I’ve been following the Oscar Pistorius trial with interest. Not only because it is the celebrity sensation du jour, not even because I met Oscar when he was competing in the London 2012 Paralympics, but because as someone who works in the mental health sector I find the unfolding of the trial fascinating for what it tells us about this unique individual, and about human nature.
Yesterday, news reports jumped on Prosector Gerrie Nel’s condemnation of Pistorius as a “bully” and a self-obsessed “narcissist” who was only interested in “Oscar”. To call someone a narcissist is contentious, and Nel most likely used the term knowingly. Was he implying that Pistorius may suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which could have far-reaching implications not only for the trial but for Pistorius’s future. So what is NPD and what does it mean for this trial?
Personality disorder diagnoses are controversial, as the implication is that a person does not have a mental health condition – which may be treatable – but rather has a flawed personality. The label is often seen as stigmatising and unhelpful. The personality is the very essence of who we are – and cannot easily be changed. Common signs of a personality disorder include demonstrating less flexibility than most, having limited ranges of emotions and behaviours and difficulties in relationships with others. A person with a personality disorder may feel different or that he/she doesn’t fit in. Personality Disorders typically manifest in teens or early adulthood and affect all areas of an individual’s life. There is no medication that can specifically treat personality disorders, though drugs may be prescribed for associated problems, such as depression and talking therapies can be helpful. Personality disorders fall into three categories: Suspicious, Emotional/Impulsive and Anxious. NPD is in the Emotional/Impulsive category.
NPD is one of the most complex of the personality disorders, and often very difficult to diagnose or treat. During my training one of my tutors told me that the last person to acknowledge that he/she has a problem will be the narcissist as he/she will always believe that everyone else has the problem, not them. Narcissists can appear selfish; they may seem to have a belief that they are in some ways superior, or more deserving. They often crave attention or deference – resenting the popularity or success of others. Narcissists need to be in control and can become adept at manipulating others to get what they desire or feel they deserve. They are often the epitome of charisma and charm to some, whilst being controlling and unpleasant – even to the point of abuse – to those close to them. Narcissists can be terrible bullies, but underlying the controlling and seemingly confident exterior is a fragile ego, a poorly formed sense of identity and frequently low self esteem. Is this Oscar Pistorius?
When I met Pistorius in 2012 he came across as extremely charming, not at all the big celeb: he seemingly had time for everyone, he told me that I didn’t need to apologise to him when I said sorry for giving him a pen that didn’t work to sign his autograph. Like most, I was stunned and shocked to the core to hear the news that unfolded on February 14 last year. But when I consider the traits of NPD and look for the evidence in Pistorius, there is a compelling case. Firstly, I am reminded of his behaviour at London 2012 Paralympic games when beaten in the 200m final by Brazilian Alan Oliveira. His reaction was one of indignation and disbelief – someone had snatched away the crown that was rightfully his. He accused the victor of cheating. He later apologised for his ungracious reaction, but the apology itself could be part of the narcissist’s game play. This is what some are saying about his public apology to the Steenkamps in court this week – as Gerrie Nel put to him, why not do it in private? Another sign of NPD is a lack of empathy for others. So does Pistorius feel genuine regret for killing Reeva? This seems to be one of Nel’s main angles in court this week.
The origins of NPD, as all personality disorders, are unclear, however childhood experiences are believed to be a factor in some cases; Pistorius’s upbringing was far from typical. Disabled from birth and having both lower legs amputated at a young age, he was never going to be an ordinary child. Yet the mother he still idolises – who was his sole parent for much of his childhood and who died when he was 15 – allegedly refused to allow him any special treatment. His subsequent successes as an athlete have often been credited to the strength and determination he needed to develop in order to survive alongside – and ultimately compete against – the able-bodied. It’s quite significant that Pistorius felt driven to compete against able-bodied athletes as well as other disabled athletes. One theory behind NPD is that an exaggerated sense of self-belief develops in order to compensate for vulnerability or feelings of worthlessness beneath. Was the young Oscar not allowed to feel or express any self-pity, or anger at his condition? Is the cost of this now being played out for all to see, and the violent death of a talented young woman? Pistorius’s feelings of vulnerability may contribute to his apparently extreme paranoia, and the reason he allegedly kept a gun to hand at all times. Could the circumstances of Pistorius’s upbringing and disability explain the self-absorption of which he stands accused in court? If so, then should not his disability be taken into account? Should his defense not plead diminished responsibility, if that is an acceptable defence in South Africa? But in order to do so, perhaps he would have to admit first to shooting Reeva in rage?
Pistorius’s vulnerability seems to be on display in court for all to see, but is his behaviour genuine, or as some suggest, merely an act? Are his extreme emotions in the dock caused by the weight of responsibility for the death of Reeva, or by the narcissist’s self pity and regret? Some of the text messages between himself and Reeva have been damning; Nel has used them to paint a picture of a cruel and manipulative bully, a man who was unable to reciprocate his girlfriend’s declarations of love but who would torment and intimidate her instead. But I believe Pistorius when he says that he was besotted by Reeva; he probably had a far greater need for her than she had for him. Narcissists need the adoration of others in order to bolster their inadequate self worth, yet they continue to put their own needs above those of others. A relationship with a narcissist can be like a one-way street, and perhaps Reeva was starting to realise this. If the text messages are anything to go by, their relationship seems to have been tempestuous, a fact that Pistorius is trying to play down in court.
Whilst Pistorius has too much to lose by changing his plea now – there’s still a chance he will not be convicted of premeditated murder – the truth is that the narcissist is just as likely to fire a gun recklessly upon a partner with whom he is fighting as upon an intruder. For the narcissist will always put himself first. Narcissists can be risk taking and reactive, they often do not stop to think – which is Pistorius’s own defence of firing the fatal shots. If Pistorius is convicted of premeditated murder, or even of the lesser charge of culpable homicide, perhaps it would help him to undergo detailed psychological analysis (if such a thing is available in the South African prison system), because if he does have narcissistic personality disorder, he really needs to talk…..
Information about Personality Disorders from Mind