In light of the attention given to Cho Seung-Hui’s graphic writing in the months leading up to the massacre at Virginia Tech, many are asking if creative writing can be a warning sign for violent behavior. CSU professors are uncertain.
“When we have something like this happen, we search for logical answers for illogical outcomes,” said Ernest Chavez, professor and chair of the psychology department. “We’re not going to find them. Sometimes individuals go to places we can’t understand.”
Chavez said that people often express themselves by writing in ways that might make others uncomfortable, but writing is not a good predictor.
“We are a violent culture,” he said. “Cho’s writing wasn’t even as violent as (Quentin) Tarantino’s stuff. . Does that mean Quentin Tarantino will walk into a room and start shooting people? Probably not.”
David Milofsky, an English professor who teaches creative writing, said that in creative writing, students are free to explore feelings and ideas that might be scary.
“I’ve had students over the years that wrote some pretty scary things from their experiences, but nothing ever threatening,” he said.
Leslee Becker, an English professor who teaches creative writing, once had a student from Columbine High School who knew Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before their attack in 1999. The student described to Becker how seductive their angry clique could be.
“He said creative writing saved him,” Becker said. “He found an outlet through writing.”
But Becker also recalled a time when another student wrote “terrible things” on peer critiques in her creative writing class. She described his writing as “just vicious.”
Becker tried to find out as much as she could about the student.
She explained to him that what he was writing was not acceptable and he needed to find another outlet. She also spoke to the director of Conflict Resolution about the matter.
Teachers are instructed to report up the chain of command regarding disturbing material in class.
“If we didn’t, CSU would be liable if anything happened,” Milofsky said.
Anne Hudgens, executive director of Campus Life and former director of Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct Services, said her concerns were for what could be done to help the individual and what could be done if there is a larger concern about safety.
“Our primary objective is to make sure that it doesn’t go unnoticed and that there’s a connection made if someone’s concerned about the writing,” she said.
Hudgens said writing can be distressed or angry, but is only considered disturbed if the student is “having trouble staying oriented. They might be losing grasp on normal, regular reality.”
“The most disturbing writing is nonsensical,” Becker said.
According to Chavez, the criteria for determining if a person is a danger to themselves can be clear and usually includes isolation, a traumatic event or a suicide plan.
Criteria for determining if someone is a danger to others is harder to come by. “It’s highly unlikely he would share that with you in session,” Chavez said. “He’ll express anger, but not a plan. . He doesn’t want to be stopped.”
But Milofsky considers Cho’s writing to be a distinct situation.
“From what I’ve seen over the years, from what students have told me about and what I’ve seen in their lives, love seems to be what the stories are about,” she said. “Not revenge.”
Staff writer James Holt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.