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As I'm sure most of you will recall, on May 28, 1995, a Harvard junior from Ethiopia, Sinedu Tadesse, stabbed her sleeping roommate, Trang Ho, 45 times before hanging herself in the bathroom.  The story received huge play in the press both because of the exotic background of victim and perpetrator and also because it occurred at Harvard.  Perhaps no place in America more richly deserves to be referred to as an Ivory Tower.  Harvard carefully cultivates an image of specialness, an aggressively tended sense that the school and its people are different and not merely different but that they are among the chosen.  The school has a ridiculous 98% graduation rate--reflecting the notion that simply to be chosen to attend is to be elected to join the elite.  So we all got a visceral thrill out of this bloodbath in the cloisters.  On some level the media coverage was fueled by this nearly palpable  public glee, that cold hard reality had intruded upon the chosen people.

Melanie Thernstrom reacted differently; she reacted like a bewildered insider, which she very much was.  Both of her parents are Harvard professors.  She attended Harvard and then taught there.  And
Sinedu Tadesse, the murderer, had tried to get into one of her exclusive seminar classes, but Thernstrom had refused her admission.  So Thernstrom had a personal tie to the case and then when she visited campus in the wake of the crime, she was struck by several odd aspects of the community's reaction to the killings.  The two women had become linked in death, as if both were somehow victims.  People referred to them both as "girls", with the obvious condescending implication that they were not responsible for what happened.  Reporters played up their immigrant backgrounds as if the two were peas in a pod.  A perception developed that the tragedy was simply a function of the enormous pressure that immigrant status, brilliance and an ultra competitive academic environment might produce on anybody.  When the Vietnamese Students group held a memorial service they even invited someone from the African Students group to speak on behalf of Tadesse.

In the introductory portion of the book Thernstrom leaves the impression that she hopes to unravel the two entwined lives, as Harvard in general could not, and to show that only one of the women was actually a victim and that the murder was not an action that can be excused but was an act of evil.  Instead, the book is maddeningly circular and ends with her too making excuses for Tadesse.  She ends up trotting out a bunch of psycho babble about the various ailments with which Tadesse may have been afflicted--simple depression, manic depression, psychosis, or as her countrymen believe possession by spirits.  A couple of the professionals she discusses this issue with throw out the term evil, but it sits there disembodied as they and she refuse to apply it to the murderer.

Oddly enough, even this intimation was enough to send Mary Gaitskill over the edge in an essay in Salon Magazine:

    It's one thing to call a person's behavior evil -- and I do call murder evil -- but to call someone evil
    in their entirety is a judgment we as fellow humans are not qualified to make.  Most of us will
    never commit murder. But who of us has not been cruel? Who has not inflicted pain on another,
    even if just with words or with an expression in the eyes? On a practical human scale, there is a
    huge difference between murder and verbal cruelty. On a cosmic scale, I'm not sure the difference
    is as vast as we would like to think. Two of Christianity's most powerful precepts are that sin felt in
    the heart is as bad as sin acted upon, and that, without divine grace, we are all equally guilty, even
    those of us who appear perfect. Even non-Christians secretly feel the truth in this -- but it is a hard
    truth which we find convenient to forget.

Here in one breathtaking paragraph is the mind set that Thernstrom's book badly needed to address.  This is the attitude that she perceived at Harvard and the book might have served as a corrective to it.  Gaitskill is saying on the one hand that we are not competent to recognize evil when we see it and that we are all, including Trang Ho, just as evil as Sinedu Tadesse.  This is moral relativism run amok.  When I was in 8th grade, my brother narced me out to our mother and told her I was failing Science.  I wanted to kill him.  When Trang Ho told her she wouldn't room with her anymore, Sinedu Tadesse went out and bought a knife and a rope.  She sent the school paper a photo of herself and a note that they'd need it soon because there was going to be a juicy story involving the girl pictured.  On what would have been their last day as roommates, Tadesse woke to her alarm clock, entered Ho's room and drove a knife into her body 45 times, as well as incidentally stabbing another girl who was sleeping over but managed to escape.  She then dragged the corpse into her own room, entered the bathroom and hung herself.  Ms Gaitskill and the morally flaccid Harvard community may have trouble distinguishing the qualitative differences between my idle wish and Tadesse's action; I do not.  God forbid we are approaching a state of affairs where anyone outside of the insular intellectual Left would have trouble making these judgments.

I assume that Thernstrom's portrayal of the two women is fairly accurate.  If so, Ho was hard working, well liked, socially concerned and active in the community--simply a kind and decent human being.  Tadesse was equally hard working but was unpleasant, abrasive and self absorbed.  Much time is spent in the book trying to figure out why she killed Trang Ho.  In the end it seems evident that Tadesse killed her simply because Ho did not want to live with her anymore.  "If I can't have her no one will" is a primal theme in man's literature and history.  Tadesse's monstrously selfish action was the kind of garden variety evil that has been with us for thousands of years.  The inability of Thernstrom, Gaitskill
and Harvard to come to grips with this fact speaks volumes about the culture they have created and bodes ill for the future should that culture become the dominant paradigm in our society.

The book is interesting and the story is compelling, but Thernstrom's failure to confront the communal pathologies at Harvard which she so clearly identifies early in the book, makes the concluding section of the book especially weak.  There's an old saying about the stage, that if you introduce a gun in the first act it has to go off in the third.  Similarly by pointing out in the opening how bizarre were the reactions to the killings at Harvard, Thernstrom establishes an arc for the book that leaves us expecting her to conclude by dismantling those reactions.  When she instead develops the same reactions, it leaves us not convinced of their appropriateness, but rather convinced of the malignancy of the disease.


Grade: (C)


See also:

True Crime
Book-related and General Links:
    -Melanie Thernstrom (Bold Type, Random House)
    -EXCERPT: from Halfway Heaven  (Bold Type, Random House)
    -ESSAY: Searching for Helen (BY MELANIE THERNSTROM, Equity Magazine)
    -ESSAY: "TROUBLE IN PARADISE":  Ramdas Lamb believed that his students at the University of Hawaii could handle the most controversial material he could throw at them-until a promising student named Michelle Gretzinger responded by accusing him of sexual harassment. The resulting case made students and professors wonder, Had feminism gone too far? (Melanie Thernstrom,  George Magazine)
    -REVIEW: Satan Goes to Harvard: Is "evil" the best explanation  for Sinedu Tadesse's savage murder of her college roommate? (MARY GAITSKILL, Salon)
    -REVIEW: (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Halfway Heaven Diary of a Harvard Murder. By Melanie Thernstrom (Judith Newman, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Molly Confer '94, Radcliffe Quarterly Fall / Winter 1997)
    -REVIEW: of Halfway Heaven ( John J. Reilly, Culture Wars)
    -REVIEW:  Helen Vendler: Breath of Art, NY Review of Books
        The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom
    -REVIEW: of THE DEAD GIRL. By Melanie Thernstrom IN SHORT: NONFICTION (ALLAN BOYER, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Madness of University Mental-Health Care (Annie Paul, Link Magazine)