One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad (Author), Sarah Death (Translator)
For a long time, I’ve been interested in true crime books. Sure, I’ve read some Val McDermid, Stephen Booth, even tried Kathy Reichs, but they’re not the same thing. An incredible work of crime fiction is nowhere near as gripping as a mundane true crime, to me. Books about mental illnesses are really interesting too, particularly the serious ones like psychopathy. I read a lot about disasters, from the truly natural like the Japanese tsunami, the half and half, like Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, to the completely man-made like 9/11.
I wondered if it was because I was just a morbid old Cure fan, settling uncomfortably into middle age and being painfully aware of my own mortality. But the more I read, and the more I thought about it, I realised I was really interested in the breakdown of systems. It was nothing to do with an overwrought mortido, just a fascination with failure; tectonic plates, personalities, belief systems, buildings, nuclear reactors. What holds them together, what causes them to fail, and what happens when they fail?
It’s difficult to tell whereabouts the systemic failure occurs with Anders Behring Breivik, or what the precipitory causes are, exactly. In the Guardian, Ian Buruma describes Breivik’s life as “a ghastly story of family dysfunction, professional and sexual failure, grotesque narcissism and the temptation of apocalyptic delusions” but what I took out of Asne Seierstad’s book was an image of a lonely boy who never really grew up, and was probably always looking for his father’s approval.
A simplistic deduction to be sure, but its fingerprints are found throughout the book. He tries to make out that he’s Oslo’s top graffiti tagger, but is mocked by his peers. He tries to hang around with the Pakistani gangs, but is rejected. He is rejected by the anti-immigration Progress Party and not selected to run for office. Even his mail order bride failed to work out. Always looking for approval, always longing for belonging, always failing, always lonely.
His relationship with his mother was similarly destructive. Mentally it seems that she was not completely well herself, and it’s not difficult to imagine him picking up his mother’s prejudices – that’s her quote at the top of the page during her Police interview, shortly after learning of the crimes that her son had committed. Social workers told of inappropriate and sexually forward behaviour during meetings, whilst neighbours talked about the number of male visitors she had. Social workers discussed putting her children into social care, in foster homes. She held on to them, but it was close. There were concerns about her ability to look after herself, let alone her children.
To make up for his background, he invented one for himself, with grand titles and homemade uniforms, the stitching coloured in with felt tip pens. “Justiciar Knight Commander of the Knights Templar” and “Commander of the Anti-Communist Resistance Movement Against the Islamification of Europe and Norway”. When someone told him how ridiculous he looked wearing his amateur uniform and referring to himself with gibberish, made-up titles in court, he quickly and quietly dropped them. They were not central to his beliefs, just part of the delusion he’d built up to justify his actions to himself.
It’s a difficult book to read. It’s superbly written, and sensitively translated by the unfortunately named Sarah Death. There are some horrific parts, such as the description of two teen girls, part of a group playing dead to avoid being shot, whilst Breivik walks through the group putting bullets into their heads as they lay on the ground. The two friends hold hands as they wait for their turn to die.
Breivik wanted to be declared sane enough to stand trial. If he was criminally insane, his grand plan, his belief that he was making a political statement, would have failed. Two different reports argued that first he wasn’t, then he was, sane enough to stand trial.
Personally it’s difficult to believe that he was legally sane. At trial he refused to plead guilty, saying that although he admitted to the actions (the shootings and explosion) it was in self-defence, so there could be no guilt. His entire story smacks of a paranoid schizophrenic personality disorder – delusions of grandeur, irrational beliefs of persecution, failure of personal relationships. His story of repeated attempts to fit in, to belong, to find approval would be sad or pitiful if it were not for the awful consequences of his condition.
I’m only giving the book four out of five stars in my hastily made up scoring scheme, and I will tell you why. It’s a book that appeals very much to the emotions. I was hoping for a little more insight, to learn a little more about where everything went wrong. Actually, we saw quite a lot of where the Norwegian emergency systems went wrong, which was everywhere, and twice where possible. There was nothing that they could have done worse, or taken longer to do. But there was too little for my tastes about what made Breivik go bad, if that’s your opinion of him.
Of course, that’s my personal slant. The truth is, this will still be the best, most harrowing, most awful non-fiction book that you have read in a long time, and for a long time.