A Caution on Violent Writings

Weekend Edition essayist Diane Roberts teaches English at Florida State University. She says the tragedy at Virginia Tech is creating a special kind of chill among writing students.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Much has been made this past week about the writings of Seung-hui Cho and the alarm bells they set off. WEEKEND EDITION essayist Diane Roberts, a professor of creative writing, cautions against trying to read too much into student compositions. One caveat: her essay contains some graphic imagery.

DIANE ROBERTS: A man decapitates his ex-lover with a straight razor then tries to escape, only to be caught by a mob and castrated; he bleeds to death. A young woman fantasizes about killing her father, whom she likens to a Nazi and a vampire. An angry outcast gets sexual gratification from assaulting a dead girl he keeps in a cave.

Or how about this: a vengeful woman incites her two sons to rape the daughter of her enemy, and so that the daughter can't tell on the men, they cut her tongue out. The victim's father finds out anyway and slits the boy's throats. Then he cooks their flesh and forces their mother to eat some of it before he stabs her to death.

The authors of these dark dreams are respectively: William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy - winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize - and William Shakespeare.

Seung-hui Cho was no Shakespeare. In "Richard McBeef," one of his plays now making the rounds on the Internet, a boy accuses his vicious stepfather of sexual abuse then tries to choke him, only to be overpowered by the stepfather and killed. It's angry, murderous, but otherwise unremarkable - the kind of bad prose professors in English departments see every semester.

But since the terrible massacre of innocents at Virginia Tech, television psychologists and media rent-a-shrinks have assured us that Cho's writing could have predicted that he was a mass murderer in the making.

I wonder if this is a direction we really want to go. Of course, this disturbed and violent boy had a disturbed and violent internal life, but so do the makers of blood-soaked slasher movies and authors of twisted horror novels. Do we want to start frog marching them off to therapy or locking them up because their minds concoct dreadful scenes? Seventh graders have been suspended from school for writing nasty stories full of death and destruction. Teachers are now expected to police their students' imaginations.

My creative writing students and I have been talking about Cho and the Virginia Tech tragedy. My students are sorrowful about the killings, hearts sore and distressed at the violence in the killer's soul, and they are bothered that his plays are being seen as evidence that he would one day go on a murderous rampage. One of my students sighed bleakly, I guess we're going to have to watch what we write, she said.

HANSEN: Diane Roberts teaches English at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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