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July 02nd 2016 print

Robert M. Kaplan

The Family That Slays Together…

Do psychopaths breed more psychopaths? The bloody history of the van Schoor family of South Africa certainly seems to suggests as much, as do other clans where murder seems to run in the family. Nature or nurture, their homicidal histories are playgrounds for speculation

Families have 
many ways of being dangerous   –Ernest Hemingway

The fundamental defect of fathers, in our competitive society, is that they want their children to be a credit to them. –Bertrand Russell

Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them. –Sigmund Freud

cuffsApartheid in South Africa played out in massive social engineering. The lives of millions of  black people were turned upside down and they were subjected to horrendous privations. Those privileged by their white skins could lead confortable lives by ignoring what was happening around them. This cocoon of unawareness was most pronounced in rural Afrikaans towns. A typical example was East London, a coastal port surrounded by the Xhosa areas of Transkei and Ciskei. Black crime was regarded as the porous sore from which the threatening black masses extruded.

A security guard par excellence, former policeman Louis van Schoor played a leading role in protecting East London white businesses from criminals. So effectively did van Schoor do his job that he was able to boast about having shot 101 criminals, all black, over a three-year spree. This made him something of a hero to the white citizens of East London. Following the deaths that ensued, a token inquest would clear van Schoor, seldom even requiring him to give evidence.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, old shibboleths began to fall. A local journalist looked at van Schoor’s victims. Asked if it was true that he shot more than 100 black people, van Schoor said “I never kept count,” helpfully adding “I was doing my job – I was paid to protect property”. It turned out that some victims had not been shot while committing a crime but when fleeing afterwards, if not when surrendering. In addition, there were a number of juveniles who seemed unlikely threats requiring shooting.

The tide had finally turned against van Schoor. This time the deaths were properly investigated and it was found that he had illegally killed 39 people. In 1992 van Schoor, guilty of seven murders and two attempted murders, was sentenced to a total of 91 years, effectively 20 years in jail. The white population of East London, demonstrating that the wellsprings of apartheid had not waned, were outraged, driving round with bumper stickers saying I Love Louis with two bullet holes through a bleeding heart.

van schoorVan Schoor (left) regarded himself as a scapegoat for the new ruling polity. In 2004, thanks to an amnesty on Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday, he was released after twelve years in jail. In the time-honoured fashion of model prisoners, he discovered Jesus, becoming a born-again Christian and married a lawyer (his fifth wife) who wrote to him in prison. The remorse he expressed did not convince many but van Schoor was undeterred, happy to seek publicity and give interviews. A book was promised.

Was Louis van Schoor just another self-appointed foot soldier maintaining white supremacy for the apartheid system or a confident psychopath who had found an ideal way of exploiting his taste for murder? This question remained unresolved until there occurred an event that cast a new light on the situation – the conviction in 2002 of his daughter, Sabrina, for the murder of her mother, his ex-wife Barbara.

sabrina and kidSabrina (right, with her daughter) and her mother had a difficult, if not stormy relationship. Nevertheless, she lived with Barbara who gave her a job in the family business in Queenstown. While Sabrina described her as abusive, this must be questioned. The two personalities certainly clashed. Barbara was being pushed out of the business by the three sons to her first marriage. She – like Sabrina – constantly struggled with her weight and seems to have hidden her depression behind a facade of middle-class politeness. The birth of Sabrina’s baby to a coloured boyfriend brought the tensions to a head. Barbara was outraged and Sabrina alleged that she threatened to have the baby taken away. The alternate explanation was that Barbara was not as much concerned about the colour of the child’s father but his unemployed state, unreliable nature and dissolute lifestyle. Sabrina was also facing the threat of being exposed for having stolen money from the business.

Her solution to the problem was to hire a hit man, a local black criminal who saw no problem getting rid of a pampered white madam. Sabrina let him into the house and sat in the bedroom while he cut Barbara’s throat, then ushered him out.

She hardly lasted long after the police came, tearfully confessing to arranging the killing on the grounds that her mother was an unrepentant racist who had driven her to this because she had a mixed-race baby. The ensuing publicity had the predictable effect of enraging the local white population while making her a hero to black people.

The court however was less sympathetic. Matricide was regarded as a rare but horrible crime and Sabrina had confessed her deed. She was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. In one of those coincidences that enthrall tabloid journalists, she was then incarcerated in the same jail as father Louis. For cynics, it was an unforgettable concurrence: The family that murders together stays together – at least in Fort Glamorgan, the local jail.

Sabrina’s defence was based on an abusive childhood and the constant racist oppression from her mother, as well as the hostile reaction of whites to her friendship with people across the colour line. Considering the penalties she faced for having a multiracial baby, this was not unexpected. But was her mother’s behaviour so bad that she deserved to be murdered? Much of what Sabrina claimed was based only on her word –  why otherwise did her mother let her stay at home and provide her with work instead of throwing her out?

Commentators were quick to see the murder as a result of the distorted values produced by apartheid. That was indeed one explanation, but not the only one. Matricide – murder of a mother by a child – is a very rare crime indeed, estimated to be barely 1% of homicides. Added to this is that most killings are by a son, rather than a daughter, and they are often psychotic. There is no suggestion Sabrina had psychiatric problems other than a personality disorder.

There may be another factor to consider. Father Louis would meet many (but not all) of the criteria for a serial killer and was undoubtedly psychopathic. While Sabrina was upset by her parents’ divorce, his influence on her upbringing was minimal. What could he have given her to make the horrific decision to kill her mother? The evidence that psychopathy has a genetic basis is weak, if non-existent – yet it cannot be entirely excluded.

There the van Schoor family romance (or should it be necromance?) would rest except for another eerie twin event. Psychiatrist Colin Bouwer, who fled South Africa in 1999 to become a professor of forensic psychiatry in Dunedin, New Zealand, murdered his wife with injections of diabetes medication into the webs of her toes while she slept. Just as he was found guilty of the murder came the news from South Africa. His son to his first marriage (with whom he had had little contact) was found guilty of murdering his wife in Johannesburg.

Another family that forged closer links by murdering those close to them? Who can say? Do psychopaths breed more psychopaths, or it simply that the massive distortion in relationships between people at every level created by the apartheid system facilitated the development of such necrophile families? And while we consider this, Louis van Schoor surges on with his post-prison life, Sabrina contemplates the years of incarceration that lie ahead and Colin Bouwer is to deported back to South Africa now that his sentence is completed. Perhaps he and Louis can do speaking tours on family life.

Whatever, their victims sleep uneasily in their graves.

Robert M Kaplan, who recently lectured at Limmud Oz on Holocaust Deception, is frequently accused of focusing on the dark side of human nature. This is quite untrue. He believes that politicians are good people committed to the truth with no regard to their self-interest