Apr 17, 2007

the imploding personality of the "question mark kid"

Via news reports, we're now learning about the tortured soul of the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui.
A chilling picture emerged today of Cho Seung-Hui — a 23-year-old senior majoring in English — a day after the bloodbath that left 33 people dead, including Cho, who killed himself as police closed in.

News reports said that he may have been taking medication for depression and that he was becoming increasingly violent and erratic....

Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said Cho's writing was so disturbing that he had been referred to the university's counseling service.

"Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be," Rude said. "But we're all alert to not ignore things like this...."

The Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site that the note railed against "rich kids," "debauchery" and "deceitful charlatans" on campus. ABC, citing law enforcement sources, said that the note, several pages long, explains Cho's actions and says, "You caused me to do this."

Citing unidentified sources, the Tribune also said Cho had recently set a fire in a dorm room and had stalked some women....

In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. "He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said.

"We just really knew him as the question mark kid," Poole said.
We may never know if Seung-Hui suffered from a brain tumor, along the lines of Charles Whitman, but all the signs of an imploding personality consistent with some kind of neurological malady showed before the shooting.

Neurological speculation aside, as an English teacher, I wrestle with the issue raised by Carolyn Rude. The writer with a twisted imagination is sometimes just that--we don't arrest Stephen King or Dean Koontz for attempted murder. But the signs were strong enough that teachers recognized something beyond twisted. I can only hope that, as I interact with students in class and on the page, I have the wisdom to distinguish dark fancy from despair.

Update: The story takes another bizarre turn.
NBC said that a time stamp on the package indicated the material was mailed in the two-hour window between the first burst of gunfire in a high-rise dormitory and the second fusillade, at a classroom building. Thirty-three people died in the rampage, including the gunman, 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, who committed suicide.

The package included digital images of him holding weapons and a manifesto that "rants against rich people and warns that he wants to get even," according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

MSNBC said that the package included a CD-ROM on which Cho read his manifesto.

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