Eric_W's Reviews > Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

Halfway Heaven by Melanie Thernstrom
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Aug 26, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: true-crime

Why does evil exist? That is one question central to the mystery surrounding the stabbing death of Trang Phuang Ho by her Harvard roommate Sinedu Tasdesse, who then hanged herself. Both girls were entering their senior year, both had been high school valedictorians, both immigrants from countries that had been ravaged by war, both were pre-med, and both very intelligent. Everyone wanted to know why this tragedy occurred. What was Sinedu's motivation?

The author had known Sinedu briefly when she taught English at Harvard, and she was persuaded by The New Yorker to write a piece about the girls' tragedy. To discover the truth, Thernstrom traveled to Ethiopia, where she discovered a culture rooted in traditions very different from those Sinedu would encounter at Harvard. She was a quiet, unassuming, bright child, but unable to make close friends. She was obsessed with perfection. There were numerous signs that a II was not well, but th ey were overlooked. Merely the fact that she skipped a final exam should have been a clue, for she never missed any commitment.

Ethiopians faced an enormous cultural gulf coming to the United States. We have a cult of individualism from which we gain our identity. In Ethiopia, self-identity derives from one's place in the community. Campus African-American organizations could not help because they didn't share language or culture any more than residents of New York share culture with people from Mexico City even though all live on the same continent. Ethiopians did not view themselves as Africans but as Ethiopians. Racial identity was thrust on them in the United States. It was a foreign concept to be considered "black" They th ought of themselves as Amharic, Tigrayan or Oromo, not as a particular color. "The longer you're in the U.S., the more your sense of color consciousness tends to develop . . .. African Americans would talk about how we were brothers, but our cultures are totally opposite. . . . At first I felt pressure to hang around with black students and join the Black Students society, and then I realized I fit in there even less than I did with other students." So writes an Ethiopian student at Columbia University.

Social disparity became another cultural barrier. Most Harvard students come from very wealthy backgrounds. Those few who do not are appalled by the ostentatious display of wealth: students rewarded with cars and ski trips for good grades. One poor Hispanic student didn't know how to tie a tie because he had never owned one. He was asked not to attend one social event because he did not have a jacket and tie, increasing his sense of social isolation.

Harvard did little to decrease the isolation - the idea was assimilation, after all. "Harvard is very complacent, very arrogant - there is this attitude: we're the best university on earth and yo u should be happy here. For someone with a fragile sense of self - I can see how it could destroy you." Shugu Iman, daughter of a prominent Pakistani family.

Sinedu left a series of extraordinary diaries - all written in English, perhaps because many English words like "depression" have no Amharic equivalent. They record her desperate attempt to understand and fit into a vastly different culture and her losing battle to maintain her mental health. Many of the terms she used to describe her isolation are common to social outcasts. Sylvia Plath referred to herself as being in a bell jar "stewing in my own sour air" Despite Sinedu's conscious efforts to "put on a mask" and to fake social skills, she failed (in her mind) because people respond to gestures and facial expressions that are culturally ingrained. "The problem of isolation is one that - by definition - cannot be solved alone."

Spin control has become big business at Harvard. Their PR vice-president, James Rowe, was hired in 1994 at a salary of $200,000. The murder/suicide occurred at a time when Harvard was in the midst of a $2.1 billion endowment campaign that required them to raise $1 million per day. Stonewalling became the rule. Staff were ordered to refer all questions to the central PR office, where no answers were forthcoming. Even the Cambridge police department often failed to learn of a problem on campus until notified by the coroner's office. "The fact that the university has sent the word out not to talk to anyone is precisely the problem. The outrage is that they're more interested in preserving the reputation of the university when their real interest should be in getting people to talk about it as much as possible to figure out what went wrong," says Harvey Silvergate, a Harvard affiliate and Boston trial lawyer. "The administrators have taken over the university. Consequently various humane and educational values such as self-criticism and truth-telling - are subordinated to protecting the university's reputation"

Thernstrom has sought out the truth and it's not pleasant. Clearly, both deaths - and perhaps some of the other suicides she discusses - could have been prevented with a little attention from a university less arrogant and narcissistic.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Eric_W Brian wrote: "I had forgotten all about this, but it was big news at the time. So does the author arrive at any reasonable hypothesis for a motive? Does the author produce anything to address whether the murder ..."

Lots of questions remain unanswered.


message 2: by Nissie (new)

Nissie Enjoyed your review,Eric!


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