One of Us, by Asne Seierstad

I ended the old year and began the new reading Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, translated by the aptly named Sarah Death. On July 22, 2011, Breivik set off a bomb outside Norway’s government complex, killing eight, and then drove to an island where the youth organization of the governing Labour Party was meeting and went on a shooting rampage, murdering 69 people, most of them teenagers.  This book certainly wasn’t a festive reading choice, but I had noticed it on some Best of 2015 lists, including the New York Times‘, and then it popped up  in the new non-fiction when I was browsing my library’s ebooks. It’s a very powerful book, and I think it deserves its place on the lists, but I have mixed feelings both about its existence and about having read it.

Describing a meeting between Norway’s then-Prime Minister and the families of victims the day after the attacks, Seierstad writes,

Jens Stoltenberg is a man who only believes in matters that can be proved. . . . He seldom talks in images and allegories, and all his life he has been direct, concrete, a little hard-edged and abrupt. But in his encounter with all those lives cut short, through those who loved them more than anything, vocabulary had to expand and broaden; the word hell acquired a concrete meaning.

Seierstad, too, sticks with the concrete. Her book is deeply researched and she often writes as a kind of omniscient narrator, describing the thoughts and feelings of those she portrays. But she doesn’t speculate about what she cannot prove–about Breivik’s mental health, for instance, which was the point of contention at his trial. Her writing is vivid and concrete, but emotionally restrained. And it’s stronger for that. The structure of her narrative and her choice of telling details accumulate unbearable emotional weight as the book goes on. At times I could hardly keep reading.

In the first half of the book, I kept thinking about Hardy’s poem about the Titanic, “Convergence of the Twain“:

And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history….


Seierstad interweaves her account of Breivik’s life with the stories of other people: a handful of young couples who meet, fall in love, and have babies you realize will become Breivik’s victims. As in Hardy’s poem–which opens with an image of the sunken ship–we know how these stories will converge, because Seierstad opens with a prologue describing some details of the massacre.

When we reach the long central chapter, “Friday,” which recounts the events of July 22 in harrowing, almost minute-by-minute detail, then, these events are happening to people we know well. The victims are more than numbers, and we understand something of what their loss will mean.

And here we are at the heart of my mixed feelings. Breivik wanted–wants–what so many perpetrators of mass shootings and terrorist acts do: to be important, famous, remembered, a hero, and if necessary, a martyr. He gave himself grandiose titles and claimed to belong to larger organizations like the Knights Templar. (If you Google him, the first autocomplete that comes up is “Anders Behring Breivik hero,” which is sickening). So, in writing this book, is Seierstad somehow giving him what he wants, despite his refusal to grant her an interview? It’s his name, after all, that is in the subtitle (and all over my review), not that of the victims and survivors who stories she tells, like Bano Rashid, Simon Sæbø, or Viljar Hanssen.

I think Seierstad does everything she can to avoid this. Breivik does not emerge from the book as a fascinating figure, neither hero nor anti-hero. I felt that she did her best to understand him, but that was for her own and her readers’ sakes, not for his. She presents him as human, not a monster, as the title One of Us indicates. The book implies that we have to try to understand his actions because he emerged from a social context, not from nothing. He isn’t really what matters. Nevertheless, he gets a lot of page time and attention in a book that ended up on Best of 2015 lists, even if it doesn’t present him the way that he would want.

I wondered, too, about my own motivation in reading this. My own country has more than its share of mass shootings, of course, but their causes are quite different–except where they’re probably the same. Does understanding what happened in Norway help me? Do I understand it? Despite all Seierstad’s careful research, despite the abundance of explanations–childhood events, teenage rejections, competing psychological diagnoses, a disastrously incompetent police response–or maybe because of them, Breivik’s actions on July 22 remain somehow incomprehensible. So was I just satisfying prurient curiosity? Am I a bad reader, Worst of 2015-16, for wanting to know? Probably not; I’m just human, and that’s sometimes a bit monstrous, and sometimes very monstrous.

Where I ended up on all this was thinking that, although no one can possibly grasp and sympathize with all the suffering of strangers in this world, it’s good to try to grasp and sympathize with some of it. Sitting in church today, I thought of Bano and Simon and Viljar and their families. Because they are real, and they can’t close the book and walk away from this. Making readers feel that is Åsne Seierstad’s great achievement.


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4 Responses to One of Us, by Asne Seierstad

  1. Sunita says:

    Liz, I am so thankful that you read this and wrote this post. I know I should read this book, and I will, but I keep reading reviews and articles about it rather than the book itself. It takes fortitude to read it, and I’m working up to it.

    I don’t think you are voyeuristic in choosing to read this. We have a duty to understand why things like this happen, or maybe *how* things like this happen, since the why is probably beyond all of us. I don’t altogether agree with Buruma’s review; he is too intent in turning Brevik into a pathetic loser. If that were all, we would have less to explain. I think Knausgaard’s May 2015 New Yorker article is much better at getting at the essence of what is so hard to understand, as well as the Norwegianness of it. In particular, I think his point about how our interactions (and lack thereof) create distance and enable people not to see others as equally human, is critical. We talk about how online interactions are real and enable new relationships, and that is true. But they also create a different kind of partial knowledge of a person than we’re used to in face to face relationships, and that allows for a different kind of dehumanization.

    As you know, I work on collective violence in my own research. I think we have to be much more willing to admit that violence is part of human nature. We can call it aberrant, but that makes it sound like a departure from some norm. It’s not. Our task is to understand it and manage it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you for pointing me to that New Yorker piece–I’d like to read a response from someone with a more “insider” (i.e. Norwegian) view.

      I think when you do read this book you’ll appreciate the way she approaches it and her style. And it’s not all dark. Even when we know their ends will be tragic, the stories of the teens are often delightful. They were high achievers and full of idealism, but also I’m sure remembered in rosy terms by friends and family, and Seierstad allows them that rosy glow–they get to be heroes, not Breivik, which is another strength. Plus Viljar survives and his story is incredible. And at the end, people are moving forward–slowly and painfully, but there is some hope.

      But it does require fortitude, as it probably should. I almost burst into tears many times (though they weren’t all sad tears) and stifled my feelings because I couldn’t bear to cry, rushing on from certain moments. She is good with those unbearable moments. And I haven’t been able to pick up another book yet.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    It sounds like a deeply disturbing but also very important book. The questions you raise about whether we should give our attention to someone who sought it in such a devastating way are so difficult. It sounds as if she has written the book very carefully to avoid prurience — so even if you are initially motivated a little bit by that kind of neck-craning horror that makes us all stare when we pass a car accident (which is perfectly understandable and human, even if it isn’t necessarily the best part of ourselves), if she turns that impulse in the right direction — towards sympathy with the victims, and understanding of contexts and causes, and so on, I think that has to be a good thing. Great (chilling) application of Hardy’s poem.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a good way of putting it–I don’t think prurience is the kind of curiosity that drove the writing of the book, and it wouldn’t really satisfy a prurient reader, either.

      I love that Hardy poem, but of course there’s a way it doesn’t fit at all, which is that Breivik was not a blind, dumb, indifferent force of nature, even if his actions were to some extent shaped by forces outside of himself. He wants to believe his actions were “necessary,” that he was somehow compelled, but we can’t believe that. One of the most difficult things to read about his perspective on the shootings was that he found it hard to force himself to start; apparently he said it felt “unnatural.” The mix of “normal” human responses and something we’d like to call “inhumanity” is really chilling.

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