Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad never meant to write a book about her own country. Seierstad has reported from Russia, Chechnya, Serbia and Iraq; she’s best known for the 2003 best-seller, The Bookseller of Kabul. But someone had to uncover the story of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who massacred 69 children at a summer camp for young socialists four years ago.
In researching One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (out on Tuesday), Seierstad pored over thousands of pages of police interviews, psychologists’ reports and witness statements, as well as Breivik’s own rambling manifesto, to piece together his life. She traces Breivik’s path as he grows from a lonely child, abandoned by his father and subjected to the whims of a neglectful mother, into a misfit at school and a failure of an adult.
At 27, after various harebrained schemes to earn money fell through, he moved back into his mother’s apartment, where he retreated into his childhood bedroom and came to prefer the virtual reality of “World of Warcraft” to the challenges of real life. It was online, too, that he found a community of right-wing bloggers who bonded over their shared belief that multiculturalism, Islam and feminism were destroying Europe. Seierstad weaves together Breivik’s story with heartbreaking profiles of the children he ends up killing.
Women in the World spoke to Seierstad about the challenges of reporting on the most notorious man in Norway, the experience of immersing oneself in the life of a terrorist, and the role of misogyny in Breivik’s murderous world view.
Women in the World: Did you ever find yourself sympathizing with Breivik? At points in his story, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.
Seierstad: It’s impossible not to sympathize with a four-year-old or even a five-year-old, a six-year-old, who does not get the care that a child should have. He’s forgotten. The mother doesn’t really care; the father doesn’t care at all. He tries so hard to be liked. He tries so hard, to be part of a gang, to be cool, to be one of the others. And he’s rejected. Even in his teens, I feel sorry for him, when he tries to be a big “tagger” [graffiti artist].
This seems to be the pattern of his life, up until the end, probably because he didn’t have that attachment at home. One thing we can learn from this story: It’s so important to have a sane and healthy childhood. A bad childhood is not just a personal tragedy. It’s a problem for society.
On the other hand, there are people, orphans, who do great. It seems that this is a terrible combination of genetics, disposition, dysfunctional childhood and experiences throughout life. This is the combination that made that horrible killer. There are many things that could have gone differently, I suppose. What if he’d become a millionaire, instead of losing all his money? At one point, his main goal was to get rich. Or if he’d met some other people …
WITW: How did Breivik feel about women?
Seierstad: I think his anti-women, anti-feminist feelings go even deeper than his Islamophobia. His plan on the island was to kill the former [female] prime minister of Norway [Gro Harlem Brundtland, who had been giving a speech at the camp earlier that day]. He has a lot of hatred for women, especially strong women. He believes that feminism is to blame for the Islamization of Europe, for making European men weak and unable to stand up to Muslim men.
WITW: Breivik’s relationship with his mother seems especially fraught.
Seierstad: There have been speculations about his very complicated relationship with his mother. When the whole family went to this psychology clinic when he was four, the psychologists found that it was the relationship with the mother that was destroying him. The conclusion was that he should be taken away from the mother. He was a boy who couldn’t smile, who took no joy, who didn’t connect with others. The mother would go in between, “I hate you and I want to give you away,” and “I love you.”
Before his court case, he said to the psychologist that she was the only one he hoped would not be a witness in court–she’s ‘my Achilles’ heel,’ he said. He moved back in with his mother when he was 27; it was just the two of them in a tiny flat. There’s only one witness to that life, and that is her. There were things he did not want her to say. There’s definitely a very strange, abnormal relationship to the mother.
WITW: What about his relationships with other women?
Seierstad: He actually had almost no relationships. We know about one girlfriend at some point, for a couple months.
He went on this dating site to pick out a bride. He ended up liking two, and he couldn’t decide. He went to his mother and said, “Who do you think I should pick, this one or that one?” He went for the blonde one. She stayed just a few days in Oslo, and then she left. There was something about him.
There were suggestions that he was gay. When he has no relationships with women, he fits into that picture of a gay person who tries to hide it. On the other hand, the police never found any gay porn or anything like that on his computer. Maybe he was asexual. Maybe that part of him was destroyed by earlier experiences. He never really connected to anyone. He was afraid of people. There was some part of him that was destroyed.
WITW: Was it hard to interview people connected to Breivik?
Seierstad: It’s always tough, when you’re working on a book, to do those phone calls, like, ‘Do you want to share your life?’ In this case, everything around Breivik–he was almost untouchable. Most of his friends would say, ‘I’m done with him, he means nothing any longer.’ No one wanted to admit they had anything to do with him.
WITW: Did you try to interview Breivik?
Seierstad: I was thinking when I started that, as a journalist, I needed to interview him and ask his opinion. He answered only after a year. He wrote me a couple letters, not really responding to my questions. In the end, I did not interview him. He set so many conditions–he wanted to have a say on the book if he gave an interview. He wanted to be able to censor it.
WITW: Do you know if he’s seen the book now?
Seierstad: He has, and he hates it. He said that my name should never be mentioned in his presence. I hope this means that I found out something that is painful to him, that I’ve gotten a bit deeper than the newspaper articles. He wants to be a hero, a fighter, and this is a book that shows him as weak, afraid, a loser, a failure.
WITW: How do you know he hates it?
Seierstad: He writes letters to scholars and historians who study neo-Nazism, saying he wants to be studied. Some have responded and wanted to meet him but, like with me, he started putting out conditions. One condition was that my name was not be mentioned, nor the name of the book.
I am not in contact with him. He asked me to send him the book. I didn’t, because I feel so done with him. He’s inflicted so much pain on so many. In the end, I gave a copy to his lawyer.
WITW: Are you still in touch with the families of the victims?
Seierstad: Some of them have become good friends. I visit them up North; we’ve been skiing together. One mother wrote me a letter, saying, “I struggled my way through your book, but now I see it as a declaration of love to the victims.” That was not the plan, but it came out a bit like that. The story is about not finding your flock, about not belonging, but when you go a bit deeper, it’s also about belonging, about love.
This interview has been edited and condensed.