Satan goes to Harvard

In 'Halfway Heaven,' her otherwise acute chronicle of a Harvard student's savage murder of her roommate, author Melanie Thernstrom abandons her painstaking effort to make sense of the killing by resorting to an increasingly popular explanation of heinous crimes -- Good vs. Evil

Published October 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

on May 28, 1995, a murder was committed at Harvard University: Sinedu Tadesse, a 20-year-old Ethiopian scholarship student, stabbed her roommate Trang Ho, a gifted 20-year-old Vietnamese immigrant also on a scholarship. More precisely, Tadesse stabbed Ho 45 times with a hunting knife she had bought expressly for that purpose while Ho lay sleeping in bed. Tadesse then hung herself with a noose she had prepared in advance. The crime was stunning not only because it was savage, but because, as a Harvard official commented at the time, "there (was) no apparent reason." All the ensuing media coverage, and all the speeches and meetings seemed to make the event more mysterious, not less.

In "Halfway Heaven," Melanie Thernstrom, a Harvard graduate who also taught there, addresses this mystery with intelligence, tenacity and courage. She appears to have felt the tragedy deeply and to have striven mightily to understand it. Unfortunately, she also strove to resolve it -- unfortunately because by the last third of the book her desire for resolution has apparently shriveled her capacity to understand. "Halfway Heaven" starts as a thorough, meaty and humane illumination; it ends as a Hollywood movie about Good and Evil. This ending not only disappointed me, it made me angry. A story like this urgently needs our deepest compassion, for both the perpetrator and the victim, not only for the sake of the dead, but for the rest of us as well. And dramas of Good and Evil simply don't allow room for much more than a sentimental counterfeit.

Thernstrom would doubtless say that she did have compassion, and truthfully it is clear that she tried very hard. Of course, she didn't have to try to feel for Trang Ho; anyone would. She escaped Vietnam with her father and older sister in an illegal boat, arriving in America after staying almost a year in an Indonesian refugee camp which Thernstrom describes as "violent and dangerous." Trang showed great courage and ingenuity in adapting to her new country, excelling in school and supporting her struggling father; the high school teachers interviewed by Thernstrom clearly loved her and were moved by her. She was a natural leader with a nearly overdeveloped sense of responsibility who worked hard at everything, was endlessly cheerful and, it would seem, almost single-handedly held her family together during an ugly divorce. "When someone dies you always portray the victim as so perfect and good," said a friend, "but with Trang it's really true -- she really was that perfect."

Although she came from an upper-class family, Sinedu faced difficult circumstances too. She grew up during Ethiopia's Red Terror, a time of mass murder and atrocities, when corpses were dragged to families' doorsteps by soldiers who then forced the bereaved to pay for the bullet before giving up the body. As Thernstrom puts it, it was a regime in which "the murderers had the power." Sinedu's father was imprisoned by this regime for two years when Sinedu was 7, throwing the family into turmoil. In this deadly atmosphere, Sinedu worked single-mindedly to gain admission to the prestigious International Community School where she graduated a valedictorian and gained a scholarship to Harvard.

But the dream opportunity soon devolved into a nightmare as Sinedu proved completely at a loss to cope with the demands of the new environment. She was unable to keep up academically and she made no friends, not even with the relatives she had in the area. She became so desperately lonely that she sent a letter to dozens of strangers, randomly selected from the phone book, pleading with them to befriend her.

When Thernstrom traveled to Ethiopia to find out who this young woman really was, she couldn't; Sinedu apparently had no friends there either. Indeed, her family seems never to have known her -- or to have wanted to. Thernstrom described Sinedu's family as rigid and strangely surface-oriented; even their expressions of grief implied a refusal to look at anything beneath the immediate surface. They praised their dead daughter, but almost as though she was a stranger, in terms of her accomplishments. They categorically refused to accept that Sinedu committed murder or suicide; they buried her with the words "While she was studying at Harvard University an unfortunate accident happened."

The way Thernstrom came to know Sinedu was through her diary. Through it, we see a picture very different from the dull, conscientious, diffident student described by observers -- and it is a picture of a soul in unspeakable pain. We see that Sinedu burned in a private hell of loneliness more profound than most of us can imagine; she never felt loved (and it seems likely that she was in fact not loved) and so did not have an ability to feel love or to relate to others in even the most fundamental way. She could not feel her heart and she knew it. As she put it in her hopeless public letter, "I am like a person who can't swim choking (sic) for life in a river." Desperately, she tried to school herself in ways to "make people like you," writing to herself in the third person with instructions like, "Do not show what you really think. Put on a mask," or listening to inspirational tapes. When these steps failed, she anguished about what she poetically called her "heart-failer thing," the way she felt "dead and it is hard to warm myself up." When she met Trang, Sinedu believed that finally she had found someone with whom she could have a genuine relationship. When that failed and Trang rejected her, it was more than she could bear.

Thernstrom is meticulous and empathic in drawing interwoven portraits of the two women. She is compassionate in showing us how much pain the murderer was in, even expressing a degree of respect for her doomed attempts to cope: "She left behind an extraordinary record: that of an intelligent, insightful, strong-willed person using all those capacities to fight as hard as she could for mental health -- and losing, day by day, hour by hour."

Thernstrom is at her best when she examines Harvard's handling of the catastrophe (and courageous, considering that institution's influence). The official response was one of complete mystification, but in fact the school had at least one loud, clear warning. One of the people to whom Sinedu sent her pleading letter was acquainted with an administrator at Harvard, and she forwarded it to that acquaintance for obvious reasons -- the letter reads like a fire alarm. The administrator sent it to the dorm where Trang and Sinedu lived. The house master read it and filed it. Contrary to what Harvard officials claim, Sinedu sought counseling at the university's mental health center, and got it -- one day a month. (Her therapist is under a gag order from the university.)

Thernstrom builds a case against Harvard by arguing that the university is ill-equipped and even negligent in dealing with students' mental problems. As part of that argument, she characterizes Sinedu as mentally ill, bringing in a host of psychiatrists -- none of whom ever met Sinedu -- to make diagnoses based on her diaries. And this is where Thernstrom loses her compassionate voice. Her discussion of Sinedu's diaries is proscriptive and mechanical; it almost seems as if she's willfully ignoring the emotional sense Sinedu makes, trying to interpret it according to a definition of sanity that does not brook human extremes or even metaphor.

"Her imagery is bizarre," says Thernstrom of a diary passage. "She writes that what keeps her from acting out her murderous desires is the feeling of being 'being hand and leg cuffed to a couch stuck in the ground.' And then she adds, as if by way of explanation: 'Sometimes even if a bomb falls beside me, I would be scared at first, and then not even bother to see what happened.'

I don't understand why Thernstrom finds any of this "bizarre." It reads to me like an accurate metaphoric expression of exhaustion, entrapment and pain. It is not rational because it is not describing rational feelings. I find Thernstrom's pedantic, ham-fisted attempt to decode it stranger than anything in the passage itself. Her weirdly literal-minded insertions ("perhaps a therapist's couch") would be funny if they were not so soulless and so blind.

Sinedu may in fact have been mentally ill and I don't mean to argue with any certainty that she was not. But the letter and the diaries presented by Thernstrom don't convince me that she was. She says extreme, scary things, the most striking of which is her statement that "the bad way out is suicide, the good way killing, savoring their fear and then suicide." This is an ugly, vicious and desperate thing to say, but human beings can be all of those things without being crazy.

One of the kindest, sanest people I know once told me that when her girlfriend was blatantly conducting an affair with another woman, she often made a point of putting kitchen knives away because she was afraid that if a knife happened to be on the counter at the wrong moment, she would kill her girlfriend. I've never had to hide knives, but I have experienced similar impulses, albeit fleetingly. Those impulses may be grotesque, but they are also human; people can feel that way when they are very, very hurt and very, very scared, and I do not believe pain and fear equals illness, even if the pain and fear appear irrational. It's true that when I had those feelings, I didn't even come close to acting on them -- but I had far greater internal support than Sinedu did. This is because when I was growing up I was given a sense of myself as a loving person who could receive love. If I had not had that, I'm not sure what I would've done, and it is clear that Sinedu did not have that.

Thernstrom compares Sinedu's pain to Trang's, saying that, unlike Sinedu, the hardship Trang experienced seems to have strengthened her. She fails to see the obvious; Trang was loved. In contrast, Sinedu writes, quite rationally, about how she felt hated and attacked by her mother, how there was no feeling in her family, how they constantly ridiculed her as ugly and "very black." Thernstrom notes repeatedly that Sinedu's childhood did not feature unusual abuse. But lack of feeling can be the greatest agony of all, especially for someone with a profoundly emotional nature. What Sinedu describes sounds to me like pure hell.

"While Sinedu's childhood was clearly not 'good enough' for her," says Thernstrom, "it may well have been good enough for someone with a different biopsychic makeup, and indeed it was apparently adequate for her siblings -- none of whom became murderers." Well, yes, and they didn't go to Harvard either. They didn't come out of a cookie cutter mold. Yes, Sinedu's family may've been good enough for others -- so what? What does that have to do with her? How does that make her biopsychically ill?

It's isn't that I think mental illness doesn't exist; I know it does. I'm not sure exactly what it is though, nor does it seem to me that many people do. Even if Sinedu was mentally ill, I think if we could have truly looked inside her, we might be shocked to see how like us she really was. This is why I am disturbed by Thernstrom's eagerness to lock her into standard-issue categories out of a diagnostic manual; she seems to want to put Sinedu in a place of otherness, somewhere far away from us and our normal lives, in the province of doctors, where we can feel sorry for her, then dismiss her.

I fully understand this impulse; I even share it to some extent. Truthfully, I would like to believe that a person who would act as Sinedu did must be insane because it would make life a lot safer if it were so. But reality does not support that belief. The Serb soldiers who raped, tortured and murdered their Muslim neighbors were ordinary citizens, family men who had lived in peace with Muslims for years. The rapists and murderers known as the Klu Klux Klan were average citizens too -- people who may have loved their children and had moments of kindness like the rest of us. Does anyone believe that these people would've behaved differently if only there had been enough doctors on hand to prescribe medication? Literature, from Dostoevsky to Russell Banks, is full of stories about average people who commit terrible acts, and they are not stories of mental illness. They are stories of human frailty and suffering.

Finally though, my argument here may be semantic. Whether you call it illness or suffering, Sinedu clearly needed help. It does seem possible that a gifted therapist or pyschiatrist could've saved her -- and thus saved Trang. I may not like the way Thernstrom discusses mental health, but in fact, if all she wanted was to define Sinedu's behavior as mentally ill, I wouldn't be writing this. However, Thernstrom goes farther than that. In an attempt to place the event in a deeper moral context, she blurs Sinedu's "illness" with evil, almost equating one with the other, creating an artificially profound effect. She doesn't even do this directly. She takes the equation from other people's mouths, and then, instead of questioning it, supports it with manipulative descriptions of the two women's grave sites. Here are the mouths, with Thernstrom's commentary woven in:

"We can never say why certain patients -- rather than other patients with similar or more serious diagnoses -- are the ones who actually commit some terrible act," Dr. Longhurst says. "Sinedu's diaries are clearly very disturbed, but they are less disturbed than other patients who didn't commit murder and suicide." If she wasn't more disturbed than others all along, then, at some point she crossed over. What caused that crossing? "If you push psychiatrists far enough," Dr. Longhurst says, "you'll find most of them believe in evil."

Thernstrom follows this with a clergyman talking about the evil "out there" as opposed to within, and then checks in with the law:

Assistant District Attorney Martin Murphy says that if Sinedu had lived she would have been charged with first degree premeditated murder. There would've been a trial, he says, in which the defense would have argued that she was insane and his office would have argued that she wasn't and the jury would have made a decision as to which of those two boxes to put her in.

If she wasn't mentally ill, what was she? What is the second box?"

He flounders momentarily. "Bad," he says.

A paragraph later, Thernstrom is at Sinedu's grave in Ethiopia: "On either side of Sinedu were finished graves: long white marble mausoleums, guarded by a cage of iron to keep the marble from being stolen. The head of each mausoleum is inlaid with a small black and white photo of the dead face. Forty days after the burial, Sinedu's gravestone was to be put in: I pictured the familiar photo of her, glimpsed between bars, caught for all time under a swirl of thick glass."

On the last page Thernstrom closes with an image of Trang's grave and a final summation: "I walk for a long time through the labyrinth of plots and flowering hedges, birds calling to each other in every direction, but it's Trang's grave I find my way back to. The earth has closed over now, the gravestone inlaid, flat as a jewel. I remember the grave at the funeral, the tear-shaped blossoms sifting slowly down over the onyx casket. I pluck a flower and stand staring down at the grave. The reality of the loss is so overwhelming that all reflection seems to collapse into a sense of inevitability: Sinedu was possessed by spirits or psychosis; Trang was perfected and ready to enter the Pure Land; Harvard couldn't prevent anything."

"Collapse" is an appropriate word here; Thernstrom threw away the care with which she painstakingly drew the two women and opted for a cartoon of good and bad in which one smiles down from heaven and the other is consigned to hell, "between bars, caught for all time." It's a very easy resolution, and one that many readers will doubtless approve of, and even experience as moving. But think about it: How does Thernstrom dare to comment on other people's souls?

It's a heavy way to put it, especially since Thernstrom doesn't make any such comment directly or use the word "soul." However what she does is actually trickier because it's less conscious; it's emotion-based in the shallowest sense. All the stuff about birds, flower petals and floating blossoms juxtaposed against the "dead face ... under a thick swirl of glass" -- it goes right under the thought-wire and heads straight for prejudice. To say directly what she aggressively suggests would require that she ask a lot of hard questions, and for whatever reasons, Thernstrom didn't choose to do that.

And she is not the only one. "Evil," as some mysterious force beyond the scope of normal people, is invoked with increasing frequency in the media as an explanation for crimes ranging from Jefferey Dahmer's cannibalism to the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh. We seem to have a hearty appetite for hearing about such crimes, yet we don't want to think they have anything to do with us. It is true that for a society to feel safe, such mental boundaries around that which seems unthinkable are necessary, to a point. But if we are going to look at such crimes with any real depth, we need to be able to look past those boundaries; to do otherwise constitutes a kind of moral irresponsibility. Many of the reviews of "Halfway Heaven" have lauded its "compassion," and in the context of the current hellfire mood, it is relatively compassionate. But to me, the compassion in the book seems like a thin, sugary layer. It is not deep enough or tough enough for the subjects it raises -- especially the subject of human evil.

It's one thing to call a person's behavior evil -- and I do call murder evil -- but to call someone evil in their entirety is a judgment we as fellow humans are not qualified to make. Most of us will never commit murder. But who of us has not been cruel? Who has not inflicted pain on another, even if just with words or with an expression in the eyes? On a practical human scale, there is a huge difference between murder and verbal cruelty. On a cosmic scale, I'm not sure the difference is as vast as we would like to think. Two of Christianity's most powerful precepts are that sin felt in the heart is as bad as sin acted upon, and that, without divine grace, we are all equally guilty, even those of us who appear perfect. Even non-Christians secretly feel the truth in this -- but it is a hard truth which we find convenient to forget.

On the night I finished "Halfway Heaven," I lay awake, thinking of Trang and how terrible her last moments must have been. My body grew rigid with fear and when a cat screamed outside my window, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned on the light, but the horrible images were still in my mind. I thought, maybe Sinedu really was evil. Then I thought, Sinedu isn't here. Whatever evil you are feeling is in your own head. That realization was harder to face -- and sadder -- than my fear.

It is true that we live in a practical world. We can, and should, protect society from people who murder, and that usually means locking them up. But we should never lock these people out of the common humanity, "under a swirl of thick glass." We should not pretend that they are so different from us, that they can only be understood in terms of diagnosis and illness because when we do that, we lock out a part of ourselves, the part that most needs our guidance and love. We lock ourselves into smugness. We cheat ourselves of the tenderness and humility that comes from allowing ourselves to feel the depths of human fallibility, including our own.

By Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection is "Because They Wanted To."

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