectations of favourable treatment”, and a need for constant attention and admiration.

The article does quote two people who are trained psychologists, however, who had some pretty unflattering things to say about what they discern about Pistorius’ character from his time on the stand. Clinical psychologist Leonard Carr, in an interview with Jacaranda FM, described Pistorius as “quite a performer – his whole life has been centred around performance”, and suggested that Pistorius’ WhatsApp exchange with Steenkamp revealed that some of the tensions within their relationship may have stemmed from Steenkamp not being a sufficiently appreciative audience.

Carr pointed out that there was an apparent gulf between the media reports of Pistorius’ pre-trial behaviour – out partying, on holiday with his family in Mozambique, possibly acquiring a new girlfriend – and the broken, repentant soul we see on the stand, testifying to constant nightmares and anguished thoughts.

It’s important to note, though, that some of the media articles of Pistorius’ carefree post-shooting lifestyle have almost certainly been overblown, if not downright false. To give one example, the Pistorius family took Rapport and City Press to the Press Ombudsman over a story published on 30 June last year. The article claimed that Pistorius had been seen entering an Audi dealership to buy a swish new car, accompanied by people that the article insinuated were bodyguards and a new girlfriend. Juicy stuff: playboy Pistorius on the hunt for a flashy new car, with a new woman on his arm just four months after the killing of Reeva Steenkamp.

But the Ombudsman largely upheld the Pistorius family’s complaint, as did the Press Council on appeal. It appeared that Pistorius did indeed buy an Audi, but not the one suggested by the story. The “bodyguards” and “girlfriend”, more significantly, were found to be male and female relatives of Pistorius. “I agree with the Ombudsman that the inaccurate publication unfairly tarnished [the] respondent’s public image”, Judge Ngoepe ruled for the Press Council.

Based on what Carr described as an “extensive analysis” of the WhatsApp exchanges between Pistorius and Steenkamp, Carr said also that he believed that Pistorius was “exceptionally emotionally superficial”. While one would be wary of disputing the findings of an expert, it seems a somewhat baldly-stated diagnosis on the basis of a few WhatsApp messages, especially as Pistorius has testified that he was more at ease in emotional discussions carried out over the phone rather than textually.

Carr went on to describe Pistorius as vain and image-driven. There does seem to be a fair amount of evidence suggesting the latter – or at least that Pistorius was concerned with maintaining a certain image in order to maintain his lucrative endorsements. Steenkamp was clearly aware of this, given that she messaged him to ask permission to wear an outfit that she said she had only worn a few times before, and never in front of the media. His instruction to Steenkamp not to chew gum because it didn’t look good on camera is also an indication of his awareness of aesthetics.

Pistorius would have been aware of the example of a sportsman like David Beckham, whose earnings from endorsements – together with a glamorous partner – have far exceeded those from his sporting career. Forbes reported last year that Beckham donated his entire last $5,3 million salary from football team Paris Saint-Germain to a children’s charity, which he could afford after banking $42 million from commercial endorsements.

“As a sportsman, you are a brand”, Pistorius once said.

Pistorius also said something intriguing in court on Wednesday, along the lines of: “The more famous I am doesn’t mean the more money I make”. He seemed to mean that a high profile alone was not a guaranteed money-spinner: only in combination with the right kind of image. It was for this reason, he said, that he didn’t want the story of the Tasha’s shooting reaching the media, because the media might “misinterpret” it.

We already know that Pistorius is hyper-sensitive about media coverage, from an interview he gave to South African woman’s magazine Sarie just before he shot Steenkamp. In it, he said that whenever journalists wrote inaccurate reports about him, he made a note of it in a “little black book”. Now, of course, the Pistorius family has no choice but to assiduously court the media for positive coverage; on Wednesday, Pistorius’ aunt Lois was heard asking a journalist when the Afrikaans press would come and sit near to them in court (rather than near to the Steenkamps).

Psychologist Carr went on to suggest that Pistorius was covering up a “deep sense of shame” about his disability. Carr’s evidence for this seemed based on Pistorius’ testimony this week that when he wasn’t wearing his prosthetic legs – when he was training, for instance – he preferred to have them stuck away out of public sight. Carr also suggested that Pistorius’ gun was “another prosthetic extension of himself”, which might seem quite a reach, though we have heard that Pistorius kept his gun unusually close to himself for someone who didn’t work in the security sector – including bringing it off land on to a boat at the Vaal River while he went swimming.

Carr highlighted Pistorius’ relationship with God as also noteworthy because of its apparent focus on “what God can do for him”. Christianity is clearly a major priority of the Pistorius family, with the Twitter feeds of siblings Carl and Aimee prominently featuring Bible verses and expressions of religious fervour. Pistorius said on Monday that one of the things he liked about Steenkamp was that, as a strong Christian, Reeva “would pray for me every night” – though he did not mention whether this gesture was reciprocated on his part.

It was also interesting to hear the testimony of witness Johan Stipp, when he found Pistorius weeping over Steenkamp’s body: “He said at one stage, while he was praying, that he would dedicate his life, and her life, to God if she would just only live”. We can’t know the precision with which Stipp recalled Pistorius’ exact words, but there’s an intriguingly proprietary aspect in promising someone else’s life to God on their behalf.

Pistorius’ language use on the stand has also been interesting. While the state’s Gerrie Nel seems to be taking every opportunity to use the phrase “when you shot and killed Reeva”, Pistorius seems to be at pains to avoid it, possibly on instruction from his legal team. He appears to prefer the phrase “I took her life”, either because it seems somehow softer or to lack an explicit legal dimension.

More than once, Pistorius has made reference to the fact that he himself is “fighting for his life”, or that his “life is on the line”. It’s easy to understand what he means metaphorically – South African prison does not offer a great quality of life, unless you are the Waterkloof Four - but it seems a possibly insensitive rhetorical choice considering that he literally ended the life of a woman whose family is in the courtroom.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it may also be a workshopped line. About two weeks into the trial, Pistorius’ uncle Arnold approached Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June and told her: “Like you, we are trying to fight for a life and a life lost”. To attempt to draw some equivalence between the situations of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp would seem more than slightly inappropriate to some. But there’s always Gerrie Nel to put matters straight. When Pistorius told Nel that his “life was on the line” on Wednesday, Nel shot back: “And Reeva doesn’t have a life anymore”.

Hardcore cynics have suggested that Pistorius’ emotional displays on the stand are all an act. We can’t know for sure, but if so, Pistorius must be one of the finest actors of his generation, as anyone who has had to sit within earshot of his unearthly howling can attest. But of course, the fact that Pistorius may be experiencing emotional pain and turbulence does not make the fact of either his innocence or his guilt remotely more or less likely. There is also a self-pitying streak to Pistorius’ testimony: his reference to his tiredness and the pressure he is under, as well as his stated fear that the hypothetical intruders would “take me – or us”.

Yelled at by Nel on Wednesday to “take some responsibility”, Pistorius burst out: “I’ve taken responsibility, by not wanting to live my life but waiting for my time on this stand to tell my story”. It suggests that he sees his year waiting for trial as a form of sufficient penance. Yet the challenging of his bail conditions to restore his passport, his right to train and race and drink alcohol, also suggests that even this was undertaken under duress.

Nobody can be expected to behave “normally” when they’re staring down a 25-year prison sentence, so speculation as to what Pistorius’ authentic character is actually like based on his courtroom behaviour must remain in the realm of the firmly speculative. That won’t stop any of us reading into it heavily, of course.

The person whose character is largely absent from the courtroom, however, is Reeva Steenkamp. The WhatsApp messages sent from Steenkamp to Pistorius represent the only evidence we’ve really seen about what Steenkamp was actually like. For all his protestations of their loving relationship, Pistorius has yet to tell the court much about what he liked about Steenkamp. We haven’t heard any testimony from Reeva’s friends, or from her family. In some ways, the most important person in this case is an absent centre. DM

Read more:

  • Oscar Pistorius – what his performance may prove about his mental state, on
  • Oscar Pistorius – Hero or Hooligan? on News24

Photo: South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius (C) leaves court after the 4th day of cross examination during his ongoing murder trial, Pretoria, South Africa, 10 April 2014. (EPA)

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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