Oscar and Reeva’s tragic fairy-tale – why we care and why it matters that we do
As Shakespearean tragedies go there’s no topping Hamlet. Early on in the first act Hamlet says to Horatio:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…
What does it mean? At first glance, we may not know, or think we don’t. Our fascination with Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp is the same. We care, but we don’t know why. Some people wish not to care, calling it a circus and they tell us they are actively trying to filter out the whole spectacle. The reasons we care though are quite profound. For in both Oscar and Reeva there is the mythic journey, the Transcendence of pain and circumstances (which is always heroic) as well as the Transformation, physical and psychological, when the total being emerges as something new, and something better.
In Oscar’s case, his dilemma involved growing up and becoming ‘a real man’, equal to the able-bodied around him. Without being scornful, one might appreciate this journey as the genuine, heartfelt desire of Pinocchio to be a ‘real boy’, and thus worthy of the love of his ‘father’ and ‘maker’, and thus part of and fully integrated into the wider world of the living. His Transformation evolved beyond merely becoming an equal who could stand with his peers, but – as we know – an equal of Olympic proportions. Becoming an icon and even a sex symbol required Transcendence of his inner pain and suffering that is beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. To remake himself out of the low, clunky functioning that was his lot meant transcending the identity foisted upon him by the world. Transcending the lottery of what one inherits when one is born, and the world’s limiting and discriminating narrative of one’s formative circumstances isn’t easy.
Following Reeva’s tragic death, our attentions have been sharply focused on the fall of that hypermasculine, handsome hero. We may not realise it, but in Reeva we find mirrored precisely the same profound Transformation and Transcendence that we encounter with Oscar. In fact it may be even more so. Coming as she did from modest means and simple beginnings, Reeva’s narrative seems to fit comfortably in a rags-to-riches mythos, a sort of modern day Cinderella. But it is actually a far bigger story than just the cliché of a sweet princess, lost in the woods, doggedly making her way to her prince.
The key to Reeva lies in that defining moment when she broke her back. She fell off her horse, and thus incapacitated, lay for weeks on a hospital bed. Law or Modelling? She did both, but she committed her vital self to the latter. Why? The response to the hospital bed was a profound sense of feeling trapped and disabled. Not only by her circumstances at the time, but her circumstances as a theme, as a cage trapping a young woman who wanted to emerge, wanted to escape the paralysing anonymity of her life. This was something that even a successful career in law wouldn’t give her. She wanted to expand and perpetuate herself, and while Oscar’s road was towards becoming a functional, physical equal with his fellow man, Reeva’s was to transition into another class entirely. On her side was a perpetually sunny personality, a sympathetic soul and an uncommon sincerity. But the modelling world is another kettle of fish, and will test the mettle of the most resilient Pollyanna. Ask anyone who has tried, it isn’t easy. Beyond the sheer drive and discipline involved, the personal costs to the inner self are high.
While Reeva’s road may seem psychological, and in many respects it was, just like Oscar she also had to physically transform herself. Her height, weight and hair all had to be manipulated, dyed, honed and toned. She had to take full ownership and control over her physical body and beat her body with Olympic discipline into sweaty submission, day in and day out. These sessions, when hours become days and days become years, and all that blood and sweat has produced few results, the gnawing insecurity can erupt into a tearful sense of it all being for nothing. An “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” as Jerry McGuire once put it.
Over a period of years Reeva carved away at her physicality, moulding and shaping herself into the waif, the goddess. At the same time, and this aspect is widely under-reported and underestimated, Reeva was slowly, strategically, building up a personal brand. Charm, a sense of humour and her common touch meant she intuitively had a gift for this. The important psychological breadcrumbs she leaves behind are in the choices she made when it came to boyfriends. These tell us more about the person underneath that brand. Loving deeply, but not often, as Reeva elevated herself she chose partners who matched her position on her climb up the ladder of success. With Francois Hougaard and Oscar Pistorius there is an acknowledgement for the first time that her modest circumstances were finally behind her. Her best friend, Gina Myers, at the beginning of 2013, reinforces this psychology. Myers says the two young women had spoken and agreed not to ‘settle’. It is a diplomatic way of saying Snow White must harden her heart against the dwarves in order to find her prince and the happiness she deserves.
A final question we should ask is why were both these individuals so incredibly driven? Why, and what drove them? Was it just big dreams that inspired them, or was it a far greater – and perhaps more desperate – need: to escape. To trample the worm chewing at who they were from underneath. Both individuals also seemed to have an overpowering need to prove themselves to disapproving, absent fathers. This is also where we come eventually to the why. Shakespeare has Hamlet point out to us just how little even the most educated people can explain. It may seem strange how little we know about ourselves and this harsh world we live in, but this is because we are so settled on, so addicted to, and so caught up in our own philosophies. Shakespeare’s message is that there so many things in heaven and earth that we don’t know about. Most of us lead uninspiring lives based on an amalgam of our own the world’s limiting narratives for ourselves. In Oscar and Reeva we permit ourselves massive Transference. We are voyeurs in their mythic journey, we participate vicariously in their triumphs, their happiness and their failures, and we can do so from the safety and anonymity of the pavilions. At the same time, our voyeurism allows us some temporary significance, as we try to elevate ourselves to judges and advocates. But what our need for Transference really shows with glass-like clarity, is the sharp cut of our own under-achievements.
In looking at them, we have to acknowledge our own lack of courage, our own sharply fragmented lives and fear of living. And in this we find ourselves caught up in more than just a cautionary fairy tale. It is a moment of awakening for us, a chance to set our own lives right. Looking outward, we dip our toes into other lives and other possibilities, and consider there may be something beyond our philosophies. Something important. To activate ourselves as Oscar and Reeva did means making a dream real at your very core. It means resurrecting and remembering those dreams that resonate with our inner organism. The real trick is finding the fortitude to go out there and meet them, come what may.