Friday, 4 April 2014

Why the story of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp reaches deep into our psyche


London Olympics 2012 (photo by Will Clayton)

We called him Bladerunner, but he reached us because he was like one of the androids that the bladerunners hunted down: those doomed, beautiful creations that are more intensely human for being incomplete, crafted using both bionics and what can be stolen from other animals, so they are not handicapped, as others are, by a frail human body. When Pistorius runs, he appears not to touch the ground. His jaguar blades glide above their earthly shadows.
Now we see a new Pistorius, but no less startling: the man who had stunned us with his speed,  in court accused of murder, discomforts us with his preternatural, abject stillness. The Magistrate Desmond Nair, looking upon Pistorius with his blonde head bowed - a stone angel - exclaimed that he looked 'like some kind of species the world had never seen before'.
Freud recognised how both the myths that have been immortalised by great painters and poets, and the fairytales that have lived in the memories of children, provide a form of reality distilled, where we can see the confused wanderings of our own lives laid out in simple, shining paths, as we identify with the hero or heroine as they face the cruel world. Does Pistorius enthrall us not only because of his extraordinary being but because his story so perfectly fits one of our most loved fairytales? Cinderella.
In the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, Cinderella has a mother who, as with Pistorius, dies when she is a child but who is a constant presence, allowing Cinderella to overcome every hardship and obstacle. What ultimately secures her happiness, her completion, is those slippers which are gold in Grimm's version, but brittle glass in Charles Perrault's later version. No longer trapped, neglected at home, she can not only go to the ball, but once there she is no wallflower but steals the limelight with her extraordinary grace at dancing. When the prince comes to find the owner of the left-behind slipper, her two stepsisters mutilate their own feet, believing that is the only way they can fit in the slipper and so win.  Just as able-bodied athletes feared that their complete limbs ruined their chances of beating Pistorius.
Cinderella got her prince; Pistorius, his princess, who was a woman who herself had overcome  serious injury and an early violent relationship in her own Cinderella story. There the story should have ended. It is a wrench for us now to see it turned upside down. To see his palace as a fortress where, white, privileged and wealthy, he apparently lived in permanent fear of attack, in a country scourged by poverty, racism and violence.
We pore over clinically drawn plans of his bedroom, a room which days early was his most intimate space, as if this awful, real event was a game of Cluedo, and examine the murder weapons. Given far more information than we would have been allowed if this were in Britain, we become detectives, pondering whether or not he deliberately killed Reeva Steenkamp, although an additional question remains as to whether, if this was all a terrible mistake, it is right to shoot repeatedly at an intruder.
We have a deep love of watching the mighty fall, but battling with that is the desire to believe that this compelling man, in whom we have projected our own vulnerability, could not have committed such a crime. That his journey is still one of victim to - even if flawed - victor, not victim to oppressor.