Amateur armchair mental health sleuths within both the mainstream and blogging media have been quick to cast their mental illness fishing nets at Cho Seung-Hui, hoping to snare some understanding of him. One reporter recently wrote, “This man will turn out to have been the classic “outsider” brand of mass killer — paranoid, egotistical, maybe delusional, passive-aggressive, with pronounced antisocial characteristics.” Instead, reflect upon this brief and less-inflamed hypothesis:
“From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his own family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui Cho grew up, his mother agonized over his sullen, brooding behavior and empty face. Talk, she just wanted him to talk.
“When I told his mother that he was a good boy, quiet but well behaved, she said she would rather have him respond to her when talked to than be good and meek,” said Kim Yang-Soon, Mr. Cho’s 84-year-old great-aunt.
When his parents announced when he was 8 that they were going to America, their relatives were gladdened. “We thought that it would help the boy gain confidence if he moved to the United States’ open society,” said an uncle who asked to be identified only by his last name, Kim.
And yet when he and others heard from Mr. Cho’s mother, it was the same dismal story, a buried life of silence. In church, she told them, she prayed for God to transform her son.
By now, the world knows what Seung-Hui Cho became, how on a gusty, snowy morning last Monday at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., he massacred 27 students and 5 teachers before killing himself.
No one could understand why. On Friday, his sister issued a statement of apology and sorrow that revealed the family’s own bewilderment. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” she said. “Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”
Interviews with investigators, relatives, classmates and teachers offer inklings of how he progressed from silence to murderous rage, and show how he meticulously prepared for his final hours.
In Seoul, there was never much money, never enough time. The Cho family occupied a shabby two-room basement apartment, living frugally on the slender proceeds of a used-book shop. According to relatives, the father, Seung-Tae Cho, had worked in oil fields and on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. In an arranged marriage, he wed Kim Hwang-Im, the daughter of a farming family that had fled North Korea during the Korean War.
Their son was well behaved, all right, but his pronounced bashfulness deeply worried his parents. Relatives thought he might be a mute. Or mentally ill. “The kid didn’t say much and didn’t mix with other children,” his uncle said. “ ‘Yes sir’ was about all you could get from him.”
And then this:
In his junior year, Mr. Cho told his then-roommates that he had a girlfriend. Her name was Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space and traveled by spaceship, and she existed only in the dimension of his imagination.
When Andy Koch, one of his roommates, returned to their suite one day, Mr. Cho shooed him away. He told him Jelly was there. He said she called him Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.
His junior-year roommates mostly ignored him because he was so withdrawn. If he said something, it was weird. During Thanksgiving break, Mr. Koch [a dormitory roommate] recalled, Mr. Cho called him to report that he was vacationing in North Carolina with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president; Mr. Cho said he had grown up with him in Moscow.
In class, some students thought he might be a deaf-mute. A classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello but got nothing. He hunched there in sunglasses, a baseball cap yanked tight over his head. Sometimes Mr. Cho introduced himself as “Question Mark,” saying it was the persona of a man who lived on Mars and journeyed to Jupiter. On the sign-in sheet of a literature class, he simply scribbled a question mark instead of his name.”
And then this:
In a previous encounter with mental health services:
“…the physician who proclaimed Cho a danger to himself in 2005 found him quite lucid, writing, “His insight and judgment are sound,” according to court papers.”
However, upon what were that physician’s conclusions about Cho’s state of mind based. Was it the relatively simplistic Oriented X3 mental status exam? What I am suggesting is that there are important unanswered questions here. For example, what was the nature of that insight? Was it in the nature of a psychologically growth promoting form of introspection, or was it more likely associated with a more painful, perhaps even obsessive and ruminative pre-occupation with searing internal difficulties (such as his admitted life-long, mutilated sense of worth would suggest).
By what clinical measure or measures was Cho’s adequacy or impairment of reality testing assessed? Further, were any standardized measures of a formal thought disorder administered? This would have been important, of course, since impaired reality testing (related to the interpretation of information about the outside world) and evidence of either a transient or formal thought disorder (impaired quality of one’s thinking) represent two relatively separate areas of cognitive functioning (although one can certainly interpenetrate the other).
Nevertheless, even if one does accept the conclusions of that physician’s 2005 mental health assessment (which I am inclined not to do), it seems relatively clear just from the brief anecdotal materials presented here that there were other instances of interpersonal interactions in 2005 that provided strong indications that Cho’s level of cognitive functioning was, seen from an intrapsychic perspective, already in a seriously deteriorated state.
Taking all of the above into account, one quite probably could consider this: Asperger’s Syndrome with Psychotic Features.
This would open up, of course, a new avenue for clinical investigation and dialogue about this horrible tragedy.
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