Thursday, April 19, 2007
I’ve walked around all week vaguely nauseated & depressed by the events at Virginia Tech on Monday. Remembering that one of my sons, at the age of four, announced he intended to go there to college – I hadn’t even heard of the place before he mentioned this, but he’d apparently heard from friends that it was an excellent school for science & engineering. The piranha-like feeding frenzy of the cable news networks on campus on Monday was itself as horrifying as it was barren of actual news. Hearing that a German professor had been shot in the head in front of his class, I was able to find out which German class was being held in Norris Hall online in about five minutes & thus knew that Jamie Bishop, the son of sci-fi & mystery writer Michael Bishop, was almost certainly dead almost 36 hours before I finally saw it confirmed by the Wednesday New York Times.
On Tuesday, the world learned that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was a student who had been taking creative writing courses & had so alarmed his instructors with his writing & his actions in the classroom that they had sought outside assistance from the school administration, the counseling center, even the police, only to be rebuffed consistently. Lucinda Roy, the novelist who co-directs the program, had taken him on, teaching him in a one-to-one setting just to keep out of the classroom with his peers. Even then, The New York Times reports, she felt sufficiently concerned about him that she had a code for her T.A. who would know when to call security.
This reminded me of my own admittedly limited experience as a professor and of one student in particular at UC San Diego whose writing spoke of high school suicide gestures – she had apparently been “a cutter” – and was utterly fixated on food. I spoke to her at the time about the value of counseling and noted that she was so focused on this single topic that she couldn’t write about anything, even it, since the topic so overwhelmed her. But the term ended and with it my employment at the school & stay in
People with psychotic diagnoses most often have their first episode in the 19-22 age range & can seem completely “normal,” whatever that term might mean, before then. On any large college campus, this means that faculty have some opportunity to come into contact with a student once in awhile who is becoming completely unhinged at a time when they may be apart from their previous social supports – family, community, church or temple – and may have become exceptionally socially isolated. There is hardly anyone lonelier than a college student away from home the first time who doesn’t know how to fit in. Toss in paranoia & unfolding schizophrenia and you have a stew brewing that can turn into trouble.
In 1969, a case arose out of UC Berkeley, where a person in counseling there informed his therapist that he intended to kill Tatiana Tarasoff, a young woman who had rejected his advances. Prosenjit Poddar was detained by police for assessment before being released and neither Tarasoff nor her family were ever told about the therapist’s concerns until, several months later, Poddar killed Tarasoff. As a result of the ensuing litigation, all
I don’t know what the laws in
I personally may think that anyone who owns a gun may be an idiot, but I’m not king and don’t make the rules. I do think that history is very clear that gun ownership will never be outlawed in the
And with copycats, it’s really only a matter of time before it is. I wonder just how much of a coincidence it is that today is the 12th anniversary of the
In the 1970s, most colleges in the
Institutions can only respond as institutions, which is one of the primary limits of their effectiveness. It seems obvious to me that every teacher, and especially every writing teacher, would do well to have enough psychology courses to recognize what they’re dealing with when a student who enrolls in their program only because he or she thinks that poetry or fiction is a safe place for misfits – there’s a lot of literature to support that view – goes over the edge. When I was working in the Tenderloin in
I also had a writers workshop while I was at Hospitality House with a no gun in class rule, which is a rule that you invoke on the spot when it appears that a participant has violated it. Because everyone in the workshop wants the facilitator to be in charge, this rule is more easily enforced than you might think.
But what I don’t have unfortunately is a solution. A society that underfunds everything – from its schools to its health care to even its military – is a society that creates a billion holes in the social net through which these kinds of tragedies pop up repeatedly. Closing one hole in the net simply demands a little creativity in locating another every bit as deadly. When the
I do want to note one thing, which is the piece read by Nikki Giovanni, one of the poets on Virginia Tech’s campus (Bob Hicok is another), at Tuesday’s convocation. While it is not her best writing – and is much more powerful to watch than just to listen to, because its power was so amplified by the reaction of the audience² – it may well be her finest moment as a poet. In just 90 seconds, she provided a larger context for suffering and a sense of belonging to every person in that building. She got, and deserved, a standing ovation. If you want to see what the term poet laureate really means, you should look or listen to this. You can download a podcast of her piece here.
¹ The shooting I always think of first is that of Tom Parkinson in Dwinelle Hall at UC Berkeley in 1961. One of Parkinson’s TA’s was killed in the shooting, done by someone furious at Parkinson’s opposition to the loyalty oath. Had the shooting occurred one year earlier, Parkinson’s TA Burt Hatlen would have been the person in harm’s way. The shooter, whose name I’ve forgotten, later was released from custody and wrote a memoir of the event that he sold at BART stations for some time.
² The one video of it on YouTube wasn’t working this morning, and the “streaming” version of the convocation seemed to be overwhelmed by the numbers of people trying to access it online.