The celebrity trial of the decade began this week in South Africa as paralympic champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius attempted to fight charges of murdering his supermodel girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on the night of February 14th 2013. At the time of the murder, Pistorius was one of the most famous athletes in the world: a household name with lucrative sponsorship deals, and above all, a perfect role model for fighting and overcoming adversity. Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old, and competed in races using highly advanced prosthetics that earned him the nickname “The Blade Runner”. He competed successfully in successive Paralympic Games, yet he was not satisfied, and sought to compete in the Olympic Games with non-amputees. He pursued the matter in court and eventually won the right to enter the full Games, although unsuccessful in qualifying for the finals in his chosen events, he did win many fans in the attempt. The fame and success enjoyed by Pistorius was unheard of for a Paralympic athlete, and in his home country of South Africa, he was a bona-fide superstar. He and his girlfriend, the supermodel Reeva Steenkamp were favourites of the tabloid press, followed around constantly and photographed wherever they went.
Thus a media frenzy erupted on Valentine’s Day last year when shots were heard from the couple’s apartment late at night, and neighbours entered to find Pistorius weeping over Steenkamps dead body. What followed was international outrage, with the whole world immediately condemning Pistorius before he had even been formally charged for the murder. Protests mounted outside the jail where he was held, and security was required to protect the athlete entering the courthouse for his initial hearing. Everyone went even more crazy when Pistorius admitted shooting Steenkamp, yet pleaded not guilty to her murder. His defence argued that he had awoken from sleep and heard noise coming from his bathroom. Believing there was an intruder in his apartment, he grabbed his gun and fired several shots through the door. When he opened the door he found his dying girlfriend, and at this point neighbours appeared on the scene. As dubious as that argument sounds, the hearing was closed and a trial set for March 2014. Much to public outrage, he was released on bail to prepare his case and fight for his freedom. This week his trial began, and by March 20th he will know whether or not he will spend the next 25 years of his life in prison. The overwhelming opinion of the baying masses is that Pistorius is guilty and should pay for his crimes, yet I do not believe the case is as clear-cut as the media would like us to believe. When I read about this case, Pistorius’s defence struck an instant chord with me. Suddenly awoken from sleep, and believing there to be an intruder in his apartment, he didn’t notice that his girlfriend was still in his bed, produced his gun and shot through his bathroom door. This might seem a ridiculous statement, but I can completely relate to that.
Ever since I can remember, I have suffered from a sleeping disorder that involves me not being able to distinguish waking dreams from reality. When I was young, this manifested itself in me waking up suddenly, and being able to see snakes and insects all over the floor of my room, and in my bed. For me, they were there, everywhere, and I screamed all over the place and drove my parents absolutely insane. They were sincerely worried, and they were right: their child was absolutely mental, and if it was anywhere else other than Ireland in the mid-1980’s, they would have sent me to see a psychiatrist. In Ireland however, you just wait for things to get better, and they do or they don’t. In this case, the waiting worked and I grew out of it. Not completely however, as years later, when I was turning 20, the affliction returned, and ever since then my night-time habits can sometimes be very distressing. Every few weeks, I will wake suddenly, see something in the room or hear something outside, and run to the other side of the room, completely convinced that there is something very wrong with the situation, and that action is required. These are often the snakes and insects of my youth, or an intruder breaking in, or any of a million different external threats. The point being that there is danger or discomfort, and that this is completely real in my mind. The fear is there, the adrenalin flows, and ideas start forming about how to deal with the problem. This is not sleepwalking, or dreaming, I am completely awake, I just have different views about reality than what is objectively there. After a few minutes, the situation dissipates, and I go back to bed, partially convinced that I imagined the whole thing, yet still uneasy, and still with my heart beating fast and adrenalin flowing through my veins. It is an absolutely terrifying experience to go through, and afterwards it is pretty embarrassing to have to explain it to people who may have been in the room at the time. For example, one time I was staying over at a friend’s place and sharing a double bed (separated by many pillows, naturally) with him. I woke up and darted to the corner of the room in horror. He woke up and asked me if I was ok. I actually hesitated, not trusting him completely, but I asked him if he had ‘a snake’ in the bed. He laughed, but I was completely serious. To me, there was a giant anaconda coiled all over the mattress. He still quotes me to this day.
My strange (and still undiagnosed- I’m Irish!) disorder reached its zenith in May 2012, when I awoke just before 6am and flying towards me was a giant black dove. It flew all around the room, and when it perched on my cupboard, i ran out of the room, closing my door behind me. Hyperventilating in my living room, I was telling myself it wasn’t real, it was just like the others. Yet after collecting myself for a few minutes I opened the door, and was horrified to see that there actually was a bird there. I looked at my bedroom window: closed. I looked at my other windows: all closed. I always close my bedroom door when sleeping: there was no way there could possibly have been a bird in there, yet there it perched, shitting all over my wardrobe. The fear and adrenalin from dealing with similar imaginary situations helped me open the window and flush the bird out, yet it was not until the next day before I could admit to myself that the event had actually happened, and that it wasn’t another of my waking dreams. Walking through my apartment the next day I began to see birdpoop everywhere and reasoned that I often left my windows open when I was at work, and therefore the bird must have come in, flown through the whole place, nestled in my room, and simply awoken when it was time to get up. Still, it was very stressful, and ever since, I have been waking up to my imaginary terrors more frequently.
So, can one man’s rant about his personal sleeping habits be of relevance to the trial of the decade? Probably not, but it did make me think. I have no idea of Oscar Pistorius’s sleeping habits, or indeed if anyone else out there has the same affliction as me, but all I know is that when I wake up into one of these episodes, I have absolutely no idea about the difference between reality and what is in my head. I am fully cognitive, and reasonable, yet my reality simply has a different understanding of the world. What really made me think is the possibility of living in a country like South Africa where violent crime is persistent, and gun ownership is widespread and actually advisable. I shudder to think what would happen if I slept with a gun in my bedroom, or even in my house. I have no way of knowing, but I would estimate that it takes at least two minutes from me waking up to actually calming down and regaining a sense of reality, yet a lot could happen in those two minutes. This is why the Pistorius trial really grabbed me, and why I will be watching the evidence as it comes in: as I said, I only paid attention to the hearing a year ago, I do not know what other evidence will be produced. I am not saying he didn’t kill her, I am just saying that the argument presented by his defence resonates deeply with me, and should not be dismissed easily. While you could be awake and conscious, you are not yourself, and therefore this could really be classified as temporary insanity or momentary loss of faculties. If this is the verdict of the trial, I will understand, yet I seriously doubt the protesters baying for Pistorius’s blood will. All I am saying is that until a clear motive is presented by the prosecution in this trial, I will have my reservations about the guilt of Oscar Pistorius in the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.