The Narrative Construction of Identity and the Production of the Truth
This post largely stems from a paper that was presented at the conference “Doing Truth”, hosted by the University of Konstanz (11.-13/07/2014).
As I wrote in my last post, the trial against Oscar Pistorius is about assessing whether or not Pistorius acted according to an error in persona. It is not about the action itself – he alleges to have fired the fatal shots – it is about his intentions. He claims that what he did was a terrible accident, meaning he did not intend to shoot his girlfriend. Moreover, he rejects the notion that he wanted to kill whoever, in his opinion, was hiding behind the door. Hence, just like in the auricular confession as described by Alois Hahn (1998) the murder trial is about assessing the true motives and intentions of Pistorius.
The following transcript of the trial illustrates the manner in which the different versions of the events, that are presented at court, come to clash:
Trial: Monday 14 April 2014, Session 1 (0:00:00 – 0:01:17)
Judge Masipa: You’re still under oath, Mr. Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius: Thank you, Milady.
Judge Masipa: Thank you very much. Yes, Mr. Nell.
Gerri Nel: May it please the Court. Mr. Pistorius (…) my argument will be and that that the cross examination will focus on today is that your version is so improbable that it cannot be reasonably possibly true. (…) I’m going further, Mr. Pistorius, I’m saying that your version of events is in fact untrue. Then, before we start, Mr. Pistorius, I say you’ve got a concoted version which you have tailored to fit the State’s case and you’re tailoring your version as you’re sitting there. You understand what I am saying, Mr. Pistorius?
Oscar Pistorius: Yes, Milady.
Gerri Nel: Good.
As shown in the excerpt, the truth is linked to probability. Prosecutor Nel claims that Pistorius’ story of the events “is so improbable that it cannot be reasonably possibly true” and therefore must be untrue. According to a legal understanding in which the truth is assessed along the lines of what is probable, absurd and unusual events are more likely to be untrue and therefore need rationalization and further explanation in order to be deemed credible.
In the courtroom, two exclusive narratives are confronted and each is supported by different kinds of evidence: expert evidence (e.g.: forensic, ballistic experts, psychiatrists, police), testimonies of witnesses (e.g.: neighbours, friends), pictures of the crime scene but also objects like the original bathroom door that has been taken from the accused’s apartment and brought to court.
The narrative pushed forward by the prosecution depicts Pistorius as a ruthless and treacherous killer. In the following, I will refer to this version by the term perpetrator-perpetrator narrative. Opposed to this I will frame Pistorius’ version in which he is the protagonist of a tragedy as the victim-perpetrator narrative.
The perpetrator-perpetrator narrative is for example supported by a WhatsApp message, found in the chat protocol, in which Steenkamp told Oscar that sometimes she was afraid of him. Furthermore character evidence was brought to the court’s attention. Character evidence refers to testimonies of friends or acquaintances who for example stated Pistorius’ love for guns. In this context, two incidences were reported in which Pistorius had made use of a firearm in public. Moreover, Prosecutor Gerri Nel used images taken of Pistorius’ bedroom, in which Steenkamp’s trousers were lying on the floor, arguing that she wanted to leave in the middle of the night because of a fight but then only made it to the bathroom.
In the victim-perpetrator narrative, Pistorius is depicted by himself, his lawyers and defense witnesses and experts as a young and ambitious man, a disabled sportsman whose life has been anything but easy. A thorough evaluation of the accused’s mental health was given by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Meryll Vorster. She argued that Pistorius went through diverse traumatic experiences as a child and as a young adult that affected his overall levels of anxiety and in effect led to a generalized anxiety disorder. For example, Vorster names the amputation of Oscar Pistorius legs at the pre-linguistic age of eleven months, the early loss of his mother and incidences in which Pistorius was exposed to robbery as highly traumatic biographical turning points.
As Vorster reads her report that offers the listener a biographical tour through Oscar Pistorius mental condition, defense advocate Barry Roux repeatedly interrupts the psychological portrayal to ask the question :„How would this link up to Mr. Pistorius’ anxiety?“ In the following, Vorster explained how a generalized anxiety disorder might influence the way Oscar Pistorius reacts in different situations which might be different from the way „normal people“ would be likely to react.
Thus, the victim-perpetrator narrative refers to a man, who has been a victim not only because of his biography and disability but who also is a victim of South African society, a society, that is characterized by overall high levels of crime and the constant need to ensure one’s security.In consequence, the narrative depicts the athlete as a victim who due to his biography and personal experiences became a perpetrator in the course of a tragic incident. Pistorius’ version of the events is not a story of murder, it is a story of self-defence gone wrong. His depictions of the events – that are deemed improbable by the prosecution – are rationalized by the victim-perpetrator narrative as Pistorius, due to his general anxiety disorder, is likely to behave in a different way than it would be expected of a ‘normal person’.
Despite the two competing narratives and their supporting evidence, Pistorius’ behaviour in the courtroom has become subject of evidence and of speculation. At various incidences, the accused started crying, trembling and shaking and, confronted with pictures of Steenkamp’s dead body, even vomited. As Maurice Bloch (2008) describes, what can be seen is strongly linked to what is perceived as true. Following Alois Hahn the body must therefore be seen as an organ of truth. As a consequence, Pistorius bodily reactions can be understood as involuntarily, authentic reactions that mirror the accused’s true emotions and by this support the victim-perpetrator narrative. However, soon a counter-interpretation emerged, depicting the athlete’s body language as feigned. Various newspapers headlined that Oscar Pistorius might have taken acting classes prior to the trial (which was denied). This interpretation, clearly in favour of the perpetrator-perpetrator narrative, alludes to the notion of body language as language, as something that can be altered, influenced and used in order to strategically deceit others. Still, in both narratives, the body itself serves as evidence.
In the following I present another excerpt of the trial in order to give further insight into the court proceedings and illustrate how the legal setting serves as an arena for constructing identity and producing truth.
Trial: Wednesday 9 April 2014, Session 1 (01:04:15 – 01:07:30)
Judge Masipa: Yes, Mr. Roux
Barry Roux: Thank you for the indulgence, Milady. I have no further questions.
Judge Masipa: Thank you very much. Yes, Mr. Nell.
Gerri Nel: As the Court pleases, Milady. Mr. Pistorius, you were and you still are one of the most recognized faces in the world. Do you agree?
Oscar Pistorius: I agree, Milady.
Gerri Nel: You are a model for sportsmen, disabled and able-bodied sportsmen all over the world.
Oscar Pistorius: I think I was, Milady. I’ve made a terrible mistake and
Gerri Nel: Y- ah you made a mistake?
Oscar Pistorius: That’s correct M-
Gerri Nel: You killed a person. That’s what you did, isn’t it?
Oscar Pistorius: I made a mistake, Mil-
Gerri Nel: You killed Reeva Steenkamp, that’s what you did.
Oscar Pistorius: I made a mistake, Milady.
Gerri Nel: You’re repeating it three times. What was your mistake?
Oscar Pistorius: My mistake is that I took Reeva’s life, Milady.
Gerri Nel: You killed her. You shot and killed her. (…) Won’t you take responsibility for that?
Oscar Pistorius: I did, Milady.
Gerri Nel: Then say it. Say yes. I killed, I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp.
Oscar Pistorius: I did, Milady.
Gerri Nel: Okay. Now, Mr. Pistorius (…) you know that (noise) people will be looking up at you.
Oscar Pistorius: I didn’t hear the question, Milady.
Gerri Nel: People look up at you (.) as (…) a sport hero. Is that correct?
Oscar Pistorius: I haven’t had any (…) I don’t check (.) any of my ahm media things any more. I don’t check any of my media reports. I know that a lot of people’s opinions of me have changed. I know in the past people did look up to me.
Gerri Nel: Let’s talk about then the past. Before you killed Reeva, people looked up.
Oscar Pistorius: That’s correct, Milady.
Gerri Nel: And at that you have a responsibility. Do now tell the truth. Let us get to the truth.
Oscar Pistorius: I think I have a responsibility for myself and Reeva to tell the truth, Milady.
Gerri Nel: And you will know.
Oscar Pistorius: So I’m here to tell the truth, I’m here to tell the truth as much as I can remember on that night.
Gerri Nel: And (…) you will not hide things to the Court?
Oscar Pistorius: I won’t, Milady.
Gerri Nel: And coupled with that, you live strictly upon Chris- Christian principles.
Oscar Pistorius: I try to, Milady. I’m, I’m human. I make many (.) faults, I have sins. (.) I (But) I’m a Christian because (…) of the reason that I’m a sinner. The Lord said he came down to this world for the people that have sins. I don’t always think the things I do are right.
Gerri Nel: But as a Christian, you will not lie.
Oscar Pistorius: I try not to lie, Milady. As I said, I’m human, I’m here to tell the truth.
In this excerpt, Prosecutor Gerri Nel alludes to Pistorius being a role model, his face known worldwide. Pistorius was the first disabled athlete to compete against able-bodied runners in the Olympic Games and up until February 20th 2013 face of Nike advertisement. Nel connects Pistorius status of a role model to his obligation to tell the truth and in addition, refers to Pistorius Christian faith. Linking the obligation to tell the truth in court proceedings to the religious obligation to tell the truth brings in the notion of confession, the obligation to confess one’s motives and intentions in order to be forgiven.
Bloch, Maurice (2008): Truth and Sight: Generalizing without Universalizing. In: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 14, The Objects of Evidence: Anthropological Approaches to the Production of Knowledge (2008), pp. S22-S32.
Hahn, Alois (1998) Narrative Identity and Auricular Confession as Biography-Generators. In Albert I. Baumgarten, Jan Assmann, Guy G. Stroumsa (eds.): Self, Soul and Body in Religious Experience. Leiden [u.a]: Brill, pp 25-52.