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.