By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
Sometimes, Hyang Im Cho would become so frustrated with her son, Seung Hui Cho, that she would shake him. He rarely spoke. And when he did, it was just a few words, barely above a whisper. He never looked anyone in the eye. It was as if he lived walled off in a world of his own. Try as she might -- with countless visits to counselors and psychologists, treatment with antidepressants or art therapy, and attempts to find him friends at basketball camp or taekwondo or church -- no one could break through.
Like any mother, she wanted her son to fit in. Like any immigrant, she felt that no sacrifice was too great to make sure he found a place for himself in this new country, even if it meant overcoming the deeply ingrained stigma in Korean culture of admitting mental illness.
She knew he was troubled and isolated. But it wasn't until her son killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech on April 16 that she knew just how twisted his private world had become.
And how little she knew him.
Hyang Im Cho, along with her husband, Sung Tae Cho, and daughter, Sun Kyung, spoke about Seung Hui Cho to the panel appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to investigate the Virginia Tech shootings. The panel's report, formally released yesterday, paints the most complete portrait to date of Cho's frail and sickly childhood; his hopeful middle and high school years bolstered by intensive psychological therapy, medication and a supportive school environment; his misplaced aspirations to become a famous writer; and, as that dream slipped away, his descent into madness.
The report also provides for the first time some perspective from Cho's family. They were shocked when they learned of his violent writings. Cho had always been so secretive, typing away on his computer but refusing to share what he wrote. They had no idea that he had been briefly hospitalized at a psychiatric institution during his junior year at Virginia Tech and had been declared mentally ill. The son, the hospital and the court never told them.
"We would have taken him home and made him miss a semester to get this looked at," the Chos told the panel. "But we just did not know . . . about anything being wrong."
Until now, the family's only public comment had been a statement of deep remorse in the days after the tragedy. "We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence," they wrote at the time. The Chos, who own a townhouse in Centreville, have been in seclusion since April. Cho's sister, a graduate of Princeton University, has been on leave from her job as a contractor with the State Department. Wade Smith, the Chos' attorney, who released the statement, did not return repeated phone calls yesterday. Smith arranged for the Chos to meet with the panel for a three-hour interview. Sun Kyung translated, as she had for many of her brother's conferences.
Although the panel said neither it nor the police had uncovered a motive for Cho's rampage, his sister provided a key piece of the puzzle. Cho began his college career as a business information technology major but, by the time he was a sophomore, decided to switch to English, which was one of his weakest subjects. Nevertheless, he was convinced that he could be a great writer. He had written a novel, which he described to teachers as "sort of like Tom Sawyer except that it's really silly and pathetic," the report said.
Later that year, after his sister found a rejection letter from a New York publishing house, she noticed that he became increasingly depressed and detached. His English grades ranged from B's to D's, and his rage grew as he felt no one understood him or his talent.
Life had always been difficult for Cho. As an infant in South Korea, he developed whooping cough and was hospitalized with pneumonia. Doctors told the family that he had heart troubles and, when he was 3, they performed an invasive procedure to examine him. From then on, Cho did not like to be touched.
In Korea, Cho had a few friends he played with. But once the family moved to the United States in 1992 to provide a better education for the children, Cho became more withdrawn. If he talked to anyone at all, it was to his sister. Even then, he would never tell her what he was thinking or feeling. She knew he was being taunted for his accent and inability to speak English, as was she. But whenever she'd ask him about it, he would always say he was "okay."
Even that limited communication disappeared when a visitor came to the home. The family noticed that Cho's palms would become sweaty, he would freeze, would sometimes cry and was able only to nod yes or no. His parents, by then working six days a week at dry cleaners, pressured him to talk. His mother urged him to "have more courage," the report said.
When Cho was still in elementary school, the family decided to "let him be the way he is," the report said.
In 1997, the summer before he entered middle school and on the school's recommendation, the family took Cho to the Center for Multicultural Human Services, where he saw an art therapist and a psychiatrist who diagnosed a severe social anxiety disorder. "It was painful to see," one of the psychiatrists told the panel. The Chos took turns leaving work early to get their son to his sessions every week. In art therapy, Cho made houses out of clay that had no windows or doors. Sometimes, when the therapist explained that his artwork showed how inadequate he must feel, Cho's eyes would fill with tears.
In 1999, during the spring of eighth grade, the clay houses morphed into disturbing caves and tunnels. Cho wrote in a school assignment about wanting to "repeat Columbine." A psychiatrist diagnosed selective mutism -- the inability to speak in certain circumstances because of profound social anxiety -- and prescribed paroxetine, an antidepressant. The drug treatment was discontinued after one year because Cho seemed much improved.
When Cho was at Westfield High School in Chantilly, his inability to communicate and lack of social skills landed him in a special education program designed to help him succeed in school. He was excused from participating in class discussions and received language therapy once a week. The plan enabled him to graduate with a 3.52 grade-point average in a demanding honors program. As a junior, he resisted further therapy. "There is nothing wrong with me," he complained to his parents, according to the panel report. "Why do I have to go?"
When Cho was a senior, his guidance counselor strongly encouraged him to attend a small college close to home. But Cho had his sights set on Virginia Tech, where he was accepted on the strength of his grades and SAT scores. When his school records were sent, as is common practice, there was no mention of the special education provisions or his condition.
At Virginia Tech, he became increasingly isolated and behaved in a bizarre manner, stabbing a carpet with a knife at a party and yelling at a teacher who told him to drop a class. His writing likewise became increasingly violent.
The night before their once-invisible son would become infamous for the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history, the Chos had their weekly Sunday evening phone call with him. It was typical. He was fine. No, he didn't need money. His parents ended with, "I love you."
The report does not say whether Cho answered.