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A Trauma-Informed Perspective on Oscar Pistorius

PistoriusHow is it that Oscar Pistorius’ case of “shoot your girlfriend and get away with it” isn’t evoking universal outrage?  There is no doubt that bullets from the gun he fired killed his girlfriend.  There is no doubt that her parents and many others are enraged with grief and want someone to pay.  That’s the normal, predictable reaction.

Even the legal beagles of South Africa are adopting enraged positions. In a Tweet, James Grant, Wits University criminal law professor said, “Masipa doesn’t accept that accused intended to kill anyone. Huh? His defence was he didn’t intend to UNLAWFULLY kill.”  He Tweeted again, “How can you voluntarily fire four shots into a toilet cubicle & not foresee the possibility of killing whoever was in there.”

But this outrage hasn’t leaked into the public consciousness – family and law professors can and are shouting to the high heavens, but the public seems uncharacteristically accepting. Why?

Here are a couple ways to see it. It’s all about what you believe: how you frame Oscar Pistorius determines your degree of outrage.

If I believe Oscar Pistorius to be a rich, famous, powerful man, mad as hell at his girlfriend because he couldn’t control her, laying awake at night while plotting how to kill her because he is an innate son of a bitch committing domestic violence, I’m enraged. Underneath it, I’m jealous of his money, mad at his behavior, and think he deserves punishment that will bring him down to an even shorter stature.  I am sickened by his screaming, crying, and puking in court. That woman judge and her two assessors?  Clueless.  And stupid.

But if I believe Oscar Pistorius is a rich and famous man who overcame a terrible disability and whose issues with power and control led him to impulsive rage and anger, who should have never had a gun in the first place, and who used his gun to express his displeasure at a woman who was able-bodied but behind a bathroom door, I’ll still be enraged.  Underneath it, I am heartbroken because he has let the community of people with disabilities down (another fallen hero), mad because no one kept him—an otherwise healthy appearing individual—from owning a gun, and as feminist, I want his balls.  He’s a great actor, what with the puking, screaming, crying.  I still want his balls. He’s getting off easy and deserves a much harsher punishment. Jail with no legs?  Let him have a dose of his own meanness. That woman judge and her two assessors?  Clueless. Still stupid.

Anybody see a pattern here?

But then if I believe Oscar Pistorius is a rich and famous man who overcame a terrible disability, grew up learning terror from his mother (who slept with a gun), who carried the level of anxiety normal for a person who has experienced trauma, whose nervous system may have been stuck in alarm which is normal for people who grow up in chronic terror (from disability, bullying, terrified parents, and many other things), and who woke with his inner alarm system going full tilt and without his prostheses, I can see how he did the most horrible thing in the world in sheer reaction mode, like a soldier in a flashback.  His crying, screaming, and puking were real expressions of his anguish.

He killed someone he loved, whether or not they got along well all the time. And instead of outrage, I can feel compassion for and empathy with this person who was in many ways a pawn to understandable processes he couldn’t control.

Now the question is which one of these interpretations is correct? Is Pistorius a manipulative monster or is he suffering the effects of trauma and suffering again due to the actions his history created?

There’s limited objective evidence from the murdered woman’s parents that Pistorius is a man given to beat woman.  There’s the evidence of psychological examiners, far more equipped to assess the risks and causes, that Pistorius was appropriately insecure and anxious, sometimes got upset too quickly (PTSD talking) and sorted it out later (healthy response to a PTSD reaction when you’re learning how to manage it).

When I weigh the biased evidence of her parents against the largely unbiased evidence of psychological examiners, I tend to come down on the side that Pistorius is telling the truth. From a trauma-informed perspective, what happened to him in the first eighteen years of life bit him.  Badly.  Imagine the trauma of:

·        Being born with a disability,

·        which changed how his parents related to him during a time when connection to them was critical,

·        which required double amputation at 11 months  (which I doubt few of us can imagine with any sense of reality),

·        which required a never-ending series of long and painful recoveries as each new set of prostheses was fitted,

·        which led to the usual bullying and tormenting by people with legs,

·        and his father’s absence since age 7,

·        and his mother’s level of terror  because of his father’s absence and multiple home invasions

And what it means to

·        grow up a man

·        unable to balance on half a leg

·        having to overcompensate all the time to be mobile

·        to eventually go well beyond the circumstances in which he grew up.

I get it: he killed his girlfriend; I have empathy for the many who insist he’s a cold blooded murderer, that there’s no relevance that his mum had a gun under her pillow, etc.  But missing is any coherent understanding by the masses of what trauma after trauma does to one’s sense of self, to the chronic level of fear, and to the vulnerability of being deeply asleep and then to wake up terrified.

It’s a terrible pity that his life is what it was, and that he has come so far only to have it bite him hard.   I hold him in my thoughts, because I know how easy it could be for his actions to be actions many others could take, not from a murderous but from a terrified perspective – one of being unable to slow things down enough to avoid the murderous action.

Kudos to the brave Judge Thokozile Masipa and her assessors who took the time to carefully—and seriously—consider the evidence and sort out timelines, contradictory statements, heated emotions, and look objectively at the facts of how a beloved woman died without getting trapped in the multiple storylines that make bad worse.  They are perhaps the most potentially trauma-informed people in the entire situation.


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A Trauma-Informed Perspective on Oscar Pistorius

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed.

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed., CEO of EPower & Associates, Inc. is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, teacher, and consultant. Her firm's specialty is helping organizations make and manage change through learning and doing. Her mastery of diverse interests and innovation has been recognized worldwide through awards and publications across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Her firm provides services in the mental health and disability communities and to early childhood educators, families, parents and teachers.

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APA Reference
Power, E. (2014). A Trauma-Informed Perspective on Oscar Pistorius. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Sep 2014
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