One of Us

By Asne Seierstad

Why do we read true crime stories?

Partly it’s our fascination with horrifying events, the same impulse that leads us to rubberneck car accidents. And some of it may be a way of defending ourselves, learning to recognize the red flags of potentially lethal psychopathy to better protect ourselves against predators.

And finally it may deepen our understanding of ourselves, evil being part of the general human condition.

One of Us makes us think about matters like these, being a sometimes hard-to-read account of the crimes of Anders Breivik. On July 22, 2011 Breivik set off a van bomb in Oslo, killing eight people, and then journeyed to the island of Utoya, which was hosting a retreat for young people affiliated with the Worker’s Youth League. There he shot and killed another 69.

Much of Asne Seierstad’s book is given over to Breivik’s biography, an account of who he was and how he came to be that way. And yet after going over the wealth of documentary evidence (Breivik’s manifesto explaining his motivation ran to over 1,500 pages), interviews with people who knew him, and the best efforts of teams of psychiatrists, the results are pretty disappointing.

In brief, Breivik was a bitter loser from a broken home who compensated with narcissistic delusions of grandeur. He fancied himself a heroic revolutionary striking a blow against multiculturalism and “cultural Marxism.” More specific enemies were Islam and feminism, alien forces he blamed for his own failures. Less well adjusted to life in his native land than many of the immigrants he despised, he was consumed by fantasies of revenge.

He was an extreme case, but a familiar type: the unemployed, friendless adult male, living with his mother, spending entire days on the Internet. Extreme politics was something that he found to fill the void, a phenomenon that seems to hold true across the spectrum of terror.

Seierstad fills the story out with parallel lives of some of Breivik’s Utoya victims, and a painfully detailed account of his day of carnage, including the unfortunately garbled and slow police response. Then comes the trial, an anti-climactic bit of theatre leading up to Breivik’s slow withdrawal from the stage.

There are few lessons to learn. Society doesn’t have much of a defense against people like Breivik. He did fall through the cracks of the child welfare administration, but his mother was playing the system. Another lucky break was his native identity. He was aware that even after adopting the false front of a farmer he could have never acquired the material for his bomb, and all of his weapons, if he’d had a foreign-sounding name.

Know the rules, and you know how to evade them. Short of living in a police state, that’s the reality.

Living such an isolated life, Breivik needed very little assistance. He received it, again as so often is the case, from his unhappy, damaged mother. And this is probably the only takeaway. If we’re to recognize the warning signs and draw lines around such people, that’s a process that has to start at home.

Review first published July 4, 2015.

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