Elegy for Oscar Pistorius

With the murder of Steenkamp, “our collective image of Pistorius shifts from admired athlete to girlfriend killer”.

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius reportedly wept in the courtroom when he was charged with murder [Reuters]

Like everyone, when I first heard the news that South African runner Oscar Pistorius was charged with shooting his girlfriend dead on Valentine’s Day, I was shocked, horrified, appalled. As the gruesome story further unfolded daily in the news, it grew depressingly familiar. Macho celebrity guy acts out the dark side of entitlement in violence against a woman: Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Kobe Bryant, Mel Gibson, Jovan Belcher and perhaps most controversial of all, OJ Simpson. This news has given us a new Oscar Pistorius. As our collective image of him shifts from admired athlete to girlfriend killer, something important has been lost.

Before Valentine’s Day, we knew Oscar Pistorius as a hero, double amputee athlete who runs on high-tech prosthetic legs. New York Times Magazine published a cover story in 2012 and called him “The Fastest Man on No Legs”. In London this past summer, Pistorius became the first disabled athlete to run in the Olympics, not only the Paralympics. Though it seems unimaginable now, to many disability rights advocates and activists, he had the potential to become a symbol as important as Rosa Parks. 

I am both an English professor and a scholar who has written and lectured extensively in the field of disability studies for almost 20 years. In my lectures, I almost always showed eye-popping pictures of Pistorius eagerly racing forward on those elegantly arched fiber carbon legs. I presented him as more than a champion runner who’s overcome his disability. Pistorius desegregated the Olympics, I’d explain. Banned in 2007 from competing against non-disabled athletes on the basis that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair performance advantage, he challenged that exclusion in collaboration with a team of scientists and engineers from around the world. His, challenge to the segregation of disabled athletes offered the world a chance to imagine how disability might be a benefit rather than the shortcoming it is most often considered. 

Oscar Pistorius reportedly wept in the courtroom when he was charged with murder, as he should have. I imagine he sobbed bitterly for what he’s lost, for his career as an athlete, for his own self-regard, for his lover, for his life, for everything. I want him to weep for us as well, for disabled people and our advocates who saw him as a shining light in our contemporary struggle for social justice. We’ve lost that shining light now. He will now only ever be known as a perpetrator of violence against women regardless of the outcome of his trial or the final version of this sordid story. 

 Pistorius says he shot girlfriend by mistake

I was teaching English at Howard University, our nation’s most elite historically black university, in 1995 when OJ Simpson was on trial for murdering his wife Nicole. Our class discussions about the significance of this case revealed a startlingly polarised pattern of conflicting identification around race and gender. Some of the men and women in the class, all of whom (unlike I am) were black, strongly believed that Simpson should be found innocent on the basis of the history of injustice the American legal system had perpetrated on black men. Others, both men and women, supported a verdict of guilty on the basis of the history of injustice against women at the hands of violent male partners. Although there was no clear gender alignment in these positions, I could see that these strongly held positions came from identifications with either Simpson as a flawed but sympathetic man or his wife as an innocent victim. 

As I confront the terrible accusation against Oscar Pistorius, I am torn, like my Howard students, by conflicting identification. As a woman, mother of daughters, and feminist, I seethed with repugnance and outrage hearing that he’d shot Reeva Steenkamp four times, that he had a history of abusive incidents against women. As a person with a disability myself – in fact, a congenital limb reduction like Pistorius – I fear the links that may be made between disability and temperament. I can imagine speculation about Pistorius’ grim history of abusing women being attributed to some kind of character flaw that parallels what the world takes to be the flaw we call disability. Did the rage that drove him to shoot, someone may speculate, arise from the resentment that some suppose corrodes the character of disabled people? I recall the public conjecture about Newtown mass shooter Adam Lanza’s purported autism or psychiatric disability as an explanation for his unfathomable crime. It was perhaps a wariness of how readily at hand such pervasive stereotypes are that may have moved some of my students at Howard to cheer when OJ Simpson was acquitted

There is no excuse for violence against women. There is no excuse for murder. Explanations that blame or exonerate are futile in the face of such dreadful deeds. But that doesn’t lessen regret of losing Pistorius as a symbol. In a New York Times op-ed about the Newtown shootings, Andrew Solomon wrote: “Those who make comprehension the precondition of acceptance destine themselves to unremitting misery.” While I have seen enough of life to know that Solomon is right, we, along with my colleagues in the disability community, are nevertheless struggling to comprehend how a promising young athlete reaching for inclusion ended up on trial for murder.  

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a professor of women’s studies and English at Emory University, the author of Extraordinary Bodies, among other books, and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.