‘We Are Not Such Things’ review: Justine van der Leun’s account of a South African murder is destined to be a classic
WE ARE NOT SUCH THINGS: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation, by Justine van der Leun. Spiegel & Grau, 528 pp., $28.
On Aug. 25, 1993, Amy Biehl drove several friends to a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. It was probably a bad idea for Amy — a 26-year old white American Fulbright scholar working to improve the lives of black women and children in South Africa — to venture into the township in those “final, fiery days of apartheid.” Her car was set upon by a mob chanting “one settler, one bullet.” The brick that smashed her windshield caved in her skull — or maybe it was a different brick — but did not kill her. A group of men and boys then surrounded Amy, who was kicked and stabbed and died soon after at a police station. Four men went to prison for the crime. Amy’s wealthy parents later publicly forgave her killers and employed two of them in the humanitarian organization they founded in their late daughter’s name.
The story proved a resilient one, told and retold by Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, with “over 100,000 search results on Google,” writes Justine van der Leun, in her extraordinary new book, “We Are Not Such Things.” The title is a quote from Easy Nofemela, in response to a government lawyer who asserted that he and the others convicted of murdering Amy did so “with wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood.” The men were nevertheless granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa’s solution to the crimes of apartheid, “lest they ‘live with us like a festering sore,’ according to [Nelson] Mandela.”
The story intrigued van der Leun when she relocated to Cape Town in 2011 for her South African fiance’s work. With time on her hands — she had previously published “a light travel memoir to nobody’s notice” — van der Leun, another young white American woman, began to dig into the narrative as told. The more she dug, the more it fell apart. Was the mob that attacked Amy loyal to Mandela’s African National Congress or the more militant Pan Africanist Congress? Did those who confessed to and were imprisoned for the murder commit it? Why didn’t police take Amy to the hospital? What did the ANC gain from Amy’s martyrdom? What did the killers get from their perhaps false confessions? Van der Leun wanted to, in her words, “find the Big Truth about the Amy Biehl story.” According to Easy Nofemela — charming, tenderhearted, often hilarious, sometimes drunk and and van der Leun’s steady companion through most the book — “the truth is not anymore existing for years and years.”
Oh, but it is, if you commit to listening to people’s stories. Van der Leun listens, for years. She listens to Amy’s mother, Linda (“at once regal and Midwestern, warm but removed, with the looks of an aging, corn-fed beauty queen”), and to Ilmar Pikker, the lead detective on the Biehl case, an ex-cop who once tortured ANC members, now disillusioned and bearing “a passing resemblance to a hard-living Santa Claus.” She parses the institutional amnesia and deliberate obfuscation that is South African record keeping. She travels to the townships so often that Easy gives her the Xhosa name “Nomzamo,” meaning “she who strives” (“or, probably, in my case, ‘pain in the ass,’ ” she writes). And she locates a white South African truck driver she gives the pseudonym Daniel de Villiers, whose brutal attack, on the same day as Amy’s, was deemed politically inconvenient and thus buried. Van der Leun’s portrait of Daniel, now a broken man, is exquisitely rendered. That she is able to extend equal empathy to Ilmar Pikker is evidence of a writer who understands that the feel-good story can conceal the festering sore. In this way, her book calls to mind Joan Didion’s 1991 essay “Sentimental Journeys.” Where Didion focused on one Hispanic and four black boys wrongly accused of a rape in Central Park, van der Leun must consider the sweep of colonialism and the institutions and people using Amy’s murder for ill and good, some of whom warn her to stop digging.
Van der Leun stays with the story, all of it, and crafts a narrative both fuller and more intimate than the one the world was told. She takes nothing away from Amy, whose murder was horrific. But she impresses upon the reader that no one life or death is worth more than another. For this, and for writing a masterpiece of reported non fiction, she deserves our plaudits and our awe.