The Long View: Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

John claims in this book review that suicide is not common in Ethiopia, where Sinedu Tadesse was born. At least according to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Ethiopia is about as high as in the US. On the other hand, it has also been twenty years, and you can see from 2012 to 2015 the global incidence of suicide has been getting worse. So perhaps the last twenty years have not been kind.

What data I can find tells me that the data quality is poor in Ethiopia, as in most of Africa, and is estimated instead of measured. Also, the WHO data is age-adjusted. It also doesn't account for other "deaths of despair" like drug overdoses and cirrhosis of the liver, but so far that seems to be a US problem.

If I were to argue that the world has gotten objectively harder to bear in the last twenty years, who would argue?

Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder
by Melanie Thernstrom
Doubleday, 1997
219 pages, $23.95
ISBN: 0-385-48745-2

"On Earth this desire is often called `love.' In Hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger."

--C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

Sinedu Tadesse was a twenty-year-old junior from Ethiopia. For two years she had roomed with Trang Phuong Ho, a refugee from Vietnam. Both were juniors and pre-med biology majors. The first year together they had gotten along well, the second year not so well, and Trang had told Sinedu that she planned to change roommates in the fall. Early on the morning of May 28, 1995, Sinedu walked into Trang's half of their two-room suite at Harvard's Dunster House and began stabbing Trang with a large knife she had apparently bought for the purpose. Trang had doubled-up that night with another Vietnamese-American woman who had come to help her move as the school term ended. The commotion woke her guest, whose hand was severely injured as she tried to protect Trang. She fled from the room onto the courtyard of the sleeping residence and eventually found someone to call the police. When they arrived, they found Trang's body by Sinedu's bed: she had been stabbed forty-five times, but she had still had enough life in her to try to reach the door. Sinedu was found hanging by a rope (also bought for the occasion) from the sturdy shower-curtain in the old-fashioned bathroom. She had some vital signs when she was cut down, but died soon thereafter. Hers was the third suicide (or fourth, depending on how you count that of a recent graduate) at Harvard in the previous year. Her killing of Trang was the first murder of one Harvard student by another in the four centuries of the school's existence.

"Halfway Heaven" is primarily about who is to blame for this episode. The book began as a piece for "The New Yorker" magazine. The title is an expression Trang's father used to describe how Harvard had seemed to the family. The author, Melanie Thernstrom, is by her own account a Harvard insider. She was graduated from Harvard College in 1987, her parents went there, her father teaches history there, and she herself has taught writing there (as well at other places). Ms. Thernstrom is not just very familiar with Harvard: she once actually rejected Sinedu for a seminar on autobiographical writing because her submission was too boring.

The author is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of her research. Her survey of the diagnosis and treatment of depression and mood disorders is lucid without minimizing the ambiguities that always attend actual clinical practice. She visited Ethiopia and contrived a tactful interview with Sinedu's family, this in a country where the institution of investigative journalism is not native. The chief impediment to her work was neither culture nor technical issues, but the blatant lies and veiled threats visited on her by Harvard University in general and Dunster House in particular. She records all this in great detail, and her shock is apparent. The University's policy was predictably self-defeating: its pretense that there had been no warning that something was radically wrong in Dunster House simply created a mystery that begged to be solved. And indeed, Ms Thernstrom does find the University, or at least its student mental health services, to have been a necessary predicate for what happened that May morning. For the ultimate cause, however, she can only document the possibilities.

The word on Harvard is that, if they let you in, they will take care of you. They will put together a financial aid package, they will tutor you in your weak subjects, they will counsel you if you get the shakes. One way and another, Harvard College (which is of course only a part of a University with ten prestigious graduate schools) manages to achieve an astonishing 98% graduation rate for its 6,000 students. One wonders, in fact, whether Harvard might not be becoming a bit like Tokyo University, which also does a superb job in selecting its student body but is not unduly anxious that the students actually learn anything while they are there. In any case, the magic of the Harvard name has always derived from the opportunity the place affords to make connections with the other very bright people who were selected with you.

Both Sinedu and Trang had come from moderately privileged backgrounds in countries that went Communist in the mid-1970s. Both their fathers had suffered political imprisonment. Trang fled with her father when she was ten and eventually worked her way up through the American public schools. Sinedu's family, despite persecution by the regime (which fell in 1991), contrived to send her first to a Catholic school and then to a school in Addis Ababa intended primarily for the children of diplomats. Like many students who shine locally, they found they were just average at Harvard. Maybe one or both of them would have changed her major, since their "B" averages would not have gotten them into a medical school.

Trang seems to have taken all this in stride. She tutored high school students and was a star in the Vietnamese students association. She acted as ombudsman for her newly-arrived mother and sisters (her parents had separated soon after being reunited in the United States). She had old-fashioned ideas about sex and dating but had several boy-friends. She was also genuinely interested in science, a quality that one might hope to see more often in pre-med students, and she loved lab work. Even allowing for the positive light in which people tend to recall the innocent dead, Trang Phuong Ho seems to have been a competent person who always worked as hard as she could and who rarely missed an opportunity to help others.

Sinedu kept diaries. The spiral-bound notebooks had titles like "My Small Book of Social Rules," "Amazing Improved Events and How I Could Have Solved Them," "Depression" and "Stress." In these, she said she had always been lonely and explained how she had never been able to connect with other people. Though examination of her school records from Ethiopia show her to have had considerable leadership ability, nevertheless she wrote that she suspected the other students had some sixth sense she did not have. (Some of the passages quoted in "Halfway Heaven" sound so much like Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" that you wonder what Sinedu had been reading.) Trang appears in the diaries, mostly in connection with real or imagined gaffes on Sinedu's part. Trang had perhaps taken on the lonely Sinedu as a roommate as another of her good works, and Sinedu was keenly aware that she made asymmetrical demands on Trang for companionship. Still, the only specific person mentioned in the diaries as a possible murder victim is an officer of the African student's association, someone who had considered Sinedu a friend. In the later entries, killing in general, followed by suicide, is mentioned as "the good way," as distinguished from suicide alone, which was the "bad way."

Suicide, incidentally, is not an Ethiopian custom. Sinedu was allowed burial in an Ethiopian Orthodox graveyard only because her family convinced the priest that there was some uncertainty about the circumstances of her death. Neither is there any national tradition of keeping intimate personal journals. The material on Ethiopia in "Halfway Heaven" is fascinating, but this seems to be another situation where culture is bunk.

We know about the content of Sinedu's diaries because they came to light after her death. However, she communicated the same sentiments in other ways. She wrote letters which she posted to people selected at random from the Boston area telephone directory describing her life in pitiable terms and demanding the friendship of the recipients. Some of the people who got these letters forwarded them to the College administration. The Master of Dunster House denies that any of the actual letters were sent to him from the Dean's office (at any rate, he denied this to Ms. Thernstrom, though he seems to have originally said otherwise to the police). Even the Master, however, says he got a "heads-up" letter from the Dean's office.

There were other signs. In her second year with Trang, Sinedu's behavior began to change. Normally meticulously tidy, she began leaving dirty clothes and half-eaten fruit around the suite. She sometimes wept in public. She fought with Trang (by letter) about Trang's decision to move out. In the last weeks, though, she seemed to relax. She sent presents to friends and family. She made dates to see people she had been putting off for months. In her last exam, she got an "A." She also sent an anonymous photograph of herself to the campus newspaper, the "Crimson," with the notation: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." The police later fished it out of a dumpster.

Harvard College knew. Sinedu had been seeing a student health service "psychologist," a man with a degree in education, since freshman year. The Dean's office (and possibly the Master) had the message-in-a-bottle letter. They knew that Trang had sought to change roommates as Sinedu's behavior deteriorated. If nothing else, several officials of the school were aware that Sinedu's grades had been falling off. What were they thinking of? Ms. Thernstrom describes her own reaction when Sinedu came to ask that she reconsider her rejection of Sinedu's application to join the autobiographical writing seminar. The student spoke of the suffering her country had experienced in recent years. Ms. Thernstrom gave the plea short shrift. There is a type of Harvard student who acts like the representative of the wretched of the Earth but who later turns out to be royalty. In any case, it probably was true that it was not the poverty of Ethiopia that Sinedu wanted to write about.

Sinedu was clearly sick, and the University was only pretending to help. She got no medication, though she was glaringly depressed (possibly bipolar, possibly schizoidal, maybe even mildly autistic). There are many forms of psychotherapy that are of dubious benefit and vast expense towards which university health plans turn an understandably jaundiced eye. Depression and related conditions, however, are eminently treatable and at reasonable cost. According to Ms. Thernstrom, nearby MIT, famous for its "crazy brilliant" students, is particularly good at handling this kind of thing. Be that as it may, competent medical intervention would certainly have saved Trang's life and probably have saved Sinedu's. You don't even have to go that far. Any of a half-dozen people in Harvard's faux-Oxford administration could probably have prevented the incident just by giving Sinedu her own room.

Still, Harvard is not to blame for what happened in any ultimate sense. As I noted, this book does a good job of surveying the medical parameters of Sinedu's behavior. It is thus somewhat startling to hear to a psychiatrist (from Yale) saying near the end: "If you push psychiatrists far enough, you'll find most of them believe in evil." Sinedu pretty clearly suffered from a mood disorder of the sort for which there is a straightforward neurochemical explanation. However, a dearth of neurotransmitters did not kill Trang, Sinedu did. Her condition was consistent with suicide (and also with curling up into a ball and crying uncontrollably, something she also did a lot of in her last week). The murder, as well as her account of her interior life, really do not lend themselves to clinical analysis.

Reading the excerpts from Sinedu's diaries, I was time and again of M. Scott Peck's book, "The People of the Lie." Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

We are dealing here with the mystery of personality. The mystery is genuine because it really is irreducible. If you could reduce a personality into a set of instructions, like a computer program, you would not be dealing with a person anymore, but with a machine. This is the only telling argument against solipsism: other people must really exist, because we could not possibly have invented what they do. (It is also, by the way, an argument for the existence of God, since we could not have made up reality as a whole, either.) None of this is to deny that we are also machines, animals, physical objects, suitable subjects of biological and psychological science. However, only pseudoscience purports to account for everything. There is always something else.

Sinedu's diaries are singularly devoid of "evil" content in any conventional sense of the word. The violent language is apparently sparse and mostly directed at herself. If she had any sexual thoughts, she did not commit them to paper. Certainly the widespread rumor that she killed Trang in a fit of jealous lesbian rage is utterly without foundation in the documentation. What was going on in her mind was a step below sexuality. Sinedu equated "connecting" with controlling people. Suicide was the "bad way" because it was an expression of weakness. Murder and suicide was the "good way" because, for once in her life, she would be able to dominate another person with impunity. Sinedu may have been beyond loving Trang when she killed her, but she was still interested in her, she wanted to control her. Sinedu had sometimes written of her life as what was left after a bomb went off. That is a fitting description of what was left after her death.

Ms. Thernstrom notes that, after the murder-suicide, a "mode of discourse" arose on campus by which both girls were spoken of as equally victims. This way of speaking seemed strange to her, but maybe it was the right way after all. Sinedu sought help for over two years to stop what was happening to her. It was only in those last few days, perhaps, that her mind was made up in a way she could no longer change. Terrible events like this tell us nothing about "the state of the culture," or similar gassy notions. They merit our attention precisely because they are perennial. They are, to put it bluntly, about good and evil, and the power of the human will to choose between them.

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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  Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder By Melanie Thernstrom