Wednesday, April 18, 2007


There is now speculation that VTech murderer Seung-hui Cho was schizophrenic

How he related to his roommate was just too bizarre to be depression. The bizarre content of his plays — mashing a half-eaten "banana bar" in someone's mouth, the hypersexual, nihilistic (death obsessed) obsessions in the absence of depressive guilt or tearfulness are another clue. The progressive decline of a period of years. Those with schizophrenia, especially in their earliest years, are not readily recognizable as such — their condition is evolving. But here was someone who, as early as 2005, was carrying himself so strangely that he was a spectacle. The depressed withdraw and disappear. Those who are so peculiar in their manner so as to be inappropriate (taking cell phone pictures of his teacher, speaking inaudibly, pulling a cap low over his eyes) exhibit signs and symptoms more indicative of schizophrenia. He was communicating in a rambling manner reflective of what we appreciate as autistic thinking — characteristic of schizophrenia. In a similar vein, Mr. Cho's stilted communication in his homicide note (deceitful charlatans — not the language of a 23-year-old college kid) is also the manner of a schizophrenic's communications, as is his pronounced delay in responding to questions.
What's eerie about this is that a few years ago we had a student in my department who exhibited similarly strange behavior.

"Duma," a young man from Russia, was in my first-year graduate class in astronomy in the fall of 2001. While not unfriendly, he was at first shy and quiet, which we assumed was attributable to a combination of culture shock and shaky english skills. Over the course of the next couple of semesters, however, he started behaving more eratically. During class he would ask questions totally unrelated to the topic and make strange, rambling pronouncements about the nature of God. After a while, he started missing class more and more, and after 9/11 he disappeared entirely for a while. He reappeared briefly, showed up to lectures looking completely different, sporting a full beard and wearing strange clothing.

Then we got word from the department that Duma was leaving us, and were told that if we saw him on campus without an escort we were to call the police immediately.

Not long after, hubby and I were visiting a military surplus store close to campus. When one of the clerks there overheard that I was in the astronomy department, he asked if I knew someone named Duma. Turns out the guy had been to the surplus store many times buying survival equipment, and appeared to the clerks to be very paranoid. He made his last purchase before he disappeared for those weeks. What I found out in the months after Duma's departure is that following 9/11 he had visited Washington, D.C., and upon his return, he turned in various faculty members in to the police as terrorists, including the chair of the department (who is old, white, and very British). Duma apparently found this very amusing. I also remember finding in the computer lab these very long screeds written in cyrillic with titles like "George Bush."

Other oddities...

Duma became obsessed with having a window in his office. He demanded to be given an office with a window, which are all reserved for faculty and post-docs, and sent bizarre emails to everyone in the department about how in Russia everyone gets a window or else is financially compensated for the lack of one. The grad student offices do not have windows, as they face interior walls. However, the wall of his office (which is now my office, by the way) consists of drywall patched over what is an enormous outside door which a long time ago was used to hoist in heavy equipment. Keep in mind this is the 16th floor of the building. The people in the adjoining office one night heard a terrible ruckus in Duma's (my) office. He had brought in equipment and cut a big hole in the wall and tried to push open the outside door so that he could have his window. (I now have a poster over that hole.)

Most odd was Duma's fixation on the daughter of one of the faculty members. Duma had been renting an apartment in this man's house, and somehow became convinced that he was to marry the prof's daughter. The obsession frightened the prof so much, that he evicted Duma. Meanwhile, Duma had incurred over $10,000 in credit card debt stuffing this apartment with furniture he ordered from the Bombay Company, which he intended for his future wife. (I have no idea how a non-resident alien can get $10,000 in credit.)

There were probably other strange aspects to Duma's story that the department decided not to share with us. As I said, we were told to call the police if we saw him on campus. Last we heard, the department had purchased a plane ticket for him to return to Russia, but were not able to confirm that he made his connecting flight in New York.

Duma might just have been a garden-variety nutbar incapable of mass-murder, but in light of what happened at VTech, I gotta say I'm glad the department didn't ignore his oddities.


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