Post Magazine: What Comes After
Tuesday, November 13, 2007; 11:00 AM
Holly Adams and Tony Sherman suffered an inconceivable tragedy when their daughter, Leslie Sherman, was among 32 people killed by a gunman last April on the Virginia Tech campus. Now they are divided on how to move on with their lives, as Holly struggles to decide whether to join othergrieving families to push for accountability with a lawsuit or to focus on her husband and their other daughter, a student at Tech. In this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine, Liza Mundy tells this family's story.
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for The Magazine.
Liza Mundy: Hello and thank you to all those who have already sent in comments. I have also received, to my Post email, many extremely thoughtful, sensitive, and moving letters. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Holly and Tony for their extraordinary graciousness and patience. As I told them, it was a privilege to speak with them and get to know them even a little, and I wish that I could have met them under any circumstances but these. It may take me a few minutes to read through these messages and to begin to respond.
Frederick, Md.: My heart goes out to the families, I have two daughters in college or grad school and can't imagine living with a loss of one.
I understand anger is a normal part of grieving, and anger at the way the administration handled the situation is understandable. However, in all the discussions there seems to be a part of the equation missing: the Cho family. They knew he was a troubled young man, and that a therapist had specifically warned against a large university. Did they help him attend Va. Tech? Did they notify the administration there?
Don't get me wrong, the Cho family has suffered a great deal. But if they did help him attend Blacksburg, they do bear some responsibility, maybe not financially but morally.
I think it is easier to be angry and target an institution rather than individual people.
Liza Mundy: This is an excellent point. If you are interested in knowing the long answer to your very good question, I would suggest that you go online and read the full review panel report commissioned by Governor Tim Kaine. There is quite a long section that describes in detail the effective therapy that Cho received in high school, which enabled him to perform competently as a student despite really monumental difficulties relating to his peers and teachers. As the report explains, a high school counselor did advise the Cho family not to send him to a large school like Tech, where he would be relatively far from home and his support system. It's true that they did permit him to go. The report points out that they visited him every Sunday, which was their one day off from work, for quite some time, but eventually were persuaded that he was coping okay with school. What emerges is the fact that that there was a massive lack of communication between those who became aware of his problems--both at the school, and teh mental health professionals who saw him--and the family, who were unaware apparently of any of this. I agree with you that the subject of the family's culpability is worth taking into account, and I am sure that this family would agree with you. The report also says that review panel members did interview the Cho family and that they expressed their immense sorrow and said that they of course would have to live with this forever. There is much more in the report itself.
Kennewick, Wash: Liza: Thanks for your gut-wrenching story on Holly and Tony. I'm Holly's mother, and assure you the pain is nearly as great for the grandparents and other relatives of Leslie. I've since discovered that nearly every family I know has lost a child or grandchild--they tell me the pain will never go away, but it does become easier to deal with. I sincerely hope so.
Liza Mundy: Thanks very much for your response, Gerry. It was also a privilege to get to speak with you.
Frederick, Md: Thank you and thanks to Holly and Tony for sharing this terribly tragic story. I wept for the parents, not knowing what had happened to their child, and then having to suffer so much indignity afterward. I don't understand why the president of Virginia Tech could not bring himself to say "I'm sorry" to these parents. If not "I'm sorry for your loss," why can he not at least admit that the university was ill-prepared for an event like this and apologize for the way the parents were treated afterward? Is fear of litigation a motivator for this incredibly short-sighted behavior?
Liza Mundy: That's a good question, too--whether fear of litigation affected the university's response to the families. For the record, I discussed this with a bioethicist, Tom Murray, who is head of the Hastings Institute and who works a lot on medical ethics. He pointed that hospitals have learned that it's much better, and cheaper in the long run when it comes to litigation, to admit any mistakes right away, and apologize to families who may have been affected by medical error.
Fairfax, Va: It was an amazing story. Many things stood out, but two things -- it seems that the word "recall" has become a word that people caught in a lie are using more and more to deflect their guilt -- i.e., former AG Gonzalez. As in when Pres. Steger was asked about his comments about the tragedy and the ease of fundraising.
The Adams-Sherman family, along with the the other 31 victims and their families were failed on so many levels. Starting with, in a post-9/11 world, what organization does not have an emergency plan????????? "This was the worst mass killing ever in the history of America on a university campus," Steger says now, explaining the confusion and saying there was no way to prepare. "We're not an emergency management agency or whatever." --- Virginia Tech is a small city, regardless of the event, an emergency plan should have been in place years ago. This is inexcusable. Steger needs to go.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your response. People have a number of different opinions on the topic of accountability, and I will post sevearl of them. I appreciate very much your empathy for this family; what I was so amazed by, personally, was their ability to discuss both sides of the very, very difficult issue of what to do now. To hear people who have suffered such a deep and ultimate loss discuss what morally and ethically is the right way to move forward was, to me, astonishing and so impressive.
Washington DC: Liza-
Did you look at the experiences of family members from similar events-such as aviation accidents or terrorist events? The support some of them received has aided them in moving forward, but that support was planned and practiced before the event. It does not seem like VT has a distinct plan, and these families suffered as a result.
Liza Mundy: The review panel report is also very useful in answering this question. The report points out that it is a tenet of every state disaster plan that, in teh event of a mass disaster, a trained public information officer should immediately be put in place who can provide family members with clear and compassionate information. The report goes on at length about how family members of victims deserve to be treated with both compassion and clarity. It offers up, as a model, the very effective and compassionate way in which family members were treated after the Oklahoma bombing. Apparently this became a model cited by the federal government: a family assistence center was immediately set up, where families were briefed regular, and offered some measure of privacy as they dealt with their grief and shock. One of the problems in the Tech situation was that it wasn't clear at the outset whether the state should provide this, or the university, or both. But the report said that both the state and the university should have had better plans in place.
Previous Incident That Year at VT: Back at the beginning of the school year - 20 Aug 06, to be exact - William Morva shot and killed two persons and escaped police custody while at a local Blacksburg hospital for treatment. VT officials, upon being notified that Morva was loose, quickly cancelled classes and in essence, shut down the campus until the fugitive was captured later that day. VT officials were, for the most part, widely praised for taking quick and decisive action to protect their students and faculty from the threat. In the Morva incident, there was a killer on the loose, but never was known to have stepped foot on the campus of VT that day. VT officials didn't know this at the time, of course, and acted appropriately. What baffles me is that in the Cho incident, VT officials had a known double murder on campus, no suspect in custody, and yet delayed any campus wide notification of the incident for almost two hours. I don't understand why they would handle the later incident so differently, esp. with the murders having occurred on campus. I am also surprised that the Morva comparison wasn't made in the aftermath, or if it was, I missed it. The failure to make quick notification and cancelling classes immediately is indefensible. Most any other organization, be it public or private, would have relieved their president or chief executive for such a failure.
Liza Mundy: Good points. The question of why the response was different from what it had been in the Morva situation is not a question I can answer, obviously. But based on what I read, the Morva incident and perhaps some panic it created were cited as one reason why an alert was not sent out sooner.
Alexandria Va: Thank you for focusing on a grieving family and not the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech carnage. Your sensitive portrayal of the Adams-Sherman family coping with their loss of Leslie is very touching. And the photographs say so much. I am so sorry for all of the lives lost that day.
Liza Mundy: Thank you for your sensitive comments.
Arlington, Va: Do you have a link to the commission report?
washingtonpost.com: Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel
Liza Mundy: Here it is.
Little Rock, Ark: Excellent story. I have two questions:
It appears Mrs. Adams has come in for quite about of criticism for this story, has the family had second thoughts about participating?
After reading your story, it seems that Mrs. Adams would be even more satisfied with another investigation, perhaps one that included her participation, than she would from suing. Do you think my assumption is correct? And what are the chances of another investigation being conducted?
Personally, I have no criticism of the Adamses, no matter what they decide. They have lost much and stand to lose more. I think conducting another investigation to satisfy family members would be prudent and demonstrate a respect for their suffering and loss.
Liza Mundy: I don't think website comments are indicative of the general response to a story. The email messages I've received have been extremely supportive and thoughtful. People who post critical online comments are, I think, a very small minority, adn they have been posting similar messages all along; whenever the Post has published a story suggesting that some parents are considering a lawsuit, there has been a flurry of harsh email response accusing families of "greed" and things like that. I think people do this because it makes it easier for them, personally, to process the situation. I did discuss this, as well, with the bioethicist Tom Murray. He wonders whether people distance themselves from grieving familes as a kind of psychological defense mechanism, to convince themselves that they would never be in such a situation, or maybe that they don't need to feel sorry or think too long and too hard. Anyway, as I said I think this family was extremely brave and honest, and I also think that the vast majority of readers have saluted that and reacted with extreme compassion. I have received emails offering them a place to stay if they're ever in the writers' town, for example. I've also received emails from professional grief cousnelors and victims' advocates, saying that they plan to use the piece in their courses, to evaluate and discuss teh proper way to help families in the wake of a loss or disaster. I think that messages like this show how useful it is when a family is willing to step forward.
Washington, DC: Has Steger ever commented on why he didn't call the families personally? Why he hasn't said he is sorry. I read in another story the same thing where the families were invited to call Steger at a designated time. This is disappointing and disturbing on several levels.
This is more of a comment: Holly says that she saw the convocation service as turning into a pep rally, especially Nikki Giovanni's speech. I'm sorry she saw it that way. I have two sons at VT, who were both at the cermony. Their grief, and that of all the students, was so profound. They had not only lost friends, but their sense of security and peace about the place they are spending some of the best years of their lives. For them it was a sign of hope that they will survive and some how get through this. The sense I got from the article was that her daughter, too, was a Hokie, and perhaps would have also been cheering from above.
My deepest sympathy to the them and all the families who lost someone. I think of them everyday.
Liza Mundy: Thanks very much for your comments. I think it would have been easier, maybe, for family members to appreciate the ceremony, if care had been taken to make sure they were part of it and present. But your comments are very well taken. The entire campus was shocked and devastated and all the families I spoke with were enormously grateful for, and aware of, teh support shown them by the student body.
Columbia, Mo: Hello! I really enjoyed reading this article and I'm glad to see it written so objectively. At first I thought it would be another Wash Post slam against authority(in this case Va. Tech). But instead I think you wrote a very fair piece. With that said I thought the husband came off much better than the wife. I can appreciate her grief but money will not bring her daughter back. We never know how to react in such a tragedy. I can't imagine the turmoil that went on during that day. I think the University and Police did their best. No one is ever prepared for such horrors although after the fact we may be a little more prepared. Hindsight's always perfect, isn't it? I thought the Va. Tech community showed incredible grace too. A rare thing in today's world.
Liza Mundy: Your points are well taken, and thanks for sharing them. As to which person "came off better:" I know that listening to that discussion, personally, I felt that I could see both points of view, which was what was, to me, so moving. I may be misusing this term, but it felt to me like Platonic dialogue, in the sense that both people were expressing valid and moral points of view.
Manassas, VA: My condolences to those who suffered the loss of a loved one. I am the mother of a 2006 grad and, hopefully, I am trying to be unbiased, but when I was watching the live broadcasts from Tech, my heart went out to the administrators and police. They looked exhausted and disturbed, as anyone might be. I always had the utmost respect from any department I talked with at Tech furing my daughter's 4 years there. I cannot say the same for the NE private university my son attended 3 yrs. prior. If Holly could only go back and look at that footage somehow, I would hope she could turn her grief into gratitude at how open Tech was during the initial aftermath. I don't think most universities would have done that.
Liza Mundy: Points well taken, as well.
Springfield, VA: Thank you for telling their story. It truly demonstrated that people grieve differently, and neither way is right or wrong. They're just individualistic. I hope that their differences don't put too much stress on their marriage, and that Holly is able to celebrate their younger daughter's accomplishments at Tech and beyond.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your succinct summary. They are very, very aware, it seems to me, of the need to celebrate the achievements of their daughter who is at Tech now.
Minneapolis, Minn: Liza: Thank you for your article. It gives me insight into what my friends Holly and Tony are experiencing without having to ask them the tough questions. My question: How do you find the right time to approach someone in their grieving to share the painful details? I was at the funeral and the interment at Arlington, and I saw the media camped across the street from the Alexandria church, pointing their cameras at the grieving family, who sat and waited in limos for about an hour from the end of the funeral, hidden from the cameras behind tinted glass until the motorcade drove to Arlington.
I read some of the comments online with the article, and was offended by those that would pass judgement and say "What Holly needs is a therapist to help her get over it."
I don't want to pass judgement, but if Holly needs something, maybe it's a new job, perhaps one that would have her focus on painting and seeing the beauty in the world. In her job with the Navy Inspector General, Holly is constantly focused on cause and effect, on finding and enforcing accountability. During her waking hours, Holly's job is to identify problems and causues and make suggestions to fix the problems so that the causes are 'cured.' The Navy began using 'Total Quality Leadership' in the late 1980s. This is important to eliminate accidents that occur during training and operations that are inherently full of risk and danger. The Navy benefits from consummate professionals like Holly that continually strive to eliminate the factors that threaten the safety of thousands of Navy personnel and the people they work and interact with. Holly is programmed to seeking accountability by her years of experience and her daily duties.
Thank you for this insightful article that helps me understand the pain felt by my friends as they struggle through their grief, sustained by their strong love for each other, but strained by their individual needs that pull them in different directions.
Navy Shipmate of Holly Adams
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your comments. Your question of how the media approaches situations like this is clearly an interesting and relevant one. Believe me, it's not something that any reporter enjoys, reporting these funerals, or contacting family members. But you can't get away from the fact that it's a public and very important news story. The review panel report is also very good and quite detailed in talking about how, for family members who lose someone to homicide, part of the experience involves the unavoidable publicness of the situation, and the fact that media will be involved. All I can say is that I was very aware of this and tried to be respectful of it, as were my editors. We are all parents, incidentally, and felt the situation so acutely.
Washington DC: Re: The V-Tech Cheer.
This seems like something that would affect people differently. To those who actually lost a loved one, a cheer will seem shallow and empty. But to those who didn't suffer that great a loss, I can see how it might lift their spirits.
But ultimately, I'm with Holly on this one. It seemed trite.
Liza Mundy: More points, well taken.
The family/comment: Liza,
What a great story about a real tragic event. The one facet that the family can find solace in is the fact that they were/are terrific parents to their daughters.
I only wish all kids had their parent's commitment and help.
Liza Mundy: That's a nice thing to say and I feel sure the family will appreciate it.
Manassas, VA: Thank you Liza and Leslie's family for doing the article. I often wonder about the families and how they are doing. I think I need to know they are healing, it helps me with my own coping/grief. As most of the world, we were sickened and horrified by the April 16th shootings. Our daughter graduated from VT and we feel very connected to the VT community. I'm torn about writing because my opinion really doesn't matter nor should it. I read some of the online comments and people can be so arrogant. These are just a few of my thoughts. I think the memorial service happened very quickly as well. I couldn't believe how fast it was organized, it seemed very surreal. A sad point here is they could organize a huge memorial service with dignitaries but they couldn't get the families proper information or liaison to help with personal details. I understand Holly's reaction to Nikki Giovanni's poem but to be honest it gave me chills. It made me feel comforted but again that is someone from the outside who did not lose a child/parent/friend. I understand wanting accountability. There were so many miscues and they lost a daughter? I think Charles Steger's behavior is abominable. This is not the first family I read about say they had not heard from him. He should have visited each family personally. He should share their sorrow with them, not through the news media. I think he should still do it. If they shut the door in his face (who would blame them); he should make an effort. He reminds me more of a politician than an educator. Someone whose job is more schmoozing than anything else and who knows, maybe at that level it is. Thank you for sharing their story. It is not easy for the family to put themselves out there. Though I can only begin to imagine the unmapped road they must travel to recover from this tragedy, they do have my compassion and my wishes to heal.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your comments; since time is short, I am going to post some comments but keep my own responses short.
Reston, VA: Thank you for a wonderfully written article. I have two comments.
My heart goes out to this family and all the families that suffered a tragic loss in this incident. I came away from reading the article with the thought that the president of Va.Tech needs to meet each family personally and say sorry, again and again, if he has to. I guess the threat of imminent litigation will prevent him from saying anything of that sort, sadly.
It's possible that the previous bomb hoxes made the universit not alert the entire school after the first shooting. We all know how we get annoyed at yet another hoax. I guess we should all learn to take every thread seriously, even if it's going to turn out to be a hoax.
Liza Mundy: THanks for these comments as well. Hopefully every university will use this as an incentive to review their own safety mechanisms and emergency response plans. I know that some of the family members are pursuing this issue.
Fairfax County, VA: Ethically, why did you decide it was okay to make public such a profound disagreement between parents of a dead child, when we know that the death of a child often leads to divorce? Your reporting made it clear that those involved were still too overwhelmed to make a rational decision about whether to keep this discussion inside the family, so in effect the choice came down to you and the Washington Post's editors. I think you made the wrong call. You are a reporter, but also part of our community, which should be supporting the Virginia Tech families.
Liza Mundy: THanks for your comments. You are certainly entitled to your view. I strongly feel that it is supportive of the families--all families--when one family is willing to come forward and describe what the past six months have been like, and give the public the chance to understand in more depth what some of the issues are that they are facing. I think that it contributes to empathy, clarity, and public understanding. And it's not easy for any of the people involved.
Chantilly, Va.: All the families and students have my deepest sympathy. This was a horrible event, and the knowledge that it could have been prevented is absolutely devastating. So I guess my question is, will VT and other schools (because there's going to be another deeply disturbed person who will try to break the VT "record") implement any plans to deal with this sort of thing before it happens? We're putting privacy rights before public safety, and that's wrong.
Liza Mundy: This is an important issue--privacy rights versus public safety--and like you, I very much hope that the issue stays front and center and receives discussion from politicians, university leaders and other professionals. Unlike some of the posters here, I think that family members of victims have a useful role to play in keeping these issues alive and under public discussion.
Richmond, Va: It's painful, but the university nor the City of Blacksburg should not be held responsible for not preventing something that was unforseeable.
They were as prepared as any comparable institution, as prepared as we could expect. To blame them is a waste of time and will only financiall hurt every Virginia citizen.
When something horrible happens, we feel a need to blame, but that blame should be directed towards the shooter, not Tech or Blacksburg.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your comments.
Hokie Pride: As the sibling of a Va. Tech alum this hit close to home. I agree that the Tech community showed incredible grace. I also remember watching the 'pep rally' as Holly called it and thought it was fantastic! You have to see the campus, know the students and be a part of it to understand this is Tech. It's a wonderful school and I thought the spirit, the wearing of school colors, all of it was a real show of strength.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for these comments, too.
Columbus, Ohio: I was profoundly touched by this article. You are to be commended for your ability to capture and convey the tragic realities of this event from the perspective of a grieving family struggling - in their own personal ways - to find a way forward. Holly, Tony, and Lisa, wholly human in their varied responses and perspectives, ultimately demonstrate that the power and strength of love can triumph even over chaos and death. I salute them and you.
Liza Mundy: And these.
St. Michaels, MD: Ms. Mundy, great article. I'm curious how many responses you've received that were pro a law suit? Anti-lawsuit? I am very pro tort reform and in this case I remember thinking 'please don't anyone sue' when I saw the story unfold on TV. It's sad that in this day and age that seems to be the first line of attack. Holly seemed to have a propensity for lawsuits before this tragedy (the EEO suit). I hope their marriage survives. I think they are a very curagious family to open up for a story like this one. Well done. And my sympathies to all the families.
Liza Mundy: Thanks. I got a lot of responses from people seemed able to see both sides of the situation. I'm sure that ultimately people come down on one side or the other (pro law suit, or anti-) but readers did seem to appreciate the fact that there might be two valid sides to such a decision. Certainly, one of my goals in writing this piece was showign that coming to such a decision is a process, and a difficult one. It's also not something new. There is an ancient notion of "blood money," the fact that for every unwarranted death, someone should pay. I'm not defending this point of view but simply pointing out that it's not "new" or exclusively American. I talked to an expert at UVA law school who pointed out that in many ancient socieities, there was the notion that for a death, there should be some payment. But yes, I think that in general the public reacts negatively to lawsuits.
Arlington, VA: Goodness gracious, who died and left Fairfax in charge? There is no reason to believe that Leslie's parents will divorce in the aftermath of their terrible loss, but if they do, it will be the result of that loss, not of the fact that their differences were aired in a very well written and probing article.
Liza Mundy: This seems to me a family that is admirably able to air differences of opinion. Thanks for your comments.
Fairfax, VA: Thank you, Liza, for the article, and thanks to Holly and Tony for allowing you into their lives to write it. If you can answer any of the below questions, I am curious to know the answers.
I think one of the biggest concerns of a parent who loses a child is that the child will be forgotten-- lost again. Did Holly talk about that fear? How do you feel it relates to (or is separate from) her need to hold someone accountable for Leslie's death?
Did she find any kind of resolution to holding Tech accountable in the publication of this story?
Thank you again.
Liza Mundy: Thanks for your comments; since it's past twelve, I should make this the last question. My apologies to anyone whose comments were not posted. As to the fear of a child's being forgotten: In one of my first interviews with Holly, she talked about her efforts to keep Leslie alive in her memory by painting images of her in all of the venues she loved. I found this extremely moving, needless to say. I also thought about this when I was writing the story, with the hope that the article would serve, in part, as a memorial or reminder. As a parent, I can well imagine that part of the grieving process would be to try and will into memory every detail of one's child. As for accountability: I think that different families are pursuing this in different ways or rather, finding different ways to transform their greif into productive endeavor. There are issues of gun ownership, help for the mentally ill, and campus safety that many families are pursuing, together with advocacy groups concerned about those issues. I don't think there will be additional state investigation, but since it seems likely that some families will pursue a lawsuit, there may be additional investigations there. Thanks again to everyone who read the piece and thought about the issues and wrote in to express your views.
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