I was pretty shocked and numb about gender violence before this story broke. Then the Oscar and Reeva story was all over the media (in case you’re living on Mars, the double amputee athlete shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day) and I was poring over the newspapers. This post is one attempt to make sense of it.
Of course many men commit violent acts, and a lot of these violent acts are directed towards women. Athletes are no different from other sportsmen and paralympic athletes equally so. But there was something of the Cinderella aspect about Oscar. I think we wanted to believe that miracles can happen. That people can overcome huge obstacles and not pay the price that so often comes with success. Part of our shock, apart from the fact that another beautiful young South African woman is dead at the hands of her South African male partner, was the sheer enormity of the gap between the images of hero and villain. Oscar was, in the stereotypes of the media, a ‘super cripple’. A phenomenal athlete and an inspirational example for others. Now he is just another fallen sports hero, a ‘terrible warning’ of what can happen if you mix guns, aggression, fame and fortune.
Of course I am speaking from the available reports and it could still be proved that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Perhaps it really is true that Oscar thought that Reeva was a burglar and so shot her four times through the bathroom door. But given Oscar’s history, the reports of shouting and domestic disputes, it is just not believable.
Last week I was blogging about Anene Booysen and wondering how South African society would react. I am relieved that our society has reacted. There have been marches, silent protests, countless radio interviews, media articles. There seems to be a wave of righteous indignation that has reached far and wide. Even in our quiet corner of the Cape, our principal addressed the whole school on Friday on gender violence and led a minute’s silence. We were all encouraged to wear black for the day. And other consciousness (and money) raising events have been planned.
I’ve realized that Anene Booysen’s story has come to symbolize the fate of so many South African women who are victims of gender violence. And then along comes the Oscar and Reeva story and we are shocked and saddened even further. If it was still possible to imagine as middle class South Africans that we are somehow different from the ‘masses’ out there, then this story should have made us think again.
The media loves celebrities and Oscar was a much-loved celebrity. Yes, we knew he was a bit of a jerk but to fall to this level? Many South Africans identified with Oscar. He symbolized the plucky spirit of our young democracy. Just as our rugby team could win the World Cup (twice) and we could produce a world leader such as Mandela, so too could we produce a ‘triumph-over-adversity’ story such as Oscar’s. But as Justice Malala commented at the Guardian, Oscar’s fall is also our fall. If he can give into uncontrollable anger, what about the rest of us? His ‘craziness’ can make us confront our own demons.
And what about Reeva Steenkamp? By all accounts she was an intelligent, beautiful young woman with a promising career ahead of her. She had been dating Oscar for under three months. How can she suddenly lose her life just like that? What does this mean for South African women generally? Are South African men really that dangerous?
I was watching the SA versus Pakistan cricket test on television this weekend and the cameras frequently showed members of the crowd. Every time they focused on a pretty young woman I was reminded of Reeva. I wondered what those women made of what happened. Was it my imagination that everyone seemed more subdued than usual?
In our adolescent psychology group last week we were talking about knowing yourself and my co-facilitator was teaching them about Johari’s Window. The diagram below also provides a handy tool for discussing relationships.
I can’t help wondering about Oscar and Reeva’s relationship. Does the report of recent loud arguments between the two indicate that they were in the process of discovering the ‘hidden’ aspects of each other’s personalities? And what about the concept of the “shadow”, the unconscious parts of ourselves that both we and our partners are perhaps initially unaware of? As the relationship deepens, those hidden parts inevitably come out. And if one of the partners has a history of aggression, then this could help to explain aggressive outbursts, intimate partner violence and even extreme violence such as shootings.
These were some of the lines of thinking that were triggered by the Oscar-Reeva story over the past few days. Of course we bring our own projections and experiences to these stories. My own research into anger, aggression and violence is salient here. And, from a psychology point of view, it is interesting (and disturbing) how often the trail leads back to experiences of shame. It is relatively easy in Oscar’s case to speculate on the hidden shame of his disability. As I say, this is all my speculation. But the story is too important for me to leave alone.