On July 22, 2011, a sandy blond-haired man with dead blue eyes, dressed in a homemade Norwegian police uniform, planted a bomb outside of the prime minister’s office in Oslo. The explosion killed eight people. Armed with semi-automatic weapons, the man then drove 24 miles to Utøya island, the site of a summer camp for the Worker’s Youth League, the youth arm of the governing Labour Party. Within an hour and a half, he had killed 67. They were almost all teenagers.
One Of Us is the story of that man, Anders Behring Breivik. Written by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, One Of Us expertly details how a troubled boy with violent tendencies transformed into a graffiti tagger fascinated by hip-hop culture, a hungry capitalist and an aspiring politician, a World Of Warcraft addict, and finally a convicted terrorist currently in solitary confinement at 36 years old.
Seierstad’s latest work of non-fiction—she’s also the author of 2003’s excellent book, The Bookseller Of Kabul—uses police interviews, psychiatry reports, court documents, emails, and hundreds of interviews to tell the story of the deadliest attack on Norway since World War II. Working as an investigative journalist, she talked to Breivik’s friends and family, including his mother, former classmates, colleagues, and political associates. Breivik refused an interview, so Seierstad went inside his head via his own writings on the internet, in letters and from his 1,500 page manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration Of Independence, which he published online the morning of the attacks. (He did write Seierstad a couple of letters from his jail cell. They’re published in part in the epilogue, which is also where Seierstad reveals her detailed methodology. Journalism buffs should start here first as attributions are omitted throughout the actual text.)
The book is organized into three rough sections: the making of a murderer, the massacre, and the aftermath. Readers learn about Breivik’s unstable childhood with a depressed mother and estranged father and how he became submerged in the city’s underground graffiti community. After a failed career as a businessman and a stint with the anti-immigration Progress Party, he hid in the online gaming world, becoming the idealized version of himself—menacing and revered—only to emerge years later obsessed with the looming “Islamization of Europe.” Readers are brought inside Breivik’s world as he tracks down the chemicals needed to make a bomb powerful enough to topple a building and as he sews his own police uniform, a crucial disguise that allowed him to easily gain access to Utøya. This section starts off slow and overwhelmed by minutiae, but these details prove important as the story progresses.
The most harrowing section of the book examines July 22, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. Seierstad doesn’t censor the events that unfold on the island, where the most gruesome scenes take place. We’re once again inside Breivik’s head as he guns down a girl hiding behind a piano and systematically kills a group sprawled on a forested path, pretending to already be dead. Seierstad also puts us inside the minds of the dying, as a boy touches his own brain matter after a bullet shatters his skull, and as a girl feels the blood spurting from her stomach, soaking the sand where she lays.
But despite these detailed accounts, the writing is not sensationalized for dramatic effect. Seierstad is careful never to elevate Breivik to infamous celebrity status the way some cult leaders, murderers, and notorious criminals have become fetishized in history. One Of Us reads like a true crime novel, but it has the journalistic chops to back it up. This is particularly evident when Seierstad pinpoints with excruciating precision how the Norwegian police and the special force operations failed on many occasions on July 22, a day rife with grave miscommunication and abysmal planning.
The final section outlines the trial, where the courts had to decide if Breivik was mentally sane the day of the attacks. Seierstad states each side’s case fairly—that Breivik was a conniving political terrorist; that he was a madman and therefore not criminally responsible—without allowing her own opinions to sway the reader. Her objectively was likely tested in the trial scenes, which she covered as a reporter for Newsweek, when Breivik’s self-entitled narcissism was particularly repulsive.
As much as One Of Us is the story of a mass murderer, it’s equally the story of his victims, the survivors, and their families. Seierstad artfully weaves parallel narratives that tell the stories of several of those affected by him, including Lara and Bano, two Kurdish sisters who escaped Iraq with their parents and found refuge in Norway. It’s their story—how one sister lives, one sister dies—that is the most heartbreaking and unfair. Could this have all been prevented? That’s a fundamental question raised in the aftermath of any tragedy and in the case of Anders Breivik, Seierstad provides no clear answer. That’s a question for mental health professionals, politicians, the police, and the reader, to debate.
Some will read One Of Us expecting to uncover how a person becomes a political terrorist capable of murdering 77 people, and they will be disappointed. There’s no exact formula for producing a monster, and thus no answer can be revealed. Rather, One Of Us is the story of Norway, its people, and the lengths one will go to feel like they belong. Not only a stunning achievement in journalism, it’s a touchstone on how to write about tragedy with detail, honesty, and compassion.