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.