In Depth

Oscar Pistorius no longer on the run: an analyst's view

He has spent most of his life challenging his limits: prison gives him the chance to be vulnerable at last

Columnist Coline Covington

A month ago Oscar Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide. This morning Judge Thokozile Masipa delivered her sentence: five years' imprisonment.

Having established that Pistorius is not mad, we are left to conclude, along with the court, that it was his fear of being attacked that led to the tragic killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. But did this fear have its roots in South African violence or is there a more personal story behind it?

On a sleepless night some years ago in New York City, Oscar Pistorius went downtown to an all-night tattoo parlour in Soho where the tattoo artist reportedly spent most of the night until the early morning working on Pistorius and nearly dropping off to sleep in the process. 

One tattoo on the inside of his right arm gives the dates of his mother’s birth and death (LVIII V VIII – II III VI, 8 May 1968 – 6 March 2002). The other tattoo, on his left shoulder, is a Bible verse from Corinthians 9:26-27, “…I do not run like a man aimlessly, I do not fight like a man beating the air. I execute each strike with intent. I beat my body and make it my slave…”

These tattoos tell the paralympian’s story. Marked on his skin is the symbol of his devotion to his mother alongside his intent to prove himself – to be master of his body and of his mind. He is determined to hit the mark and the mark is his mother’s love. 

His heroic achievements undoubtedly were an attempt to fulfil an ideal of himself that had been fuelled by his mother since he was a small child. He could do anything if he tried and she showed no sympathy or comfort for his disability. The push was on from the start and she was by his side, believing in him. As Judge Masipa said this morning, thanks to his mother, Pistorius had “excellent coping skills” and “rarely saw himself as disabled”.

And yet, despite this uber-confident background, Pistorius’s relentless driving of himself, always in the fast track, reveals a core of insecurity which ultimately may have been what accidentally killed Steenkamp and led to the athlete’s tragic fall.

The ideal that Pistorius seemed to aspire to – perhaps drawn from his mother’s vision of what she wanted him to be for her – was of a golden hero who could surmount ordinary, human obstacles and limitations. He would not just be like other mortals, but he would rise above them. 

In this way he would win love and admiration and overcome the trauma of his handicap, compensating for the hardships this had caused him and his family. 

But the dark side of this aspiration is the conviction that being vulnerable and needy would only elicit rejection and contempt. An added factor may well have been Pistorius’s desire to look after his mother following his parents’ divorce and not to be a burden to her. 

Despite all his efforts and achievements, Pistorius, aged 15, could not save his mother from what was an accidental hospital death. Here was another loss that Pistorius perhaps hoped to overcome by winning.

In his relationship with Steenkamp, Pistorius’s possessiveness and controlling behaviour are well documented and seem to have been apparent in prior relationships. This kind of behaviour signals Pistorius’s belief that he was doomed to lose the woman he loves; hence having to keep a close eye on her at all times. 

Of course, the irony is that such behaviour is more than likely to push any woman into rejecting him and the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. 

It is also quite possible that it was Steenkamp’s vulnerability and softness that not only attracted him but threatened him. Just as he felt compelled to master his body, as a kind of alien force that needed to be brought entirely within his will, is this how he came to view Steenkamp? 

Pistorius’s fear that he would be rejected may also have been due to his awareness that, no matter how hard he tried, he could never be as strong or as controlled as he hoped to be. He might well imagine that those close to him would reject him for these very reasons, as he may have feared with his mother. 

His own fear and contempt of “running aimlessly”, of having feelings that might make him lose his way and his intent, must have been overwhelming. 

It is striking that Pistorius’s principal defence was that he was defending himself against what he thought was an intruder and that his handicap made him feel particularly vulnerable. Has Pistorius also been telling us of his fear of the intruder/attacker in his mind – an internal persecuting figure whom he imagines lies in wait for him behind the door? Unfortunately, in this case it was Steenkamp behind the door. 

Pistorius is a man who has spent most of his life challenging his own limits – to the point of self-destruction. Will his prison sentence now provide some of the actual limits that he has been unable to accept in himself and, in doing so, give him a place of safety and respite – a place where he can be vulnerable at last? And a place where he no longer has to be on the run from his demons.

Coline Covington is a Jungian analyst in private practice in London. A collection of past columns for The Week, ‘Shrinking the News’, was published earlier this year by Karnac Books.

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