The day my dad chased my mom with a loaded gun

The day my dad chased my mom with a loaded gun

A few years ago, Oscar Pistorius and I spoke at the same conference in Cape Town. At just 23, I found him warm, down to earth and wise beyond his years. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to get this incident out of my head is not because the idea of a man like that committing murder is so far off but because it is so close to home. I keep finding myself thinking of the day my father nearly killed my mother.

I’ve had to think long and hard about sharing this partly because I’m ashamed, mainly because this will shock my father’s friends and family. I’ve decided that if sharing my story prevents even one more of these tragedies, it’s worth it.

My dad was known as a gentleman, a softie, a kindhearted guy who would go out of his way to help anyone. What most people don’t know is that my dad had a violent temper. Occasionally he’d take it out on my brother and I. Back  then that sort of physical abuse had a respectable name: corporal punishment. The problem was he hit my mother too. A little further back, that also used to be socially acceptable. I wish I could tell you that I had the courage to stand up for my mother but his rage was so terrifying all I could think of was weathering the storm until it passed, which it inevitably did. My dad would often make tearful apologies and once again become a loving father and husband. I’d sooth myself in the balm of denial: “He knows he’s done wrong, he won’t do it again.”

I grew up, went away to university and assumed that age had mellowed my dad. To my knowledge there hadn’t been an incident since I’d left. Back for vacation, I arrived home from visiting friends to see my father pacing up and down the passageway in one of his dark moods. Holding my ground, I tried to find my most calming voice.

“What’s happening dad?”
He was holding something in his pocket.
“Dad?” I pressed.
Without looking up, he half pulled out his hand, revealing the handgrip of his gun. “I was chasing your mother.”
I managed to hide my panic. “Where is she?”
“Locked in Helen’s room,” He put the gun back in his pocket.
Helen was our housekeeper, my mother had gone there to hide.
“Dad,” I said, “you need to go and lock that away in the safe so we can talk this through.”
With his rage dimming and his rational brain kicking in, I think my father was relieved to do as I asked.

In moments of anger my father had reached for his gun before. This was the last time. No, my mother didn’t leave him and no we didn’t have him arrested. He realized that he had a problem and that he needed help. He felt too insecure to give up his gun but while he would keep the gun, he agreed that my mother would keep the bullets. It wasn’t a perfect solution in fact it was irresponsible of us to allow even that. But that’s not why I’m sharing this story.

My father was not insane, he had no history of criminality, he would never have failed a gun license screening but he was susceptible to murderous rages. In some ways rage is like a mental disability to understand why you’ve got to understand something about the brain.

Like all of us, when my father felt under threat be it from the boss who fired him, my mother screaming, or a road-raging driver, before entering the rational area of his brain the information penetrated an almond shaped part of his brain called the amygdala, which assesses threat level. My father was an insecure man with low self-esteem so his amygdala may have been more likely to interpret information as threatening. When the amygdala—the emotional impulsive brain—perceives threat, it kicks in the flight or fight response. This is a survival mechanism that readies the body for vigorous action by producing a rush of stress hormones such as adrenaline, boosting heart rate, breathing and blood pressure and if the feeling produced is anger, sending blood into the hands making it easier to strike an attacker or grab a weapon. This is an adaptive response; it’s there to protect us from real danger. The problem is, like an overactive immune system, it can become maladaptive, treating an ego threat as a mortal threat and responding to a screaming spouse like a murderous attacker.

Threatening information isn’t only processed by the impulsive, emotional brain. Had my dad waited before grabbing his gun, perhaps taking a few deep breaths, what ever my mother screamed at him would have eventually made it to his neocortex, this is the outer, most evolved part of the brain where judgment, reasoning and morality reside. Let’s call it the rational brain. It takes longer both for information to travel to, and be processed by the rational brain. If you’re being chased by a violent attacker taking time to deliberate about an appropriate, moral response would threaten your survival. With milliseconds to go before your attack you need to immediately counter attack or flee. So the brain produces an emotion like rage that overwhelms your capacity for conscious thought and kicks you into action. Think of it as your emotional brain hijacking your rational brain. Our brain anatomy doesn’t negate personal responsibility, rather it helps us explain how personal responsibility can be compromised and encouragingly, how it can be strengthened.

Had my dad had some basic emotional intelligence training he could have gradually learned to override his impulsive emotional brain and let his rational brain take over, choosing a more constructive way to resolve the conflict. The reason so many wife batterers like my dad are genuinely remorseful after a violent episode is because a very real part of them—their rational brain—goes AWOL during the violent episode. They are sincere when they say they: didn’t mean it, won’t do it again, don’t know what came over them, lost it. They did lose it, they lost their rational brain. The problem is, until my dad learned to take back control from his emotional brain, no amount of tearful commitment to being a better man was going to help. You don’t learn emotional mastery through sheer force of will, it requires retraining the brain. People like my dad should not have a gun in the house or emotional intelligence assessment and training should be a standard part of their gun training.

Of course without a gun my dad could have gone chasing after my mom with a knife, a baseball bat or even his bare hands but that would have required more time and closer contact. After you hit someone with your hand or a bat, and you see the damage, your rational brain is more likely to kick in and override your emotional, impulsive brain. My father would almost never hit my mother more than once or twice. Seeing what he was doing, his rational brain would intervene and end the violence. The ease and immediacy of guns doesn’t make them conducive to second thoughts – particularly during an emotional hijacking. We use the term “hair trigger” to apply to both guns and tempers and together they make a lethal combination.

We probably won’t be able to rely on the law to prevent a gun from getting into the hands of someone like my father. With their eye on the second amendment, the National Rifle Association likes to remind us: “Guns don’t kill, people do.” That’s true but emotionally hijacked men are more likely to kill when they have a loaded gun near by. So what do we do? If you know you are prone to violent outbursts don’t own a gun. Either way, do some anger management or emotional intelligence training.

If Oscar Pistorius believed he was shooting an intruder—and I hope he did—the tragedy may still have been preventable if he was better able to engage his rational brain while under perceived threat. All it would have taken was a few moments before shooting to let the information penetrate his neocortex. A glance to the bed and he would have realized that his girlfriend may have been in the bathroom. Perceived threat level at maximum, emotional impulsive brain fully activated, and gun in hand, I can see why he may have just fired.

Unfortunately, if in that moment he did intend to kill her that would also be plausible. According to the American Bureau of Justice Statistics, two out of five female murder victims are killed by an intimate. 85% of all murders are committed by someone the victim knows. We live in fear of strangers when the more likely threat is sleeping in the next room, or next to you. If you are in a relationship with a person who owns a gun and is prone to aggressive outbursts or lacks emotional self-control you have a choice. You can:

1)    Stay in the relationship and continue to put your life at risk.
2)    You can make your partner give up the gun as a prerequisite of you staying in the relationship. If you think you can’t live without him you definitely can’t live if he kills you.

I don’t know what happened between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day. The law will decide and the law decrees that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Either way, maybe there is a teachable moment here—if not from Oscar than from my father. My dad was a gentle, loving man. My dad was also a violent, wife beater prone to murderous rage. My dad had a moral, rational brain and an impulsive, emotional one that sometimes took over. I’m not that different to my dad. I also have aggressive impulses, even murderous ones. I’ve just learnt to control my anger through exercise, meditation and emotional intelligence training.

If your husband or lover is anything like my dad, and owns a gun, please do more than my mom and I did. We were lucky you might not be.


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Comments (23)

  1. Justin :

    Thank you Stevey.

  2. Justin :

    Thanks for your comment Carol, I am very glad that you haven’t, we just need to work to ensure that we reduce the amount of people who will experience something like this.

  3. Carol B :

    Wow, I really admire you for your thought provoking story. It’s just a pity that more people don’t read something like this because it makes you think. It can happen to anybody, but I am truly greatful for have never having been in one of these situations. Thank you for sharing Justin.

  4. Justin :

    Thank you for your comment Hilda. I agree that we need to be very firm in our response to anyone who commits these sorts of crimes but we also need to understand how we can prevent them and reform those who perpetrate them.

  5. Justin :

    You’re very welcome Dorothy, thank you for your comment.

  6. Hilda :

    Hi Justin
    Thank you for a very thought provoking article. I knew family violence as a child and have always had a very hard and unforgiving approach to any violence towards women and children. Thank you for illustrating that one can look at it differently and thereby actually achieve a far better outcome.

    That said, I still believe that society should take a very strong stand on the fact that violence is unacceptable and aggression towards those that are physically weaker is particularly unacceptable. We should insist that it is wrong and alternatives should be sought, If that means leaving a dangerous situation, that is what must happen.

  7. Dorothy :

    Hi Justin
    My thoughts on your above article, I think, triggered a lot of memories for a lot of people, we are so quick to judge and maybe it’s because we speak from our own experiences and subconscious memories and we compare it to other people’s experiences. Thanks for your article, I admire people that write articles like this one, its digging deep and sharing it with the world, takes a lot of courage.

  8. Justin :

    Thank you Uncle, you’re right I am extremely fortunate to be able to share this. From the comments and emails that I am receiving there are many others, when we share not only do we become less alone, we hopefully shine a light on the darkness where this behaviour thrives.

  9. Justin :

    Thank you for your comment Josephine. Bishop Tutu once said, the end of apartheid liberated both the oppressed and the oppressor. When we stop abuse we liberate both the abused and the abuser.

  10. Justin :

    Kgaogelo, your story sent a shiver up my spine, a shiver of exhilaration. You are a tremendous example of triumph over abuse. I hope you share your story widely, there are probably millions of women out who could benefit. You show that no woman needs a man and no woman has to subject themselves to a man’s criminality.

  11. Clive Simpkins :

    The day our sincerity becomes more important than our ego, is the day we become a healer and resource for change on the planet. You are blessed for being in that space and at that place. This story will give pause, reflection and insight to many. Big hug.

  12. Kgaogelo :

    Hi Justin
    I got married to a violent man,he was physicall, sexually and emotionally abusive. As a black woman and a christian, I was told I must respect him more and he will change. I was a teacher by profession and also scared about the social stigma of being divorced. One day when we were in bed and he was in a happy mood, I asked him why is he always beating me and taking my money, he said to me he felt sorry for me because I had no parents and that why he married me. What he didn’t know then was he gave me a strong weapon to defend myself, the night became long, as I already made up my mind to leave him at that moment. The next morning as soon as he left for work around half-past six in the morning, I quickly packed up my bags with a four year old son and an eighteen month old daughter and I left, I never looked back. I stayed in a shelter for battered women, then later moved to a backyard room in the township. I got a house of my own, I raised the two children without any support from him. Now they are grown up, my son will be getting married soon. The answers lies within us, and only if we could rely on our inner intuition, and make the right decisions. Thanks a lot

  13. Josephine :

    Thank you so much for the kind words of Oscar Pretorius. I have never met him but I feel so sorry for the guy as his life is ruined due to an moment…

    I feel sorry for Reeva’s parents as well, but there is Oscar with a sword above his head. Can we not just for one second rather think about praying for him instead of crusifying him! It reminds me of Jesus being crusified – and the most disturbing fact is that most of these blood thirsty people sit in church on a Sunday and they cannot say ‘poep’!!!!

  14. Justin :

    Thank you for your comment Essie, it sounds like you went though a lot. The constant threat of gun violence is itself a trauma and yes I agree, there should be stricter laws. Of course as long as we respect the right to bear arms, no law will prevent gun violence but at least we could equip gun owners with psychological tools to increase their responsibility.

  15. Justin :

    Anneke, thank you for your point about hope, yes, I’m not big on the idea of demons and angels, I think we’ve all got a bit of both and with the right tools and insights we can all be better human beings

  16. Justin :

    Thank you for your positive feedback and for sharing your experience Jenny. The more we open up to one another, the more we realize that we are not alone. This kind of behavior only thrives in the dark, let’s shine the light, agree to speak up and take action.

  17. Justin :

    Thanks Wayne, you knew my dad and I know you also knew his goodness.

  18. Justin :

    Thank you for your beautiful words my friend.You are a triumph of the human spirit, I am very proud of you. Love Justin

  19. Shayne Kaplan :

    Dear Justin

    I am so glad that you shared this story today because it shows that no ones lives are perfect and that we never truly understand what goes on behind closed doors of a house.

    I am sorry that you had to go though such an experience Justin but it proves two things. One that even after such an event you can still live a happy and successful life if we as people work through everything properly but it also shows that after the incident when you caught your dad with the guy he changed too and for the better and he never reached that level of anger in himself against the women he loved.

    I can say I feel so much more connected to you after reading this story because it comes straight from your heart and you shared it with love and purpose.

    The best part of knowing you is the love in your heart and purity of spirit that makes you you.

    Its my pleasure to call you my friend Justin.

    I know we haven’t spoken in ages and it breaks my heart (I feel like I’ve let you down) but in truth your words and wisdom that I have learnt from you from your CD’s, our talks and our mentorship and your book Quest Inc are never far from my lips and I option catch myself saying my friend Justin always says………………

    I know that I cant really repay the kindness you have shown me in the last 13 years but I hope that I can show you the honor and respect you deserve by teaching it to others also always starting with the quote “My friend Justin says”.

    I have so much love and respect for you Justin because you are the one person I know that doesn’t judge me in some way or another and for that I owe you so much because everyone always judges me before knowing me but you didn’t and don’t Justin.

    Lots of Love my friend always

    Shayne “The King” Kaplan

  20. Wayne K. :

    Profound and powerful stuff, Justin.
    Thank you for having the courage to share.

    These insights are desperately needed at this time.

    Thank you.

  21. Jenny :

    Thank you for a really well written, well thought out piece. I too am saddened, surprised and shocked by what happened and realise that whatever Oscar was thinking, the three seconds of his life when he was “out of it” are going to be regretted for the rest of his life.

    Thanks too for sharing your family history – it makes what you are saying so much more meaningful that it is personal.

    I remember the night that my dad, after an argument with my mom, his business in a bad place and he had had a few drinks (normally a beer on a Sunday was his maximum amount of drinking) took out his gun and got into his car and drove off. The next 3 hours or so, were the worst of our lives. Thankfully he thought things through and came back home, put the gun away and I don’t think it was ever touched again. After that on the odd occasion that suicide was mentioned he said that no one should ever do that to their families.

    Quite honestly, it would be a much better world if there were no guns.

  22. Anneke Stroebel :

    Hi Justin
    I read your blog and like you I would so much like/love to believe that Oscar did not mean to shoot Reeva.
    As with everything in life things mean so much more when you know someone who experienced the same…like you with your dad. I sometimes fear that we get so used to the bad things….as if we need to top the bad with the worse…
    I think what this all meant to me this morning was HOPE….there is hope even for a wife beater…it just all depends on what we are willing to do about it.
    Thank you for sharing something so very personal, I really hope that it will prevent something similar for someone out there.
    Many thanks
    Anneke Stroebel

  23. Essie :

    Hi Justin
    This hits very close to home!
    I grew up in a home where abuse was in the order of the day. I could show you several pubs where gun shots were fired, in public and in the presence of witnesses, yet nothing was ever done. Everyone decided to mind their own business. Several times both my mother and me were threatened at gun point and we were lucky.
    On my father’s death I inherited a handgun and 13 hunting rifles (which I gave away to a gun shop as I could not find buyers).
    I’m questioning why, with Oscar’s track record, and the SAPS being aware that he was in possession of a weapon, the weapon was never confiscated. It seems that this was an incident waiting to happen and everyone that know Oscar and knew that he had weapons should also accept some of the responsibility.