Oscar Pistorius was charged with premeditated murder for shooting Reeva Steenkamp, his 29-year-old girlfriend, through a closed bathroom door on Valentine’s Day. The world is scrambling to make sense of how the double-amputee Paralympic and Olympic athlete could have done something so horrendous, and South Africa is trying to make sense of how Steenkamp’s murder fits into its serious problem with domestic violence, rape, and violence against women. In the process of dredging up old dirt that hints at Oscar Pistorius’ domestic violence history, and contemplating what his motives might have been for such a violent act, another issue is uncomfortably rising to the surface: All the myths and misconceptions we have about disability.
As happened when Lance Armstrong was forced to fess up to doping, the overwhelming reaction to Pistorius’ crime is shock that someone so heroic could do something so terrible. But there’s something more: It’s not just that we can’t believe an athlete could commit a crime (sadly, violent athletes aren’t much of a novelty), or that a high-achieving man could be violent against his lover (again: not unheard of). What really messes with our heads is that he struggled with disability, was the underdog, and still managed to accomplish a high-profile career–so he must be a saint, right? (Incidentally, disability–in the form of surviving testicular cancer, and “only having one testicle”–also played prominently into Lance Armstrong’s image as infallible hero…and no doubt, figured into the deep struggle to make sense of how he could have turned out to be such a nasty anti-hero.)
As details of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder unfold, and Pistorius whimpers in court as prosecutors describe a scene in which she cowered in a bathroom while he fired a gun at her four times through the door, the overwhelming reactions fall into two camps: a) disabled people couldn’t possibly be violent, especially not ones like Oscar Pistorius who must be saints because they’re high achievers in a non-disabled way, and b) he might have been violent because he resented being disabled.
An interesting article from the International Business Times today framed Pistorius’ crime in terms of the “South African Men’s War Of Violence Against Women,” quoting several medical and domestic violence experts about how South African culture leads to a shocking number of deaths like Steenkamp’s, every day. But not without mention of his disability:
[Gender rights activist Lisa Vetten] commented that Pistorius’ disability may have exacerbated his insecurities, forcing him to compensate for his perceived deficiencies.
“Disabled men and women often struggle with their sense of masculinity or femininity because they are to some degree dependent,” she said.
“I have seen examples of them placing particular pride on physical attractiveness. Maybe he [Pistorius] struggles with that. The guns and sports cars gave an impression that he was over-compensating so as to be seen as ‘normal’.”
Her quotes aren’t in the context of South African culture, and her qualifications (she’s a senior researcher and political analyst for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Center) don’t indicate that she has any expertise in disability studies, but Vetten is essentially saying that he might have shot his girlfriend because he’s missing his legs.
Writer s.e. smith eloquently sums up how reactions to Steenkamp’s death point to society’s problems with disability:
Shocked by the revelation that disabled people can actually be abusive assholes too, the nondisabled community has lashed out in confusion and bitter outrage. Suddenly their poster child, their supercrip, has been turned into yet another athlete caught up in a sordid and unpleasant domestic violence scandal [...] Intriguingly, their response has been to put him back in the corner with the other cripples. Rather than directly confronting domestic violence in athletics and the culture that obscured prior reports of violence involving Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and other women, as well as Reeva herself, people chose to attack him on the grounds that he clearly wasn’t ‘one of them,’ because ‘they’ don’t do things like shooting their girlfriends. Abruptly, his honorary nondisabled person status had to be taken away.
On the flip side, writer Eddie Ndopu worries that not condemning Pistorius for his crimes–and clinging to myths about the inherently good character of anyone who has “overcome” a physical disability–is leading to an unfounded defense of his crimes.
The reality that Oscar may have shot and killed his girlfriend seems almost too ludicrous of a probability for many people to fathom because for Oscar to have “overcome” the so-called tragedy of disability means that, surely, he must be in possession of a positive disposition that (literally) enabled him to do so in the first place.
This misguided shock has prompted what I call “psychosocial strategies” by which many folks are trying to salvage Oscar’s constructed image. These psychosocial strategies deflect attention away from Oscar as a crip with agency and direct blame to external factors.
He points out that Pistorius’ defense team and PR strategists are already clinging to his image as an inspirational Paralympic and Olympic athlete. He also argues that explaining Pistorius’ crimes in the context of South African violence is yet another way of removing responsibility, and restoring his reputation.
If there’s any lesson in this yet, it’s that our myths and misconceptions about disability hurt us, and can even lead to death. Even if we mean well when idolizing super athletes like Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius, judging their character by how well they’ve managed to do things that people without their disadvantages can do is more than unfair: It’s damaging. And as Pistorus’ story and trial unfold, we hope people start to unpack some of these misguided ideas to serve justice to Pistorius, and the rest of society, too.
Photos: Getty Images