The RP History Month Meditations

I disappeared from the blog waves last week, leaving my exploration of the tragedy of VA Tech unfinished as I moved into the weekend visiting with friends and family.  I lost a productive work week trying to make sense of the VA Tech massacre, not just from blogging, but watching the news, talking it through with the M.A.S., my mom, and my aunts, and just generally driving around from errand to errand in a state of shock that this could occur.

In college, I had a Korean-American boyfriend for two years, a partner who remained one of my closest friends until an inexplicable falling out in 2005. (Ever have a painful misunderstanding unravel a friendship because too much time and silence passes?  ‘Nuf said.)  A year apart in college, my girlfriends and I met him the summer between our sophomore and junior year when we sublet the two remaining rooms in a house he was occupying in lieu of his fraternity brothers gone until the fall.  He was a shy, quiet kid when we met him, and for years after he’d describe fondly my marching into the apartment on the first Friday night in June and, as our first introduction, instructing him to help us unload the mattress from the roof of my car.  He inherited three surrogate mothers from that moment onward, if parenting includes teaching one another drinking games, providing his unemployed ass with a summer’s supply of cigarettes, and ultimately – in my case – becoming his girlfriend (after a painful breakup, our relationship evolved far enough into an elder sister-younger brother dynamic that the notion that we ever dated was definitely off-putting for both of us, even if I looked back on it warmly).  But he needed us, and we adored him.  He’d be the first to tell you that.

He was a tortured kid – at 15, he lost his father to his third heart attack and simultaneously lost his religious faith, discovered partying in NYC in religion’s stead, and eventually escaped to college with an array of behaviors and presentations reflecting his emotional pain that I’ll spare him the exposure of recapping here.  I’ve had a host of Korean women and male friends since college, and I’m familiar with the tough, restrained culture, the fiercely high expectations of Korean sons in particular.  Furthermore, in the ethnic hierarchies of the world, Koreans have a long, suffering history at the hands of Japanese and Chinese imperialism.  As one Korean b-school friend told me over too many drinks after our miserable accounting mid-term, Koreans are the “Irish of the Orient.”  According to my aunts, my Boston-Irish family comes from a long line of “drunks and nuts.”  Are you starting to see the connections here? 


One thing it seems we’ve all been struck by is how the troubled Seung-Cho fell through the cracks at VA Tech (and likely, well before that), given how many people were touched by his isolation, hostility and disturbing behavior well before last week.  Chris Matthews – in a wholly inappropriately aggressive manner (per the M.A.S., “he’s cross-examining him”) – interviewed one of Seung-Cho’s suitemates, Karan Grewal, who admitted that after trying to befriend Seung-Cho in the first month or so of school, the five other guys in the suite just left him alone.  He barely or never responded to their overtures, and they just figured he had another group of friends.  Such a big school, a bunch of random senior guys in a suite, makes sense.

But it didn’t sit with me.  In that memorable summer of living with our own (much less) troubled Korean-American friend, my girlfriends and I spent endless hours discussing his as yet unexplained trauma, his sad and cynical introspection, and his quiet lack of motivation.  Typically the conversations concluded with our sympathy overriding our frustrations with his lack of income and contributions to the house; typically my smoking friends then returned from Walgreens with the aforementioned cigarette donation.  (After all, how would people get through rehab without cigarettes??)  A different case, a different kid, but my mind’s been heavy with memories of that extinct lost and suffering friend of mine, whose eventual metamorphosis into a happy, productive and hip member of society left us three women marveling, even after all these years.  In this sense, two tortured young Korean men are dead.  Only one of them took a murderous, vile path to his own emancipation. 

I like the word emancipation and its meaning of transformative freedom.  Surely I’m alienating some of you by applying such a positive frame to Seung-Cho’s actions.  That’s fair.  But keep in mind I am one of those radical academics who subscribes to the notion that gangs are a form of social organization in rough neighborhoods, and should not be overlooked by researchers seeking to understand such seemingly puzzling pathological places. 

To that end, one thing has stuck with me in Seung-Cho’s overly disseminated “manifesto.”  (Now there’s a cherished word/concept ruined for me.)  He claims that he did this for “the future generations of the weak and defenseless,” that he saw this as an emancipatory effort for other people like himself.  (You can find video links on MSNBC; I’m not going to include them here.)  To me, the sociologist obsessed with all things relational, this is his manifestation of “community,” of connecting with “humanity” despite what his extraordinarily violent and contradictory behavior indicates. 

It’s not merely that I see the world foremost in terms of human relations.  It’s that, as an only child coming from a long line of “drunks and nuts,” who was raised in a range of households of divorced parents and aunts – and especially now after recently losing my grandmother – I have long struggled with my own feelings of isolation and loneliness, and, I’m realizing these past few months, rage.  In an ABC News interview, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner theorizes on the likelihood that Seung-Cho was a paranoid schizophrenic (my mom and Weboy’s mom – also mental health practitioners – came to the same independent conclusion), but points out that the premeditated nature of the murders was less an act of psychosis, but a means of “principally discharging rage.”  Dr. Welner details the important roles of hostility, rage, alienation, despair and negativism in the actions of mass killers, whom he describes as having

“such great difficulty tolerating intimacy,” and become “increasingly [isolated]” and “[disconnected from] humanity.”

(For those of you feeling interactive, Dr. Welner is surveying individuals on what constitutes the worst crimes in order to build a Depravity Scale.)

In my own experience, as witness to dear friends’ mental health conflicts, and as the daughter of a mental health practitioner, I’ve found isolation to be the most dastardly culprit to a healthy recovery.  It’s self-reinforcing, imprisoning you in your own lonely despair when what you need is the energy to reach out and connect with others.  You begin to exceptionalize your own trauma, your own issues, which only makes them worse.  It is a vicious cycle best interrupted by caregivers and peers who can demonstrate to you that you’re not alone and demystify much of what you’re experiencing.  (And of course, meds can and often do help, especially in professional treatment programs.) 

I’m generally a healthy kid, but I’ve come to realize in the past few months that my life will include bouts of anxiety brought about by life changes and exacerbated by tendencies towards isolation, introspection and a penchant for loneliness that I’d give anything to cast off.  For me, the major challenge is to strike the balance between needed solitude and debilitating isolation, and to learn to reach out and let loved ones – and professionals as needed – in on my struggles with my inner demons. 

Intimacy ain’t easy, and neither is growing up and/or moving on.  Given the stats on mental health bandied about this past week, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly unusual or dynamic case.  And as my mom points out, and Wesley elaborates, very few of the mentally ill turn violent, as was likely the case of Seung-Cho.  But there is a social & health crisis on our hands that extends beyond universities’ borders, which I have tried to illustrate here in my poised yet (typically) confessional analysis.  In the coming weeks, my mom and my stepdad are hosting a fundraiser for mental health parity in their state.  Increasing access and coverage of mental health care is just one of many necessary next steps after the tragedy at VA Tech.


2 Responses to “The RP History Month Meditations”

  1. 1 Amy
    April 26, 2007 at 8:03 am

    I am so glad you wrote this. That summer, I believe that I gave as good as I got, after rehabilitation of my own. I have read that Seung-Cho had friends who tried to reach him, but they were unsuccessful. I think we all need to be ready to embrace love and healing for it to be effective. Timing, combined with the right style and approach is key and not always available. Some people will never be ready. The same goes for forgiveness. Unfortunately, neither can be forced regardless of deservedness.

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