One of Us by Åsne Seierstad is a true crime account of Anders Breivik, a Norwegian man who would go on a terrifying massacre that shook the country to its core (available April 21, 2015).
On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister's office in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the wooded island of Utøya, where he killed sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of the country's governing Labour Party. In One of Us, the journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of this terrible day and its reverberations. How did Breivik, a gifted child from an affluent neighborhood in Oslo, become Europe's most reviled terrorist? How did he accomplish an astonishing one-man murder spree? And how did a famously peaceful and prosperous country cope with the slaughter of so many of its young?
Up the hill, through the moss. Her wellingtons sank into the wet earth. The forest floor squelched beneath her feet.
She had seen it.
She had seen him fire and a boy fall.
‘We won’t die today, girls,’ she had said to her companions. ‘We won’t die today.’
More shots rang out. Rapid reports, a pause. Then another series.
She had reached Lovers’ Path. All around her there were people running, trying to find places to hide.
Behind her, a rusty wire fence ran alongside the path. On the other side of the netting, steep cliffs dropped down into the Tyrifjord. The roots of a few lilies of the valley clung to the mountainside, looking as though they had grown out of solid rock. They had finished flowering, and the bases of their leaves were filled with rainwater that had trickled over the rocky edge.
From the air, the island was green. The tops of the tall pines spread into each other. The slender branches of thin, broadleaved trees stretched into the sky.
Down here, seen from the ground, the forest was sparse.
But in a few places, the grass was tall enough to cover you. Flat rocks hung over one part of the sloping path, like shields you could creep under.
There were more shots, louder.
Who was shooting?
She crept along Lovers’ Path. Back and forth. Lots of kids were there.
‘Let’s lie down and pretend we’re dead,’ one boy said. ‘Lie down in strange positions, so they think we’re dead!’
* * *
She lay down, one cheek facing the ground. A boy lay down beside her and put his arm round her waist.
There were eleven of them.
They all did what the one boy said.
If he had said ‘Run!’ perhaps they would have run. But he said ‘Lie down!’ They lay close together, their heads turned towards the forest and the dark trunks of the trees, legs against the fence. Some of them huddled up against each other, a couple were lying in a heap. Two girls, best friends, were holding hands.
‘It’ll be fine,’ one of the eleven said.
The heavy rain had eased off, but some last drops were still trickling down their necks and sweaty cheeks.
They took in as little air as possible, trying to breathe without a sound.
A raspberry bush had strayed out onto the cliff. Wild roses, pale pink, almost white, were clinging to the fence.
Then they heard footsteps approaching.
* * *
He advanced steadily through the heather. His boots stamped deeply into the ground as he walked over harebells, clover and trefoil. Some decaying branches snapped underfoot. His skin was pale and damp, and his thin hair was swept back. His eyes were light blue. Caffeine, ephedrine and aspirin ran in his bloodstream.
By this point he had killed twenty-two people on the island.
After the first shot, it had all been easy. The first shot had cost him. It had been almost impossible. But now, pistol in hand, he was relaxed.
He stopped on the little rise that provided cover for the eleven. From there, he looked calmly down at them and asked: ‘Where the hell is he?’
His voice came loud and clear.
Nobody answered, nobody moved.
The boy’s arm lay heavily on her. She was wearing a red waterproof jacket and wellingtons, he was in checked shorts and a T-shirt. She was tanned, he was pale.
The man on the rise started from the right.
The first shot entered the head of the boy lying at the end.
Then he aimed at the back of her head. Her wavy, chestnut brown hair was wet and shiny in the rain. The shot went right through her head and into her brain. He fired again.
The boy with his arm around her was hit. The bullet went through the back of his head.
A mobile phone rang in a pocket. Another bleeped as a text came in.
A girl whispered: ‘No…’ in a low, scarcely audible voice as she was shot in the head. Her drawn-out ‘No-o-o’ faded into silence.
The shots came every few seconds.
His weapons had laser sights. The pistol sent out a green trace, the rifle a red one. The bullets hit where the trace pointed.
A girl near the end of the row caught sight of his muddy black boots. At the back of his heels, down at path level, metal spurs protruded. On his trousers a chequered reflective strip lit up.
She was holding hands with her best friend. Their faces were turned to each other.
A bullet seared through the crown, the skull and the frontal lobe of her childhood friend’s head. The girl’s body jerked, the twitchings ran into her hand. Her grip slackened.
Seventeen years is not a long life, thought the one still alive.
Another shot rang out.
It whined past her ear and sliced her scalp. Blood ran over her face and covered the hands her head was resting on. One more shot.
The boy beside her whispered: ‘I’m dying.’
‘Help, I’m dying, help me,’ he begged.
His breathing grew quieter and quieter, until there was no more sound.
From somewhere in the middle of the group came a weak moaning. There were faint groans and a few gurgling sounds. Then only a little squeak or two. Before long there was silence.
There had been eleven pounding hearts on the path. Now only one was still beating.
* * *
A bit further along a log was wedged at an angle, covering a hole in the fence. Several people had crawled through the little opening and down a steep slope.
A boy was trying to help people down. When the shots rang out from the path, he took off to make the leap himself. He jumped down from Lovers’ Path over wet sand, pebbles and shale.
A girl with long curly hair was sitting furthest out on a rocky ledge. She saw him as he jumped and called his name.
He paused as his foot made contact with the ground, stopped and looked round.
‘Sit here with me!’ she called.
There were young people all along the ledge. They squeezed together to make room. He sat down beside her.
They had met the night before. He came from up north, she was from the west.
He had lifted her up onto the stage during the concert. They’d taken a walk along Lovers’ Path and a rest on the promontory. It had been a dark and cold night for July. She had borrowed his jersey. On the final climb back up to the tents he had asked her to give him a piggyback, he was so worn out. She had laughed. But she had carried him. Just so he would be near her.
* * *
The killer kicked the eleven bodies on the path to check they were dead. Shooting them had taken two minutes.
He was finished here and so he went on along Lovers’ Path.
Inside his uniform he wore a medallion on a silver chain, a red cross on white enamel. The cross was encircled by silver decorations, a knight’s helmet and a skull. Now, it knocked against the hollow of his neck as he strode steadily on, looking about him. The sparse trees were on one side, the steep drop beyond the fence on the other.
He paused by the log. He looked over it, down the steep drop.
A foot was protruding from a rock ledge. He saw something coloured in a bush.
The boy and girl on the ledge clutched each other’s hands. When they heard the heavy footsteps come to a halt, the girl closed her eyes.
The man in the uniform raised his rifle and took aim at the foot.
He pressed the trigger.
The boy gave a cry and his hand slipped out of hers. Sand and grit sprayed into the girl’s face.
She opened her eyes.
He tumbled down. Did he fall, did he jump, she did not know. His body was thrown further as he was hit again; in the back. He floated in the air.
He landed at the water’s edge, slumped over a rock. The bullet had passed through his jacket, through the jersey he had lent her the day before, through his lung and through his chest cavity before ripping open the artery in his neck.
* * *
The man on the path was jubilant.
‘You will all die today, Marxists!’
He raised his weapon again.
A New Life (1979)
We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.
— Hjalmar Söderberg, Doktor Glas, 1905
It was one of those clear, cold winter days when Oslo glistens. The sun, which people had almost forgotten, made the snow sparkle. Keen skiers cast long looks out of their office windows, up to the white hilltop, the ski jump and the blue sky.
Homebodies cursed the temperature of minus twelve, and if obliged to venture out they went with a shiver, in thick fur coats and lined boots. Children were bundled up in several layers of wool under their quilted snowsuits. There were shrieks and squeals from the toboggan slopes in the playgrounds of the kindergartens that had opened everywhere as more and more women started working full time.
Piled along the fences round the hospital grounds there were towering heaps of snow, ploughed from roads and pavements. The cold made the snow creak beneath the feet of those passing the old hospital building in the north of the city.
It was Tuesday the thirteenth, in the second month of the year.
Cars drove up to the main entrance, stopped and waited while doors opened and prospective mothers eased themselves out, leaning on men who were to become fathers. All were engrossed in their own big drama, a new life on its way.
Since the early seventies, fathers had been allowed to attend births at public hospitals. Once banished to the corridor, they could now be there for the birth, see the head pushing its way out, smell the blood, hear the baby give its first cry. Some were handed a pair of scissors by the midwife so they could cut the umbilical cord.
‘Sexual equality’ and ‘new family policy’ were key slogans through the decade. Children and home were no longer purely a women’s sphere. Fathers were to be involved in caring for their children from birth. They were to push prams, prepare baby food and join fully in raising the child.
* * *
A woman was lying in a room in great pain. The contractions were violent, but the baby was holding back. It was already nine days past its due date.
‘Hold my hand!’
She moaned the words to the man at the head of the bed. He took her hand and held it hard. It was his first time at a birth. He had three children from a previous marriage, but back then he would wait in the corridor until it was time to see the babies nicely parcelled up, two in pale blue blankets and one in pink.
The woman panted. The man held on.
They had met just a year earlier, in the basement laundry room of a block of flats in the Frogner area of town. She was renting a shoebox on the ground floor, while he owned a larger flat on the floor above. He – a newly divorced diplomat in the Norwegian Foreign Office, with a home posting after spells in London and Teheran. She – an auxiliary nurse and the single mother of a four-year-old daughter. He was forty-three, a gaunt man with thinning hair, she eleven years younger, slim, pretty and blonde.
Soon after they met in the laundry she found herself pregnant. They got married at the Norwegian Embassy in Bonn, where he was attending a conference. He stayed for a week, she for barely two days, while a friend looked after her daughter in Oslo.
She was initially pleased to be pregnant, but within a month or two she was racked with doubts and no longer wanted the baby. Life seemed uncertain, sinister. Whenever the three children from his previous marriage came to visit he appeared cold and remote. It felt like madness, having another baby with someone who seemed to take so little pleasure in children.
The month she became pregnant, legislation permitting abortion on demand was introduced in the Norwegian parliament and passed by a single vote. It only came into force the following year. The law gave women an unlimited right to abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, with no requirement to appear before a medical board. After twelve weeks, abortion was only available on specific grounds. She had taken so long to make up her mind that it was in any case too late to scrape the foetus out. It took root in her womb.
She soon started to suffer from sickness and felt distaste for the tiny life that was acquiring new senses and abilities week by week as it absorbed nutrition and continued to grow. Its heart beat steadily and strongly, its head, brain and nerves were all developing at a normal rate. There was no detectable abnormality, no club foot, no indicators of extra chromosomes, no hydrocephalus. On the contrary, it was a lively baby, in good health according to the doctors. Annoying, its mother felt. ‘It’s as if he kicks me almost on purpose, to torment me,’ she told a friend.
The baby was blueish when he came out.
Abnormal, thought his mother.
A fine boy, said his father.
It was ten to two, in the middle of the day. The boy immediately exercised his lungs. A normal birth, according to the hospital.
There was an announcement in Aftenposten:
Aker Hospital. A boy.
13th February. Wenche and Jens Breivik.
* * *
Later, they would each tell their own story of the birth. She would say it was dreadful, and that it had been disgusting to have her husband there. He would say that it all went well.
The child had probably been harmed by all the pain-relief drugs she had received, his mother said. The boy was fit and healthy, said his father.
Later still, they had differing versions of most things.
* * *
The Norwegian Foreign Office had introduced flexible working arrangements for young parents, and allowed newly fledged fathers to stay at home with the mother and baby for the initial period after the birth.
But when Wenche came home from the hospital to the flat in the patrician apartment block in Frogner, there was something missing.
A father who had not made sure there was a changing table in place when the newborn came home was one who did not welcome the baby, so Wenche had heard, and she brooded over this as she changed the baby on the bathroom floor. Times might have moved on, but Jens belonged to the old school, and she was the one who fed the baby, sang to him and lulled him to sleep. She suffered her way through breastfeeding, growing sore and tender. A darkness had descended on her, a depression that carried all her earlier life within it.
Finally she shouted at her husband, telling him to go and buy a changing table. Jens did so. But a wedge had been driven between them.
* * *
The boy was given the name Anders.
When the baby was six months old, Jens Breivik was appointed a counsellor at the Norwegian Embassy in London. He went over first and Wenche followed with the children, towards Christmas.
She was very much alone in their flat in Prince’s Gate. It was enormous and most of the rooms were not in use. When her daughter started at an English school, Wenche stayed at home with Anders and the au pair. The great metropolis made her feel stressed and uneasy. There in Prince’s Gate she shut herself increasingly into her own world, as she had learnt to do when she was little.
Not so long ago, they had been in love. Back home in Oslo she had a box of notes and love letters he had written.
Now she walked round the grand flat, filled with regrets. She reproached herself for marrying Jens and letting the baby bind her to him still further. Early on, she had noticed traits in her husband that she did not like. He was sulky, wanted everything his own way and was incapable of taking other people’s feelings into account; things like that played on her mind. I mustn’t tie myself to him, she had told herself at an early stage. Yet she had done exactly that.
When they got married, she had been several months pregnant. She had entered into the marriage with her eyes closed, hoping that when she opened them again everything would be all right. After all, her husband had a good side; he could be kind and generous, and was a very tidy person. He seemed good at his job; he was out at a lot of receptions and official functions. She had hoped their life together would improve when they became a proper family.
In London she grew increasingly unhappy. It seemed to her that he only wanted an immaculately groomed wife and a dust-free home. Those were the things that interested him. Not her. Nor their son.
She felt he was forcing himself on her. He felt she was distant and not there for him. He said she was using him, and had been thinking only of her own interests when she married him.
By the spring, Wenche had fallen into a deep depression. She would not acknowledge it, however, thinking it was her surroundings that were making her unhappy. She could not bear her husband, nor her existence. Her head was a mess, her life meaningless.
One day she started packing.
When she had been packing for three days, she told her husband she wanted to take the children home. Jens was dismayed and asked her to stay. But it seemed simpler to go.
So she went. Left Jens, left Hyde Park, the Thames, the grey weather, the au pair, the domestic help, the life of privilege. She had lasted six months as an embassy wife.
Back in Oslo, she filed for divorce. Now she was alone again, this time with two children.
Wenche had nobody else. She had no relationship with her own family, which consisted of her mother and two older brothers. She had no contact with the father of her daughter. He was Swedish and had only seen his daughter once, when she was a few months old; he had left as quickly as he arrived.
‘How could you give up your posh life and beautiful home in London?’ one of her few girlfriends asked.
Well, it wasn’t London that was the problem, she now said. It had all been pretty perfect, in fact, just with the wrong man. Stubborn, temperamental and demanding were words she used to refer to her ex-husband. Cold, unaffectionate – that was how he described her.
The marriage was past salvaging. Through a lawyer they came to an agreement. She would have Anders and he would pay child support. Under the agreement, she could live in his flat in Fritzners gate for two years.
Three years would pass before Anders saw his father again.
* * *
Wenche’s life had been all about loss.
It had been all about being alone.
The coastal town of Kragerø, 1945. As peace came, the builder’s wife got pregnant. As the birth approached, she started getting flu-like symptoms and was confined to bed by paralysis in her arms and legs. Anne Marie Behring was diagnosed with polio, a much-feared illness with no known cure. Wenche was cut out of her belly in 1946. By then, the mother was almost completely immobile from the waist down and one of her arms partially paralysed. Wenche was sent to an orphanage as soon as she was born and spent the first five years of her life there. Then one day the fair-haired girl was brought home. The orphanage was closing down.
She was left to her own devices. Her father, Ole Kristian Behring, was often out at work and her mother locked herself away and scarcely went out among people. No one was to laugh at her deformity.
When Wenche was eight her father died. Home grew darker still, and her mother ever more demanding. It had been ‘wicked’ of Wenche to give her mother ‘this illness’.
The little girl had two elder brothers. One left home when their father died, the other was aggressive and quick-tempered. He took out his feelings on his sister. He cuffed her so often that the skin behind her ears was raw and he thrashed her legs with stinging nettles. Skinny little Wenche would often squeeze behind the stove when her brother was after her. His hands could not reach her there.
Conceal and keep silent. Everything at home was tainted with shame.
When her brother was in a bad mood she would stay out all evening, only going home when it got dark. She wandered round Kragerø alone, she wet herself, she smelled, she knew she would be in for a hiding when she got home.
When she was twelve, she considered jumping off the cliffs. The cliffs, so steep and tempting.
But she did not jump. She always went home.
The house was dilapidated and had no running water. She was the one who kept things in order, washed and tidied, emptied and cleaned the chamber pot kept under the bed that she shared with her mother. Even so, ‘You’re fit for nothing!’ shouted her mother. ‘This is all your fault!’
She would rather have functioning legs than a daughter.
Wenche did not measure up, did not fit in, wasn’t good enough. She was never allowed to invite anyone home and did not make friends with any of the other girls, who were quick to taunt and exclude her. The family lived such an isolated life that its members were seen as gloomy, even creepy. People kept their distance, though many of the neighbours felt sorry for the little girl who worked so hard.
Wenche would lie in bed at night twisting her head from side to side to shut out the sounds of the house. The worst of these were the thuds as her mother moved about. She used two stools to drag herself across the floor. She raised them one by one, leaning her body on them in turn as she went, bringing each of them down on the floorboards with a thump.
Wenche lay there hoping her mother would one day come to love her.
But her mother merely became ever more demanding and dependent. Her brother ever more brutal. When Wenche was well into her teens, she happened to hear from a neighbour that he was actually a half-brother – born outside wedlock, his father unknown – a great disgrace in Kragerø at the time. This secret had been kept from her, as had the fact that her other brother was her father’s son from an earlier marriage.
Her mother began to complain of hearing voices in her head. And when a man moved in, Wenche’s mother accused her daughter of trying to steal him. But she still expected Wenche to stay at home and look after her for the rest of her life.
When Wenche was seventeen she packed a case and left for Oslo. It was 1963. She had no qualifications and did not know anybody, but she eventually got a position as a cleaner at a hospital, and later at Tuborg brewery in Copenhagen and then as an au pair in Strasbourg. After five years on the run, from her mother and brother, and from Kragerø, she trained as an auxiliary nurse in Porsgrunn, an hour’s travel from her hometown, and got a job at the hospital in neighbouring Skien. Once there, she discovered to her surprise that people liked her. She found herself respected and valued at work.
She was quick, clever and considerate, her colleagues thought, even quite funny.
When she was twenty-six she got pregnant. The baby’s Swedish father asked her to have an abortion. She insisted on keeping the child and gave birth to a daughter, Elisabeth, in 1973.
Many years were to pass before Wenche made a short visit to her home town. By then, her mother was seriously ill. According to her case notes, she increasingly suffered paranoid delusions attended by persecution mania and hallucinations. Wenche’s mother did not leave her sickbed again and died alone in a nursing home in Kragerø. Her daughter did not attend the funeral.
* * *
The art of concealing anything painful or ugly had become second nature to Wenche, and would stay with her for the rest of her life. Dulling the ache beneath a polished surface.
Every time she moved, Wenche chose to live in one of the nicer districts of Oslo, even if she could not afford it, even if as an auxiliary nurse she did not ‘fit in’. Her attractive appearance was her own glossy façade. She was always smartly dressed and freshly coiffed when she was out and about, favouring high-heeled shoes and fitted dresses and suits from the capital’s more exclusive clothes shops.
When she got home from London her life started to unravel. She was now in her mid-thirties and living in Jens’s flat in Fritzners gate, but did not know many people. She had no one to help her and was initially tired, then exhausted, and before long completely shattered. She felt powerless and isolated.
There must be something wrong with Anders, she decided. From being a calm baby and a fairly placid one-year-old, he turned into a clingy, whining child. Moody and violent. She felt like peeling him off her, she complained.
At night, she often left the children alone. A neighbour with a daughter the same age as Elisabeth remarked to her that this was not the done thing. ‘They’re asleep when I leave and asleep when I get back,’ Wenche replied. She added that she had to take whatever night shifts she could get.
‘At Elisabeth’s they never have dinner,’ the neighbour’s daughter said to her mother. Economies were made on everything that could be hidden behind the front door.
As soon as they had returned from London in August 1980, Wenche applied for, and was granted, financial assistance from the social services office in Oslo’s Vika district. The following year, in May 1981, she rang the office and asked if it would be possible to have a support worker or some respite care for the children. In July she applied for weekend respite care for both children. She told social services that she thought a male support worker would be a good idea for her daughter, perhaps a youngish student, according to the office log. But it was from Anders that she felt the most pressing need for relief, she told the office on that occasion. She could no longer cope with him, she said.
At that point, Anders had passed his second birthday and Elisabeth was eight. Elisabeth was following in Wenche’s footsteps, turning into a ‘spare mother’ for Anders and for her mother.
In October 1981, weekend respite care was approved for Anders twice a month. Anders was allocated to a newly married couple in their twenties. When Wenche brought the boy to them for the first time, they found her rather odd. The second time, they thought she was nuts. She asked if Anders could occasionally touch his weekend dad’s penis. It was important for the boy’s sexuality. He had no father figure in his life and Wenche wanted the young man to assume that role. Anders had no one to identify with in terms of his appearance, Wenche stressed, because ‘he only saw girls’ crotches’ and did not know how the male body worked.
The young couple were speechless. But they were too embarrassed to report what she had said. They took Anders out on trips to the forest and countryside, and to parks and playgrounds around the city. He liked being with them and they thought he was a nice little boy.
One weekend, Wenche did not turn up with Anders. She had decided it was not a suitable weekend home for her son. ‘Mother difficult to please, keeps demanding more,’ the social services office recorded in May 1982. She applied for a different weekend home for her son. ‘The daughter, aged nine, has started wetting herself,’ wrote the social services.
The month before, Wenche had gone to the foster-home section at the child welfare office. She was looking into the possibility of having both children fostered. She wanted them to ‘go to the devil’, she told the child welfare office.
Autumn arrived and life got even darker. In October, Wenche called in to the Frogner Medical Centre. ‘Mother seemed severely depressed,’ they noted. ‘Thinking of just walking out on the children and leaving them to society, to live her own life.’
Wenche and the children had now been living in Fritzners gate for just over two years. The period she and Jens had agreed to was over and Jens wanted his apartment back. But Wenche put off the move. She did not feel up to it.
A nervous wreck, was how she described herself. As Christmas approached, she hit rock bottom. It was simply beyond her to create any kind of festive mood.
She was going to pieces.
She had to keep a permanent eye on Anders to avoid what she called minor disasters. He would hit her and Elisabeth. If she told him off, he would merely smirk. If she shook him, he would just shout ‘It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.’
He never gave her any peace. At night he would lie in her bed, clinging to her, pressed up against her. She said it felt as if he was forcing himself on her.
Copyright © 2015 Asne Seierstad.
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Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning Norwegian journalist and writer known for her work as a war correspondent. She is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul, One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya. She lives in Oslo, Norway.