Friday, April 20, 2007

My Own Cho

More years ago than I like to think would be possible, I was teaching a college course that required biweekly essays from students. One of my students turned in a very, very graphic sadomasochistic fantasy featuring me and a colleague engaged in assorted activities that I've managed to mostly put out of my mind.

The assignment had been to write about science education and an educated electorate, so there was no question that the student was more than a little off topic.

The class I taught ended at 9:30 pm and the author of the paper also tended to hang out after class and shadow me on my way home.

I was young. I'd probably just turned 30. And I was terrified.

So I went to the director of the program where I taught, and he asked me if I had actually been wearing a black leather miniskirt in class as depicted in my student's paper.

He wasn't joking. And, for the record, I wasn't one to wear black leather miniskirts to class.

I asked to have the student transferred to another section of the course taught by a male colleague. My request was denied.

I was told that I should offer the student the opportunity to rewrite the paper since "we should give him a second chance." The director of the program explained that my student, who was a senior at that time, was planning to continue his education, planning on becoming a clinical psychologist. I shouldn't fail him and jeopardize his plans of getting into graduate school.


So when I watched the story of Cho Seung-Hui and his teachers unfold this week, I was not terribly surprised. Horrified. Appalled. Bereft. But not surprised.

I was, of course, very lucky. I'd just met Fathersvox, and he made it a routine to stop by and walk me home from this particular class. Eventually my campus stalker gave up and went on to . . . well . . . what?

We don't really know now, do we?

Because when this inappropriate misogynist tested the limits in my class at a major urban university, what he learned was that the university would back him up . . . And I'd venture a guess that if you asked around, you'd find that you'd have a story just like mine from more than half the college teachers you might ask.

Cho Seung-Hui wasn't that exceptional in form, only in magnitude.

What makes the Cho story different?

• Cho had breathtakingly easy access to lethal automatic handguns -- he could pay for them on his student credit card. My own wacky student probably would have had to scrape together the funds if he'd wanted to buy a handgun. Easy credit does have its down sides.

• Cho was taking some sort of psychotropic prescription medication, though the news reports don't say exactly what. Several medications can produce bipolar manic episodes in people who might have previously only been withdrawn or depressed. This is particularly dangerous in the springtime when light levels are increasing. And most psychopharmacologists don't monitor this that closely. Even worse, many antidepressant medications are prescribed by primary care physicians who are ill-equipped to monitor adverse effects. Cho was described as wearing sunglasses indoors — sounds to me like a guy with light sensitivity. When my whacked out student was stalking me, prescription medications for mood disorders were extremely rare. Back then — in the ice age of the late 1980s — the medications for depression were MAO-inhibitors, and with their serious side effects, they weren't widely prescribed. So my student was unlikely to have been coping with massive shifts in his neurochemistry.

Some people are wondering about whether Cho was on the spectrum. It sounds possible, from most of the reports. If Cho actually were on the spectrum — and anyone reading this blog knows how blurry those diagnostic categories can be — then this horrific set of events could actually be a national wakeup call — for more substantive early intervention services, for better educational settings, for equal coverage for mental health care, for social skills training for everyone who wants it, for anti-bullying activism. And we won't even go near the munitions control debate — I'm guessing you know where I'd come out on that one.

The autism rights community isn't the first community to grabble with this hero-villain community image problem. Whenever one has a community developing positive role models — we have our Einstein, our Grandin, our Tammet, our Warhol — there is the flip side, the villains. When Jeffrey Dahmer was discovered to have murdered and cannibalized young men, the gay community had a similar problem that the autism community may be facing with Cho. Being gay doesn't mean one is a perverted cannibal serial killer. And being on the spectrum doesn't mean one is a danger to oneself and others.

Deviations from the norm are not inherently dangerous, but rage — and a couple of handguns — can be.


Joeymom said...

I'm with you on the student thing. When I teach live, I'm running a current 30% chance of getting a wacko in there. Online, its been a 100%, but the advantage is it is very difficult to stalk someone you have never seen and have no actual contact with, or can even track personal information on. But its not for lack of trying. I thank God that my college has excellent security measures in place for online instructors. They also have forms you fill out and hand in directly to counseling services, skip your department completely- precisely because this "well, DO you wear miniskirts?" problem was so rampant at one point.

I doubt I'll go so far as to use "give my kid services or he might end up like Cho" at an IEP meeting. Though I do hope someone who can take positive steps in helping people like Cho are listening, and the wheels are starting to turn. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. Like everyone else, autistic people can have depression or other mental illness; we're all human, after all. Without support, communicating a problem is probably much more difficult- making help that much harder for them to get.

Get adults the service they need. Get it to them now.

kristina said...

I've been in a much less overtly situation as you describe, MV. I was teaching at a small college then and lived on campus and got a surprise visit from a student in the evening----he mostly wanted to talk about the class and books, etc., but there were a few more odd occurrences. I don't feel I handled it right then; but who does?

I also think (I've been saying this) that a lot of cultural factors---being Asian and Asian American in America today factors in particular---were intersecting, or maybe rather colliding and clashing, and something beyond chaos resulted.

VAB said...

In Japan, I had an older female student stalk me and accuse me controlling her mind telepathically, causing her to exhibit demon-like behavior. When I went to the director the school about it, he took me straight to the police station. There, the police officer on duty took down all the information and then asked me, in all seriousness, whether I was in fact, practicing telepathic mind control on the student in question.

Mom said...

I have been in a scary situation like this, but it was my own son. I have been writing about it somewhat to try to get it out from under my skin, but when you have a kid in class who moves on, that's one thing. But what do you do when it's your own kid?

MothersVox said...

VAB, That's an amazing story of authority shirking its responsibility . . . your telepathic mind control wins out over my black leather miniskirt any day. I'm interested that there were immediately stories so similar to mine from joeymom and kristina . . . There is something about the student-teacher relationship that makes it ripe for these sorts of eruptions . . . that student-teacher transference, as the psychoanalysts would call it, is powerful stuff.

Jan B, Without knowing more, I don't know what you do about that. . . I will go and read at your site if your name links back to a blog and learn more. Without the details, I guess one gets the very very best mental health consultation one can find. But then from my blog you'd know that this doesn't always do much good. I'm going to look up your blog now . . .

Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

But aren't violent fantasies part of popular culture these days.

When I was doing my media studies course, you would be surprised how many of the videos that were being made were dealing with violent subjects, crime, assassinations etc. and most of us on the course were aspies. I made one myself, a parody of a film noir, where there were no honest characters, stereotypes of women and disabled people and the best violence you can do on a cheap budget. It was a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference, I think, between violence that is purely fantasy and violence with a foothold in reality. Writing a parody of a film noir with more bodies at the end of it than a Greek tragedy? No problem. Writing one where every killed character is named for your teachers or co-students -- first and last name -- creepy.

From what I've heard, I don't think that the spectrum is implicated - but that's merely personal opinion. Remember that they used to think that autism was a kind of schizophrenia: many of the factors listed sound very, very suspciously like uncontrolled paranoid schizophrenia. If he'd been a chain smoker, I'd have been convinced. Of course, most ALL schizophrenics are harmless.

I have only taught in very limited environments, but I did have a co-worker whom we considered very dangerous. Our goal was to have as little interaction with him as possible so as not to furnish fuel for his psychosis - and to be out sick by lucky chance on the day he came to work armed. He was stalking coworkers, as well. Nobody in authority did a damn thing (this was around 1991).