Murders Without Murderers: Reeva Steenkamp And The Myth Of The Sudden Snap

A CBS article about the killing of Reeva Steenkamp ran this morning with a quote from Oscar Pistorius in the headline: “She Died In My Arms.” Reeva Steenkamp died in Oscar Pistorius’ arms because Oscar Pistorius killed her. Her death was not something that happened to him. He did not stumble upon a tragic tableau and cradle her, Pietà-like, while she expired; it was an act he committed. A few years earlier, he had been arrested for assault against another woman.

Last month, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about “restorative justice,” focusing on a case where a young man with a history of physical abuse (“Conor was prone to bursts of irrational rage. Ann never told her parents that he had struck her several times.”) shot his girlfriend at point-blank range while she begged him not to kill her.

“He told Ann’s parents that he had no plans to shoot their daughter. Still, he said, “on some subconscious level, I guess, I wanted it all to end. I don’t know what happened. I just — emotions were overwhelming.” He said he didn’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but he recognizes that it wasn’t an accident, either.”

Back in December, when NFL player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before committing suicide, stories focusing on his football career and admiring colleagues ran with headlines like “Pro Football Player Kissed Girlfriend After Killing Her” and “Belcher Shot Girlfriend, Then Kissed Her Forehead.” Fewer outlets reported that Belcher had previously been treated for severing his thumb after punching through a window while “upset over a girl,” or had argued with a girlfriend so loudly for “fail[ing] to get in touch with him by a certain time” that the police showed up.

Pistorius “cried uncontrollably” in court this week.

Look at how much he loved her, these stories say. He just couldn’t help himself. How could a man who cries and kisses someone on the forehead be a monster?

One of the most basic truths about domestic violence is that it gets worse over time. There is rarely a sudden snap; a woman is hurt repeatedly until she is hurt so badly that she dies from it. These stories are written about murders without a murderer, as if there were no warning signs and there was no possible way anyone could have predicted what would happen.

The Violence Against Women Act was not reauthorized this year; it is currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. Your boyfriend or husband may propose to you; he may take a vacation with you; he may move in with you; he may murder you. If you are a woman and you are injured this year, he is the likeliest source of that injury.

We write these stories because we would like to ignore the predicable and widespread escalation of domestic abuse. Often our initial response to domestic violence is embarrassment. How uncomfortable to see someone else’s dirty laundry like that. It’s a “private matter,” best resolved by the woman and her abuser, until there is a body.

There is no reason to cover matters of domestic violence in this fashion. Writers can, and should, identify the agent. Identify the action. Identify the acted-upon. Learn a few basic facts about the patterns of domestic violence. “How could this happen?” someone writes.

A man hurt women for a long time and never got in trouble, so he kept on hurting them more and more until one died. That’s how.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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    • Nikola

      Mallory Ortberg, you are the reason I keep reading this site!

      ““How could this happen?” someone writes.

      A man hurt women for a long time and never got in trouble, so he kept on hurting them more and more until one died. That’s how.”


      • vnally

        Seconded — as much as I love your more surrealist pieces, this article needed to be written and was done so wonderfully.

    • Ashley Cardiff

      I was blown away to discover the article you linked to (as “cried uncontrollably” in court) is actually called:

      “Pistorius ‘absolutely mortified’ at loss of Steenkamp”

      • Tania

        It all started making more sense (the terrifying attempts to make the killer look sympathetic) once I found out he’s an Olympic hero. Depressing sense.

    • …her?

      I really like this article and I think it could be a lot longer and a lot more in depth. Is this a short version? Is a longer one posted elsewhere? Because I’d like to read it if it is.

      • melis

        It’s not, yet! But I would love to take some time and write a longer analysis about how journalists report stories like this one. Thanks very much for the suggestion.

    • Lori Nicole Peck

      The thing I hate most is how people think it’s the woman’s fault for not leaving. Most of the time they don’t have a choice and are so sucked into the warped existence that has been crafted for them that they forget there is another way to live. It’s funny how after a woman gets murdered, then people feel guilty about not reporting the violence sooner. Why aren’t bruises and shattered self esteem devastating enough for people to feel guilty about not helping? It’s like people don’t think it’s serious until its too late. Shameful.

    • PamSN

      I figured steroids figured into it.

    • Grace

      This article is kinda biased. Oscar Pistorius doesn’t deny killing her, he never said he snapped. He said he thought she was a robber. That’s why he’s so emotionally distraught, because he killed someone by mistake. In fact, a lot of the evidence is now pointing to mistaken identity. Please do all your research before you write such an article.

      • Raven

        Right because he really thought a robber made it past his electric fence and security system just to use his bathroom.

    • Jen

      His arrest in 2009 was simply an arrest, charges were dropped the next day, no other girlfriends pressed charges. He can’t be held accountable until he is held accountable. So how do we accomplish that? We have to have a better support system for the victims, some genuine promise of safety for reporting abuse. I can’t tell you how many women I counsel who stay because “a piece of paper isn’t going to keep him from killing me.” When the abuser is arrested the consequences when he is released isn’t worth the arrest. Those who commit such acts actively seek out those who will remain quiet. What’s particularly interesting in this case is that no one, not even Reeva’s closest family and friends suspected anything. Usually EVERYONE knows what is going on. He is either a very sly man or a very wealthy man…or both. Top that off with the recent reports that the authorities investigating this case made several mistakes, allowed a man who is facing murder charges himself to lead the investigation, it’s entirely possible that it could ruin the case against him. This happens so frequently it’s scary. Community supports that help victims, a court system that errs on the side of caution and actual ways to keep someoen safe would make locking away someone like this much easier.

      • Datdamwuf

        You said “Usually EVERYONE knows what is going on.” That’s not true at all, as a survivor of domestic abuse I can tell you, usually no one knows what’s going on, you don’t talk about private matters to other people, it’s part of the abuse, and the abuser has a good public persona.

    • John locke

      I forgot that people are guilty before proven innocent nowadays. The author clearly knows, with 100% certainty, that pistaurius did it. Shes absolutely right. All men want to kill their lovers. Women should never trust men. They are all evil. Hopefully the people who are stupid enough to agree with this article realize this is indeed sarcastic. What happened to due process or do you not give a fuck about the principles that democracy was founded on

    • Count Ringworm

      I wonder what the author thinks of the Jodi Arias murder trial? Never mind, Arias is a woman and we all know violence against men doesn’t count when discussing domestic abuse.

      • Datdamwuf

        I think the reason Arias is not being talked about on most feminist sites is because she appears to be a psychopath who has changed her story many times and now appears to be using every abuse trope she ever read to defend herself. I would like to see an article about her myself after the trial ends.

    • MeaganGipson

      Thank you for bringing more attention to this global concern; it is so important for every voice to do so. I was deeply moved by Reeva Steenkamp’s story and life, I wrote a tribute song “Angel” for her and other women affected by violence Please SHARE if you can, everyone.

    • Whitney

      point that I took away from this article was not so much the author’s opinion
      of the specific situation or the murderer, but more so the media’s portrayal of
      the incident. There is an obvious suggestion in a title like “Blecher Shot
      Girlfriend, Then Kissed Her Forehead” that paints the man as a pained victim.
      This type of manipulation- the simple phrasing of a thought- has quite a few
      consequences. Opinions are formed about people without all of the facts being
      there. Also, suggestions are made or assumed, especially in cases like these,
      about gender. For example, titles like the one I just mentioned paint a
      romantic picture, reminding you that this man loved this woman, so do not feel
      too bad for her. Or, perhaps it can be assumed that the woman is never the
      victim; not when she is murdered, nor when she is a murderer. (Because is it
      not true that when we hear about female murderers, they are either suffering
      from some mental illness, or are emotionally devastated, or have snapped and
      lost control over themselves [because, of course, women need to be controlled,
      right?].) But, also, look at this very article being discussed! Some comment
      and say that the author does not have the full story; that the author withholds
      the information that the murderer killed his girlfriend by accident. Some
      comments point out how the author paints men to be: suggesting to us readers
      that if we are women, and we get injured, it is from our partners. (So, be
      careful!) My overall point here is that the media has a lot of control over
      what opinions we form due to what information is released and how it is
      released. (But it is very important not to miss that point at the end: “a man
      hurt women for a long time and never got in trouble, so he kept on hurting them
      more and more until one died.”

    • MacB

      It’s also important to note that, statistically speaking, approximately half of domestic violence incidents are instigated by women – and that a substantial majority of both genders never engage in domestic violence at all. Of course, there is no excuse for domestic violence, whether perpetrated by a woman or by a man, but erroneous assumptions created by repeated semantic linking do not help the victims of either gender, and in fact do a great disservice to them. Problems are more effectively addressed when perception matches the reality. The assumption that DV is a gender issue is no more valid than the assumption that infidelity is a male proclivity when women cheat at roughly the same rate, or that men are more likely to abandon a relationship, when women currently instigate about 70% of divorces. Most men are not Oscar Pistorious any more than most women are Jodi Arias.