What is Henri van Breda’s ring of power – and pain?

Remember Gollum? He was an unearthly creature, the one that stole the show from all the Hobbitses, elves and orcs. We were amused most of all by Gollum, but we weren’t sure why. We have the same ghoulish fascination for Henri, and we aren’t sure why.

After 70 court days, the court that was called to prosecute Henri for his cold-blooded crimes, doesn’t know why either. Incredible as it sounds, it’s not the job of a court or the law to say why, only how, and with what.

Judge Desai, during his judgment, mentioned “clear intent” and almost immediately after “having no explanation.”

There is an explanation, and it’s clear as day it’s being hidden. It’s something Henri feels ashamed of, and the lack of remorse, the lack of any flicker of emotion, especially during sentencing, completely lines up with the Henri that’s been with us all along, since that weird-as-hell 25 minute emergency call. So what is Henri hiding?

To understand the psychology, to enter the ring of power, as it impacts the blood of young men, we must intuit the life of a 20-year-old. The libido, the hubris, the mood swings, the ambition, the idealism, the physical strength, the emotional weakness, the frustration and anger, the ego, the interplay with fantasy and reality, the spectrum upon which the individual finds himself in terms of social and sexual maturity. At 20-years-old, a man must answer the call to be a man, or hide from that call, cowering, like a coward. Sometimes boys who wish to leave the cave and become men feel especially humiliated during this time, and many feel that humiliation is deserved – because a bird must leave the nest in order to fly, and in order to relieve the burden on others.

Some families exert tight controls over their progeny. Sometimes the encouragement is too little, sometimes the cutting down to size, the bringing back to earth, is too much. It is the job of parents to give their children two things: one is roots, the other wings. Which did Henri have? My opinion is that he was too rooted, and for reasons I won’t go into here, wasn’t allowed to have his version of having wings. He got his wings, incidentally, after his family were dead. And Henri in court today seems satisfied with his decision. One has the impression, if he went back in time, he wouldn’t change anything.

I say Henri was too rooted for three main reasons. One, he was loafing around at home for months before the murders as it was. This is a stressful, fraught time for any man, to feel useless, directionless, inhibited, especially at this prime time in his life. Imagine being a first year student, and told to come home, and stay home, and basically find yourself grounded after you’ve tasted freedom.

For another, Henri wasn’t only at home, but he wasn’t applying himself. Although Judge Desai says Henri gave no explanation, he gave many indirect reasons for he was. He revealed what he was preoccupied with at the time of the slaughter – watching anime while the family was sleeping, playing games late at night on his phone, watching Star Trek on the family’s new theatre system, drinking rum and coke, walking the dog, smoking cigarettes that he had to hide in his shoes, and trying to engage with a girl [Bianca], only she seemed less interested in him than he was in her. In other words, Henri was a perfectly normal young man, except, from an extremely wealthy family, a high-performing bunch of perfectionists that brooked no truck with a Bart Simpson [give-up-don’t-try] attitude to life.

It’s that dodgy time in a man’s life where he’s part man, but still part boy. He doesn’t know who he is. He’s still discovering his power, still learning his lines, his moves, developing his charm, and finding where he fits in the pride of other young male lions. His parents are loosening the reins, and tightening them, and it’s not clear how much is right, either way.

And the female lions roaming somewhere out there are aware of the fluctuating status of the young male lion, just as they are painfully aware of their own status and desirability. A big part of being 20 is sex, and if you miss that boat, if your pride turns on you, you’re screwed, and not in a good way.

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On the way to court this morning, many, many tweets were ringing in my sleep deprived frontal lobes. GUILTY! Lock him up and throw away the key. LWOP [life without parole].

On Day 70, I was the first journalist in court [for once], although many videographers were scuttling around setting up mikes. That moment when the court was quite bare, before 09:00, gave me a chance to reflect on the people I’d seen in front of me, telling their competing stories, for months on end.

A good prosecutor listens, and listens long and hard, which is what the Judge did in this case.

I don’t blame those who are unsympathetic to Henri. In fact, if anything, I blame those who are overly emotional about a triple axe murderer who shows no remorse. But if we are to deal in death and judgment, it should be with cool minds, it has to be a calculated punishment meant to extinguish, as far as possible, inextinguishable acts.

Since the interests of society have to be met, it’s important that society engages in the question of crime and punishment. What are the interests of society? What should they be? Is society even interested in what really happened? In my book, Diablo III I deal indepth with the cerebral subject of civilization, and how criminality tends to undermine our culture, and our civil society. It’s very valuable then, at moments like these, to take stock and decide what our society is, who we are in it, and what we want it to be if it’s not a society that serves our best interests.

Since the verdict two weeks ago, I’ve been angry with those who’ve expressed sympathy towards Henri, but in court this morning, as people ventured their suggestions for the appropriate punishment, I wondered about this scene from the Lord of the Rings. It’s worth watching a few times, to really ponder what it means to you, and how it relates to the Van Breda case.

GANDALF: Many that live deserve death. Many that die, deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal in death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. 

In court today I had a long conversation with one of Henri’s uncles. It was especially long because the Judge was particularly late in arriving at court this morning. I won’t disclose what was discussed, but I looked at some old research in a new way, and saw some ideas confirmed, if only in the quietness of my own mind.

It seems to me, everyone looking at Henri doesn’t necessarily see Henri, they see what he wants them to see, or what he tells them, or they see themselves. Even his extended family don’t necessarily see the wood for the trees. So, seeing the real Henri – in effect, seeing Henri’s reality – is tricky. But that’s why he’s been lying, to obstruct not only justice, but exposure to the world for who he actually is. Not just an axe murderer…but something else that’s even worse in Henri’s mind…

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What could be worse than for a young man to be condemned for being a triple axe murderer who bludgeoned his own family to death? How about for that young man to have his manhood challenged. Don’t laugh, being a man is a deadly serious business when you’re 20-years-old, not hitting par, while your older brother is the golden boy [man] winning every accolade, and deserving more pots of family treasure to buy bigger, gilded wings enabling him to flying even higher and shine brighter. Rudi, in this spiel, is one aspect, exposing Henri nor for what he is, but for what he isn’t. Rudi is finding his place in the sun, high in the sky, while Henri, rooted, is stuck in shadows and ashtrays, stuttering and stumbling, still trying to figure out his next step.

Yes, the sauve, handsome, well-brought up Henri from the De Zalze estate stutters. Over several years he’s mastered his stutter, but the stutter reveals something else Henri is trying very hard – like most teenagers and young men – not to acknowledge. His gnawing insecurity. His inadequacy.  Throughout this trial, Henri has changed his appearance constantly.

What do we know about the Henri of January 2015, when the murders happened? Henri’s single. Henri drinks and smokes. Henri doesn’t have many friends. Henri’s a dropout. Henri’s trying to find Henri, and ironically enough, this trial helped him do that.

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Which is also why Gollum, who also talks funny and looks funny, is such an attractive character to us. He is so obviously flawed, we feel both world’s apart from his decrepitude, and simultaneously we feel we understand – even enjoy [in the sense that we’re entertained by] Gollum’s teeth-grinding frustration.

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We see Gollum evolve from a pathetic creature to a creature of some significance [although he remains doomed and pathetic]. Isn’t that the same thing going on with Henri? Isn’t that what fascinates us, but we’re not sure why.  We’re not sure because it’s kind’ve uncomfortable to acknowledge. We don’t want to admit we’re anxious too. We sometimes dress ourselves up even though we’re cloaked in failure.

Henri had very, very few emotional moments in court. I sat in on all of his testimony. This was his most emotional moment on the stand:

In the narrow confines of this video, we have to wonder why Henri is so emotional. Is he emotional about his family. No. He’s referring to the fact of his family understanding him. Clearly, if he murdered them, they didn’t understand. And clearly wanting to be understood is a very emotional topic for Henri, as it is for most young people, especially young loners. Even now, the public, the media and the court, doesn’t understand Henri. We don’t know who he is, and he won’t tell us. So you can see why he had problems inside his own family.

Henri is crying, in the above clip, because he is acknowledging to himself, that his behaviour was “understandable”, or justifiable. Galloway is asking him almost inconsequential questions, but they get under his skin.

Why is he smoking in the house, when he may not. “They would have understood…” Galloway repeats Henri’s answer, but questions it. “They would have understood?” This inversion lies at the heart of this case. And on the stand, the inversion is unexpected, and forces Henri to reconsider the psychology, to remember that they didn’t – and wouldn’t – understood. When he does, he feels the same agony [which then gave rise to burning anger and hatred] rising in him again. What does he do? He calls an end to the questioning, showing, when he’s emotional, that he steps out and up and calls the shots when he feels it’s necessary.

Henri’s emotions draw him out of his shell, often with dire consequences [as is the case with so many young people who are untrained for the real world, and untested in terms of their attitudes and emotions].

In a much broader sense, we intuit Henri’s struggle for significance, and his battle against the entropy of failure and insignificance, even though he is doomed to fail in that battle. We share in that same struggle. Everyone alive now is battling, competing for significance. Not everyone gets it, and not everyone who gets it, keeps it.

On a daily basis, whether in traffic, or paying our taxes, when someone wastes our time, when some cubicle slave does something stupid with our information, we feel that murderous anger occasionally…and we let it pass.

Gollum, in the end, was consumed by his anger. That was his ring, his burden, to bear. Some people are consumed slowly by anger and bitterness. It may take a lifetime, or it may take a marriage. Or a bankruptcy. Or a job loss. That same anger, so salty it chokes you, consumed Henri.

Look into your heart. Anger is what keeps you poor. But anger is also an activating emotion; anger, harnessed the right way gets the lion back into the hunt, back onto the playing field. Anger can be adaptive or maladaptive. For Henri, it was the latter.

Henri’s story is a great tragedy, but at the heart of it is a blinding-white, metallic rage. The axe as an implement of death wasn’t an accident. Henri wanted to inflict maximum harm. He wanted it to hurt, like he was hurting.

In court, in a completely different setting, wearing a suit and tie, it’s easy to miss that. It’s easy because it’s supposed to be. Henri still thinks he can beat the system. As soon as Desai convicted him, Henri’s goal posts shifted to the next thing – the appeal. His lawyer would also be feeding him the hope of eventually prevailing [giving him wings, while he’s rooted in prison].

If a lion is stripped of his wings too soon, that anger can fester, and the wings can become an incubus, turning a lion into something else – a hyena. A hyena has the same impulses, the same legs, tail, eyes, as a lion, but it’s a different animal. The instinct has been perverted. The laughing hyena is more of an opportunist, a creature with powerful jaws meant to live off the dead, consuming – grinding – even their bones.

I’m interested to know – specifically – how that happened with Henri van Breda. When you’re feeling sorry for him, or judging him, you become blinded to his reality, and instead, see your own vividly cloaking his shoulders. Don’t do that. Don’t be that guy. Ask why and then take a long look, but take an even longer, and harder listen, for answers.

Look at Henri and drown out the sound and everyone else, and see what is obvious. Henri’s unemotional while being sentenced to life. Why does he feel he must show the world that he’s unemotional?

There are many good reasons for that, some legal, and some psychological, and I’ve gone into those in detail in my books, but it’s worth considering that there are reasons, even as we’re doing our best to gloss over them in our rush to judgment.

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I think we’re prone to compartmentalizing our thinking with our emotions. If we feel sorry for someone, we give them mercy, we’re lenient. If we’re angry, we punish them. That kind of if-then reactionary thinking is the style of modern social media. We’re programmed to have shallow, one dimensional responses to things, even on complex issues: Agree, LIKE, disagree, RANT.

So here’s a suggestion. What about feeling very sorry for Henri, but punishing Henri strictly, nonetheless? This is the operative vibe I get from the Judge, and I give him credit for it. Of course, we could also feel very angry towards someone, and be lenient [which happened, at least initially, with Oscar]. In Henri’s case, by the time he comes out of jail he’ll look like this [or as old as this].

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I’d like to think that within the next 25 years, Henri may change into someone that will want to show genuine remorse for what he did. But whether he does or not, the other side of the equation must be balanced.

We must remember the dead, and honour them. We must remember the silent survivor, that floats out there, who like her brother, hides her true story from the world.

In this story, a middle-aged businessman and his wife, and an older brother in the prime of his life, were mercilessly cut down. We must remember them, and remember that cumulatively, their lives held tremendous value. One life, and one life sentence, can’t pay for the damage wrought. That is the irony here – that the one who was least, struck down the best in his family, and he got to tell the tale at their expense.  And no one stood up to counter the lies with truth.

He liquidated their treasure, and took it, and used it to pave his way back into the world. His father’s gold cast into straw houses, straw men and straw mustaches. The world that has emerged at the other end of Henri’s story, is poorer and emptier as a result.

In a sense, isn’t that happening elsewhere too? The gods are being struck down by giants, who rise out of the earth with their spades and axes, and the world turns to molten fire at their feet.

 

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