Then he shot and killed his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp.
How did that happen? How did this very personification of the fine human virtues—courage, grace, perseverance—turn into a killer? Was it literally a moment of madness?
Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced today to five years in jail. The trial had been adjourned in May for six weeks so he could have a thorough psychiatric evaluation to determine whether or not he was criminally responsible for the shooting. There’s a long tradition of mental illness being used as a defence in court, dating back to 1843, when Scottish woodturner Daniel M’Naghten, in the grip of paranoid delusions, set out to shoot the prime minister Robert Peele (he killed his private secretary instead). M’Naghten was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Instead of prison he was sent to the asylum, and though the two were likely largely indistinguishable, his acquittal caused an outcry, leading to an enquiry and a clarification of the law from the House of Lords. What became known as the M’Naghten Rules stated: “To establish a defence on the ground of insanity it must be clearly proved, that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know that what he was doing was wrong.”
Was Pistorius suffering from “defect of reason from disease of the mind” on Valentine's Day last year when he pulled the trigger? On one level, yes of course—you’d have to be mad to kill another human being. But we all have to be held accountable for our actions. Pistorius’ psychiatric evaluation reports rejected the insanity defence. The state prosecutor said: “Mr. Pistorius did not suffer from a mental illness or defect that would have rendered him criminally not responsible for the offence charged.”
The reports did not, however, give Pistorius a completely clean bill of mental health. Professor Jonathan Scholtz, head of psychology at the South African psychiatric hospital where Pistorius was evaluated, described a “split” in his personality: there was the tall, confident international superstar, and then there was the "vulnerable and fearful disabled person" who felt “defenceless.” In a sense, the Oscar Pistorius story has been all about the former running away from the latter. He ran for his life.
Carl Jung described a similar split that all of us carry within. We are all governed by an “ego ideal"—the “rules” of how we are to be in the world, shaped by social mores and customs and the demands of family, community, society (Freud called his version the “super-ego”). And then there’s “the shadow" (Freud: “id”). We tend not to talk about the shadow. It is all of our bad stuff; all our uncivilized, embarrassing, shameful bits that we'd rather disown. If the various constituents of our personality were to have a party, the shadow would gatecrash it, like the drunk uncle who shows up uninvited at Christmas, and pick a fight with the host, grope his wife, steal someone’s purse, make racist remarks, and throw up all over the buffet table. Says Jung: “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly.”
The more demanding and restrictive the ego ideal, the larger and louder the shadow becomes. People who have a personal or public image of “goodness” often struggle mightily with their “badness.” Wealthy dowagers are caught shoplifting. Politicians who are supposed to be model citizens are exposed for their sordid private lives. The church is rife with sickening stories of child abuse. Cardigan-wearing Frank Bough, the avuncular, friendly face of the BBC in the 1980s, liked to visit Soho sex clubs to wear lingerie and snort cocaine with prostitutes.
In sport, time and again, our role models let us down. Pistorius. Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. Enough disgraced footballers, cricketers, NFL, NBA and NHL players to fill a jailhouse. For a while they are like demi-gods—generous philanthropists, spokespersons for worthy causes, nuclei of perfect families. Their ego ideals become big business—central to the “brand,” and they must at all times stay on message. Maybe people like Pistorius even start to believe it all—the idealisation happens from within as well as without. But it’s just a construction, a product of marketing, literally too good to be true. Beneath the public-image veneer—the wholesome photo shoots, the sanitized utterances to the media, the vanity charitable foundations—the shadow, for so long shunned, ignored, repressed, denied, is plotting a grand insurrection. When firearms are involved, the consequences are likely to be deadly.
So let’s stop pretending. Let’s stop worshipping false idols. And let’s accept the shadows—other people’s as well as our own. Jung believed that owning and integrating our shadow side—without surrendering to it—allows us some measure of conscious control. By knowing about our base, primitive instincts, we're in a better position to live with them.
I've worked with clients who have tried so hard, for so long, to live solely within the narrow, suffocating world of their imagined ego ideal, which demands that they only ever be “good” or “nice” or “useful" or “funny" or whatever it was that their childhood environment necessitated. Trying always to be to other people's liking is what some of us learned to do when we were little. It's understandable. We can forgive. But as adults, it's an exhausting way to live, and it doesn't work. Everybody loses. The result is anxiety, isolation, and misery. Better to accept our humanity, warts and all.
And the shadow is not all bad. Cultivating an awareness of it can inject a little passion, play and authenticity into the proceedings; a little freedom. No need to be afraid of the dark. Our shadow makes us whole. It can, with great relief, bring us back to ourselves, and back to life.