Thursday, April 19, 2007


Because it seems I can think of little else but the Virginia Tech massacre this week, I will try and record some thoughts about it. It strikes home for many reasons. It could have happened anywhere (though it's a little harder, I think, to buy handguns in New York than Virginia). And I feel torn, to the point of tears, by a double-edged empathy. Of course I imagine what I would do to protect myself and my own students if someone came into the classroom with a gun. It's a sickening feeling, a gut-wrenching doubt. At the same time, though it seems clear that Cho was insane, part of me empathizes with what I imagine to be the humiliation that formed part of his motive. I was a socially inept outsider in high school myself—though much less so in college—and I carried many bitter resentments toward the more fortunate and popular. High school seemed like such a small, perfectly enclosed world, with such severe limitations on what was okay to say and do and feel, and I hated those who seemed so serenely well adapted to an environment that I felt to be soul-crushing. My salvation, at least in part, came from my sense that there were, in fact other worlds—with college being the nearest and most accessible. So it came to pass: I survived high school, went to college, and discovered a world where I could have friends and be encouraged in my interests. I never felt safe in high school but I felt safe at college—not that my time there was trouble-free, but it was nonetheless a place I could breathe. This was so much the case that a few years after graduating I found myself drawn back to academia as the place where I wanted to make my life.

Now, as a member of the academic community, I feel sickened at this attack on it, and I want to add my voice to those who cry "We're all Hokies now," just as other members of what's called the civilized world said "We are all Americans" after 9/11, in that too-brief moment of solidarity with suffering. And I'm shocked that someone could have found the world of college—which as I experienced it was a place for freedom and inquiry, a chance to readapt my gawky and oppressed high school self into something functional—to be their enemy. Again, I recognize that Cho was insane—a narcissistic sociopath—and identifying with his rage may be an egregious exercise in liberal guilt. I identify more now with my nascent role as professor, and my painful wish in that imaginary scenario to somehow interpose my body between a killer and his prey. And I feel the burden of failure that I on some level participate in. The failure of universities to protect their students. The failure of parents to raise their children as decent human beings. The dismal success of our governments in making incredibly lethal weapons readily available to anyone with the cash to pay for them (I am baffled by the argument that, if Cho hadn't had access to guns, he would have found some other weapon. Would we really have so many dead if he'd been armed with a knife, or even a pipe bomb?). And the failure of our culture, of its violence and failures of empathy toward the most vulnerable, both within and without our borders.

Not the least disturbing fact about the massacre is its unexpected intersection with creative writing. I was dismayed to learn that Cho was an English major, as though that somehow tarnished the discipline, further tugging on my perhaps overdeveloped sense of responsibility. One of the New York Times' articles on the shootings today includes this sentence: "Carolyn D. Rude, chairwoman of the English department, said faculty members were pro-active, even attending seminars on helping students in distress, a skill particularly applicable in an English department, where creative writing teachers had intimate glimpses into their students’ troubles and temperaments." This intersection of the academic discipline of creative writing with mental health and crisis prevention frankly takes me aback. In what sense has my scholarly and literary training prepared me for "helping students in distress"? If I am supposed to be a mental health counselor for my students, give me the appropriate resources and training! It surely doesn't hurt to attend "seminars on helping students in distress," but is it really a creative writing teacher's job to counsel disturbed students and to search their work for evidence of pathology? And should we accept the culture's further demand to view "creative writing" as thinly veiled narratives of the pathological, as opposed to the difficult art of possibility that it is? I fear these attacks will lead to the further erosion of the dignity of writing—will encourage the tendency to view poetry and fiction as more or less transparent containers and blunt instruments for deeply impoverished notions of "the personal" and "the real."

The pain of these events is almost too much to bear. I wish intensely for peace for all who've been touched by this, and most especially for the victims and their families.

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