Sunday, April 22, 2007

Suffering In Silence

The New York Times recounts the mysterious, withdrawn and troubled life of Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who grew from laconic boy into angry young man.

Writes N.R. Kleinfield:
From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his own family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui Cho grew up, his mother agonized over his sullen, brooding behavior and empty face. Talk, she just wanted him to talk.
But he lived in silence until the bloody end, off the grid of college life except where absolutely necessary. He seethed and raged in a couple of violent plays for creative writing classes. He lashed out against everyone in his video epitaph mailed to NBC and broadcast to the world. However, he also suffered deeply, and his life as told by Kleinfield is a sad parable of missed opportunities for healing.

Let me be clear: Cho had absolutely no justification for his deadly outburst. He is not a martyr. He should not be mourned as one. His troubled life does not outweigh nor diminish the value of the lives he took in a shower of bullets. But examining the little we know about Cho's shadowy existence, his vision of himself and the world, you find a ghost -- a soul lost on Earth with nobody to show him the way.

Kleinfield does not report on what drew Cho into his shell. I will not offer theories or point incriminating fingers, so let us suppose he was born that way.

From the Times article:
[Cho] was well behaved, all right, but his pronounced bashfulness deeply worried his parents. Relatives thought he might be a mute. Or mentally ill. “The kid didn’t say much and didn’t mix with other children,” his uncle said. “ ‘Yes sir’ was about all you could get from him.”
We are not told whether Cho's parents sought professional help for him at this point, although his mother "prayed for God to transform her son." Whatever action his family took didn't work: the silence festered as he grew into young adulthood.
High school did not help Seung-Hui Cho surmount his miseries. He went to Westfield High School, one of the largest schools in Fairfax County. He was scrawny and looked younger than his age. He was unresponsive in class, and unwilling to speak.

And that haunted face.

Classmates recall some teasing and bullying over his taciturn nature. The few times he was required to speak for a class assignment, students mocked his poor English and deep-throated voice.

And so he chose invisibility. Neighbors would spot him shooting baskets by himself. When they said hello, he ignored them, as if he were not there. “Like he had a broken heart,” said Abdul Shash, a next-door neighbor.
We don't know what broke Cho's heart. Perhaps he rejected offers of friendship because he considered them ingenuine or patronizing after taunts from peers. So he let his sadness consume and cover him like a security blanket.

He grew into a socially barren college student at VT. The only way he related to women was photographing them with a cell phone camera or pulling them out of his imagination.
In his junior year, Mr. Cho told his then-roommates that he had a girlfriend. Her name was Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space and traveled by spaceship, and she existed only in the dimension of his imagination.

When Andy Koch, one of his roommates, returned to their suite one day, Mr. Cho shooed him away. He told him Jelly was there. He said she called him Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.
Invisible friends are a normal phase of little children, not college students. Or did somebody just excuse it as college weirdness, the catch-all excuse that embraces absurdity as diversity?

When police told Cho to stop stalking two women, he sent an instant message to his roommate threatening to kill himself. The roommate contacted police, and finally Cho got the mental health care he should've had a decade ago.
After a counselor recommended involuntary commitment, a judge signed an order deeming him a danger and he was sent for evaluation to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford, Va. A doctor there declared him mentally ill but not an imminent threat. Rather than commit him, the judge allowed him to undergo outpatient treatment. Officials say they do not know whether he did.
Here lies the court's big mistake. The authorities allowed Cho to deny he had a problem by walking away from help. "Officials" might not know whether he did, but the lack of a paper trail, the absence of any one-on-one recollections of therapy, and the lack of change in his disposition prove it.
His junior-year roommates mostly ignored him because he was so withdrawn. If he said something, it was weird. During Thanksgiving break, Mr. Koch recalled, Mr. Cho called him to report that he was vacationing in North Carolina with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president; Mr. Cho said he had grown up with him in Moscow.

In class, some students thought he might be a deaf-mute. A classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello but got nothing. He hunched there in sunglasses, a baseball cap yanked tight over his head. Sometimes Mr. Cho introduced himself as “Question Mark,” saying it was the persona of a man who lived on Mars and journeyed to Jupiter. On the sign-in sheet of a literature class, he simply scribbled a question mark instead of his name.
Examine what Cho was trying to say in his few words and deeds: the "vacation" with Putin, the question mark for a name. Here is somebody in search of value to his existence, so starved for meaning that he will invent a retreat with a world leader just as easily as a relationship with a supermodel. He needed to feel important. Yet in a simple query for a name, a situation where he could not make things up, he offered reality as he knew it. He did not know who he was.

Others surely thought he wasn't an "imminent threat." That was true only if they discounted Cho's threat to himself. In a society constantly wrestling with how much to protect people from themselves, our leaders drew the line in the wrong place. They did not consider a threat to oneself left uncorrected would ferment into a threat to others. We will never know if Cho's rage-soaked drama assignments and cryptic utterances were intentional cries for help or simply reflections of his hopeless existence. But with Cho seeing his own life devoid of value, it was not hard for him to see all other lives devoid of it too. This would explain his final recorded rants against the rich, people he saw as having artificial value.

What Cho needed was an intervention, not a prescription. His roommates, family, and whoever knew him enough to understand the problem needed to confront him just like an alcoholic or drug addict and force him into treatment. Cho had an addiction to alienation. To be sure, Cho was so withdrawn, it's hard to think of anybody who knew him well enough to care. Still, he needed to know somebody did.

Nobody gave Cho a reason to live, leaving him to plod in a private purgatory with no clue how to get out. The Times article mentions Cho often played the song "Shine" by Collective Soul over and over. Consider the lyrics:
Give me a word
Give me a sign
Show me where to look
Tell what will I find ( will I find )
Lay me on the ground
Fly me in the sky
Show me where to look
Tell me what will I find ( will I find )

Oh, heaven let your light shine down

Love is in the water
Love is in the air
Show me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )
Teach me how to speak
Teach me how to share
Teach me where to go
Tell me will love be there ( love be there )

Oh, heaven let your light shine down

I'm going to let it shine
Heavens little light gonna shine on me
Yea yea heavens little light gonna shine on me
Its gonna shine, shine on me
Its gonna shine, come on in shine
This is the wake-up call: loneliness can be just as destructive as substance abuse if left untreated. If one does not feel loved by God, by friends, by family, by anybody, and if this is coupled with the lack of mission in life -- a reason to get up in the morning -- then one is dead already. Some will bottle this living mortality inside of them, like Cho did for many years, or they will lash out, angry at their worthless life and resentful of those enjoying the happiness unknown to them. Because we cannot predict with absolute certainty who will react violently and who will not, it behooves us to intervene.

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