Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nikki Giovanni

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 San Diego. I don’t know if she ever got the help she needed.

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 California therapists have a legal obligation to act on such threats, warning the potential victim, notifying the police. The Tarasoff warning has legislatively replicated in many other states, as has the California welfare & institutions statute, 5150, that permit therapeutic professionals to hospitalize patients involuntarily when they present a danger to themselves or others. These statutes have become so widely replicated that I do believe I have heard Tony Soprano refer to the Tarasoff process – not by name – in his discussions with Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos, while both Van Halen and Eazy E have recorded albums or CDs named 5150.

I don’t know what the laws in Virginia are, but my impression is that, whatever they may be, Cho appears to have fallen short of triggering them. I know of no state that requires creative writing teachers to take action, but it seems clear that those at Virginia Tech did everything they legally & humanly could to raise the red flag about Cho. In a society that persistently underfunds all levels of government, the social network for responding to such flags is decentralized and tenuous at best. It’s not even a question of preserving Cho’s rights to free speech – the resources generally don’t exist that could have kept him alive as well.

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 United States, and that the most anti-gun activists can hope to achieve is something akin to a rational framework as to which guns are in the hands of which people. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about handguns, per se, for example, but rural Americans in particular – who understand that one consequence of underfunded social networks is that you can’t call the cops and expect anything like a speedy response outside of the major metros – will make it very hard to place serious constraints even on those weapons of human destruction. And nothing legally exists that would have prevented Cho from getting a truck full of fertilizer and killing even more people in a single blow a la Timothy McVeigh. Perhaps the most frightening thing about what happened at Virginia Tech is that it could have been a lot worse.

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 Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 14th anniversary of the human barbeque of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Or that tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine. Beware the month of April.

In the 1970s, most colleges in the U.S. pushed their school calendars to end the spring term before late June or early July, as it had been previously. This was motivated by the observation that most student riots and political activity in the 1960s came during the warm last weeks of the school year. Now some schools even close up shop in early May. There’s a limit to just how far this kind of thing can be pushed, but I won’t be surprised to see schools decide that Spring break has nothing to do with Easter, but simply represents the middle or last two weeks of April. Like a lot of the architecture at UC San Diego – including the library which is hour-glass shaped & is deliberately “missing” a floor in order to create a choke point to halt the rioting students the school has never had, or the high-rise dorms of Muir campus, built by HOK using roughly the same floor plan that the firm has employed for federal Metropolitan Correction Centers – institutional responses to these kinds of tragedies tend to be locking the barn door once the horse has fled, forever waging the last war, clueless as to where the next one may be coming from.

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 San Francisco, I took assaultive behavior management workshops from UC Med Center which were important for protecting me on a daily basis. Although I was assaulted more than once, nobody ever got hurt.

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 University of Texas massacre took place in 1966¹ – an event that has been invoked repeatedly on the news this week – one of the victims was the son of poet Fred Eckman. That this tragedy involves not only a creative writing student shooter, but the son of a novelist & short story writer as victim, only increases my own sense of sadness.

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.