Why We Loner English Majors Who Write Disturbing Books Are a Little Worried
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree and Rising.
NOTE: The following is not a defense of the killer. It’s not an emotional outpouring over the massacre. It’s simply introspection and a little bit of analysis of his writings from the viewpoint of another writer at the point in time where his identity and major were first identified.
I’ve stopped joking about getting rid of stress by going home and killing off idiot engineers I work with during the day in the mystery novels I wrote at night. It used to be funny. Of course, it was funny because my colleagues would all get exasperated with the same engineers but without a creative outlet for their stress, and yet they knew I’d never gun down my coworkers in real life…or poison them with some biological warfare nasty I was writing about. And while strangers generally wouldn’t guess who-done-it in my books until the last few pages, a very few people who knew me extremely well could identify my private jokes and pick out the killer on first mention because there was always some oddball connection to someone who’d seriously mistreated me and it was my way of releasing my frustration in a safe environment. Most fiction writers do this to some degree, whether they admit it openly or not.
My guess is that far fewer will be admitting it in light of the Virginia Tech massacre.
There is plenty already written about what most of us are feeling in regard to the unfolding story. The shock, the struggle to understand the motivation as if doing so will make us feel safer, the sadness for the victims and those who loved them, the welling up over my heart when I hear stories of heroes who sacrificed themselves so their students could get to safety. There’s nothing unique or new that I can add in that regard.
What makes me particularly jittery, being so geographically distant from the crime scene, is the way the media is labeling the killer as an “English Major Gone Mad.” Granted, there is more coming by the minute as new information is discovered, but the initial reports that the gunman, Cho-Seung-Hui, was an English major, a loner, acted differently, and wrote twisted and disturbing material makes me very nervous as a someone who has an English degree, has often been called a loner when I was with a conservative crowd and didn’t fit in and didn’t mind being alone, acted differently because…well, that’s just me…, and still writes twisted and sometimes disturbing material. My coworkers need not be afraid, but it calls up a lot of introspection for me as a writer.
Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, but you have to read beyond the headlines to realize that English majors aren’t generally a threat unless they have a red pen poised to fix your comma splices.
My first thought upon hearing that an English major had gone berserk was that writers would leave plenty of clues about what’s really going on in their heads. Gods know, if someone wants to figure out how I think and how I really feel, all they have to do is read what I write. Then when the media started talking about twisted and disturbing writings, it seemed like confirmation. When I read the two plays available online, then I got really concerned.
Why? Because I’ve written far “worse.”
Writers tend to write for two outcomes: catharsis and effect, and effect includes writing for money because you get paid for giving the reader a particular thrill or info or jolt. Many early writings are autobiographical and continue to be life-based at times in a writer’s life when certain emotions need catharsis. Cho-Seung-Hui’s two one-act plays appear to be in that vein, but they could just as easily, when taken out of the context of his body of work (his other class assignments and writings), be attempts to shock his classmates and teachers. At this point, that’s yet to be determined.
So here I am now as a 45-year-old mother of two with a responsible job, a mortgage, and a high credit score—and I still write dark suspense stories of non-consensual sex magick with the victim later tasering her attacker into submission, biological warfare, gravedigging, stalking pregnant women, and heroines with the scars of a failed suicide attempt. For Pete’s sake, in my last romantic suspense novel for Harlequin/Silhouette, I had erotic asphyxiation, swordfights, boat explosions, and innocents getting thrown off towers! Sometimes I write for the emotional catharsis of a heavy situation around me. Sometimes I write to get a reaction from my reader and love it when I get the response I want, whether it’s tears or laughter (yes, I also write romantic comedy).
Sometimes I write about things that fascinate me from the point of view of an observer of human dynamics and I just want to explore how life must be for a character like that, however twisted they appear. But that doesn’t make me a physical danger to my neighbors.
Are Cho-Seung-Hui’s writing’s disturbing? They’re extremely juvenile, poorly written and poorly constructed. I could do better—and worse—as a seventh grader.
In fact, I did do better and worse as a seventh grader. The story was called “Roxy” and I still have it somewhere. It left my teacher and classmates speechless, then approving. My teacher tried to make writing assignments fun by telling us to include certain items, but near yearend, the stories were becoming…bland. So she told us 12-year-olds to write a short story during class that included 1. peanut butter, 2. a dog, 3. a Dear-John note from a sweetheart, 4. a knife, and 5. blood. And one other thing—make this so different it would shock everyone. Other kids wrote about the family dog getting into the peanut butter jar and cutting his paw on a butter knife and having to wrap it in a scrap piece of paper. Bleah. Mine was from the point of view of a teenaged Roxy’s best friend. Roxy gets her boyfriend’s note that he’s leaving her for the best friend and Roxy goes the friend’s house to confront the prodigal boyfriend and stop him. The best friend, concerned, comes down the stairs to see the boyfriend, who isn’t answering and the dog is barking. There’s blood on the floor. She finds a crazed Roxy sitting at the kitchen table with a jar of peanut butter, licking peanut butter and blood from the knife while she gets ready to pounce on her best friend. Yep, lots of drama and horror and told purely for the requested shock value, though if I’m even on CNN, somebody’s going to go looking for that story that was written as a word game.
To me, Cho-Seung-Hui’s plays didn’t have that intent to craft words into a game or really anything that much resembled verbal intelligence. My first impression of his plays? Beavis and Butthead on crack. An aging reference, yes, but about that mentality. It also made me wonder what in his history prompted some of the subject matter as well as the way he handled it (impotent anger and struggle).
As for twisted, I’ve read so much worse. I mean, how much did the author get for “American Psycho?” There’s a reason I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t like them. There are far more disturbing images on the daily news than in Cho-Seung-Hui’s two plays, though even out of context with the rest of what his classmates and teachers have said about his other writings, these two plays do start to show an emerging theme that, likely, will become clearer if his other writings are analyzed.
As writers, we all have author themes. Cho-Seung-Hui’s theme seems to be that of a victim struggling for revenge with overtones of violence and undertones of anger that he could not purge through writing. My own author theme is that of the protector, in the midst of violence and turmoil and darkness at times, but still a protector and warrior for what’s right.
And that’s what this former loner English major and writer of disturbing things is hanging onto.