Tired of Being Boring

Katharine Weber

  • Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder by Melanie Thernstrom
    Virago, 219 pp, £9.99, November 1998, ISBN 1 86049 496 X

Harvard, murder. How much more intriguing that sounds than, say, Harlem, murder. When the story broke, in spring 1995, Melanie Thernstrom was assigned to cover it for the New Yorker. She had graduated from Harvard in 1987, and had lived in Dunster House, where the murder took place. Teaching creative writing at the University in 1992, she briefly met the future murderer, whom she did not select for a seminar. Halfway Heaven is an expanded version of her original piece of reportage, with some autobiographical passages and a certain amount of philosophising: the book opens with a description of the 1996 Harvard Commencement in order to make the point that there are no references ‘throughout the long commencement day, to two girls who are not there to graduate with their class, and whose fate reflects ... the problem of evil’.

The facts of the case are clearly set out:

On 28 May 1995 ... Sinedu Tadesse, a 20-year-old junior from Ethiopia, murdered her room-mate, Trang Phuong Ho, an immigrant from Vietnam. The girls had lived together for two years, but during the spring of their junior year Trang had decided not to live with Sinedu again and had chosen new roommates for senior year. During the last week of term, Sinedu sent a photograph of herself and an anonymous typewritten note to the student newspaper. The note said: ‘Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture.’

The morning that students were supposed to move out of their residence for the summer – the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend – Sinedu set her alarm to wake her early in the morning, got up and stabbed Trang 45 times with a knife as she lay sleeping in her bed. Lying beside Trang, sleeping head to toe, was a visiting girlfriend, Thao Nguyen, a recent Vietnamese immigrant who had been staying with her for the weekend. Thao woke to see her friend being stabbed and tried to grab the knife from Sinedu, but was injured herself and went for help. By the time the police arrived Sinedu had hanged herself with a noose she had prepared beforehand, and both girls were dead.

The case attracted widespread coverage. ‘Could Harvard have intervened? Were there unseen warning signs? Why does evil exist?’ asked Newsweek. ‘The sense of mystery is unlikely to lift anytime soon,’ said People. The New York Times reported: ‘interviews with students and faculty members who knew the two women ... indicate that the key to last weekend’s events has thus far eluded everyone.’ (The headline read: ‘Harvard Deaths Leave a Puzzle whose Central Piece May Never Be Found’.) The Boston Globe quoted a Harvard official: ‘There is no conventional motive. It is not about sex or revenge. There is no apparent reason.’

The papers made a point of the similarities between the two women. Both were foreign, pre-med, junior biology majors. Both were quiet and diligent. They were the same age and the same height – five feet. ‘They certainly seemed well-matched,’ commented the New York Times. ‘Both had risen from humble circumstances ... Ms Tadesse’s father had been a political prisoner. At age ten Ms Ho had escaped from Vietnam on a fishing boat ... both women dreamed of becoming doctors so they could help others. Both hewed to the family-centred traditions of their homelands and both were valedictorians of their high school classes.’ For both, Harvard was a ‘halfway heaven’, a stepping-stone to success and fulfilment.

When the murder took place, Harvard was still recovering from the embarrassment of having offered an undergraduate place to Gina Grant, who, it turned out, had bludgeoned her mother to death and served time in a juvenile facility. She had not mentioned this on her application. Harvard, not wanting to admit a murderer, solved its dilemma by withdrawing its acceptance on the grounds that Grant had falsified her application. (It’s one thing to wallop your mother repeatedly with a candlestick, quite another to be misleading on your Harvard application.) The Dean sent out a letter a few months after Sinedu and Trang died, assuring parents that both had been integrated into Harvard’s ‘carefully woven advising system’. ‘Although several news articles have speculated on what might have caused Ms Tadesse to act as she did,’ the letter concluded, ‘it seems unlikely that we will ever have an adequate understanding of the event.’

Sinedu was rarely spoken of as a murderer: ‘A peculiar discourse developed on campus,’ Thernstrom writes, ‘in which, rather than being viewed distinctly, as murderer and victim, the girls were recalled in one breath, as if their deaths were the result of some unfathomable blood rite, like a suicide pact, about which no one could say who was to blame or where the evil lay.’ Sinedu and Trang’s identities as murderer and victim seemed to blur almost immediately: ‘There was a good deal of discussion on campus about whether there should be a joint scholarship in the name of both girls – a macabre kind of Political Correctness. There was a confused sense that there were two victims.’

A Dunster House student said that ‘they seemed so similar. Why would anyone kill someone so like herself?’ ‘Sinedu would certainly have been pleased by the confusion,’ Thernstrom remarks:

A kindred spirit – a perfect partner to complete and mirror her, like the missing half of Aristophanes’ divided egg – was something Sinedu seems to have believed, at one point, she had found in Trang. Through her single act of violence, Sinedu’s reality became the ultimate one, linking the two girls through death in a common fate, so that in memory they are bonded in a way in which Trang has no choice, and which in life never existed.

The New Yorker sent Thernstrom to Ethiopia, where she arrived at the Tadesse family home unannounced. (The family was mystified, grieving and embarrassed.) She recalls her feelings on the 18-hour flight to Addis Ababa, surrounded by aid workers, who had ‘the cheery straightforwardness of people who do good work – the sort of work that is easy to justify. I blush slightly when they ask what I am doing. They are going to provide aid to the country, to give balm to its wounds, and I am going to probe them – possibly even do further damage.’

The visit did provide her with further information. Sinedu was born shortly after the Derg replaced Haile Selassie, and her family, closely allied with the ancien régime, lost their exalted status. When she was two, the Derg embarked on the Red Terror. Many Ethiopians from the educated upper classes disappeared and were tortured and imprisoned. When Sinedu was seven ‘her father was imprisoned without trial for two years on suspicion of rebel sentiments ... The year he was released, half a million Ethiopians died of famine.’

Ethiopian children go to school, on average, for only one year, so Sinedu was lucky to attend a Catholic girls’ school, from which she got a scholarship to the International Community School. She distinguished herself academically, and 24 American colleges offered her a place. Harvard gave her a full scholarship. The day she was accepted was the happiest day of her life, Sinedu told people. She was 17 and had never been out of the country before.

She was remembered as having been ‘rational’, ‘mature’ and ‘conscientious’ in high school. ‘Sinedu had always had good grades instead of a social life,’ Thernstrom writes; she had ‘excelled in a system that prized memorisation and rote learning.’ At Harvard, she had no idea how to make friends, how to think analytically, how to develop ideas. ‘Copying from one text is plaigerysm [sic] while copying from different (several) sources is RESEARCH,’ Sinedu noted to herself. She kept a series of frightened and pathetic diaries, in English, a language rich in psychological and personal terms lacking in her native tongue. The only entries in Amharic are, in Thernstrom’s words, the ‘least personal’ ones – usually brief notes or glosses on English passages. Or perhaps Sinedu wrote in English for the benefit of future American readers.

The diaries take the form of a collection of spiral-bound notebooks, with titles such as ‘My Small Book of Social Rules’, ‘The Social Problems I Faced’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Amazing Improved Events And How I Could Have Solved Them’, ‘Set Your Priorities’, ‘Depression’ and ‘Stress’. The ‘Wisdom’ diary begins by noting the existence of ‘some strict rules’ concerning the way people behave together which are important ‘as tools to manipulate your social life’. In one of many entries concerning table manners (Ethiopian food is eaten with the hands), she wonders whether it might not be best not to eat at all when dining with others, so as to be able to engage in conversation. But a later entry concludes that she should, in fact, eat, because otherwise her fellow diners might feel ‘greedy & jungle-like’. ‘The language with which she writes is odd,’ Thernstrom observes,

obsessive, and at moments imaginative ... ‘I am tired of being boring’ ... Above all, she resolves, she must try to appear normal. She urges herself: ‘Do not show off what you really think. Put on a mask’ ... All of Sinedu’s rules have a doomed, autistic-like quality – doomed because, as those who suffer from autism often know, human interaction is too complex for mimicry.

Sinedu also taped hours of rambling self-questioning. She mailed long confessional letters to complete strangers, some of which were turned over to Harvard by the recipients; Harvard filed them away. ‘I hadn’t admitted her to my class because the writing she had submitted was boring,’ Thernstrom writes. ‘But her journals display uncanny capacities for self-expression and self-analysis. She left behind an extraordinary record: that of an intelligent, insightful, strong-willed person using all those capacities to fight as hard as she could for mental health – and losing.’

Discussing Sinedu’s diaries and her deteriorating mental health, Thernstrom is both at her best and her worst. She makes interesting connections between aspects of Ethiopian cultural tradition and Sinedu’s inability to cope with her dilemma at Harvard as her grades began to slide and her social encounters went nowhere. But an irritating knowingness now and again comes over the book. Thernstrom never lets us forget that she is a Harvard insider, and she cannot resist bringing her own experience onto the scene. She, too, kept diaries: ‘In college I was so fearful my roommates would read my diaries I wrote certain passages in Ecclesiastical Latin, which I was studying at the time.’ (Lest we find that too insufferable, she adds: ‘passages now rendered incomprehensible to me.’) She tangles admirably with various members of the Harvard administration, some of whom are persuasively shown up as shabby liars protecting their own interests, as she seeks answers to the increasingly obvious question: why didn’t anyone at Harvard notice that Sinedu was mentally ill and do something to help her? The simple answer seems to be that no one took enough interest in Sinedu to distinguish between behaviour that was psychotic and behaviour that was presumed to be Ethiopian. It’s true that Sinedu’s foreignness masked her craziness. But it’s also true that no one looked past one set of alien characteristics to see that it was accompanied by another set.

‘Harvard follows the watchmaker model of God: students are admitted to the kingdom, with all its marvels, and allowed to make of it what they will,’ Thernstrom writes. The university records show that Trang, in a mild-mannered way, seems to have sought repeatedly to escape Sinedu’s attentions. Had she been less sympathetic towards her increasingly disturbed room-mate, she would have insisted on a change of rooms long before she finally did. Trang, too, was doomed by her foreignness. She didn’t express herself in ways that Harvard administrators understood. She was conciliatory and agreeable and nobody bothered to understand her situation.