Deadly prose

How should creative writing teachers handle students who turn in gruesome stories?

Published April 20, 2007 11:56AM (EDT)

In two disturbing plays that Cho Seung-Hui turned in to his creative writing class at Virginia Tech, teenage sex crime victims fantasize about killing their molesters. In "Mr. Brownstone," three 17-year-old high school students sneak into a casino to escape a teacher who they say has sodomized them. "I wanna kill him," says a character named John. "If he's a leech, we'll be able to yank it off and squash him beneath our boots," adds Joe. Jane follows shortly with: "I wanna watch him bleed like the way he made us kids bleed."

In the second play, "Richard McBeef," a 13-year-old boy accuses his new stepfather of molesting him and murdering his father. After unleashing his rage with a tirade of insults, he tries to choke him by shoving a half-eaten cereal bar down his throat. Earlier, he throws darts at a target resembling the man's face, shouting "Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick ... You don't think I can kill you, Dick? ... Gotcha. Got one eye. Got the other eye."

The violent imagery in the plays, and similar works by Cho, had alarmed faculty of the Virginia Tech English department, who repeatedly tried to get him help. In October 2005, one professor, poet Nikki Giovanni, kicked him out of her class because his work was "intimidating" and scared students. Her female students stopped coming to class after they said Cho was photographing their legs with his cellphone.

Former English chairwoman Lucinda Roy went to campus police, student affairs and the dean's office. Without overt threats to himself or others, she was told, there was nothing they could do. Roy tutored him privately and tried to convince him to seek counseling. In the meantime, following accusations of harassment and another report that Cho might be suicidal, police referred him to a counselor, who unsuccessfully tried to commit him to a mental institution.

Cho continued writing horrific tales. Last fall, another English professor contacted a dean -- to no avail. She stopped circulating his assignments in class and he stopped attending. Finally, this spring, Cho's playwriting teacher, Ed Falco, contacted several faculty members after students said they didn't want to read his work. "We did all that we thought it was reasonable to do," Falco wrote to students in an e-mail, which he forwarded to Salon. "There was violence in Cho's writing -- but there is a huge difference between writing about violence and behaving violently. We could not have known what he would do."

Creative writing teachers have long wrestled with what they should do with students who turn in gruesome stories, as many colleges do not have formal policies about how teachers should respond. Further, there are no set rules for determining whether a story is the product of a febrile artistic imagination or a potentially violent criminal. Or both.

"Lots of great literary works are deep and dark and disturbing -- that would be Kafka," says Deborah Landau, director of the creative writing program at New York University, who plans to discuss university protocol with her staff in the wake of Monday's massacre. Yet teachers increasingly are being expected to distinguish between students' pushing their creative boundaries or showing frightening warning signs. That's a tall task, especially when students routinely hand in twisted texts dripping with bloodshed, cruelty, perversion and extreme sex scenes, say teachers.

"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," says Rob Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management and risk research for United Educators, an insurance company for more than 1,000 educational institutions. "We'd like them to think of whether they could be gatekeepers for identifying students at risk."

The company currently is making the rounds at colleges to present and discuss this training scenario: An English professor comes across the worrisome writing of a suicidal student. What should she do? The correct answer, according to Jones, is for the instructor to contact the student affairs office or campus counseling center. "You can't expect an English professor to make those kinds of determinations based on someone's writings," he says. "But they are the ones who have a window into someone's soul."

But that window isn't always so clear, and it's easy to miss signals, explains Michelle Carter, professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, who has taught the subject for nearly 20 years. Carter, who has read Cho's plays (they are posted on AOL), says, "I've seen more disturbing stuff than that." She says Cho's expression of powerlessness and rage would make her worry that he was more of a danger to himself than others. "I wouldn't have thought he'd get a gun and shoot people."

"Sometimes you can tell they're hurt puppies, and they're writing to express deep woundedness," says Carter. Often, students are experimenting with stylized violence à la Quentin Tarantino. "From the tone, you can tell it's iconoclastic posturing, and it's totally harmless," she says. "They're asking, 'Can I get a rise out of people?'"

Teachers are usually guided only by instinct and a gnawing feeling that something is a little too unsettling. Carter has seen stories in which students create characters that commit violent acts or sexually humiliate characters who are clearly based on classmates. For her, that crosses the line. She tells those students, "This writing is aggressive. It's targeting people in this class. That's not permissible." She tells them to stop the hostile writing or stop coming to class.

In 2000, Brian Thorstenson was an SFSU graduate student, teaching an undergraduate playwriting workshop, when an older student in his 60s wrote chilling plays portraying his classmates raping and dismembering babies. Students complained that they didn't want to act out the roles in class. When the author started leaving notes on his assignments that read, "This story is true. This actually happened," and offered to bring a gun to class to use as a prop, Thorstenson, now a lecturer in creative writing at the college, says he went straight to Maxine Chernoff, the chairwoman of the English department. Together, they went to the campus police.

Eventually, a dean, who is no longer there, ruled that the student had free speech rights and no official action was taken against him. "I was surprised by the dean's reactions," recalls Thorstenson. "I didn't feel supported." The dean did agree to remove the student from the playwriting class and Carter says she was asked to tutor him. Her conditions: She would never meet with him in person, he would drop off his homework to the English department, and he would never learn who was reading it. Afterward, the man stopped taking creative writing classes and they never saw him again. (Chernoff says current university practice is for concerned teachers to contact their department chair and write a report, which is sent to a dean who handles disciplinary matters.)

Controversy over whether creepy creative writing should be treated as artistic or dangerous made headlines in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004. At the time, Jan Richman was a creative writing instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She was so aghast with one student's work that she literally didn't know what to do. She went to her immediate supervisor for advice about a student's story that started with a scene involving the narrator taking out his pocketknife and cutting off the nipples of his sex partner, and ended with him hacking off victims' limbs and genitals, painting the room with their blood.

"I've read a lot of violence, [but] there was something about this," explains Richman today. "The details were incredibly precise. There was such a passion behind the violence." Richman now teaches at the continuing education program at City College of San Francisco.

Richman's boss gave the story to his boss and on it went up the administrative ladder. The head of campus security called the city police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over worries that the details were so vivid they could only be supplied by someone who committed such crimes. Next, the school expelled the writer. Then his parents complained that Richman had assigned readings that contained graphic violent scenes. Their son, they argued, was simply emulating one of them: "Girl With Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace. In the story, a narrator talks about how he likes to burn women (and sometimes men) with matches or a lighter during sex.

After meetings with school officials, during which Richman says they questioned her reading selections, Richman was not invited back to teach the following semester. "I felt like they over-reacted by expelling this student and not helping him," she says. "If they thought he was that big of a threat, you'd think they'd be glad that instead of handling it myself, I did bring it to the attention of superiors."

Sallie Huntting, executive vice president of public relations at the Academy of Art University, says she can't comment on the Richman case, but stresses that instructors of all art forms are encouraged to report disturbing work by students. "You must err on the side of caution," she says.

Creative writing teachers point out that they're not trained therapists and not equipped to determine when a student is potentially unstable. That's why instructors aren't held to the same liability standard as psychological counselors, explains Sheldon Steinbach, a higher education attorney with Dow Lohnes, in Washington, D.C. He advises that teachers report distressing writing to the dean of students, who would know how to evaluate students.

While writing instructors can't ignore alarming screeds, a better barometer may be to see if a student's behavior matches. "It's one thing when [a student] hands in a disturbing story, and he's friendly and nice," explains Tamas Dobozy, a visiting scholar who teaches a fiction writing workshop at NYU. "He's just trying to create a horrific story. Then you get a student who hands in normal work, but is strange. Is there a connection between the work and student? Sometimes yes and sometimes no."

Landau, creative writing director at NYU, adds that a lot of students deal with troubling topics in their writing, from date rape to incest to mental illness. "Students are often bringing their lives to class in the form of their work," she says. Teachers should worry, she says, when students also act troubled in the classroom. If a student seems dangerous, Landau immediately reports him or her to a dean. Otherwise, her first strategy is to call students into her office, ask if they need help, and remind them of counseling services.

At her new job, Richman tries to assess the level of horror at the outset. If students bring in disturbing work, she's much quicker to tell them, "I think you put this in for shock value. There's no literary merit." She adds: "I don't want to squelch anyone's creativity. But there's a tendency for young people to say, 'I'm going to be as gross and twisted as I can be.' [The goal] isn't just to push limits. There are skills to be learned."

Despite such guidelines, creative writing teachers still have to rely on their own imprecise judgment, especially in classes where students may be encouraged to write with intense emotion. What may be one student's cause for concern may be another's catharsis, says Carter. "Sometimes working through rage in that way can be healthy," she says. "If students start worrying that every time they write something violent or aggressive or express anger or rage -- or they fear they'll be sent to an administrator or a therapist or their parents will be called -- you can't teach art classes with that hanging over them. Part of teaching in the arts is to push people to places of disturbance. It's a really funny dance."

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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