The Pistorius Disorder


Re the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, Judge Thokozile Masipa, will render her verdict on September 11. This post reflects on the influence of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders on the trial.

The court has been presented with two competing explanations of what happened that night. Either:

Years of accumulated stress caused by the amputation of both legs beneath the knee bestowed Pistorius with a capacity to respond to threatening situations in a certain way. On that fateful night that capacity was triggered by a startling noise coming from the bathroom. He thought he was in danger, an intruder was coming out of the toilet. He responded to the noise, as if by reflex, by squeezing the trigger of the Taurus PT92 9mm in his hand four times: one … two … three … four. If it was a reflex action, he lacked criminal intent. If there was thought involved at all, it was a thought of danger, he acted in self-defence. Barry Roux likened Pistorius to the ‘slow burn’ of anxiety suffered by an abused woman who had finally ‘had enough’ and kills her husband. He had no motive for killing Reeva. They were in a ‘loving relationship’. The Report by the clinical psychologist confirms this.


Pistorius shot Reeva in a jealous rage. Jealousy is a volatile combination of fear and anger. Fear of losing her. Anger at the effrontery of it. He shot her to stop her leaving him, that night, for ever.

They had a row. Neighbours heard raised voices. Just weeks before, she told him she was afraid of him sometimes. This was one of those times. She sought sanctuary in the toilet and locked the door, cell phone in hand. They were talking up to the time he killed her.

It was premeditated murder. There was no intruder, real or imagined. He knew that Reeva was behind that door and he knew the consequences for her of his armed rage. The consequences of the act for him hit home immediately his rage was satiated by her death. Immediately, the ‘intruder’ was born. Every event leading up to her death had to be rendered consistent with this improbable premise.

The pivot linking these two scenarios is the mental health of Pistorius and his capacity for criminal responsibility. To settle this matter, a panel comprised of a clinical psychologist and three psychiatrists was established . It submitted its report to the court the week beginning June 30th and it was accepted with little comment by defence and prosecution counsels.

Note, however, that to decide if Pistorius was criminally responsible for his actions when he shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp, the four learned gentlemen subjected Pistorius to a full-blown examination and what that revealed comes attached to the answer to the simple question asked of them. It is likely to have a major bearing on the court’s verdict and sentencing. It favours the defence. Here I show how by critically examining the Report.

The Testimony of Dr. Merryl Vorster

The commissioning of an evaluation of the state of mind of Pistorius was triggered by the testimony on May 12th, of Dr. Merryl Vorster, a forensic psychiatrist and vice-dean at The University of the Witwatersrand. Dr. Vorster had been asked by the defence to evaluate the mental condition of Pistorius and his likely condition at the time of the shooting. She interviewed Pistorius, his friends and family between May 2 and 7 this year, the defendant had completed five days of testimony.

The commissioning of an evaluation of the state of mind of Pistorius was triggered by the testimony on May 12th, of Dr. Merryl Vorster, a forensic psychiatrist and vice-dean at The University of the Witwatersrand. Dr. Vorster had been asked by the defence to evaluate the mental condition of Pistorius and his likely condition at the time of the shooting. She interviewed Pistorius, his friends and family between May 2 and 7 this year, after the defendant had completed five days of testimony.

She concluded that Pistorius suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and that this disorder was caused by a combination of: (a) the amputation of his lower legs when he was less than a year old; (b) his parents’ divorce when he as a child; (c) the stress of his growing fame. Or as ABC News put it: ‘Oscar Pistorius’ Shrink Says Leg Amputations Gave Him Mental Disorder’. Dr. Vorster said his actions on the night of the murder, February 14, 2013, ‘should be seen in context of his anxiety.’ She added that someone with his level of anxiety and access to guns would be a danger to society. Her testimony raised the question, Was Pistorius responsible for his actions and capable of distinguishing between right and wrong that fateful night. Or did GAD make him do it? To have this question answered, prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked the court to have Pistorius undergo psychiatric evaluation. Barrie Roux for the defence vehemently objected. Judge Masipa granted Nel’s request. Pistorius was assessed as an outpatient over 30 days at Weskoppies psychiatric hospital in Pretoria (originally the Pretoria Lunatic Asylum.)

Pistorius was examined by a clinical psychologist (Professor J.G. Scholtz) and three psychiatrists (Dr. C. Kotze, Dr. L. Fine, and Professor H.W. Pretorius). Their deliberations produced a Forensic Psychological Report (30 pages) and a Psychiatric Report (one page). The common brief of this single psychologist and triad of psychiatrists (the ‘panel’) was to determine if Pistorius, at the time of the offence: (a) suffered from a mental illness or defect such as to prevent him being criminally responsible, and (b) was capable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his act and acting in accordance with that appreciation. The short answer of all four was, No and Yes. But the long answer suggests the contrary.

There are actually two reports, then, not one; they were submitted to the court the week of June 30th. Presumably they are to be considered together, even though they reach different conclusions. Although the presiding judge prohibited their publication, they found their way on to social media and the defence belatedly blessed their release. As well they might.

The Psychiatric Report

The Psychiatric Report is but one page. It states conclusions and is silent on how they were reached. Key findings:

  1. Pistorius ‘did not suffer from a mental disorder at time of shooting’.
  2. ‘Currently the accused presents with an Adjustment Disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood that developed after the alleged incident.’ (my emphasis)
  3. He was not unable to understand the difference between right and wrong, or to act on that understanding.

This is contrary to Dr. Vorster’s testimony, in two respects: First, whereas she stated that Pistorius did suffer from a mental disorder at the time of the shooting, these three psychiatrists maintain that he did not. Second, whereas she stated that Pistorius suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, these three psychiatrists maintain that he suffers from an Adjustment Disorder.

Like all ‘disorders’, Adjustment Disorder is a creation of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a label applied by a mental health practitioner to a person who is adjudged to suffer from acute and chronic psycho-social stress to which they are unable to ‘adjust’.

The Psychiatric Report implies that the psycho-social stressor for Pistorius is the ‘alleged incident’ and his trial for being its cause, Steenkamp’s murderer. This is a rather odd kind of adjustment disorder. Who would not feel anxious and depressed about killing someone (intentionally or not) and then being tried for their murder with the prospect of spending the rest of their life incarcerated. Who would not have difficulty adjusting to this situation? Surely, to react in this way is a normal reaction to a pathological situation, not a ‘disorder’.

This psychiatric triad are able to apply this category to Pistorius only because the DSM’s criteria for Adjustment Disorder are so vague as to render the very category a dubious, discredited disorder. An ‘Adjustment Disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood’ sounds like a weather forecast; ‘thunder storms with outbreaks of sunshine and a sprinkling of scattered showers.’ It anticipates just about every eventuality. It’s a ‘safe’ diagnosis. That this Psychiatric Report disagrees with that issued by earlier by Professor M. Vorster, which diagnosed Pistorius with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, may not amount to much of a difference. The borderline between the criteria for AD and GAD is paper thin and where one draws that line is largely a matter of taste—or expediency. With one important difference. The ‘adjustment’ of Adjustment Disorder entails that Pistorius was normal on the night in question. The ‘general’ of Generalized Anxiety Disorder implies that the disorder preceded the murder.

The conceptual incoherence of ‘Adjustment Disorder’ is evident in the thoughtless imprecision of the writing in the Psychiatric Report. ‘Alleged incident’? Are these psychiatrists denying that Ms Steenkamp was murdered? Or it is simply in bad taste to be so blunt? Presumably they mean his alleged guilt, but this is hardly an ‘incident.’

The Forensic Psychological Report (Professor Scholtz)

This is a much more substantial report. (Unusually, in two places the date of the murder is stated as 14th February, 2014.) Professor Scholtz diagnosed yet another disorder in Pistorius. Key findings:

  1. ‘ Pistorius has been severely traumatized by the events that took place on the 14th of February 2014 (sic should be 2013).
  2. He currently suffers from a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and a Major Depressive Disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical manual-5 (DSM-5).
  • The degree of anxiety and depression that is present is ‘’
  1. He is also ‘mourning the loss of Ms Steenkamp.’ (p. 29).
  2. ‘ Pistorius is being treated and should continue to receive clinical care by a Psychiatrist and a Clinical Psychologist for his current condition. Should he not receive proper clinical care his condition is likely to worsen and increase the risk for suicide.’ (p. 29) Elsewhere he adds that this risk is mitigated by his Christian beliefs and close family ties.
  3. ‘No evidence could be found to indicate that Mr. Pistorius has a history of abnormal aggression or explosive violence. Abnormal aggression and violence was never incorporated into his personality, as borne out by both psychometric testing and collateral information.’ (p. 29). Pistorius is ‘respectful, gentle and conflict-avoiding’.
  • ‘There is evidence to suggest that Mr. Pistorius does have a history of feeling insecure and vulnerable, especially when he is without his prostheses. He has also been exposed to crime directly or indirectly throughout his life.’
  • Contrary to Professor Vorster’s finding: ‘He specifically does not meet criteria “D” of the DSM-5 for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, that is ‘The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.’ If his context is taken into account his functioning was superior prior to the incident in February 2014 (sic)’ (p. 30)
  1. ‘There is evidence to suggest that Mr. Pistorius was genuine with his feelings towards Ms Steenkamp and that they had a normal, loving relationship.’

How were these findings made?

  1. Pistorius was physically examined; his blood was tested, the electrical activity in his brain was measured.
  2. He was interviewed (for 19 hours) and his general behaviour was observed. Significant people in his life were also interviewed. Out of these interviews Professor Scholtz reconstructed the life of Pistorius in narrative form. (See the section ’History and development of Mr. Pistorius’.)
  3. He was subject to a psychometric assessment: his knowledge and skills, abilities and attitudes, and personality were objectively measured. Pistorius completed the Psychiatric Diagnostic Screening Questionnaire (PDSQ): ‘an instrument that serves as a screening test for the presence of clinical conditions as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-4.’ (p. 16)

Gerrie Nel, reading from the Report, grasped at the following sentence, as if to say, ‘this is the bit that matters’:

Mr Pistorius did not suffer from a mental illness or defect that would have rendered him criminally not responsible for the offence charged.

However, all of this report matters, not just the bits that conclude that he is criminally responsible or, as Professor Scholtz puts it, ‘not … criminally not responsible…’

The section of the Forensic Psychological Report entitled ‘History and development of Mr. Pistorius’ is a narrative reconstruction of his life based on 19 hours of interviews with him and people familiar with him. Their identities are redacted. Pistorius provided the raw material and Professor Scholtz wove it into a plausible narrative. ‘As told to …’ ‘He reported’. ‘He denied.’ ‘He reports no’. ‘He stated no.’ However, what actually happened in a person’s past life and how that person remembers what happened may be entirely different things. They usually are. This is why auto-biographies are often regarded as works of fiction. However, narratives don’t have to be true to be believed, they just have to be plausible.

‘History and development of Mr. Pistorius’ is the basis of the section entitled ‘Integration and formulation’. This is speculation built on fancy. Consider (all emphases are mine):

  • Pistorius ‘faced strong challenges from the time he was born.’ So do many people, especially those with disabilities, but why is this remarkable?
  • ‘This might have made his attachment with his mother an anxious one, leaving him to try and self-sooth ….’ (p. 23)
  • ‘it seems he was born with a strong fighting spirit …’
  • ‘He was a happy, contented baby …’ How can Professor Scholtz be so certain of this?
  • ‘his mother was able to overcome her initial reaction and that he then had a good bonding with her. She was able to externalize her emotions in a normal manner ….’ His mother is long dead, so how does the learned professor know this with such certainty.
  • She passed on to ‘ Pistorius the rudimentary “blueprint” of affect regulation.’
  • His bilateral amputation at 11 months would have been’ This is hotly contested.
  • ‘It is possible that a “blueprint” of mistrust, insecurity and being unsafe was already laid down at that stage of his personality development …’
  • ‘He would have experienced fear and anger and felt abandoned by her. This would have challenged his ability to view her as an integrated whole person, both good and bad.’
  • ‘It is also possible that his mother “usurped” him [the father] out of guilt, pulling him further away from his father.’
  • ‘His mother was a devout Christian and had instilled these values in him’ (p. 24). Not everyone regards this as a good thing. As one commentator put it, Pistorius’s behaviour was typical of ‘young Afrikaner men who are brought up in the Calvinist religion.’
  • ‘ Pistorius realized that many women wanted to be with him because of his fame’ (p. 24). Here, Professor Scholtz informs us of what Pistorius—on trial for the murder of his girl friend—‘realized’ about women.
  • ‘The approach of his mother to his disability probably enabled him to complete his next phase of development (approximately age 2-6 years) successfully, perhaps too much so.’
  • She had an attitude of …’ ‘She would tell him and his brother to …’ She did not make a distinction between him and his brother because of his disability.
  • ‘It was probably at this point that he …’
  • There two Oscars: ‘The one a vulnerable, scared disabled person, the other a strong physical person achieving beyond expectation and finding rewarded (sic) for it both intra-psychically and interpersonally.’ Here Professor Scholtz reports his discovery of the ‘divided self’ of Pistorius.
  • The account of his ‘traumatic’ experience at age 7/8 is all from Pistorius. ‘… he was terrified’. (p. 25)
  • ‘The impact of losing these male figures in his life at the beginning of adolescence was strong. Feelings of insecurity and the sense of a foreshortened future are some of the aspects often described for a boy in that situation.’
  • ‘He had adapted well to high school, made good friends …’ (p. 26).
  • ‘In spite of the challenges Mr. Pistorius got involved in various projects to help other people in this time, especially those less fortunate with him. He would always make time for his fans and handled himself with aplomb in most stressful situations.’

What Professor Scholtz does here is reconstruct the life of Oscar Pistorius on the basis of what he has told him in interviews. Essentially, Pistorius testifies in his own defence in these interviews and without cross-examination: Scholtz seems to have accepted uncritically every statement and claim Pistorius made. In accepting this Report the court has accepted it uncritically too. Pistorius gets to testify twice, this time without cross-examination.

Professor Scholtz is influenced by object relations theory. This tells us what will happen in an ideal typical or paradigmatic case. Where the theory and Pistorius’s account of himself match, the good professor records it as fact.

Professor Scholtz concludes that Pistorius was traumatized by the murder of Steencamp. Hence the diagnosis of Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and grief. Isn’t this a little odd? Surely only an innocent person can be feel grief and be traumatized by the murder of his girlfriend? This is certainly what this Report implies, intentionally or not. Is such a person not deserving of our sympathy and care, especially so since they are in danger of becoming a suicide risk? This is like the story of the boy who murdered his parents and then argued that he deserved clemency because he was an orphan.

There is, surely, another interpretation of Pistorius’s ‘grief’ and ‘trauma’. A man moved by a jealous rage can harm his girl friend and immediately be full of remorse at what he has done; for he acted only with the best of intentions, you understand, out of (some kind of) love. It happens all the time. If Pistorius did indeed kill Steenkamp in a murderous rage, would he not feel remorse, guilt, shame and fear of being punished? In this sense, he would be the cause of his own effect, his own trauma. How would one distinguish between these feelings and their associated behaviours and the criteria of PTSD?

Perhaps these experiences of suffering, picked up by Professor Schultz, are not a disorder at all, but an entirely appropriate response to his actions. What if his suffering is actually deserved? Feeling bad when we’ve done something bad is no ‘disorder’: it’s moral behaviour. The DSM, however, does not allow for this possibility because it presumes that all suffers of PTSD are innocent. They suffer because of what was done to them or what they were forced to witness, never because of the horror of what they chose to do to others, made others witness.

The Reports in Court

Defence and prosecution counsels took from these two Reports that which supports their case. Both noted that both Reports show the athlete’s psychological issues manifested after the shooting, not before.

Defence Advocate Barry Roux noted that:

  • Pistorius has no history of abnormal aggression of violence or traits of narcissism;
  • the trauma of that night and its aftermath left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression;
  • he is at risk of suicide if his condition is not treated;
  • there is evidence that Pistorius shared a loving relationship with Steenkamp. As if people in ‘loving relationships’ are not capable of harming each other. ‘Love’ is usually the source of the violence.

State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel read excerpts from the Psychiatric Report and noted that Pistorius suffers from an adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression, and underlined that these conditions developed after he killed Reeva Steenkamp.

These diagnoses matter because they have implications for the ‘reasonableness’ of his actions, and this is situational. It’s not just a matter of being able to know right from wrong, it’s also a matter of what Pistorius regarded as right and wrong in those circumstances and this depends on the nature of his ‘disorder’.

A diagnosis of GAD points to culpable homicide, rather than murder or premeditated murder; a man with an anxiety disorder responds in an entirely different way to a normal person.

A diagnosis of PTSD implies his innocence for, according to this category of the DSM, trauma is a result of something that has been done to oneself or been forced to witness. One cannot traumatize oneself.

A diagnosis of AD also points to his innocence. It suggests that Pistorius’s symptoms are not a normal reaction to a pathological event, but a pathological reaction to something he witnessed.

Pistorius’s Place in the Taxonomy of Mental Disorders

Every single step in all three reports leads to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Put another way, every measure, every observation, every inference about Pistorius is weighted according to the specific gravity of the APA’s DSM.

Here I want to draw attention to the following.

  1. The DSM is a taxonomy of mental ‘disorders’. It classifies clusters of symptoms or effects solely in terms of the behaviour exhibited.
  2. This is a problem because symptoms alone rarely indicate how a malady should be treated. For that one needs to know what causes it. Despite the ‘diagnostic’ in its name, the DSM has little to say on the causes of ‘mental disorders’.
  • For the DSM, different people can display identical symptoms in response to very different causes and end up in the same classification. And different people can display very different symptoms in response to identical causes and end up in different classifications.
  1. This isn’t a problem for the DSM because it is a taxonomy of disorders, not a handbook of how to get well.

Humans are a social species. ‘Mental’ problems often have social roots in how and with whom we live. ‘Mental disorders’ are often connected to ‘problems in living’. Remedy the ‘disorder’ by helping people change their social circumstances.

The DSM doesn’t recognize the connection between mental and social problems because it abstracts the body from its social context and the brain from the body. This is how ailments that inhabit the entire body and its social roots are transformed into ‘mental’ illnesses.

For the American Psychological Association and its Manual, just as for their psychiatrist and psychologist clients, there are no causes to be solved by changing how people live, only symptoms to be managed pharmaceutically. This is true even of psychiatrists, or, perhaps, especially true.

That three separate examinations can determine that Pistorius displays behaviour consistent with the criteria of three different disorders, General Anxiety Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and Adaption Disorder, should cause us to take pause. Depending on which category we adopt:

  1. Pistorius developed a mental disorder from an early age because his lower legs were amputated.
  2. Actually no. His mental disorder was caused by the trauma of the Steenkamp’s murder.
  3. Pistorius was so anxious that he was a danger to society when in possession of a gun.
  4. No he wasn’ Abnormal aggression and violence were never incorporated into his personality—psychometric testing and collateral informations tells us so. Pistorius is ‘respectful, gentle and conflict-avoiding’.

Perhaps his assessors cannot agree on a classifications because the characteristics Pistorius ‘presents’ to his esteemed clinicians are not mental disorders at all but normal responses to what he has done.

The categories and criteria of the DSM have little to do with actual social-somatic people. It is a taxonomic net to be thrown over whomsoever has the misfortune to come its way. The DSM doesn’t even care what country you live in. Why is a manual of the American Psychiatric Association being used to diagnose the health of this South African? The answer: Because the DSM is not actually interested in real people and their concrete circumstances, only in categorizing their behaviours according to its taxonomy, where people live is immaterial. A corollary of this violent abstraction is that those who inhabit these ‘disorders’ are presumed to act in the same way in similar circumstances, as if they lacked all moral agency.

‘I’m Not Disabled. I Just Don’t Have Any Legs’

We might quibble with a a clinical psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, and a group of three psychiatrists, who each come to different conclusions about Pistorius, but what of the orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gerry Versveld who removed Pistorius’ lower legs when he was a very young child? Dr. Versveld was called by the defence to give his testimony.

It can be summarized thus. Because he lacks lower legs, Pistorius lacks maneuverability and stability; he is liable to fall over. Because he lacks maneuverability and stability, he is vulnerable to attack in some situations. Because he is vulnerable to attack, he is in a constant state of anxiety. Because he is in a constant state of anxiety, he may just be telling the truth about what happened that night. Pistorius responded to the noise in the bathroom as if it were a starting pistol: instantly and without thought. Because he could not take flight, he had no alternative but to stay and fight.

There is a superficial plausibility to this. Notice its similarity to the testimony of Merryl Vorster who diagnosed Pistorius with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable and anxious in some situations if their lower legs, along with their feet, had been amputated. And yet, as Prosecutor Nel pointed out to Dr. Versveld, Pistorius moved around on his stumps, in the dark, and managed to fire four shots without falling over once. How so? Dr. Verseld had no answer. But here’s one: People with similar disabilities, in similar circumstances, can act in markedly different ways. Some capitulate and fold. Others fight back and overcome. We cannot ‘read off’ the response from the disability. Indeed, Pistorius himself is the living example of this. He rose above his disability to become a world class athlete. It’s not inconceivable that he could rise above any feeling of vulnerability. There are certainly many precedents.

Two blocks from where I write is the Sir Douglas Bader Towers in Edmonton, Alberta. It is home to several dozen paraplegics. They are often seen in their wheelchairs moving about the community. Their high-rise home is named after Douglas Bader who lost both legs in a flying accident in 1931. Against all odds, he returned as an Royal Air Force pilot with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and fought with considerable success in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain with crude artificial legs. No anxiety about how he would survive being shot down with no legs; or if there was he didn’t heed it.

In 1941 he was shot down over German-occupied France and was captured. Despite having no legs, Bader attempted to escape several times, for which he was sent to Colditz POW camp, where he remained until April 1945. When the war ended he campaigned for the disabled. ‘A disabled person who fights back is not disabled …. but inspired’.

In all walks of life, people endure extraordinary hardships; some overcome their circumstances; others submit to them. Being placed in one diagnostic category or another is no guide to how that person is going to act. As Bader put it:

The difficulty of discussing a personal disability such as the loss of an arm or a leg or eyes is that it affects different people differently. Someone else writing about an identical disability would almost certainly react in a totally different way.’

Throughout his athletic career, Pistorius has sought to downplay the impact of his disability. “I’m not disabled,” Oscar Pistorius told a British journalist in 2005. “I just don’t have any legs.” Just so.

The Pistorius Disorder

None of the proffered taxonomic categories help us in trying to understand what happened between Pistorius and Steenkamp that night. But we can imagine one that does. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the circumstances of that deadly evening have all the ingredients of domestic violence. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, and in the style of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, here are the diagnostic criteria of the Pistorius Disorder:

  1. The person desires unconditional and sole possession of the person for whom he longs.
  2. The person wants to be loved and desires to live and rule in the other’s soul as supreme and supremely desirable.
  3. The person aims at the impoverishment and deprivation of all competitors for the affections of the person for whom he longs.
  4. This lust for possession is rooted in the emotions of romantic love and sexual desire.
  5. The person is prepared to go to any lengths, make any sacrifice, to disturb any order, to subordinate all other interests to retain the affections of the person for whom he or she longs. To this end:
    • The person engages in words and actions which attempt to monitor and control the beloved.
    • The person is susceptible to violent rages when these attempts fail.
    • The person immediately and quite genuinely regrets their violent behaviour. Or:
    • The person attempts to rationalize this controlling and violent behaviour.
  6. These possessive behaviours are rooted in jealousy, a volatile cocktail of fear (of losing her/his to another) and anger (at her/his treachery).
  7. Women are susceptible to this disorder too. The gender of the sufferer is less important than the nature of the emotional connection between the two people. Both suffer, albeit in very different ways.

This is no arbitrary cluster of behaviours with no cause. Nor is it a problem confined to individual persons, for the body is not self-contained. Social relations do not stop at the skin, they permeate the body in the form of social emotions. The Pistorius Disorder is a problem of diseased social emotions, manifest in people.


How Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp (innocent)

Perhaps I’ve been unfair to Oscar Pistorius. I thought I sensed emotional deception and—without really thinking—I reached for my Parabellum pen and blasted him with my invective. But what if he’s been telling the truth all along? Here I set out his emotional defence.

A theme of this blog, indeed the course to which it is linked, is that emotions are as much social as they are biochemical and neurological phenomena. The celebrity of the brain takes all the glory, but who we are, where we are and the society in which we live shape our experience of emotions. The brain mediates between the interior of our body and the exterior social world. It’s a social sense organ.

Pistorius is a young, white man living in Pretoria, South Africa. At the time of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder he was a respected and well-to-do celebrity athlete. He was widely admired for his courage and tenacity in overcoming his disability to become a world class athlete.

Post-apartheid South Africa is rife with violent crime, including murder and rape. Most of this crime occurs within and among the poor, and the poor are overwhelmingly black. Rich whites, the most fearful among South Africans, are actually the least endangered.

But that doesn’t stop them being afraid. We learn what to be fearful of and we learn how to react to it. We can be fearful of what is ‘out there’ and also what is ‘in here’, the memories, histories inside our head. Pistorius wasn’t just afraid of ‘an’ intruder, he was afraid of a black intruder.

The laager mentality of long-dead Afrikaners persists among some of these young men; they fear the threat of a nameless, faceless, armed and dangerous black intruder ‘out there’. In the spirit of those with no state to protect them, they feel honour-bound to defend ‘their’ women and family from the perceived threat, for rapes often accompany armed robbery and murder in South Africa. ‘I had to protect Reeva.’ Pistorius wouldn’t be the first white man to shoot family members thinking they were intruders.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

These are the ingredients of chronic fear and constant vigilance. Every strange noise and unusual movement is regarded with suspicion. Instincts and reflexes are on a knife edge. Surrounded by an unseen but all-seeing enemy and fearing retribution for past wrongs, young men like Pistorius are inclined to get their retaliation in first and to act with an expectation of impunity. Having lost their legal superiority and entitlements, they feel morally entitled to shoot first and ask questions later just the same. This is the subtext to the Pistorius trial.

Presumably it was feelings such as these that led Pistorius to buy a home in the Silver Woods Country Estate, where he killed Reeva Steenkamp: a 90 acre gated community, protected by high walls, electric fencing, laser sensors, biometric locks; all overseen by closed-circuit cameras and security guards. This is where whites with money have taken refuge. The only black people in these gated communities are likely to be servants or security guards.

It might be thought that Pistorius would feel secure here. Crime was a rarity within the estate. But residents of such estates seek shelter there precisely because they are more aware of violent crime than the average South African. The objective risk to Pistorius had changed, reduced to negligible, but the ideas in his head and the twitchiness in his body hadn’t. As every soldier returning from battle knows, feelings of anxiety and fear can exist even though an individual is no longer in danger. Moreover, ‘they’ knew where he lived and that he was vulnerable. Gated communities are like islands. He was surrounded.

The fear defence was cleverly set out in his bail application affidavit: he shot Reeva in error, thinking she was an armed intruder and his life was in danger. It was an honest, though tragic, mistake. Some selected highlights (my emphasis):

I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes with a view to commit crime, including violent crime. I have received death threats before.

I heard a noise in the bathroom and realised that someone was in the bathroom.

I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.

I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on.

I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed.

I noticed that the bathroom window was open. I realised that the intruder/s was/were in the toilet because the toilet door was closed and I did not see anyone in the bathroom. I heard movement inside the toilet. The toilet is inside the bathroom and has a separate door.

It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger. I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps.

I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police. She did not respond and I moved backwards out of the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the bathroom entrance. Everything was pitch dark in the bedroom and I was still too scared to switch on a light. Reeva was not responding.


He heard a noise, noise of a movement. This filled him with fear, a sense of terror and horror. He felt extremely vulnerable. He had to make some quick moral decisions. Their very lives depended on it. Isn’t this the very essence of Darwin’s position on the evolutionary value of emotions?

Every decision has its counterpart in the brain.  It combines information from different senses to create our perceptions of what is ‘out there’. A sound or a sight is really as much a function of our brains as our ears and eyes. And this brain was afraid, terrified, horrified. Fear makes the senses more sensitive. We don’t just hear a noise, we hear what the noise means, what it foretells. It is not what was objectively true that is paramount, but what he believed to be true. He shot at, not an intruder, but the noise behind the door, at the idea of the intruder.

Who are we to say different? Just as no two noses smell the same, no two people feel fear the same. And we weren’t there. Few of us get to feel that kind of fear.

Reduced to its simplest, his brain did it.  He was powerless to intervene. If he has some good neuroscientists standing by to provide expert testimony, this defence might just work.

[Thanks to Eben van Renen for his insights on life in South Africa today.]

Posing questions with a hammer: Pistorius as Hamlet

At the mere mention or sight of ‘what he has done’ Oscar Pistorius cries, retches or wails. This signifies what? We might take his emotional distress as signs of his emotional truthfulness. He submits this evidence of his emotional pain to counter the reasoned argument of the prosecution. ‘I suffer thus because I killed Reeva in error.’ There’s no arguing with emotion. Is there? Well, yes, there is.

The authenticity of emotions can be evaluated and tested. The sounds a person makes are evidence of the quality and nature of the emotions that lie within. The sound of a crystal wine glass when lightly struck testifies to the quality of the glass. A wolf knows much about a rival pack from their barks and howls—their age, gender, health and intentions. Like breathing itself, a scream or a cry connect the inside to the outside. Actual talking is overrated.

This is why the testimony of neighbors that they heard a blood-curdling scream of a woman in fear of her life is so damaging to Pistorius. That kind of scream cannot be simulated or mistaken. Nor can it be forgotten. It tells us that the person knows she is about to die. It was the very last act in Reeva  Steenkamp’s short life and it may be what condemns him.

There is something odd about his emotional outbursts. He emotes like a small boy who knows he’s in big trouble and fears the punishment he’ll receive when his father comes home. He squeals like a stuck pig. It’s full throttle, every time, all the time. He responds thus, not to any actual pain, but at the sight of the stick with which he is about to be stuck. The pig cries out in self-pity; the crying and wailing of Pistorius have the same ring.

Pistorius’ emotional outbursts conceal just as they reveal. While all this emotion is coming out, we cannot see in. His face crumples, his eyes narrow, he bends forward, as if in pain, his hands cover his face. It is next to impossible for us to see his actual inner emotional self. It seems in bad taste to even look at him. When he’s not emoting he conceals his inner thoughts and feelings with a protective stare.

But if we could, what would be expect to see? A young man kills his girl friend in the mistaken belief that she is a dangerous intruder. It was a disaster. It is a tragedy. Both were victims of the law of unintended consequences. Would we not expect a man who has experienced a tragedy to look tragic? Would we not expect to see an inner flicker of tragedy’s terrible wisdom, that there are forces greater than ourselves and that we are not the masters of our future?

It’s not as if this sort of thing has not happened before. Tragedy has been a theme in literature since the time of the ancient Greeks. Pistorius is in good company. Humans kill other humans in error on a regular basis. Sometimes they destroy entire societies with only a ‘oops’.

Need we look any further than Hamlet?

Hamlet kills Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes, by mistake. Ophelia is driven mad by Hamlet’s rejection of her (‘Before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed’) and by his murder of her father. She drowns herself on Valentine’s day. Oblivious to how his actions might have contributed to her death, at her funeral Hamlet throws herself into her grave, holds her in his arms and (much like Pistorius) insists ‘I loved Ophelia!’ An enraged Laertes invites Hamlet to some sword play. During a break, Laertes hands Hamlet a poisoned chalice from which he drinks. In error his mother, the Queen, also drinks from it and they both die. In fact, quite a lot of people die.

Horatio sums it up:

And let me speak to (th’) yet unknowing world

Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and (forced) cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’ iinventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Hamlet avoided responsibility by simulating madness. ‘I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft.’ (III. iv. 187-8.) To this day, he’s regarded as some kind of heroic victim, while Ophelia is remembered as some kind of overly emotional female.

Pistorius attempts to avoid responsibility for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp by simulating distraught innocence. This is ‘deep acting’ in support of the Pistorius brand. This is much more than pretending. He’s fooling himself as he attempts to fool us.

How can we know what is true and what is false about what happened that night when Pistorius is the only witness? I think Nietzsche’s words on how to philosophize with a hammer are helpful:

‘To pose questions with a hammer, and listen to the sound it makes. That which would like to stay silent has to become audible’ (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

That’s what chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel is doing. Posing questions of Pistorius as if with a hammer, rendering audible ‘that which would like to stay silent’.



How Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp (Guilty)

The trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp resumed today. The prosecution has presented its case. Now is the turn of the defence. Oscar Pistorius is expected to take the stand.

Before the defence presents its case, here I want to reconstruct the prosecution’s case by drawing out the emotions integral to it. Later I will do the same with the defence. See which you find most persuasive.

First, a caution. This is commentary from afar. One has to be there, in the courtroom, in the country, to get a feel for the truth. Nevertheless, this blog aims to educate. Can an understanding of emotions help us understand what happened between them in the early hours of Valentines Day 2013? Conversely, what can this trial teach us about emotions?

Emotions are often thought to be irrational and unpredictable, as if they were beyond conscious understanding. But emotions have their own kind of rationale. They enable some actions and hinder others. ‘Emotion’ and ‘motive’ share the same root. They are causes.

Moreover, emotions exist throughout the body, not just the head. They influence all the senses, not only thought. We don’t just ‘have’ emotions, we are them and they us. Upon sober reflection, they can cause us to act against our own best interests. Upon active engagement, everything they cause us to do makes perfect sense at the time.

Pistorius claims that he and Reeva Steenkamp were in a ‘loving relationship’: ‘We were deeply in love and I could not have been happier. I know she felt the same way’ (Affidavit, 16.4) Why, then, would he kill the person he loved? Oh, for so many reasons. Being ‘in love’ with someone will not prevent us murdering them. Many a woman has been harmed and even killed by a man who professes his love for her. In fact, it’s practically obligatory.

It’s the old question, Do you love your beloved, or do you love the pleasant sensations he or she elicits in you? It’s quite common to believe the first but to practice the second. We like those pleasant sensations and want to keep them for ourselves. The light and airy romantic love has a dark, jealous underside. All it takes is the right (or wrong) circumstances for it to emerge.

In a futile attempt to capture this love for themselves, many men (and some women) attempt to control their partner. As the prosecution pointed out last week, Steenkamp’s phone messages told of his jealousy, possessiveness and proneness to fits of rage. Less than three weeks before he killed her, she told him: “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me. You do everything to throw tantrums. I am certainly very unhappy and sad”. Jealousy is a volatile cocktail of fear of losing her to another and anger towards her for allowing it. It can veer from one to the other and back in an instant.

Perhaps something happened between them that night to trigger one of those violent, jealous tantrums she talked of. Hurtful words exchanged. He responded badly. Afraid, she took refuge in the one room with a lock, the toilet and locked the door. (If she was not afraid, why would she lock the door?) Her two iPhones were discovered there. Perhaps she threatened to call for help. In a rage he battered the door with a cricket bat. There the matter may have rested until sanity prevailed. But he had a gun and guns do only one thing. When she wouldn’t come out, he shot her dead. If he couldn’t have her, no one would.

The violence of the gun shots and her deathly cries punctured his mood. His rational eyes saw what he had done and he was consumed with remorse. Again, this is a common reaction among perpetrators of domestic violence. He wanted her to live.  He really did. It had all been a mistake. But to knowingly shoot the person you love and then implore her to live is the epitome of madness. (Which is what it was.) The only rational explanation for what he had done was that he had mistaken her for an intruder and he adopted this explanation instantly and it became his legal defence.

After all, who knew but him? And there certainly was an intruder that night: his jealousy.

This explanation also became his emotional defence, from the moment he shot her. At the pretrial hearing a year ago, Pistorius simulated the emotional persona of an innocent man, hurt and indignant at being the accused. His body language was that of the penitent, a male Mary Magdalene. ‘See how I suffer.’ He may as well have been nailed to a cross. During this trial his body sobbed, retched and shook in revulsion at evidence of the horror of the crime. ‘Would I respond this way if I were guilty?’

Well, yes, you might.

You might be simulating what you take to be the actions of an innocent man. Simulating is not pretending, nor is it lying. When we simulate some condition or act we produce in ourselves some of its symptoms and characteristics. A lie can be found out; a statement is either true or false. But simulation erodes the very distinction between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’. And that’s what’s going on here.

But innocent men, I suggest, do not act like Pistorius. They behave with more dignity. What are intended as emotional protestations of innocence, come across as self-pity. This too is evidence.

I doubt that Pistorius himself is really sure what happened that night. The jealous intruder slipped away quietly, as if he’d never been there at all. Perhaps he hadn’t. Emotions can disappear as quickly as they arrive and leave little trace of their presence. It’s a fine line between ‘it was a mistake to shoot her’ and ‘she was shot by mistake.’ And he certainly was afraid— not fearful of an intruder—but afraid of losing her.

It’s not just the emotions he experienced that matter, but the reasons for them.

Finally,  ‘The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing’ (Pascal). Let us note that in this and all trials, reason looks down upon emotion and passes judgement.

Great moments in reputation management: Brand Pistorius mourns its terrible loss and makes sure we know it

Reblogged in the light of Pistorius’s testimony this week.

The Business of Emotions

Brand Pistorius’ strategy for getting their boy off this inconvenient murder rap seems to be to have him play the role of a penitent mourner in the hope that public opinion will swing their way and with it, the judge.

Hence today’s announcement on Oscar Pistorius: Official Website of The Blade Runner by Vuma Reputation Management (VRM) that that very evening, the Pistorius family would hold a private memorial service to commemorate the life of Reeva Steenkamp.

They’re not quite so crass as to advertise this private event without anticipating the obvious question (‘if it’s private, why make it public?’). Their hand is forced, you see, because some unscrupulous person has leaked news to the media. So they’ve no choice but to advertise it a lot more and make a plea to the media (as if VRM is not ‘media’) to please respect the privacy of the Pistorius family tonight.

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Team Pistorius Prepares to Defend the Brand

The Business of Emotions

Janine Hills of Vuma Reputation Management Janine Hills of Vuma Reputation Management

In When Human Brands Go Wrong: The Killing of Reeva Steenkamp and the Trial of Oscar Pistorius I drew attention to some features of his affidavit (its ‘text bridges’) and to Pistorius as a human brand.

In human brands reputation is everything. That’s why the reputation of Oscar Pistorius has now been placed in the hands of Vuma Reputation Management. All family statements are released through Vuma. His team of lawyers works with Vuma. Journalists’ questions must be directed to Vuma.

The first job of any reputable reputation management company is give the impression that it’s doing no such thing. This from its CEO, Janine Hills:

 “This is about an incredible, iconic star, a giant in the media,” she said. “Our role as a team really is to provide the information that the media is calling for, not to manage his image 

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When human brands go wrong: The killing of Reeva Steenkamp and the trial of Oscar Pistorius

The Business of Emotions

The killing of Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in Pretoria and the arrest, bail hearing and forthcoming trial for her murder of Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius hold some valuable lessons about emotions.

While this is but a hearing to determine bail and there is so much we do not know, romantic love, emotional deception, emotional branding come together here.

Simulating emotions is not pretending

If Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp he is engaged in a high stakes act of emotional deception. But let’s be clear about what this entails. He is not simply lying or dissimulating, rather he is simulating innocence and hurt indignation. There’s a big difference between dissimulation and simulation. Baudrillard puts it like this:

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated…

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Brands are people too

At a recent event in Seattle sponsored by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, Heather Oldani of McDonalds told the audience, “For brands, showing emotion is the new black.”  It resonated with the audience, and was one of the most tweeted takeaways from the event.

Oldani went on to say, “Every brand or organization has a story. It is those that tell it the best that will win.  And bringing a level of humanness to the stories you want to share and to your overall brand communication is key.” [Source]

More and more, brands are gaining traction by embracing qualities like honesty, kindness, and simply having a sense of humor about themselves.

“Today, brands are becoming more and more like humans,” Luna said. “They’re taking on more and more human-like traits.” [Source]

Like this compassionate brand:

Attributes of successful human era brands: They empower individuals to be the brand. Welcome to the Human Era: The new model for building trusted connections, and what brands need to do about it (pdf)

The sales pitch is this: we have moved from an institutional era to a human era. If that report is too long to read, try this:

Here is a question that will have escaped these emotional marketeers: If brands are becoming more like humans, what are humans becoming more like? 

Inside Google

While on the topic of Google, here are two insider views.

First is a look inside Google’s vast data centres.

After you’ve seen the video you can explore on your own: Take a walk through a Google data center

Second is a Google interns’ first week:

For more about life working at Google: Do Cool Things That Matter

Finally, here is one of the NSA slides on Google:


Two and a half lessons in emotion design (short Apple video)

Watch this for an explanation of how our emotional reactions are designed into the things we buy, in this case Apple products.

“‘What do we want people to feel?’ “joy …  … delight … surprise … love … connection …”

This short video is advertising and self-promotion. Don’t confuse it with an impartial documentary. It is silent on the emotions of those who actually make Apple products in China. Not a lot of joy and love there. The love, or at least attachment’, that Apple users feel isn’t towards each other, it’s towards their iPod, iPhone and iPad and their creator—towards Apple corporation itself.

Note too how the video appropriates ‘intention’ which is central to Buddhist thought (‘right intention‘). (Steve Jobs regarded himself as a Buddhist.) This spiritual quality, the video implies, is now embodied in Apple products and consumed by those who buy and use them.

Is this a good idea?