June 3, 1996
The New Yorker
A REPORTER AT LARGE
A year after a young woman at Harvard killed her roommate and then took her own lift, questions remain about why it happened, and whether it had to
DIARY OF A MURDER
Harvard’s commencement is among the most festive in the land. By the first week of June, new grass has been patched on to the square of lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Church. World eminences are invited to speak, and they come—Mother Teresa, Colin Powell, Vác1av Havel. As the seniors are welcomed to the company of educated men and women, their parents clap and cry. The most touching sight is the immigrant parents: you can see in their faces that everything they journeyed to this country for has been accomplished in a moment.
There is talk this year of what should be said about two girls who will not be graduating with their class—Sinedu Tadesse and Trang Ho. It is a year this week since they died, but their deaths still have the quality of hushed taboo they had from the start. On the morning of Sunday, May 28, 1995, Sinedu Tadesse, a junior from Ethiopia, stabbed her roommate of two years, a Vietnamese junior named Trang Ho, forty-five times while Trang lay sleeping in her bed. By the time the police came, Sinedu had hanged herself in the bathroom, and both girls were dead.
Within a day, dozens of local and national reporters had descended on the campus. The last comparable crime at Harvard had occurred in 1849. “The questions were endless,” Newsweek wrote. “Could Harvard have intervened? Why did Tadesse snap? Were there unseen warning signs? Why does evil exist?” The headline in the Times called it “A PUZZLE WHOSE CENTRAL PIECE MAY NEVER BE FOUND.”
It’s a puzzle that the university would prefer forgotten. In a letter to Harvard parents Dean Harry Lewis concluded, “Although several news articles have speculated on what might have caused Ms. Tadesse to act as she did, it seems unlikely that we will ever have an adequate understanding of the event.”
A peculiar discourse developed on campus, in which the girls were referred to in one breath, as if their deaths had been the result of some unfathomable blood pact about which no one could say who was to blame or where the evil lay. In a campus memorial service shortly after the deaths, in which neither girl was mentioned by name, the Reverend Peter Gomes, the university’s minister, said only, “For all that was good in these girls, Lord bless them; for the forces of evil beyond their control which overcame them, Lord forgive them.”
Media accounts make them sound like twins: nice, polite, petite, hardworking foreign-born premed junior biology majors. “They certainly seemed well matched,” the Times wrote. “Both had risen from humble circumstances…both women dreamed of becoming doctors so they could help others. Both hewed to the family-centered traditions of their homelands, and both were valedictorians of their high-school graduating classes.” On campus, their deaths are seen as wrapped in the mythology of their resident dormitory, Dunster House. Old and beautiful, situated on the north bank of the Charles River, Dunster has an aura of gloom about it, and it had been connected with two suicides earlier that spring.
A fierce debate took place on campus about whether Harvard should establish a scholarship in the name of both girls or only in Trang’s—a debate reflecting a macabre kind of political correctness. There is a confused sense that, as Diep Nguyen, who was then the co-president of the Harvard Vietnamese Association and a friend of Trang’s, has put it, “we do feel that in some way we don’t understand Sinedu is a victim as well—we’re not blaming anyone.”
Sinedu would certainly be pleased by the confusion. A kindred spirit—an exclusive other—was something she seems to have once believed she had found in Trang. Sinedu’s reality has prevailed, linking the two through death into a common fate. In memory they are bonded in a way that Trang has no say in—and that they never were in life.
Sinedu had come to see me during the crowded first few days of the 1993 spring term, when she was a freshman. I had spent the preceding several days reading a hundred applications in order to choose a dozen students for a seminar on autobiographical writing I was teaching in the English Department. The list of successful applicants had been posted on the door.
“I saw that I wasn’t on the list,” Sinedu said to me. She was small, light-skinned, with large, heavy-lidded eyes and an air of nervous decorum. I tried to recall her sample: it had made no impression. Creative-writing classes were competitive—in order to take a class to learn you had to prove your ability.
“In Ethiopia, where I come from, I have seen terrible violence and poverty and things no one would understand,” she told me, leaning forward slightly, her voice low and self-dramatizing. I suggested that she apply again, another year.
In rethinking the brief incident, as I did often after her death, I wonder why I hadn’t been drawn to help her. Instead, I became one in a long line of people whom Sinedu Tadesse reached out to, and who did not respond to her. Her death accomplished what she had never succeeded at in life: people were finally interested in her story.
Addis Ababa, where Sinedu grew up, is the capital of the third-poorest country in the world. The streets are choked with livestock, prostitutes, beggars with babies, and malnourished children trying to sell shoestrings in the mud of the rainy season. Coffins are stacked up for sale by the roadside, next to stands selling fruit. But the low red-and-white gates of the International Community School (formerly the American School) open to a compound of pretty, airy buildings. When, last May, a student heard the news on CNN at the Addis Ababa Huton and brought word to the school, teachers and students who had known Sinedu spent the day crying and talking m small groups.
Sinedu had been one of a select number of Ethiopian scholarship students whom the International Community School (I.C.S.) accepted as part of an agreement the school made with the Ethiopian government. In the country's public schools, students often sit on dirt floors, as many as a hundred to a class, without books or supplies. Sinedu attended a Catholic girls’ school. In the eighth grade, she, along with the best students from eighty other schools, took competitive exams in English, and was one of six students to be selected for I.C.S. Four years later, she emerged from I.C.S. with a full scholarship to the world’s richest, most famous university. She would return home a doctor in a country that currently has one doctor for every thirty-five thousand people, and in which the average Ethiopian earns a hundred dollars a year.
The Tadesse family were members of the Amhara ruling elite, which lost its standing when the Communist regime, the Derg, came to power, shortly before Sinedu was born. In 1977, when Sinedu was two, the Red Terror began; it continued through the late nineteen-seventies, during which some thirty thousand peopIe were killed and vast numbers of others tortured and imprisoned, especially among the educated elite. In 1982, Sinedu’s father, Tadesse Zelleke, an administrator of several government schools, was imprisoned without trial for two years on suspicion of subversive sentiments. The family did not know whether he would ever be released. Sinedu’s mother, Atsede, had a job as a nurse in a government hospital to keep the family from starving. Over the next year, more than half a million Ethiopians died of famine.
Throughout it all, Sinedu studied. Her teachers at I.C.S. talk about her more with admiration than with fondness. Maura McMillin, her English teacher, recalls, “She was quiet and demure, academically focussed to the point of tunnel vision. She was one of those little academic machines. I never remember her laughing or goofing off—I think it would have gotten in the way.” Sinedu’s guidance counsellor, Patrick Dyer, remembers her as just “a quiet young lady with a monumental task in front of her,” and he observes, “'You couldn’t tell her that academics weren’t everything because they were. They were her ticket out.”
In her high-school yearbook entry she affirmed “friendship is one of life’s most precious treasures,” but it seems to have been a treasure that eluded her. In her class, of twenty-nine—many the children of diplomats and wealthy Europeans—the other students led a Western-style social life, while Sinedu kept largely to herself. Classmates recall her as a serious, plain-looking girl. During her junior year, the regime fell, and many of the diplomats’ children were evacuated. Sinedu, who had never been out of the country, kept focussed on her college applications. The day she was accepted by Harvard (she was also accepted by twenty-three other colleges) was the happiest day of her life.
The fulfillment of Sinedu’s ambitions, however, didn’t bring much joy. At Harvard, she felt isolated; she found the weather cold and the work difficult. The reinforcement she had always received through her academic performance failed her. She struggled for B’s and worried that she wouldn't get into a good medical school, at a time of intense competition for admission. She was bewildered by American standards; in one of a series of diaries she kept while she was at Harvard, she wrote herself this note: “Copying from one text is plaigerysm [sic], while copying from different (several) texts is RESEARCH.”
Nebiye1eul (Neb) Tilahun, a brilliant, popular student who was the other member of Sinedu’s class at I.C.S. to go to Harvard told me that although he knew Sinedu so well he had memorized her ID number, he had never realized that she was particularly unhappy. “She gave the impression of being able to handle everything perfectly” he said. “She was calm, calculated, composed, and controlled at all times. Anyway, happiness is not an Ethiopian value. Ethiopians are supposed to be responsible—that is the highest value.” Although her diaries reveal desperate loneliness, she didn’t seem to know how to convey the fact that she was looking for friends. After the murder and suicide, newspaper accounts included reports from students that she was always looking down and would never make eye contact. But Misrak Assefa, a family friend, told me, with some indignation, “That's the way Ethiopian girls are supposed to be.” The self-analytic, confessional style—the exchange of self-revelation as a currency of friendship—is a cultural discourse that many Ethiopians find it difficult to participate in.
Third World students at Harvard tend to be much more cosmopolitan than Sinedu was. Shugu Imam, the daughter of a prominent Pakistani family (her mother was the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States), says, “I’m not surprised Sinedu didn’t have any friends. She was not a compelling personality. When you’re a foreign student, you have to come to terms with the fact that people aren’t interested in your culture. You have to learn American politics—read Vanity Fair. The African friends I had who were socially successful were well travelled, from fabulously wealthy or glamorous backgrounds, and the women were pretty and knew how to exoticize themselves.”
Sinedu kept spiral notebooks—“My Small Book of Social Rules,” “The Social Problems I Faced”—in which, addressing herself in the second person or in a question-and-answer format, she wrote out nearly a hundred numbered instructions on problems such as what to discuss with other students in the dining hall—a problem she resolved to master by treating it as an extra class:
Baby, I got a great idea. Remember that this is your fifth course. Every morning when you wake up you have to come up w/ three fat topics of conversation…This is always your GREATEST problem. So deal w/ it properly. I know this is going to be very difficult. But it cannot be more than the effort you put into one of your class…DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!
Remember this is one of your classes and for every three questions you turn in you get a grade.
The early entries seem to reflect ordinary anxieties of a college student and a foreigner, but they grow increasingly paranoid and dissociated:
Do not show off what you really think. Put on a mask…
Do not smile when you do not need to smile. If you are talking about something serious, make your face serious. If you want to threaten, put away your smile, and look ominous. If you are sorry, make your face look sorrowful. But do not, DO NOT smile when you don’t need to smile.
She also made cassette tapes, trying to analyze her problems and give herself encouragement. But she was painfully aware that her attempts at self-cure—treating human relations as homework—only seemed to crystallize her alienation, and in the summer after her freshman year she wrote a letter to a stranger at the law school. She begins by explaining that she had picked the name out of the phone book, that she was a freshman at Harvard College, and that she was from Ethiopia. It is an astonishing document:
Why am I writing this letter? Because I am desperate….As far as I can remember, my life has been hellish….Year after year, I became lonelier and lonelier.
When I am with a group of people, I keep so quiet (I have nothing to say) that I send the chills through those who notice me. Then I cry when people forget about me, or dislike being with me. When I am with one person, I shake with nervousness fearing that we will run out of things to say or she or he will be bored. For math I had a teacher; for painting I had a teacher; for social life I had no one ….
I am like a person who can’t swim chocking [sic] for life in a river….All you have to do is give me a hand and put into words what you already know. No expenses, commitments or risks involved. You can say no at any minute. All it takes is a few hours from your week and some energy…please do not close the door in my face. Even if you are not interested, please give this letter to a friend or relative who might be.
The letter was forwarded to a dean and then placed in Sinedu’s file.
In the spring of her freshman year, however, Sinedu had seen an opportunity. She had met Trang Ho in a science class and had become friendly with her, and in March—after Smedu’s freshman roommate had rejected her, close to the time rooming decisions were due—Trang agreed to share a suite with her. (Tension had arisen between Trang and her freshman roommate because her roommate’s boyfriend often slept over.) Sinedu's diary entry dated March 8, 1993, reads:
The last four days were the highlight of my life thus far in Harvard…my rooming problem was solved in the best possible way saving my face & also w /a girl I thought I would really enjoy to be with, with a girl I would make the queen of my life. I could just see myself raising my head proudly whenever people ask me who I'm rooming with. I could see myself…working hard to improve my life so as not to spoil the beautiful chance I’m given.
But she adds:
You know what I fear? I fear that shitty cringing feeling that accompanies me…should my rooming thing does [sic] not work out in a way that makes me hold my head high & speak of it proudly.
When she went home from college, for the only time, she told her father she had found a best friend.
Trang seems to have had no idea of the magnitude of the role she played in her roommate’s psyche. Her priority was always her family, which had been broken up almost a decade earlier and had become reunited less than a year before she entered Harvard.
Trang’s father, Phuoc Xuan Ho, had fought in the South Vietnamese Army, and after the war both he and Mrs. Ho were sent to reeducation camps. Trang, a second daughter, had been born outside Saigon in 1974, five months before the city fell to the North Vietnamese. After Mr. Ho was released, the following year, the family made an abortive attempt to escape in a small fishing boat, during which Trang fell overboard and was rescued. In 1984, when Trang was ten, Mr. Ho made a second attempt. Under the cover of night, the family was to board a small boat, crammed with two hundred and sixty-five others, heading for Indonesia. His wife decided to stay behind with their youngest daughter and to rejoin them later. He took Trang and her older sister with him, cutting their hair so they looked like boys, to protect them from rape by pirates.
The first day at sea was calm, but after that it grew stormy. The boat was so crowded that they had to stand for seven days. Finally, they reached a refugee camp in Indonesia, where they spent almost a year. Each day, Mr. Ho gave the girls English words to learn—at first ten or twenty, then a hundred a day. In 1985, they arrived in San Diego, but a year later, after Mr. Ho heard about all the famous universities in the Boston area, he moved the family to Dorchester.
Trang took school in her new country very seriously. One night when she was stuck on her homework, she called 911. The dispatcher told her that someone would call her back, and when the phone rang a few minutes later her father picked it up to hear a policeman asking for the little girl who needed help with her homework.
All through high school, the family worked to bring over Trang’s mother, Quy Thi Huynh, and the youngest daughter, Tram, with Trang writing to Senator Kennedy. But Mr. Ho was unable to sponsor them for financial reasons.
Finally, in the fall of Trang’s senior year, they arrived. Almost immediately, however, her parents began fighting bitterly, and they soon separated. Mrs. Ho accused her husband of abuse; at one point, she fled to a shelter for safety and filed for a restraining order. Mr. Ho moved back to San Diego, and Trang—who stayed close to both parents—became, in effect, the head of the household. Every weekend during college, Trang went home to teach her little sister English, translate documents for her mother, and help with the housework.
Trang, like Sinedu, has often been described as “quiet and studious”; but her teachers, unlike Sinedu’s, stress the joy and excitement she felt at learning. Trang used her academic success to reach out to people, and all through high school she tutored classmates. One of her high-school teachers, Denise Traniello, recalls telling Trang that other students were using her to cheat by copying her work. “But she was too innocent,” Traniello says. “She’d never see it.” Trang dreamed that being a pediatrician would unite all her goals. Her application essay to Harvard, concerning the plight of the boat people, had concluded, “I will never forget the fact that I was a refugee, nor will I ever forget that I am one of the leaders of the future who will make significant differences.” When she was a freshman, Boston Magazine chose her, along with Governor Weld and other luminaries, as one of “25 WHO CAN SAVE BOSTON.” She was presented as the final entry: the hope of the next generation.
“She was spunky,” her friend Khoi Luu says. He particularly admired the way “she never shared her pain with anyone,” he says, adding, “She was able to laugh a lot. I think people who have a lot of pain appreciate laughter.” Adjustment to Harvard was difficult, but by the beginning of her sophomore year she had established a group of friends and was flourishing. She wasn’t an academic star, but she did well and didn’t seem unduly anxious about her grades. She was always struggling to be upbeat. Cards to her friends urged them “Never give up!” and “Smile!”
The great hopes Sinedu had held for her relationship with Trang dissolved immediately. Not only did Trang leave Sinedu alone every weekend to go home to her family but she already had a best friend—Thao Nguyen. Sinedu was jealous of Thao, and sometimes neglected to give Trang her telephone messages.
A month into their sophomore year, Sinedu wrote the following entry in her diary:
On the way to depression & battered w/ pessimistic thoughts…I am unlovable and a cuckoo ... Trang told me I am boring ... I felt like I’m boring her…If I ever grow desperate enough to seek power & a fearful respect through killing, she would be the first one I would blow off…You know what annoys me the most that situations would never reverse for me to be the strong & her to be the weak. She'll live on tucked in the warmth & support of her family while I cry alone in the cold ... The bad way out I see is suicide & the good way out killing, savoring their fear & [then] suicide. But you know what annoys me the most, I do nothing.
Over the course of the next two years, through hundreds of pages, her diaries trace the labyrinthine process in which “the good way out” becomes the only way. In the spring of their junior year, Sinedu’s hostility became evident to Trang. “Where once she had been compulsively neat (something Trang was not), she started to be aggressively messy, leaving fruit in the room to rot. Trang told her sister she had asked Dunster House officials to change rooms, but the request was denied. Trang’s sister and mother asked if they should attempt to intervene on her behalf, but she said no, she would make it through the year. At the end of March, with the deadline for housing decisions approaching, Trang told Sinedu she would be living with two other girls the next year.
Sinedu was devastated. She begged Trang to change her mind, following her out onto the streets and into the subway. Trang recoiled; she told her friend Thao she felt that Sinedu’s pleading revealed a lack of self-respect. Trang’s sister, whose name was also Thao, recalls that Sinedu wrote Trang a letter asking her to reconsider, declaring plaintively that Trang would always have a family to go to but Sinedu had no one, and concluding that if Trang changed her mind about their friendship she should give her a call—a request that Rang found odd, since they lived together. Trang became anxious about her decision. Whenever Trang thought she was hurting someone she would come to her friend Thao and ask “Am I a bad girl? Am I ugly?” and Thao would reassure her. She did so now, telling her that it was all right to change roommates. And so Sinedu was left “to float”—to be randomly placed in a room by the Dunster House Office. In a school where most people choose their roommates, a kind of failure is associated with floating: the sense that nobody wants to live with you.
Trang tried to pacify Sinedu, writing her a letter saying, “I respect you so you should respect my decision. Furthermore, your actions about what happened really hurt me….If I had neither care nor think of you as a friend, it would not have hurt me,” and ending, “Despite what happened, I hope that we can still be friends.” But Sinedu stopped speaking to her. One night when Trang forgot her key, Sinedu refused to let her into the room.
In the world of Sinedu’s diaries, Trang was Sinedu’s only emotional resource. In reality however, Sinedu had Neb, a brother studying in the United States, and cousins in the Boston area—all of whom are bewildered she did not confide in them. Instead, she withdrew from them.
In the wake of the tragedy, Harvard officials said that Sinedu never indicated that she needed any help, an assertion that was widely repeatedin the press reports. In fact, Sinedu had been seeing a therapist—Douglas Powell, at the University Mental Health Services—since her freshman year. Dr. Powell told me that he was under a gag order and wouldn’t comment, and referred me to Dr. Randolf Catlin, the chief of Harvard’s Mental health Services, who spoke about such cases in gernal terms. Dr. Catlin told me, “If your self-esteem is narrowly based, it becomes terribly important to feel there is one person who cares about you….If you take that person’s rejection as clear evidence that you as a person are not valuable, that might make you enormously angry. A primitive response to this is that you might want to destroy that person or yourself or both.”
When Sinedu decided to die, she seems to have set about planning it in the same methodical fashion in which she had always conducted her life. Two weeks before the end of the semester, she packed up her computer, meticulously, in its original packaging and sent it to one of her cousins. She acquired two knives and a length of nylon rope. For the first time in months, she called her friend Neb, inviting him to brunch on Sunday, May 21st—a week before she died.
When she arrived, her appearance was transformed. She was wearing makeup, high patent-leather heels, and shorts—“a change from her Ethiopian self, where wearing shorts is considered disrespectful,” Neb noted. “there was a profound change in the way she looked and mobbed and carried herself,” he told me. “There was an air of happiness or contentment about her. She seemed lighter.”
This was the happiest he had ever seen her. He is certain now that she was saying goodbye. After her death, he found himself particularly disturbed by the memory. But when suicidal patients finally make up their mind to die “all off a sudden they may become cheerful,” Dr. Catlin told me. “They’ve solved their problem.”
In the following week, Sinedu turned in the final work for one course (for which she received an A) and then became unable to study. Students report having seen her in the library, “distracted” and with “a glazed look.” She requested medical excuses for her other exams. Instead of studying, she composed a letter, which she never sent, to one of Trang’s friends about Trang’s betrayal, “the rooming chaos," as she put it. "That incident led to so much evil bin us & ever since then rooming with her was like burning in hell,” she wrote. She also sent a photograph of herself to the Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper, with an anonymous note inside that read, “KEEP this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture.”
The attempt to manipulate the publicity attendant on her own death is one of the most striking aspects of the story. The photograph she picked didn’t look much like her—it was a glamorous, touched-up professional shot from high school—but she had accurately anticipated the way in which when someone dies a single photograph becomes emblematic. The Crimson editors had no idea what to make of the anonymous letter. The letter kicked around the office for a few days before it was discarded. The police later retrieved it from a Dumpster.
On Fnday, May 26th, Thao Nguyen came to spend the weekend with Trang. Trang was taking her final exam on Saturday, and afterward Thao was to help her move home for the summer. Thao, a lovely, ethereal-looking woman, then twenty-nine and teaching in Lowell, Massachusetts, had emigrated to America only two years earlier. Trang had become her first friend in America, taking her shopping and insisting that they both speak EnglIsh to help Thao learn.
While Trang and Thao were packing, they came across a traditional Ethiopian dress. Trang told Thao that Sinedu had brought it for her from her trip home, and then said, a little wistfully, that all that was over now. Trang and Sinedu’s suite consisted of two small, dark, low-ceilinged rooms. Like most Dunster House doubles, it had originally been built for one occupant—a setup that quickly becomes unbearable when relationships fracture. Every time Trang wanted to go out she had to walk through Sinedu’s room, and every time Sinedu wanted to go to the bathroom she had to walk through Trang’s.
At ten on Saturday morning, Trang went out to study for her afternoon exam in physics—a course that Sinedu was also taking. When she left, she saw Sinedu hunched on the bed in a fetal position, her knees up, her hands holding her head, crying. When Trang came back at noon, Sinedu was still in the same position. Thao told Trang that she should ask Sinedu what was wrong. Trang felt uncomfortable, saying that they hadn’t talked in two months, but she opened the door and asked Sinedu if she was O.K. Sinedu silently waved her away. Then Trang went out to take the exam. When she came back, between five and six, Sinedu was gone. Trang said, “Wow, I’m done,” and she and Thao went out to celebrate.
No one is sure how Sinedu spent her final afternoon or evening. Trang had no idea that Sinedu had not taken her exam. Around 7 P.M., Sinedu asked the house superintendent to let her into the Dunster House weight room—a place no one recalls her having visited before. At some point, she spoke to her brother on the phone, and she told him she was fine but worn out from exams and had diarrhea.
Trang and Thao watched a video that evening in a friend’s room, about two sisters who were in love with the same man. Thao asked Trang what she would do in such a situation, but Trang didn’t understand the conflict: she couldn’t imagine a man being more important to her than either of her sisters. When they came in, at two in the morning, they saw Sinedu lying on the bed face down, with the light on. They went to bed, sharing Trang’s bed, as Trang did with her little sister, Tram, at home. (Thao was dismayed when this fact was later misinterpreted: in Southeast Asia, she explains, women often share beds and are physically affectionate.) They talked for another hour or two: Thao told Trang more about herself and her past in Vietnam—things she said she had never told anyone before. After Trang closed her eyes, Thao stared at Trang’s face for a long time—her skin pale with exhaustion, but her face relaxed, her worries drained away Then she turned so that they could sleep head to toe in the narrow bed.
Sometime before eight in the morning, an alarm went off, but Trang told Thao that it was Sinedu’s, and they should go back to sleep. Sinedu was already in the bathroom. Thao heard the sound of water running and fell asleep again. She awoke to see Sinedu standing over Trang, stabbing her silently with a knife, her expression glazed and fixed-intent, Thao recalls, “like she really knew what she was doing.” Trang held up her hands to try to block the knife but was unable to cry out.
Thao tried to grab the knife, but Sinedu pulled it away, slicing open Thao’s hand. One of her feet, next to Trang’s head, got cut as well. Bleeding heavily, Thao ran out of the room. She heard the heavy self-locking door click behind her and realized, with horror, that she would never be able to get back in. It was, she says, the worst moment of her life. Frantically, she began banging on other doors in the hall, but no one woke up. She stumbled out into the courtyard, where a lone student was sitting in the sun, eating his breakfast and waiting for others to wake up. When the police arrived, they found the door to the suite barricaded. Sinedu had pushed a heavy desk against it from the inside. When they got in, they found Trang’s body on the floor in Sinedu’s room. Apparently, Trang had stumbled into Sinedu’s room, then collapsed onto the floor. She had forty-five stab wounds. Sinedu was hanging in the bathroom from a length of rope. Police believed that the noose had been set up ahead of time, for it was cut to the right length and the coil had been neatly replaced in a cabinet. Paramedics came and attempted to resuscitate Sinedu, but she was pronounced dead.
Could anything have been done to prevent the tragedy? That is a question that’s often been asked in the aftermath. The discussion is one in which Harvard is reluctant to participate. Everything about Harvard depends on its reputation, and it is orchestrated with great care. The tragedy was the climax of a bad year for the public-relations office: two recent graduates pleading guilty to stealing a hundred and twenty-seven thousand dollars from a Harvard-based cancer charity, President Neil Rudenstine’s taking leave for exhaustion; Gina Grant, the high-school senior whose acceptance was rescinded when the university learned she had killed her mother. Doubtless on legal advice, the university, which has eleven in-house lawyers, adopted a policy of spin control, which meant that many people were extremely reluctant to talk to me. I found myself seeing another side of a place I thought I knew so well. (I came from a Harvard family: my parents and my brother were educated there; my father is a member of the faculty, and my mother has been as well; I graduated from Dunster House, in 1987, and returned to teach in the English Department in 1993; I had firsthand experience with some of the doctors at the University Health Services, and knew other people at Harvard whom I wanted to interview—all of which led to feelings of distressed loyalty.)
Several tutors told me that the Master of Dunster House, Karel Liem, had cautioned them not to speak to the press, and one of them called me in tears and asked to take back her interview lest she be fired. “In a case of this complexity we prefer to centralize information,” the undergraduate dean, Fred Jewett, explained to me. “Everyone’s looking for a villain, and we don't want to be it.”
Dean Harry Lewis’s letter to Harvard parents about the deaths assured them that “neither student was living outside the College’s carefully woven advising system. Indeed, both students were in close contact with their academic advisor and seemed to be managing the ups and downs of college life…We feel confident…that we are organized in a way to provide the necessary support.”
Karel Liem, a professor of biology, had been an academic adviser to both girls. He told the press that he had a meeting with Sinedu shortly before she died in which she told him she was fine. As for what her problems were, he has said, “I only wish I knew.” At hand, however, in her file, was the letter sent to the law-school student, which, police reports note, two Harvard officials who knew Sinedu had read but never discussed with her.
It is clear now that what she needed was clinical intervention. Mental-health services at Harvard, however, are limited. Students often complain that an appointment is hard to get, and long-term, open-ended therapy is unavailable. Students who need such therapy are referred outside—at which point, intimidated by cost and lack of transportation, many give up. Dr. Elizabeth Aub Reid, the former director of consultation and liaison, acknowledges that mental-health services generally have been under increasing financial pressure, because they “are very expensive and results are hard to quantify.”
One friend, who knew that Sinedu had been seeing Dr. Powell since freshman year, said that Powell had been trying to reach her to cancel an appointment for the Monday after she died. It is hard to imagine how he could have failed to perceive her distress. When I asked Dr. Catlin why her therapy had been so ineffective, he offered several explanations. In part, he says, Dr. Powell didn’t know Sinedu very well, because he saw her only on the limited basis that the system encourages. Also, the Mental Health Services are accustomed to dealing with ordinary neurotic problems of adjustment, rather than psychotic breakdowns. “Sinedu was being seen because she wanted help learning how to relate to people, to be a better student at Harvard,” Dr. Catlin told me.
In Ethiopia, two common explanations are offered for Sinedu's fate. One is the whispered accusation that she was a lesbian, and therefore did the right thing to kill herself and the object of her shame. The evils of uncontrolled female sexuality are felt deeply in Ethiopian society. Some ninety per cent of Ethiopian women are subjected to genital mutilation as children, and—as a result of recent educational campaigns—often have the additional trauma of learning as adults that their bodies have been disfigured, and that cosmopolitan, and especially Western, men may reject them. Sinedu’s diaries, however, provide no direct mention of sexuality. “I will die of loneliness if I don’t have a husband and children & I would break down with guilt & anguish if I do,” she writes elliptically. She also alludes to an unspecified childhood trauma.
The other explanation prevalent in Ethiopia is that Sinedu was possessed by spirits. Unlike lesbianism, for which one is held responsible, possession by spirits is regarded as a kind of casualty of living in the States, because in Ethiopia it is perfectly curable. One of Sinedu’s Ethiopian relatives explained to me that if Sinedu had stayed in Ethiopia, nothing like this would ever have happened, for as soon as she started feeling bad the family would have brought her to the holy waters. “In America, you have psychologists,” she said, “but they don't have any special powers, do they?”
People are cured of spirit possession every week in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to which Sinedu’s family belongs. The religion dates to the fourth century, and in its practice of Christianity the Devil plays a central role. “The Devil came between us,” the Amhara say when they’ve quarrelled. In one form of spirit possession, the victims’ souls are gradually replaced by spirits of a foreign, evil nature, which leads the victims to do things more and more unlike themselves untill they are finally delivered, through suicide, into the hands of the Devil—symptoms that perfectly fit the case of Sinedu, a good girl from a good family.
Although suicide is extremely rare in Ethiopia, suicide rates are high among Ethiopians who emigrate to other countries, such as the United States and Israel. A cousin of Sinedu’s explained to me that Ethiopian lives are like threads woven in a tapestry of suffering. People always want to leave, but when you pluck the thread of their selfhood it loses all meaning. She makes a pulling gesture with her fingers and then opens her hands to show me there is nothing there.
Sinedu is buried in the graveyard behind St Michael’s Church, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, on a steeply sloping hillside where sheep and goats graze. Two thousand people attended her funeral—for, as one of her teachers explained, her death was a tragedy for the whole culture. Funerals are often a devastating expense in the life of an Ethiopian family. After the burial, as is traditional, all the guests were fed nefro (chickpeas with wheat) and coffee, and friends and relatives stayed with the family for weeks afterward, sleeping in a tent in the courtyard, and after two and a half months, when the marble headstone was ready, another ceremony was held. Church burials are not permitted for suicides because when the Devil tempted the soul to suicide he obtained it forever. But Sinedu’s family, who believe that no one knew what had really happened to her, arranged to have her given such a burial.
By the time I VIsited Addis Ababa, Sinedu had been buried more than a month. I had trouble finding the Tadesses’ house, for most of the street signs in Addis Ababa were taken down during the Derg regime, because no one wanted to be found, and the sense of secrecy has endured. It turned out to be a modest stone house with a central courtyard and surrounded, like many middle-class Ethiopian houses, by a high tin fence to keep out intruders. I stood outside staring at the wall in the rain for a long time before I rang the bell.
In a small living room with yellow stone walls, Sinedu’s parents, her two sisters, and one of her brothers were gathered. Sinedu’s father was recovering from a heart attack he’d suffered after his daughter’s death; he looked weary and sick. He was retired now; Sinedu, as a doctor, would have supported the family. Cookies and orange Fanta were served with a pained hospitality. Sinedu’s mother, in black mourning robes, wept silently throughout my visit. I tried to ask neutral questions about Sinedu, but they seemed puzzled by them. “Children have their wishes, and it was Sinedu’s wish to be a doctor,” her father said. “We supported her in that wish.” Was she happy at Harvard? She never complained. She’d told them her roommate was “very friendly and cooperative.”
Then Sinedu’s father said, in a heavy, final voice, “I don’t care whether a hundred psychologists or a thousand police detectives tell me, I know my daughter did not commit these crimes. The stories we read, we do not believe. Something no one yet knows must have happened. One day the truth will come to light. Who would know her if not her parents—her mother and I? We have been with her all her life. We ate from the same table.” He stumbled, his voice breaking—unable to explain the cord of connection they felt, from which it was incomprehensible she could have willingly severed herself forever.
In her diary, Sinedu wrote:
I don’t understand what people mean by the warmth of a family, the love of their mother and the security of their home. I grew up feeling lonely & cold amidst two parents & four siblings….I spent very limited time with other families that it took me all my life to figure out what they had & what I did not have….
There was a lot of emotional pain & trauma involved in my home life. My parents did not beat me or abuse me. They fed me, bought me clothes, sent me to good schools and wished the best for me. As a result I was unable to point at any tangible cause ....
Do not get me wrong, I do not blame them for all they did; they did not know how else to be.
At a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Boston, there is a picture of Trang on a large table in one corner, along with photographs of others who have died. The temple was once a Catholic church; the altar has been replaced with a statue of the Buddha, but the stained-glass windows still depict the sufferings of Christ. The table is laden with plates of food that relatives bring the dead. There was a service every week for the first forty-nine days after Trang’s death, to pray that her consciousness will be accepted for salvation by the Buddha and not be reborn on earth again.
At Trang’s funeral, her father, Phuoc Xuan Ho, cried out in Vietnamese, '”Don’t go! Don't go!” and “Why did I work so hard for ten years and go through so much in the end just to bury my daughter?” Having Trang go to Harvard—“this beautiful place which was halfway heaven”—was everything her family had wanted and worked for, a family friend explained. “Harvard will always be in my heart,” her father told me. “For me, it is the best place and the worst place, because it is the place where my daughter died.”
For the people around her, Trang’s death is one of a series of losses. It is part of the double meaning that America has always had for them: the country that promised Vietnam so much but instead entangled them in years of violence; the safe haven they have never quite reached. Trang’s father thinks that Vietnamese people have a special strength, because they have suffered so much—a thousand years under Chinese rule, and then the French, and then the war. They have kept their hope, he says, and each time they are reborn stronger.
Trang’s mother is still in a deep depression. She has lost interest in sleeping and cooking and doing housework. She is afraid she did something wrong in another life to deserve to have a daughter die this way. She stays home alone all day, in a small walkup apartment, praying at a candlelit shrine for Trang. Trang would have been graduating and on her way to medical school in the fall, she said recently in Vietnamese, dissolving into tears.
A woman who attends the family’s temple told me that Trang must have done something to Sinedu in another life. The Buddha is very fair; everything is a balancing out. Did Trang’s parents do something wrong in their previous life, I asked, that they deserve to have their daughter die this way? No, no, she said impatiently. Life is suffering. Children die. Her parents need to accept that Trang spent all the time with them she had to spend.
Thao Ho has taken a leave of absence from Tufts, where she was studying biopsychology. She lives with her mother and works full time in a lab. She feels she has to stanch the flow of loss for her parents, but she does not know how. She has her own loss. “There is no one I talk to now,” she says. '”I have lost my best friend, my life companion, my sister.”
Thao Nguyen is a member of the temple, too. She has had two operations to repair the nerves of her damaged hand; this summer, her doctor wants to do a skin graft over the gash that stretches across most of her tiny hand. She is haunted by self-reproach that she did not try a second time to get the knife from Sinedu. I tell her what one detective told me—that “Thao did an incredible job trying to save her friend and should be commended”—but she is unconvinced.
In Vietnamese culture, the spirits of the dead return in dreams. On the operating table, and then for months afterward in Thao’s dreams, Trang was angry with her. Once Thao dreamed she was climbing a mountain, carrying an unbearably heavy burden. She could see Trang ahead of her, across a stream, and she called to her and hurried to catch up. But when she reached Trang, and tried to give her the burden, Trang turned away from her, and she had to continue up the mountain alone.
In time, though, she had a different dream about Trang—a good dream. She was standing alone in a room, and Trang came up to her from behind and put her arms around her and said, “I know you’re so lonely now that I’m leaving you,” and Thao said, “Ya, I’m so lonely.” Thao had always loved Trang’s hands: she had looked for them in the coffin, but gloves had been put on them to cover the wounds. But now in the dream Thao took Trang’s hand, and Trang’s hands were smooth and whole again, and Thao knew that Trang loved and forgave her.
Thao cannot believe that Trang had ever done anything wrong, even in another life, because “she is so good.” She says, “There is no one in the world who is perfect, but she is perfect.” In Buddhist philosophy, people sometimes die to pay for bad deeds, but sometimes they die because they have nothing more to pay for and are just ready to move on. The temple priest, the Reverend Dr. Thich Giac Duc, told me that, although it is a secret, he knows, through meditation, that Trang has been reborn in the Pure Land.
Thao Nguyen says she thinks this is true, but also says she is selfish, because she wants Trang to be reborn. Recently, she had a dream in which Trang was away but missed her friends and exams and graduation. She wanted to know if she could return or if she had missed too much to make up. Thao reassured her that it was not too late, she could still come back, there was still a place for her here.
For a long time, Thao was very angry at Sinedu: she would write in her diary that she hated her and her family and her country, and then she would be frightened that Sinedu might know and might try to hurt her again. “But how could she?” she asked again and again whenever we talked. Finally, though, she had a new dream about Sinedu: Sinedu stood at the end of her bed in the darkness. Sinedu didn’t say anything, because they had not talked while she was alive, but she tried to look at her and touched Thao’s leg in a way that made Thao understand that she was sorry now. “Maybe she could not help herself,” Thao told me, in a soft voice.
On May 25th, a Buddhist ceremony is planned at the gravesite to commemorate the anniversary of Trang’s death. Trang is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery-a beautiful nineteenth-century cemetery, where Longfellow and Mary Baker Eddy and generations of Harvard dignitaries and elite Bostonians are buried. In the ceremony, a fire is to be made in a metal bowl, and bits of clothing, money, a small symbolic house, and letters to Trang are to be burned to send them to her spirit.
Last year, hundreds of people attended Trang’s funeral, watching as the saffron-robed priest clanged bells and burned incense and chanted in Vietnamese and Sanskrit. Finally, the Reverend Dr. Thich Giac Duc looked up and translated: “Ladies and gentlemen, life is impermanence. Life is full of sorrow. Death causes sorrow. Love and separation cause sorrow. Violence causes more sorrow. We must not follow the way of violence but practice love and compassion toward friend and foe.”
The family circled the coffin three times, escorting Trang into a new life. Male relatives carried Mrs. Ho, too weak to walk. The casket was lowered into the earth, and each family member dropped a flower upon it. Then, one by one, Trang’s relatives and friends, members of the temple, high-school and college teachers, and the president of Harvard and other officials lined up before the grave.
There was a dancelike quality to the procession, moving silently and rhythmically forward as people dropped their blossoms upon the onyx casket. The reality of the loss is so overwhelming that all reflection seems to collapse into a sense of inevitability: Sinedu was possessed by spirits or psychosis; Trang was perfected and ready to enter into the Pure Land; Harvard didn’t foresee and couldn’t prevent anything. “You decide where your life is going, whether you are going to make a difference or not,” Trang had told her high-school class in her valedictory speech. “For me, I will make many differences.” Her words drift downward, like falling flowers.