Tale of Pistorius: Prosthetic Aliveness as Vulnerability

Cenk Cokuslu, LP, NCPsyA

 “You would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.

On life and death this old man walked.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. I was too scared to switch a light on. It filled me with horror and fear the idea of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on, I felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger. I grabbed my 9 mm pistol underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom, I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch-dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed.”

This is how the double-amputee Paralympic and Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, testified in his affidavit after being arrested for the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2014. I wonder: What would Hamlet’s Ophelia say about this coincidence?

To act like a lawyer or a prosecutor or even a member of a grand jury in writing this paper, so that Pistorius could somehow be found guilty of a crime — or not — would be an instance of acting out.  It would also be premature harvesting to diagnose Pistorius without a thorough listening for all the psychic forces in play – especially considering that one may need to play a lifetime-long peek-a-boo to make a sense of one’s constantly unraveling interiority.

So, adhering to the creativity-fostering spirit of IFPE, my intention is to invite all of you to unshackle as you read this paper, and to allow yourselves to use your capacity for reverie, and see with your ears the orchestra of the ineffable, and listen with your skin while Pistorius guides you through the cacophonic art installation of undigested verbal images.  By the way, Bion would be very happy to hear that one day there would be an exhibit dedicated to verbal images!

Pistorius’s legs were amputated when he was an infant. He suffered from congenital limb reduction. What might have caused the fetus Pistorius not to want his legs to be fully developed? Is it possible for him to have sensed an amputated capacity of the mother early enough to stop fully developing, as an early unconscious protective measure to stay in the womb? McDougall (1982) posits that the mother’s maternal function must include her desire to seduce her baby to want to live. Maybe Pistorius’ mother did not have good enough desire, and as a result of her limited capacity, the fetus Pistorius was left with less than ideal levels of libido. Way before his legs were amputated, his aliveness was amputated, leaving him prone to infer emotional paucity. Was his life instinct thus transformed into a bundle of psychogenic destructive instincts?

The finding of a limb reduction defect in an otherwise healthy baby might be very disappointing for expectant parents. The complexities of coping with this kind of disability seem daunting at first and are often associated with feelings of guilt and anger. If Pistorius’ parents learned about the congenital defect before birth, how might have fetus Pistorius’ sense organs felt the emotional implosions of the mother’s agony? Could it be in that temporality that the infant’s psyche was being impacted by an annihilating dread that is impossible to verbalize? Bion chose to use the adjective “nameless” to at least approximate its decimating quality.

According to the newspapers, gold medalist Oscar Pistorius was a child of a privileged family who attended an elite private school and grew up in Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs.

“My mother, Sheila was ‘the center of my world.’ She doted on her children and left inspirational messages in our lunch boxes. I still often reread them. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old. I remember feeling very sad. When I was 15, my mother died unexpectedly of an adverse drug reaction when she was mistakenly diagnosed with hepatitis. Look! Her birth and death dates are tattooed in Roman numerals on my right arm. My brother and I were left ‘rudderless’ and ‘effectively homeless’ after her death. Every time that I brought up my disability, she told me that I was not different at all than my friends. That I was like the rest of the children. Oh, how I miss her!”

“My father? Oh, my father was ‘not much of a parent.’”

For the men in his family, guns and dangerous accidents were a frequent theme. His brother had been charged with culpable homicide for a car accident in which a woman on a motorcycle was killed. His father once shot himself in the groin, by accident, while cleaning his pistol. Pistorius himself accidentally fired a gun in a restaurant, nearly hitting a boxer friend in the foot. Altogether his father, grandfather, and three uncles are reported to own 55 firearms cumulatively, and Pistorius, in addition applied for licenses for six more guns, including a Smith & Wesson Model 500 – a weapon that its manufacturer calls “the world’s most powerful handgun.” Do the guns affirm his invulnerability? How many more guns one might need to feel completely invulnerable?

(A movie scene of a surrealistic landscape pops up somewhere in my fantasy where generations of men are being fed of impotence, and of internal disarray through amputated penis-shaped breasts oozing lethal projectiles with guns dangling in the orifices of amputated penises while the feet-shaped drones of paranoia fly by attacking ghosts of vulnerability.)

A penchant for driving cars 155 miles per hour on roads with standing water; the crash of his boat that required 172 stitches; a keen interest in guns and shooting, keeping dangerous animals as pets. He also showed an inordinate interest in shooting and his prowess, going to the firing range at night when he could not sleep. At Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, Pistorius was detained after being accused of making a false declaration over a plane ticket, and was held again after security officers found traces of explosive material on his prosthetic limbs.

“I was an ‘adrenalin junkie’ from an early age.” Says a metallic voice. “Do you remember my motto in a Nike ad? — I am a bullet in a chamber. A scream-less laugh appears”.

“How do I feel my relationship with Reeva? Well, we were deeply in love and I could not have been happier. I know she felt the same way.

“You don’t believe me? Check some of her text messages out. Let me read them to you. These are all from her to me:

‘I’m terribly disappointed in how the day ended and how you left me. We are living in a double standard relationship where you can be mad about how I deal with stuff when you are very quick to act cold and offish when you’re unhappy.’

‘I do everything to make you happy and to not say anything to rock the boat with you. You do everything to throw tantrums in front of people.’

’I get snapped at and told my accents and voices are annoying. I touch your neck to show you I care and you tell me to stop. Stop chewing gum. Do this don’t do that. You don’t want to hear stuff. You cut me off.’

’I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me.’”

“See? I told you. We had an amazing relationship Reeva. Everybody envied us.”

By the way, do you also hear how Sheila, Pistorius’ mother’s name, and Reeva sound phonetically similar? How interesting! Go figure!

Previously, Pistorius had a similar story of frequent conflict and reunion with his girlfriend, Vicky, whom he first began dating as a teenager. They argued, split up, got back together and split up again in a fiery and tumultuous relationship. Their first breakup, Pistorius said, was one of the lowest points of his life. “It was awful,” he said. According to reports, he has a temper and likes to get things his way. A nauseating aura of entitlement pervades Pistorius who finds it difficult to accept blame for things. In 2009, Pistorius was arrested for assault after slamming a door on a woman and spent a night in police custody. Family and friends said it was an accident and charges were dropped.

This information makes me want to yell, look up! It’s as obvious as a dirigible above that has a message flag trailing behind it. Oh! It is from Mike Eigen. He says “His succinct life has not been but a quintessential concatenation of mutilation, separation, and psychic deadness” (M. Eigen, personal communication, July 14, 2015).

Throughout his athletic career, Pistorius has sought to downplay the impact of his disability. “I’m not disabled,” he told a journalist at The Telegraph in 2005. “I just don’t have any legs. Just that. Nothing else.” He proved that he was like “any other children” by not only winning an able-bodied track medal in the World Championships but also participating in the able-bodied Olympics, and then winning a gold medal in the Paralympics. Martin (1988) states that “The fictive personality originates when the self or the world seems inauthentic, fragmentary, or unavailable, so that only ready-made fictions seem whole or complete.” Martin then continues, “When parents fail in their task of helping their children construct a reality sense, a vacuum of attachment may result and children must then invent their own personalities” (p.28).

At the moment of shooting, I fantasize Pistorius waking up and suddenly being wrapped up in the recurring terror of loss and dread of lack constantly reminding him the unbearable nothingness that he continuously returns to. The irreversibility of his menacing dejection pushing him down into cataclysmic void. Bion (1977) feels that the “Traumatized individuals experience pain but not suffering. They are in the pain; the pain is in them” (p.20).

I can’t help but think about how, at the critical moment, right before his psyche had been atomized, Pistorius might have been forced to prematurely harvest an unbearable affect. The too-much-ness of it in turn might have put him in a state of evacuation. One could see it as shooting as evacuation. Shooting as throwing up of undigested affects.

“Amazingly Reeva was still alive when I carried her downstairs to the paramedics at the front door. I gave mouth to mouth resuscitation in a futile attempt to revive her before their arrival.”

Nowadays, everyone seems trying to recover from the ongoing fragmentation. If they capture the “mirror image” of themselves even for a split second, they will be reconstituted in the blissful meconnaissance of coherence. It is a maneuver to temporarily avoid the pain of “the lack.” As though, they are attempting to make sure that their cosmetic “Imaginary” is still there. Or, perhaps, they are making sure that the alien “Symbolic” make-up has not been alienated and left them.  A fandango of Ego Ideal and Ideal Ego. A maddening aphanisis while searching for meaning. Each subject with his/her plethora of signifiers with infinite resonances. All with their own story of their own murder. Murderous desire. Desirable murder. All criminals. Idiosyncratic crimes of the “Unethical.”

Jumping from Pistorius’s story to the universal, I imagine Antigones vanishing exponentially, being replaced by zombies with amputated aliveness. Why is the insistence on securing meaning in scopic ritual? Why does each subject desire to be seen? Who sees whom? Whose gaze sees? Whose gaze needs to be seen? What happens in the realms of visible invisible and invisible visible? Do they see what they wish to see, when they look at the captured image? An army of vulnerables thirsty and hungry for pseudo aliveness. A desire addicted group in continuous explosions and implosions of jouissance. Inanity.

“We are oscillators between self and non-self.” said Eigen during his lecture at Philoctetes Center subtly referring to the inherent splitting tendency of the psyche. He then added something quite profound: “If the self stays with an affect too long, the self ruptures, and allows alternate realities becoming simultaneously available.” (M. Eigen, personal communication, June 12, 2010)

I wonder if Pistorius might have wished to become the man, the ideal man that his mother would have liked to have, echoing Freud’s intimations on Leonardo. The constant torment about the impossibility of his wish becoming true given his disabled body might have been the reservoir of self-destructive impulses. For Bion, self-hatred is about disintegrating oneself as one cannot tolerate to feel alive and to function.  Pistorius might have not been able to carry and contain the “abject self” he formed by self-hatred and self-torment because of his superego’s continuous flagellation. Consequently, staying with this horrific experience of abjection, might have resulted in Pistorius simultaneously being stuck in alternate realities.  In Meltzer’s notion of compartmentalized life space (1990), Pistorius dangles head down with prosthetic legs anchoring around the liminal perimeter of the rectal cavity. I can envision, Hephaestus, his brother in amputated vulnerability, looks back at him holding a sign reading “To No-Where.”

An “inconvenient embarrassment,” the term the BBC reporter Rob Bonnet used in 2011 during  an interview, to reiterate the public’s opinion about Pistorius’ recklessness and hot temper. The term that made him storm out of the TV station. The indelible inconvenient embarrassment on the mother’s face.

How can one alter the reality, and make the absent, the present? By seeking refuge in the reversals? Are the carbon-fiber prosthetic blades that made him overcome what seemed physically impossible to overcome, strong enough to erase the distorted mirror image Pistorius sees imprinted on his mother’s face? Could one’s existential decathexis coupled with one’s ghastly reality that one will never be loved by the mother authentically despite one’s cyborg level achievements, be ever soothed without the obliteration of the psyche? What is the feeling of feeling alive with a lack that will never go away? Comatose psyche in perpetual resuscitation by prosthetic blades. How can one intuit the level of vulnerability experienced oozing from this category of chronic anti-life force?

If Ahab walked on life and death simultaneously, where is Pistorius running towards and/or away from simultaneously?


 “Saturninus: Go fetch them hither to us presently.

Titus Andronicus: Why, they there are both, baked in that pie;

Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,

Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.

‘Tis tru, ‘tis true; witness my knife’s sharp point.”

William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus


Bion W. R.  (1977) .  Seven servants: Four Works by Wilfred R. Bion: Elements of psycho-analysis, learning from experience, transformations, attention and interpretation. New York, NY:  Jason Aronson.

Martin, J.  (1988) . Who am I this time: Uncovering the fictive personality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

McDougall, J.  (1982) . The Narcissistic Economy and its Relation to Primitive Sexuality. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 18, 373-396.

Meltzer, D.  (1990) . The Claustrum: The investigation of claustrophobic phenomena.  London:  Karnac.

Melville, H.  (1964) . Moby Dick or the whale.  New York, NY:  The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Shakespeare, W.  (1564-1616) . Titus Andronicus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cenk Cokuslu can be contacted at:  ccokuslu@gmail.com

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