Biehl book reveals multiple truths
A new book on the 1993 murder of American student Amy Biehl goes well beyond the events of the early 1990s to explore quintessential South African truths, writes MICHAEL MORRIS
JUSTINE VAN DER LEUN frames her opening chapter with writer Elie Wiesel’s apparent – yet tantalisingly believable - contradiction that “(s)ome stories are true that never happened”. It is a significant pointer to the gestation of American author Van der Leun’s five-year search for certainty about why Amy Biehl died and who was responsible, what it meant, and what it continues to mean.
The result is the extraordinary more than 600-page narrative journey that is We Are Not Such Things, A South African Township, the Murder of a Young American, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation.
Her search for the truth – or, as she sought it, the maddening emergence of multiple truths, uncertainties and contradictions – reveals a social history with this ironic quality that, as she writes, “a place that had tried so desperately to divide each facet of life into black and white… had succeeded only in creating a land where everything is rendered in shades of grey”.
“I could probably have gone on for 10 years,” she said in an interview from New York, where she now lives, “but, ultimately, I became satisfied that the lack of any concrete, forensic truth about this case is a kind of truth in itself. I found the quest itself to be the answer.”
Van der Leun’s account, rendered in an absorbingly intimate narrative form, is at times harrowing – and not only in its grim retelling of the mob killing of American student Biehl on August 25, 1993 – but also profoundly humanising in its probing engagement with the convicted murderers, witnesses, Amy’s friends, the Biehl family, policemen and others involved in the investigation and the greater history of a setting that charmed, puzzled and maddened her, yet won her devoted writerly attention.
Van der Leun is, in a sense, an accidental chronicler of Biehl’s story. When, more than a decade after the murder, she settled in Cape Town for a few years with her South African husband, her curiosity about the “other” city of shacks and poverty prompted a vividly recalled township visit and a search for volunteer work.
A number of people urged caution. “Better not come down with Amy Biehl syndrome”, she recalls being told.
Van der Leun was 12 when Amy Biehl died and had “never heard of her”. Having time on her hands, she began to do some research and became hooked. It was a story that compassed “the country’s timeline for the past nearly two decades: oppression, inequality, activism, protest, race-based violence, imprisonment, freedom, amnesty, reconciliation”.
“This was a microcosm of South Africa for 20 years,” she writes, “and it was the hopeful story people liked to tell and be told.”
Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, embraced their daughter’s killers and invested themselves in a project of hope, the Amy Biehl Foundation.
The TRC gave amnesty to the convicted murderers. And life in democratic South Africa went on. But Van der Leun was transfixed and, in a way, unconvinced by a greater episode “so peculiar that I couldn’t stop reading about it”.
“When I began writing the book I thought I would tell ‘the Amy Biehl story’, in all its detail. But as that narrative unravelled and I started to follow different threads, the book changed into an entirely different project”, an account of “the arc of recent South African history”.
Her hope was the book would be read “first and foremost as a story about human beings in all their complexities and depths”.
“I had preconceived notions about the subjects of this book before I got to know them. From my main character Easy Nofemela, a product of Gugulethu who went to prison and was subsequently amnestied for Amy’s murder, to my guide Mzi Noji, an ex-militant, an ex-con, an army vet, an Africanist, to the retired detective Ilmar Pikker: they were all very much ‘the other’ to me.
“But when I really got to know them, and in some cases their families, I found we all had so much common ground.
She noted of historical antagonists in this story “these former enemies were so similar, and they had been well-matched rivals. They even shared nostalgia for the old days. I wasn’t expecting that”.
With chilling recognition of the happenstance of such things, Van der Leun writes early in the book: “If you plucked (Amy) out of that moment in history and slotted me in, my fate would have likely been the same.”
This is an important hint at the larger setting. She believed “whether Amy was killed in a political maelstrom or at the hands of petty gangsters – which is a question the book raises – is irrelevant in regard to whether her death was meaningful”.
“In some ways, people projected onto her death whatever they wanted to see and that’s still the case. But the fact remains Amy lived a life of meaning and good intent, and her death was a tragedy that shifted the course of South African history.”
Van der Leun said she usually succeeded in seeing “the bigger picture surrounding Amy’s death, the profundity that had come from the Biehls’ radical forgiveness of the men convicted of her murder and of the men’s connection with the Biehls – and it’s worth noting that two of the convicted men reached out first, not vice versa”.
Even so, her dispassion was tested. Commenting on how she felt after looking at crime scene photos taken on August 25, 1993, she acknowledged: “I thought: But Amy was still brutally murdered, so who cares about all the grand things that everyone has built up around her death? She remains dead and gone.”
Equally, as her book forcefully brings out, black anger was all too explicable. She found “black South Africans these days largely to be shockingly forgiving about apartheid”. Twice in the text, Van der Leun refers to the “impossibility” of South Africa, a characterisation she expanded on in the interview.
“As I stayed longer in South Africa and I read the news and I spoke to all sorts of people... I often found myself thinking: well, how is this ever going to work? What can the future possibly hold for this country? The ‘impossibility’ refers perhaps to what I sometimes thought of as the impossibility of Mandela’s dream, of the hopes unfulfilled of the TRC.”
As an outsider she was aware of an often masked “tension” in society, being a country in which people “witness and experience vast inequalities day in and day out, and have done their entire lives, (which is) toxic, in different ways, whether they are rich or poor”.
“Add to that the fact everything, from neighbourhoods, schools, languages, religions and skin colour comes with tons of baggage and then the current frustrations of unemployment, corruption, crime – that’s a pretty noxious mix to live with.”
The likely fate of so many to see their dreams unfulfilled simply because of who they were or where they lived “isn’t, of course, unique to South Africa, but it’s very prevalent there”.
And then there’s the matter of those stories being true that never happened, in Wiesel’s phrase. At a climatic point in the book, Van der Leun confesses her doubt to a key figure in the story and he responds: “I told you before: Is life, this. Full of tricks, disappointment. Love directed in the right direction. Love directed in the wrong direction. People have two side or three or more side. Don’t listen too much to what anyone is saying.” When asked, he confirms he means himself, too.
It would give away too much to pinpoint this central figure – but his perspective, and Van der Leun’s deft handling of the three-or-more-sidedness of the reality in which she immerses herself, make for a compelling examination of an “impossible” South Africa’s necessarily unfinished sense-making.
Linda Biehl, mother of Amy Elizabeth Biehl (April 26, 1967 – August 25, 1993) at a memorial to her daughter. Amy was a white American graduate of Stanford University and an anti-apartheid activist who was murdered in Cape Town. The four men convicted...
A TRC hearing for Amy Biehl’s killers.
Linda and Peter Biehl.