Va. Tech Shooter's Tutor Writes Book About Massacre

Two years have passed since Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech. Lucinda Roy, the English professor who spent more time with Cho privately than any other teacher in long tutoring sessions speaks about her experience with him and why she wrote a book about it. Video by Brigid F. Schulte/The Washington Post
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

For Lucinda Roy, the nightmares have never stopped. She's in a cage, dark and silent and ominous. Trapped forever with the silent, menacing student she once forced herself to tutor, the one student whose name and history will forever be linked to hers: Seung Hui Cho.

Two years have passed since Cho massacred 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech. And still Roy, the English professor who spent more time with him privately than any other teacher in long, strange tutoring sessions she dreaded, dreams disturbing dreams.

Much like he was in life, shielded by large, mirrored sunglasses and a blank affect, Cho is only "vaguely there" in her dreams. "I dream about violence," she said. "Usually it's about people I love. And I know I'm not going to be able to save them."

It's a feeling the 53-year-old writer knows only too well. In spring 2005, the year Roy was named "Outstanding Faculty Member," she tutored Cho. He had been removed from a poetry class because his writing frightened the professor and other students. She became so troubled by Cho's violent writing and his deep depression that she repeatedly urged him to seek counseling. She sent numerous e-mails to administration officials, counselors, police and others -- all now public in a university archive -- flagging his behavior and asking for help.

She goes through it all in painstaking detail in what she calls a memoir-critique, "No Right to Remain Silent." It's a book she began writing just months after the massacre in an effort not only to understand what had happened, but also to take the Virginia Tech administration to task for failing to communicate openly about it and to sound a warning to other schools that unless they begin to take troubled students seriously and find ways to intervene earlier, a Virginia Tech most assuredly can and will happen again.

Our stories, she writes, are both our penance and salvation. The book is her penance for being part of a system that failed to stop Cho, she said. "It's not so easy to see that it is my salvation," she said. "I'm not so sure that it is."

Roy said she tried to connect with Cho, sharing stories of her own immigrant past -- she was raised in England -- and her bouts with shyness, stuttering and loneliness. But nothing was enough to break through his impenetrable, silent shell and a gaze she describes as "blank and pitiless."

For their final tutoring session, they wrote a poem together, called "Seung." She asked him to describe himself. After an uncomfortably long pause -- not uncommon for one who, as Cho did, suffered from "selective mutism" and an inability to speak in public -- Cho said in barely a whisper, "a secret." When the short poem was finished, Cho walked out of her office. And Roy never saw him again.

What happened next has now become an all-too-familiar tale of missed opportunities and lost chances, as a troubled Cho fell through the cracks, never received psychiatric treatment that a court ordered and spiraled out of control on April 16, 2007.

Since then, hardly a day has gone by when Roy hasn't blamed herself in part for what happened. Hasn't wondered if there wasn't more she could have done. "In the days after the shooting, I tried to think of the things I had done. I made a list so I wouldn't drive myself crazy," she said. "It wasn't just me. Everyone who'd come in contact with him was wishing they'd done more. Custodians were coming up to me and saying, 'If only I'd said something to him.' So you can imagine how much more responsible those of us who knew him feel. It's something I will always have to live with."

Roy spoke in the airy living room of her home in Blacksburg. The walls are decorated by her own African-themed painting and the lush oils and evocative sculpture of her Jamaican-born father. She is tired, having stayed up late after the candlelight vigil Thursday marking the second anniversary of the massacre, and having dreamed her uneasy, violent dreams.

A workman measures her front door to install a peephole -- Roy has been receiving threatening e-mails since her book was published. She is wearing a black suit, bright blouse and open-toe pumps, dressed to meet for the first time with some of the families who lost children in the massacre. "I didn't wear mascara today," she said matter-of-factly. "I knew I would be crying."

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