Thursday, April 19, 2007


Well, the predictable media barrage over this genocidal nutcase killing and maiming dozens of people at Virginia Tech is underway. I have nothing pertinent to add – then again, no one does. Shit like this happens, has happened and will continue to happen. There’s no “unless” involved. But while reading a New York Times write-up on the situation, a few key sentences jumped out at me. I’d like to highlight them below and offer some comments.


He was a stranger in a crowd of 26,000.

I remember that feeling in college, too. Does that make me a psychopath? The first few weeks of college, coming from a rural area of Pennsylvania onto a college campus of about 30,000, I felt pretty strange and frightened. I’m not sure what the intent of a statement like that is – most of us have had that experience. (But that’s a sentiment you’re going to see me expressing a few times over before this thing is through.)

“He was my roommate,” said Joe Aust, a 19-year-old sophomore. “I didn’t know him that well, though.”

I wrote about this earlier. My first year at college, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a private house off-campus with an older student named Mike. As far as Mike was concerned, I was probably a nutcase in the making, as I spent most of my time in my room writing or studying (when not hanging out with my friends, whom I rarely brought back there). It’s just that the guy spent all his time camped out in the living room, watching M*A*S*H reruns and such. We got along in a vague sort of way. Neither of us knew each other that well, though, even after a year in the same apartment. And we were both pretty comfortable with that. Most people I knew had at least one of these awkward roommate situations, especially when they lived in dorms.

They never saw him with a girl or any friends for that matter.

I’m trying to figure out what this implies. If he had a girlfriend, he wouldn’t have done this? But if he had a boyfriend, he might have done this, because we all know that so many fags are filled with murderous rage, too, right? He was a loner? In a lot of ways, I am, too. I like having my privacy. Doesn’t make me a psycho killer. (But I guess this is one more all-important piece in the puzzle … that’s been the twisted media portrait of a killer, in which all these little details amount to one big psycho. Right. Just like in the movies. That’s how it works.

Although Mr. Cho told his roommate he was a business major, the university said today that he was an English major … “Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

There was this one guy in an introductory fiction class I took who always wrote macabre, Stephen King style short stories. One was a first-person narrative about a guy who worked in a slaughterhouse at the turn of the 20th century, with the job of killing dozens of cows each day by applying a sledgehammer blow to their heads. He really knew his shit about slaughterhouses, had researched it thoroughly, and he made the character out to be either Christ or a Christ-like figure trapped in this horrifying job. He was a chubby kid. A bit arrogant, too. An odd duck. The class hated him … although I now recognize he was a pretty good writer who took all sorts of risks most of those kids couldn’t even imagine. The other kids in the class hated him and would often insult him to his face. I gather Mr. Cho wasn’t functioning on that level as a writer, but I know the vibe all too well of volatile kids in the 20s coming up with some strange stories. What are we to make of Brett Easton Ellis for writing American Psycho ... much less William S. Burroughs writing Naked Lunch?

Mr. Grewal (his roommate) recalled how earlier in the year someone running for a student council position visited the suite to pass out candy and ask for votes. Mr. Cho would not even make eye contact with him, turning his head away and refusing to make conversation.

A show of hands. How many people out there would have done the same thing as Mr. Cho, and salute him in this situation for his common sense regarding politics?

“He was always really, really quiet and kind of weird, keeping to himself all the time,” he said. “ … He said it was a creepy quietness.

What exactly is “creepy quietness”? As opposed to “reassuring quietness”? I’ve seen his roommates interviewed on TV. They got ESPN Sports Center written all over them. Backwards baseball hats, keggers, Dave Matthews Band on the iPod. I’d rather not trust their take on quietness. Or anything, for that matter. Because the same quietness with a girl they’d want to fuck would come out as, “We don’t have to say anything around each other, and it’s really OK, dude.”

“I would notice a lot of times, I would come in the room and he would kind of be sitting at his desk, just staring at nothing,” he said.

Boy. That never happens at a college campus. I’d say so long as you don’t catch your roommate masturbating, you’re way ahead of the game.

Mr. Aust and Mr. Grewal, 21, said he was often on his computer.

Gulp. So am I!

“When he was in the room, he would spend a lot of time on his computer, downloading music and stuff,” Mr. Aust said. There was no single style of music that he particularly liked, from rock to country to pop.

Jesus Christ, so do I. Again! And I have no single style of music I like either. Alert the media! And gun sellers south of the Mason-Dixon line!

Mr. Cho was often out of the room.

Again, hate to overly identify with a stone killer, but I’d have done the same.


I’m in no way looking to lessen the impact of this story, which would be impossible. This kid did a horrible thing, and I hope he’s burning in hell right now. To judge by snippets of his insane video – which is sort of the western equivalent of a suicide bomber tribute tape – the guy was just insane. Probably driven there by circumstances in his life – kids harassing him in high school and such, probably also feeling very out of place as a Korean in what I suspect was a lily-white, affluent DC suburb. But there are plenty of other people with similar stories, and there’s something far beyond circumstances that cause someone to commit this sort of heinous crime. (I once dated a Korean girl who was raised in a small town outside of Nashville. When I asked her if she had dealt with racism -- she had, to say the least -- she replied, "Dad always said, when you see a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk, step around it, not in it.")

What bothers me most about the media coverage, as noted above, is this predictable picture that’s always purposely drawn of the killer(s) in this scenario. I find myself strangely identifying with a lot of the characteristics of the killer – whether that’s some inexplicable relation to underdogs in our society (these kids are always portrayed as rank outsiders), pure chance, or something I should blow about $10K on with a psychiatrist 10 times crazier than I'll ever be, I have no idea. I do know I don’t have it in me to gun down random strangers on a killing spree as some misguided statement of purpose against the world. That’s not saying much – a near 100% majority of people on earth feel the same way.

But it seems to me as if these stories are a strange form of propaganda to maintain some semblance of normalcy in our society. Friends. Girlfriends. Sociable. Easy to get along with. Talkative. Warm. Inviting.

If you’re not all these things – and I know very few people who are, full-on, all the time – then you must read stories like this and think, “Jesus Christ, the things I have in common with a mass murderer … does that mean there’s something wrong with me, too?"

I’m a grown man, and I still get this uncomfortable chill that I’m somehow supposed to toe some line of normalcy presented in these stories. What is normal is never stated directly, but implied by all the thing the killer is not. And that magical, fantasy person seems to be a very popular fellow on campus, with a girlfriend (if he has a boyfriend, yeah, that’s cool, dude, but there’s still something wrong with you, but don’t sweat it, we’ll never address it to your face), dozens of close, loyal friends he spends all his time with (although I haven’t quite cracked the nut on how you cultivate deep relationships with dozens of people when there are just so many hours in the day, and a radical difference between acquaintances and friends that most people don’t seem to have the balls to acknowledge, lest they realize how lonely they are). He’s into sports, of course, playing and watching, hopefully something like lacrosse, because this sort of thing builds character and dependency on others. He’s into joining – charity organizations, fraternities, churches. Whatever. Be a part of something.

(I grew up worshipping The Kinks. With songs like "A Well-Respected Man," "Shangri-la," "Autumn Almanac" and "David Watts" -- all of which champion individuality over the pleasant sort of conformity of English suburban life Ray Davies simultaneously loathed and loved. It says something about our society now that both overtly and subtly, we're all being encouraged to become the sort of over-achievers and landed gentry a person like Ray Davies regulary sent-up and mildly loathed. I'd rather not be the Big Man on Campus. Nor a murderous psychopath. My point being that the inference in these stories is that there isn't much choice beyond those two options, although I damn well know there are thousands of options.)

It grates on me that there are people out there in the media who think they could comb through my life, cherry pick statements from me and people in my life, some of who don’t really know me very well but will say anything with a microphone shoved in their face, and create some fantasy picture based on all these preconceived stereotypes to fit whatever kind of story they’d want to write. If I saved a family from a burning building, they could make me look like a hero. If I killed someone, they could make me look like a time bomb waiting to go off, while everyone around me ignored “the warning signals.” (What warning signals would there be that I'd run into a burning building and save a family?)

I’d rather not have these folks pass judgment on me – or more accurately, create the rules of public court in which the verdict – hero or killer – would be made painfully obvious by what they chose to report, and how they chose to frame it. These people write like lawyers knowingly and willfully trying to sway a jury to their point of view, which must be right, as there is no other possible answer.

In the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed by that feeling with this kid and the awful things he did. And all I can say is when you’re that fucking crazy, there are no set answers – probably dozens of little threads that lead to that horrible point, and the X Factor of total insanity that the kid had no control over. (He obviously had control over his situation, as he planned it – I don’t think he had control over the circumstances of his life he created leading into that dark place.)

No answers from me. But no stacked decks either, where I present you with a bunch of vignettes and purposely highlighted quotations and facts to create a narrative framework that must make sense to you … and make you respond as a human must, in total disgust and revulsion, but wise in that you can now see all the “warning signs” and the crooked path. If I had a dime for every crooked path I’ve come across in the past 20 years since I left college. And not one of them has ended in murder.


Uncle Jesse said...

i miss the classic interviews with neighbors of jeff dahmer, or gacy, saying "he seemed friendly enough. always said hello."
really, what else can you ask for in a neighbor?
those kinds of comments seemed more chilling than all this profiling hokum. i agree with what you're saying. i was a pretty antisocial wierdo when i was that age. my drawings and writings were pretty disturbing. i had a lot of hostility that i vented creatively. never really thought about hurting anybody as something you should do. i always thought violent people were pretty stupid and pathetic. and gun culture was pretty repulsive to me. it still is.

Andy S. said...

"really, what else can you ask for in a neighbor?"

All I ask is that you don't kill me. You don't have to smile or say "hello," just let me live.

Anonymous said...

Bravo for following up on this goofball writer's story!

I agree with you completely on this one!

Next, we will see the most popular guy on campus who went on a rage and killed many. Why?
Cuz he was popular..couldn't take the limelight....blah, blah, blah
Why does everyone have to justify their reasons!

What happened to the good ole days of just being held responsible for your own actions?