“These violent delights have violent ends, And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which as they kiss consume…”(Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence unsuccessfully advises Romeo to take it slow).
This series is an attempt to explore the story of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp from the perspective of intimate-partner violence, reflected in the published words of witnesses to their relationship. Although we don’t know how it ended between them emotionally – a matter currently disputed in Oscar’s criminal trial – the history of relationships that violate women (and sometimes men) has been told here in South Africa and around the world, allowing some generalisations to be made about those relationships. Ideas about gender and male privilege play an important role in creating a context for violence between intimate partners.
Here once again are some of the key Rules and Beliefs that play a part in gender violence:
ONE: Real Men should stay in control, and not show pain or fear
TWO: Real Men do not experience emotional vulnerability or discomfort
THREE: Real Men take charge unless there’s a clear line of male authority already
FOUR: Real Men exercise authority in disconnected, non-relational ways
FIVE: Women (or gender-disobedient males) are forbidden to provoke, discomfit or diminish a Real Man. Men lower in the male hierarchy are also forbidden
Stories recover hidden meanings. In a story with a familiar plot, we can see how ‘the rules’ operate, and recognise what they’re capable of doing to us. We can also see, sometimes with painful clarity, the beliefs we take for granted about the world.
a) men and women are fundamentally different and opposed (hence, “opposite sex”)
b) women are “the weaker sex” who stand in need of male protection and guidance
c) being responsible for the comfort of men, women must anticipate and defer to male needs
Turning now to what has been said in public about the story of Oscar and Reeva, let’s break through the door of romantic perfection, in order to expose the horrors of violence that often lie hidden behind it – not only for Oscar and Reeva but for so many couples in South Africa and around the world. Here is what we know about violent intimate relationships:
They often involve early intensity, and jealousy makes them unsafe and unstable.
An abusive partner treats the other like personal property. He (or she) acts in controlling ways, uses verbal abuse as a weapon, upholds unrealistic expectations of the relationship or the other person, and builds high defensive walls around the two of them, cutting out anything or anyone that might challenge the ways in which the couple see themselves and each other.
Disparities in social status (in either direction), and rigid gender roles (“that’s woman’s work”) also spell danger. Violent relationships often include sexual practices that cross the line between mutual acceptability and abuse.
Many perpetrators (not all) show emotional instability – rages and unpredictable mood swings which are worse if there’s a compromised mental state as in drug or alcohol abuse, or brain injury which is more common than most people think (more on that later).
Finally, violence is more likely if perpetrators believe they will not be held accountable. They may manipulate others to take the blame, rely on social status to shield them, or discredit the victim with descriptions such as drunk, loser, mentally unstable, bad man/woman. Perpetrators of abuse usually play cruel mind games, causing partners to mistrust their own ideas and experiences, entertain false hopes of change, believe their own actions and attitudes have caused the abuse, or that they deserve it.
Early intensity is a common feature (See Rules 1 3). Not every early passion ends in despair, but many do, because heroic determination to possess and to win love, don’t always add up to “true romance” despite what we read in novels. Yet girls, and to a lesser extent boys, are initiated into the rules of romance from an early age. What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? And being the sole object of a rich, desirable man is a fairytale princess’s destiny. The course of true love may not run smooth, but in the end he must sweep her ‘off her feet’, and she must be swept. Her focus is not on circumstance or boring questions such as whether the man’s values are compatible with hers, but on feelings.
Reeva presented herself to friends and her public as a romantic woman, even a soppy one (despite a zingy sense of humour). Did she allow herself to be swept along, setting qualms aside? The song says, “Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe”, but Oscar didn’t look like make-believe. He was sporting royalty, and Reeva could not be blamed if she mistook him for a handsome prince.
Once he spotted Reeva, Oscar moved in fast. Did Reeva have any idea, then, of his off-track reputation? He clearly has charm when he chooses, as well as the dazzling good looks of a top athlete. Justin Divaris, who introduced them, said he noticed a strong, immediate attraction. This soon developed into passionate love.
On Oscar’s side, that passion could have been rooted in a painfully thwarted love of his mother Sheila, who died when he was only 15. She was credited with raising Oscar as a bright star, always focusing on what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. Oscar described her as “very cool, a hectic, free spirit. She didn’t really comply with much, and had a very carefree approach to life”. Reeva was much the same way. Oscar called Sheila “the centre of my world”, and within a few short weeks could have said the same about Reeva. That alone puts her – for Oscar – in a different emotional category from his previous “string of blondes”, even if she looked that part to perfection.
What of Reeva? That first day together, she prevaricated with the Press, downplaying their arrival together at the Sports Awards as “co-incidence”. Her friend Sam Greyvenstein later said that despite being aware that Oscar was “intense”, Reeva would have married him, but others who also knew her well weren’t so sure. Cecil Myers, Reeva’s “Jo’burg Dad” in whose house she was living at the time, said that after their first date, Oscar’s phone calls were persistent, even “pestering”. Aside from romantic thinking, Reeva had rational reasons for liking the publicity – she was an ambitious model with thoughts of a TV career, and being with Oscar gave her a lot of press. Yet later she told Myers she felt “cornered” and he was concerned.
Was their relationship affected by jealousy? (See Rules 2, 3, 5). The jealous partner calls constantly, monitors the other’s movements, turns up without warning and frets about actual or imaginary rivals. He or she tends to believe that life without their love is unbearable or impossible. As Othello said: “when I love thee not, chaos is come again”. A tight grip is kept on the person who holds their world together, and very often the jealous lover would prefer his or her love to be dead, before escaping control (let alone being with anyone else). We often think jealousy is directed at third parties, but that isn’t really true. It’s the love object that is jealously guarded.
Oscar could be jealous over women (though not liking it if they were possessive of him), but rumours that he resented Reeva’s relationships with others aren’t confirmed. He did feel uncomfortable if unknown men made a bid for her attention. Reeva’s friend Maddie Sims observed an incident where Oscar deliberately and aggressively “stared down” a man he thought was looking too long at Reeva. In a previous incident, Oscar allegedly threatened TV producer Quinton van der Burgh after hearing rumours that van der Burgh had made a move on his young girlfriend Samantha Taylor. The putative rival denied it, but the fight escalated when his friend Marc Batchelor (also an athlete with a reputation for aggression) remonstrated with Oscar, at which point the Blade Runner allegedly exploded again, threatening to break Batchelor’s legs.
It is sometimes thought that because Oscar and Reeva’s relationship was new, it couldn’t have been toxic. But if Oscar fell hard for Reeva only to be in some way frustrated by her, things could have gone wrong very rapidly. Reports of his behaviour in the preceding years show a classic ‘angry young man’ who wasn’t dealing well with life’s challenges, despite his brilliance on the field. His career had peaked at the London Olympics, other amputees were matching his pace, and he didn’t seem at peace with himself.
If Reeva replaced Sheila Pistorius as his world’s centre, the scene might be set for real trouble. Too often, women don’t recognise this; for a woman, being chosen as “the one” or the “true love” is meant to be her great moment of arrival in life.
Reeva idealised love – as a feeling, as a way of life. Gushing about her love affair with Oscar, she shared a sensuous poster on Instagram: “It’s beautiful when you find someone who is in love with your mind. Someone who wants to undress your conscience and make love to your thoughts. Someone who wants to watch you slowly take down all the walls you’ve built up around your mind and let them inside”. This is typical female fantasy – the cynical response to which is “Yeah, right, would you slowly take your wall down again?”
It should occur to women more often that even though for them this is “beautiful”, a man might feel deeply anxious if the same thing happens to him (Rule 2). In this case, it’s not clear that Oscar was letting her (or anyone) inside his mind. He was watching her, but what did he see? Like a true romantic, Reeva was in love with love, with what she felt and imagined. She forgot that as protective walls come down, not everything hiding behind them is pretty and sweet.
Next: How treating women as personal property and violence as a routine response to conflict, create a dangerous mix that’s easy for some women to misinterpret.
The following two tabs change content below.
These businesses support MyPE: