Tutorial With a Killer
A Professor's Memoir Recalls School Shooting at Virginia Tech
NO RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT
The Tragedy at Virginia Tech
By Lucinda Roy
Harmony. 325 pp. $25
Lucinda Roy is frustrated. She has reason to be.
As head of the English Department at Virginia Tech, she spent the fall of 2005 tutoring a student who had been kicked out of a poetry class for writing verses that accused his classmates of cannibalism and genocide. He stared at her through mirrored sunglasses, his gaze "blank and pitiless." His writing was both immature and ferocious, and sometimes he turned the anger on himself: He dubbed himself a loser 15 times in one poem, including in the title, "a boy named LOSER." Roy tried to get him psychiatric help, but the university's rules and the mental health system, she concluded, were geared to protecting his privacy rather than his peers' safety. Sadly, we know how this story turned out: On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot two people to death in a Virginia Tech dormitory, then chained the doors to a classroom building shut and methodically killed 30 more before committing suicide. It was the worst school shooting in American history.
In her uneven memoir, "No Right To Remain Silent," Roy notes that during his rampage, Cho fired 174 rounds and never uttered a word. In middle school, he had been diagnosed with "selective mutism," an anxiety disorder that sometimes leaves one unable to speak. But the book's title isn't just a reference to Cho's silence; it refers to Virginia Tech's, too. After the shooting, Roy writes, university officials clammed up, "as if a collective selective mutism had descended upon an administration determined to keep silent in the face of harsh criticism." Most students and faculty rallied around their leaders in a united front. Roy says she debated whether to write about the tragedy, noting that "I would have happily spent the rest of my life at" Virginia Tech and that "this book will, in all probability, oblige me to move on." In the end, she decided, "it is not right to remain silent when you witness something like this, not if you believe your account could help us avoid making similar errors in the future."
In addition to frustration, a sense of isolation runs through Roy's memoir. She was an accidental actress in an American melodrama. She came out of it feeling assaulted both directly (by Cho) and indirectly (by university administrators and state officials who ordered her, among other things, to turn over all her computer files, whether related to Cho or not). These are among the most common responses of victims in school shootings, and among the least reported. In 10 years as a reporter covering the aftermath of Columbine, I heard many victims express similar feelings. The circumstances run the spectrum, but the sense of revictimization is remarkably consistent. The killer hurls the first blow, and the worst. But we, the media and the public, collectively interrupt the recovery and put the victims through hell.
Roy conveys the anguish of being caught up in one of these tragedies, and that is the chief contribution of her book. She describes her nightmares (Cho standing on a "mirror of ice" with no eyes in his head) and the solace she took in literature (Shakespeare's "King Lear," Robert Frost's "Home Burial"). The most heartbreaking scene develops from a stream of mail she received from prison inmates. Seeking encouragement, they wrote to her because they had seen her on television and sensed a kindred spirit; they assumed that if she'd agreed to tutor Cho, she would advocate for anyone. Until those letters, Roy believed that the anguish would pass and she would move on. Now she realized that she was branded: "The situation was irreversible. From some people's perspectives, I would be imprisoned in a cell with Seung-Hui Cho forever."
The book works beautifully in such moments, but it can be a long slog between them. Roy limits the chapters on Cho and the university's response to what she herself experienced, and she just doesn't have much material. Cho was uncommunicative, and the tutoring sessions in her office lasted only a few months. When Roy asked Cho for three adjectives to describe himself, he chose unkempt, sad and solemn. It was a bleak self-image, and not even true. Unkempt? Roy found him "religiously neat." In short, he emerges from these pages as big a cipher as before. Roy never got "a clear sense of who he was," she admits. "All I got were glimpses, and these were rare."
Perhaps because she did not have enough firsthand information to fill a book about the shooting, "No Right To Remain Silent" is really two memoirs in one: a stark take on the Virginia Tech tragedy interspersed with anecdotes and reflections from a writing instructor's life. A novelist and poet, the daughter of an English mother and a Jamaican father, Roy grew up in London and has lived in Arkansas and Sierra Leone. Her reminiscences are infused with startling moments, such as the time, during a poetry project in rural Arkansas, when a little blonde boy asked whether she knew that "in this town we're all KKK?" But the book, which she calls a "memoir-critique," is an odd blend whose parts seem to interrupt, rather than complement, each other. Sprawling stand-alone essays on pedagogy, writing programs and child-rearing seem particularly out of place.
Still, "No Right To Remain Silent" exposes gaping flaws in the system for dealing with dangerously troubled students. The vast majority of school shooters, Roy argues, signal their violent inclinations in advance, often in fiction, poetry or other creative outlets. "Student-shooters are not in hiding," she writes. "They are out in the open." The difficulty is getting them psychological help. At Virginia Tech, there was no staff psychiatrist to advise the faculty, no one to evaluate the risk Cho posed and no way to compel him to see a counselor. Roy and others had to coax him to go voluntarily, and when he did, the staff at the university's Cook Counseling Center was so overtaxed and underfunded that it couldn't or wouldn't diagnose him. In the fall of 2005, he called or went to the center three times in 15 days; each time, Roy writes, he was "triaged" and sent away without meaningful treatment.
For her inability to do more, Roy apologizes to the families of those killed and severely wounded. And despite her feelings of guilt, isolation and frustration, she continues to teach at Virginia Tech. "We teach," she says in a poem at the conclusion of her book, "peace in the stuttering light, reconcile silence/with the world's residual, clamorous beauty."
Dave Cullen, a freelance reporter in Colorado, is the author of "Columbine," to be published in April.