Book review: One of Us, The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway

THERE are many times reading One of Usthat you have to stop. Where your stomach cramps. Where you have to catch a breath. Where tears well up and, sometimes, flow.

Cormac O’Keeffe

Virago, €18.99

That is the impact, and the import, of this book which focuses in the twin terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22, 2011.

The first was a bomb blast outside the Prime Minister’s office in Oslo, killing eight people and seriously injuring another 12.

Almost two hours later, 69 people, with an average age of 20, were shot dead on the island of Utoya, some 40 kms north of the capital city. They were attending a camp organised by the Labour Party youth movement. Some 55 of the slain were teenagers, from the age of 14 up. A further 55 people were seriously injured.

The sobering task facing author, Asne Seierstad — a respected journalist, author, and Norwegian — was how to do justice to such a horror? Seierstad took a brave decision. She wrote the story like a novel, with real-life characters.

Readers are immersed in their perspective. We are inside the head of Breivik, of his mother Wenche, the parents of children who went to the island, the children themselves and an array of other people.

At times, the format jars. The reader is left wondering, how does the author know what the person was thinking in such detail?

There are structure and style issues. There are tangental backstories of people, who, we later learn, are the parents of children who went to the island. But, at the time, the reader is unsure what their relevance is. This affects the pace and flow, particularly in the first third of the story.

The author does explain, at the end, how she got into the minds of her characters. She conducted extensive research and had access to police, court and psychiatric records. She spoke to surviving victims and the families (including those named). She also had access to all of Breivik’s logs, writings, videos and interviews.

In all, the book is 530 pages long, in large paperback. Tighter editing would have served what is a gripping story better.

Structural and style issues aside, Seierstad’s thoroughness of journalism, honesty of endeavour and deep compassion is impressive. She spent extensive time with parents of victims and she allowed them sign off on the text.

This included harrowing descriptions of how their loved ones were killed, such as: “He shot one girl in mid-scream. His pistol was almost touching her face. He fired into her open mouth. Her skull shattered, but her lips remained unharmed.

By the piano at the end of the room a girl was sitting on a piano stool, resting her head on the keyboard as if unconscious. He shot her in the head. Blood poured out and down between the keys. Standing by the piano, he noticed more kids, hiding behind the instrument.

He stood over them, raised his arm and fired into the gap between the wall and the piano. Shot after shot, hit after hit.”

There are terrible scenes of children ringing their mums and dads. Often, the only thing the parents can hear are screams and firing. There are heart-wrenching passages of friends lying together, holding hands, and of older boys protecting young girls, many pretending to be dead. But few escaped Breivik’s “mechanical killing”, as one psychiatrist later described it.

The chapters on the shootings, of the shambolic police response and the devastation of the parents are utterly compelling and deeply moving.

A second area where this book shines is in unpeeling the layers in Breivik’s life.

Aged two, and after their dad left them, his mother sought respite help. She told a child worker she wanted Anders and his sister Elizabeth to “go to the devil”.

At age four, psychiatrists noted Breivik found it hard to make friends and didn’t cry if he hurt himself. The experts thought the family needed psychiatric help.

A psychiatric evaluation said Breivik had “no language for expressing emotions” and that, when he reacted, “it is a remarkably powerful one”.

It was not a question of Breivik having suffered individual psychological damage, rather the situation at home was “undermining him” and that he was a scapegoat for his mother’s frustrations.

His mother had a “borderline personality disorder and functions very unevenly”, it said. One minute she could be kind and pleasant to Breivik, but the next minute aggressive and shouting.

A report said “early intervention is vital to prevent serious abnormality in the boy’s development”. But the courts ruled the situation was not sufficiently grave to warrant taking the boy into care. Through primary and secondary school Breivik struggled with friends.

He became absorbed in graffiti and hip hop. But he was ostracised by that scene and even thrown out of his own gang. By age 15, he was rejected by his friends.

In adulthood, he joined the conservative Progress Party, where he was exposed to strong anti-immigrant views and critiques of Islam. Over time, he was rejected by the party too. He displayed a talent in various sales companies and set up a number of businesses. But his ventures struggled and, eventually, collapsed.

By 2006, aged 27, he moved back in with his mother, a failure. Seierstad said he spent five years in his bedroom. He became engrossed in the computer game world, particularly World of Warcraft.

There, he developed a talent for meticulous planning for battle. He was gradually rejected by many of the players. He also became absorbed by anti-jihad websites, including Stormfront, Jihad Watch and Gates of Vienna and began writing on the area.

The list of enemies were many. Marxism, multiculturalism and Islam were the main ones, followed by feminism and political correctness. When he argued mass deportation of Muslims, even right-wing extremists and websites rejected him.

Breivik began working on a massive tome, his own Mein Kampf — 2083: A European Declaration of Independence ran to 1,500 pages. In part three he set out the revolution, with an armed resistance leading to a final coup and execution of traitors. He imagined an organisation called the Knights Templar as the supreme authority, of which he was the Norwegian commander.

In 2010, Breivik began hatching his plot and, in 2011, rented a remote farm. What is striking is the enormous amount of work he conducted.This included sourcing, storing and manufacturing his arsenal: from weapons, to uniforms (with fake police badges) and a complicated list of ingredients for explosives.

It was a sophisticated process, demanding long hours of physical labour and technical expertise, with numerous setbacks. He was fueled by steroids.

In police interviews and his trial, Breivik was challenged about his shooting of children.

He insisted they were not innocent, “but political activists” and that the Labour event in Utoya was a “political indoctrination camp”.

One psychologist said Breivik’s life was a history of rejection and that this pushed him to extremism and his ideology was “a way of saving himself”.

There were differing assessments of his mental state by various psychiatrists. A leading theory was that Breivik suffered from paranoid schizophrenia – and was not criminally responsible.

A second one said he had dissocial personality disorder with narcisstic traits. He had a “grandiose perception of his own importance” and was totally lacking in “emotional empathy and remorse”. But he was criminally responsible.

The court found him guilty and sentenced him to “preventative detention” for the maximum 21 years – a term that can be continually extended, if he remains a threat to society. Near the end, a parent talked about the importance of “not forgetting”. Seierstad has done her bit to ensure that.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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