Trigger warning: This post deals with the issue of domestic violence and may be distressing to some readers.
Three weeks after Reeva Steenkamp typed this text message to her boyfriend, she was dead.
South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius is currently on trial for the shooting murder of Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day, 2013, in their home. This panicked, emotional text message has been released as part of those proceedings.
Here is the message in full, as it was tweeted by a journalist in the courtroom with Pistorius. As you can see, it was sent by Reeva to Oscar on the afternoon of January 26 last year. It’s long and – please be warned – distressing.
This text reads, to me, like the panicked thoughts of a woman living in fear. It sounds like someone trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. But that’s my opinion and it’s based on my own heightened empathy.
Clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw can offer a more expert opinion. I asked her to read Reeva’s text message and tell me what she thought the nature of her relationship with Pistorius was. Not so that we can make any allegations about this specific case, but because it might help us spot the signs of emotional abuse in our friends and family more deftly.
This is what she had to say.
“From this text, I can tell that this man has ongoing problems with jealousy. The emotional abuse here is taking the form of a man managing his own jealousy by controlling his partner’s behaviour. It’s ordinary for people to feel jealous, but it’s another thing for him to force her to manage those feelings for him – which is happening here,” she said.
“What he’s saying to her is ‘When I’m upset with you, I will emotionally discontinue this relationship’. This text message is so evocative because she was very articulate, and she’s clearly set out what has been troubling her. It does sound like she was in an abusive relationship. In fact, this is the definition of emotional abuse, because he has criticised her, made her feel as though her attachments to other people are wrong, and shamed her for behaving the way she does around other people. His abuse here has obviously eroded her self-esteem, and she sounds paralysed by his criticism, which is what happens. You can tell she valued the relationship and she wanted it to work, but his criticism was wearing her down. And that’s abuse.”
What we can take away from this is actually not to do with Reeva or Pistorius at all. It’s to do with language. If you, a friend, a family member, a colleague or an acquaintance ever speaks about their relationship using similar language, then perhaps they’re trapped in a dangerous relationship.
If you suspect someone might be at risk, the most important thing is to get help and work out a viable, safe exit strategy.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463. You can contact the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program on 1300 888 529 or see your local police.