Reading between Cho’s lines

To read the so-called “manifesto” of Seung-Hui Cho, the young man who brought tragedy to Virginia Tech this week, it is impossible to ignore the stream of references to sexual violence and abuse.

He accuses his tormentors of “raping my soul” and “committing emotional sodomy.” He mentions John Mark Karr and Debra Lafave — two people known to the public only for their interest in sex with minors.

“Thanks to you,” he writes, “I die like Jesus Christ to inspire generations of the Weak and Defenseless — my brothers, sisters and children — that you f---.”

It is tempting to practice amateur analysis. But professionals trying to understand what led Cho to slaughter say that the details of the “manifesto” don’t add much to the profile of the troubled college senior.

Beware delusional imagery
“The problem with all of this is he’s delusional, so we’re not sure what his sense of reality is,” says Scott Allen, police psychologist for the Metro-Dade Police Department in Florida. “It’s all coming from his innermost thoughts, which are very chaotic.”

And he warns: “He was an English major — it might be, for all I know, something allegorical. We don’t have any way to know the meaning.”

It could be that Cho suffered some kind of abuse or trauma as a child — at least it wouldn’t be that surprising.

“One of the fairly consistent findings in trying to understand (school shooters) and people who are violent in a compulsive way is that they have a history of being abused — sexually or terrorizing psychological abuse,” says psychologist Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois medical school.

But he says it is also relatively common for people with a variety of mental health problems — from bipolar disorder to psychosis — to speak in lurid metaphors.

The only message that comes through loud and clear from the manifesto is his powerful sense of persecution — from causes real or imagined.

“It was ‘me against the world,’” says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist specializing in trauma. “Looking (at Cho) and listening to him you really understand the pain he was in.”

It simply reinforces the little that people knew, or felt at a gut level, about the hostile young man whom they could not reach, even if they felt inclined to make an overture.

“He was not fitting in, and angry that he was not fitting in,” says Allen. “He projects all the anger and rage on the victims”

Few specifics
Unfortunately, after all the attention it received, Cho’s manifesto doesn’t answer many of the questions that could help health professionals and college administrators understand or avert a similar tragedy.

If he had troubled relationships, he doesn’t mention them, not with his family or any other individual.

Cho also does not mention any of the victims. Thus, he does not reveal whether the first victim, Emily Hilscher, who was killed in her dormitory early Monday morning along with a resident assistant who tried to help her, was randomly chosen, or perhaps the object of some type of fixation that might have been an indication of trouble.

In 2006, after a number of complaints about his behavior forced him to go to counseling, there were no more reported complaints for most of a year. Was he benefiting from counseling or medications? Was there something else that gave him respite from his demons?

It also remains unclear what kind of an examination Cho actually received when he was sent for psychiatric evaluation — whether it was extensive enough to anticipate a psychotic break.

These questions are now left to investigators to piece together from fragmented memories of students and administrators who dealt with this brooding, tormented student.