by Eric Bryant
Cho Seung-Hui was referred to psychiatric counseling in late 2005, shortly after being accused of stalking and harassing two female students. After an evaluation in which psychiatrist Roy Crouse stated that his mood was “depressed” but that his “insight and judgment were normal,” Judge Paul Barnett ruled that Cho “presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness” but did not go so far as to rule him as “an imminent danger to others.” In light of this diagnosis, Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment rather than an involuntary hospitalization that would have made him ineligible to purchase firearms.
Perhaps this diagnosis was professional and reasonable for the standards that existed at the time. Even so, it is exceedingly difficult not to wonder whether the Virginia Tech massacre might have been prevented. The students, staff, and legal authorities who were involved with Cho Seung-Hui are asking questions that are reasonable and important. Might we have known that he was ready to act? Might further action have been taken? Was Cho really beyond our help? These questions are mixed in with the feelings of guilt and impotence common among people who have had close dealings with those who go on to commit terrible atrocities.
In hindsight, it is trivially obvious to observe that Cho Seung-Hui was a dangerous and mentally diseased individual. The murders themselves provide more than enough evidence to prove that simple fact. But while diagnosis in reverse is a simple exercise, prediction is far more difficult.
With this in mind, how are we to determine the significance of the creative output that Cho produced while enrolled as an English student at Virginia Tech? It is tempting to pass a clear verdict on Cho’s recently publicized short plays “Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone,” to point out the truism that Cho wrote “violent” and “disturbed” plays and then turned out to be violent and disturbed in reality as well. There has been a great deal of speculation in the media and elsewhere that these works could or should have been used to identify mental illness in the author, or even to predict his future violent behavior. Cho’s writing has been referred to as a “warning sign,” or as having “sent out alarms” that a violent action was imminent.
If this is true, then there is a large yet unknown number of American students who are sending out the same warning signals. The vast majority of the writing teachers that I have spoken to since the Virginia Tech massacre report having received numerous submissions that are far more harrowing than the veiled exploitation and juvenile anger that forms the narrow palette of “Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone.” And the controversial authors who do not go on to become mass murderers? Well, they rarely make the news. This form of selection bias is insidious. Simply by focusing intense scrutiny on the content of Cho’s writings, the media is asking us to implicitly conclude that the ability or desire to write about disturbing or controversial topics is indicative of poor mental hygiene.
The assumption that creative writing in particular can be used as a predictive tool appears to be held in the extreme by Rob Jones, a senior vice president and lawyer for claims management and risk research at United Educators, a large educational insurance company:
“Traditionally, [instructors] have thought of themselves as nurturing academic or creative faculties. They don’t think of themselves as counselor or being warning systems for spotting mental health problems. We’d like them to think of whether they could be gatekeepers for identifying students at risk.”
After all, if every student who expresses ideas, events, or viewpoints that might be considered disconcerting is referred for psychiatric services, then every one of those students will have the chance to receive “help.”
This argument seems logical, even wise. However, it completely ignores the fact that the possibility of “identification” or “referral” or “analysis” is, in the eyes of many students, a serious threat. Policies that destroy trust between teacher and student are a highly efficient form of institutional censorship, and particularly loathsome in that they target young adults and even children. It is clear that the policies that protect schools from lawsuits are not necessarily the same policies that are beneficial to students.
What is less clear is that the students who will be most affected are not those students who are writing pure fiction, simply in order to be shocking or controversial. The students most affected will be those whose writings are thinly veiled expositions of their own lives. As these more sensitive students choose to self-censor in the face of the institutional threat, teachers and administrators will become less able to identify students who are truly in need of help. This is the form of irony and contradiction that censorship invokes; the “safe” path of censorship is never really safe, regardless of its appearance.
If a policy of subtle censorship becomes the norm, those students who truly need help or intervention will remain silent. The problems of those students will not disappear; rather it will become clear that we choose not to acknowledge them.
There is no doubt that Cho needed psychiatric treatment. However, any intervention that might have prevented the fateful events of April 16 should have been made on the basis of Cho’s actions, not his writing. While it is possible to analyze fiction in terms of talent, it is impossible to analyze it in terms of the probability of future violent actions. As such, the over-analysis of Cho’s writings cannot possibly result in a healing process, and might in fact lead to forms of overdiagnosis and censorship that will be highly detrimental to the environment of the American classroom: an environment that deserves protection from becoming yet another victim of Cho’s barbaric rampage.
If Cho’s creative writing was “[sending] out alarms” that he was going to become a mass murderer, then it must have been pretty bad. What exactly is contained within these works that might have allowed us to predict Cho’s behavior?
The two plays that have been publicized thus far, “Richard McBeef” and “Mr. Brownstone,” were authored by Cho in one of his Virginia Tech writing classes. In “Richard McBeef,” the young hero John confronts McBeef the stepfather, accusing him of killing his real father in a “boating accident” in order to “get into my mom’s pants,” and of trying to “touch my privates.” Sue (the mother) comes to believe John’s claims and chases McBeef out of the house with a chainsaw. McBeef takes refuge in the car outside, until John comes out to taunt him with a long monologue about his primarily janitorial work history, which has culminated in a permanent stint at McDonald’s. In the final climax, John tries to choke McBeef by thrusting a cereal bar down his throat. McBeef responds violently in return, when “out of sheer desecrated hurt and anger [he] lifts his large arms and swings a deadly blow at the thirteen year old boy.”
The coherent outrage that Cho might have managed to express, in response to the sexually violent world that he saw within and outside of himself, is generally defeated by the horror schlock aesthetic of the chainsaw, not to mention the clumsy and stilted dialogue. Admittedly, this dialogue can be somewhat graphic. While throwing darts at a picture of McBeef, John says:
I hate him. Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick. Richard McBeef...You don’t think I can kill you, Dick?...Got one eye...Got the other eye...
This seems serious enough, though Cho is generally little more than an oblivious master of slapstick:
I will not be molested by an aging balding overweight pedophilic stepdad named Dick! ... Damn you, you Catholic priest. Just stop it, Michael Jackson. Let me guess, you have a pet named Dick in Neverland Ranch and you want me to go with you to pet him, right?
And as for you banging my mom, looks like that lasted as long as your pathetic career, you prematurely ejaculating piece of dickshit.
These lines can almost be considered humorous, though not for the reason that Cho would have liked. The teenager titters at forms of anger and swearing that might be slightly above the creative level that he or she normally expresses. The literary dilettante smirks at the amateurish adventurism of the whole enterprise. And the law enforcement officer? Well, I have a feeling that he or she has not yet guessed that the author is necessarily capable of committing a mass murder.
The content of Cho’s writing can be described using many words: pedestrian, bizarre, idiosyncratic, disturbing, violent, or even prophetic. Personally, the first word that comes to my mind is irrelevant. It is imperative that we deny Cho because he murdered 32 innocent people, not because he wrote an amateur play.
If one wanted to write a first-person story about a serial killer, one would need to describe bizarre and violent fantasies, to plumb the depths of exploitation, fear, and aggression. The reader of such first-person fiction separates the author and the disturbed killer without thinking; the process is second nature. When that same reader concentrates on equating the author with a first-person character, as in the form of a memoir or true crime account, the effect is a trifle shocking. A form of distance is immediately eliminated, and the author no longer mediates between the world and the reader. The author is part of the world; he or she is speaking directly to the reader in tones that cannot be ignored.
An author might describe an insatiable urge to kidnap young children, cut off their fingers, and eat them on top of a heaping plate of spaghetti. The reality of such a desire would be visceral and terrifying. However, as a story the concept is rather stale. The idea of eating body parts has been cliché since Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer, if not since Hansel and Gretel. It is important to remember that it requires no creativity or artistry whatsoever, let alone actual intent, to describe the desire to eat the body parts of children.
What are we to do concerning the writer of a hackneyed short story about an escaped lunatic who leaves a bloody hook hanging from the rearview mirror of a Buick on lover’s lane? Should we refer the student writer for psychiatric treatment, just in case the student ever plans on playing out their “fantasy” in real life? Nobody suspects that Stephen King is going to perform any of the gruesome actions that take place in his novels. Should students really be held to a different standard?
The vast majority of writers are perfectly capable of separating fiction from reality. Similarly, a perfectly normal and healthy individual is capable of writing a fictional account that includes highly disturbing elements.
I cannot place myself in a position where there are no exceptions to the general rule of free expression. But outside of the realm of specific and actionable threats or plans to commit a real crime against real people (including oneself), and without any other behavioral indicators indicating mental illness (which Cho showed in strength), students should be allowed to speak in any way they see fit, to express any opinion or interpretation they consider valid or interesting, concerning any topic under the sun, without fear of retribution. The territories a student wishes to explore may be outlandish or bizarre or even deranged. Even so, we must not censor them simply because we would prefer not to experience that same geography.
This principle is bound to become less popular in the wake of Cho’s senseless massacre. However, his senseless actions do not imply that we must respond senselessly. Writing is uniquely suited to allowing students to explore their problems, to express their thoughts and feelings, to find other people who might feel the same way. Writing should never be used as a perverse form of psychiatric analysis, in the same way that “Group Psychological Examination” should never be considered for the title of a creative writing course.
I used to work as a high school mathematics teacher, and even in that position I came into contact with students who wanted to share what they were feeling. One student, who was involved in a Mock Trial program, showed me a piece of his writing that concerned the case of a police officer who had gunned down an unarmed man. I remember quite clearly the way that the student expressed his anger and frustation: “I felt like killing every cop everywhere, of watching them squirm as they lie there helpless and I shoot them again, and again, and again...”
The student expressed a thought that, while graphic, is well within the normal range of human emotion. Students should be allowed to be outraged, to engage in hyperbole, to express feelings they have had or even that they consider possible. This student was expressing a profound rage; he was not actually threatening a police officer.
Should I have been more cautious? What if that student had left school that day, got his hands on a gun, and shot a cop? If it were revealed that I had seen his writing, I would have been dismissed at the least; quite possibly I would have been sued or even prosecuted.
Nonetheless, I don’t consider that such an act should be considered courageous. In discussing the student’s feelings and offering some words of advice, I provided the bare minimum that the student deserved. But that’s exactly it. In all but the most extreme cases, I could not possibly justify the act of turning in a student who had placed himself in a position of vulnerability; it would have been a stunning abuse of trust and authority. Students need teachers who will listen to them, not teachers who wash their hands at the precise moment when that student becomes a potential liability.
In thinking about this student now, the way he approached me, the way he talked, and the way he left to continue with his life, I have no choice but to conclude that self-expression and violence are negatively correlated. Had this student not allowed himself (or not been allowed) to express his thoughts, he would have remained angry and confused; he may well have been more willing to act out violent thoughts in reality. It is repression, not expression, that allows violent thoughts to blossom into violent actions.
The combined spectacle of the lawsuit and the media frenzy is beginning to worm its way into formerly privileged arenas: education, writing, and free expression. Will it cause us to lose sight of the communicative, healing, even cathartic possibilities that writing contains? Will it cause us to forget the value of writing in both educational and emotional terms? There will be many calls in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, that we must err on the side of “caution,” understood to mean cautious censorship. Censors cannot understand the divine paradox of erring on the side of free expression. In nurturing the creative faculties of students and allowing them to work out their thoughts and feelings without fear of retribution, we are choosing the most cautious path: a path that is simultaneously a vindication of the principles of human liberty and the surest way to avoid alienation, misunderstanding, and the violence that follows.
Judging by the anecdotes we have all read about Cho Seung-Hui’s inability to make friends or express himself adequately, the problem is clearly not that Cho tried to express himself through his violent writings. The problem is that he did not express himself enough, or nearly well enough. If he had continued on the path of self-expression, perhaps he would have discovered the human miracles of empathy and forgiveness. He might have found a connection even to the anonymous strangers that he must have seen and yet ignored, as he gunned them down without reason or remorse.
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