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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Murder at Harvard University
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: May 28, 1995
Date of birth: 1974
Victim profile: Trang Phuong Ho, 20 (her roommate)
Method of murder: Stabbing with a hunting knife 45 times
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom the same day

Sinedu Tadesse (1974-1995) was a junior at Harvard University when, in 1995, she murdered her roommate, Trang Ho, and then killed herself. The ensuing scandal played out in the courts and Boston newspapers, and resulted in a variety of changes to the administration of living conditions at Harvard.

On May 28, 1995, Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate, Trang Ho, 45 times with a hunting knife she had bought expressly for that purpose. She then hanged herself in the bathroom. (On the way to the bathroom to commit suicide, she took a swipe at one of Ho's visiting friends, a 26-year-old named Thao Nguyen, injuring her as well.)

Tadesse had purchased the knife in advance, and the week before the murder, Tadesse had even sent a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to The Harvard Crimson, saying "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman."

In the days after the murder, it was generally speculated on campus and in the press that Tadesse had resorted to violence because Ho had asked not to room with her again in the fall, though members of Tadesse's family countered that she was the one who opted out of rooming with Ho, as she (Ho) often stayed with her family in nearby Medford, Massachusetts.

Most analysis of the murder follows the 1997 publication of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, a book by 1987 Harvard grad Melanie Thernstrom. Thernstrom was sympathetic towards Tadesse, and blames the university for what happened.

Thernstom travelled to Tadesse's home in Ethiopia and gained access to her diaries, diaries that reveal her deteriorating sanity, her obsessive fantasizing about an ideal friend, and her inability to obtain psychiatric care.

Tadesse had grown up in a relatively well-off family, but during times of chaos and murder in Ethiopia. Her father had been thrown in jail for two years when Tadesse was 7. To escape, Tadesse devoted herself to her studies, gaining admission to the prestigious International Community School where she graduated a valedictorian and gained a scholarship to Harvard.

However, she was unable to keep up academically when she arrived at Harvard, and she made no friends, not even with the relatives she had in the area.

She became so desperately lonely that she sent a letter to dozens of strangers, randomly selected from the phone book, pleading with them to befriend her.

For her second and third years she roomed with Vietnamese student Trang Ho. Ho was apparently very popular and Tadesse was obsessively fond of her. She was offputtingly needy in her demands for attention. She apparently reacted with despair when Ho announced her decision to room with another group of girls their senior year.

Trang Ho's family thought Harvard could have prevented her death, and in 1998 they filed suit against the school, alleging "wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering and emotional distress," and charging the university, as well as various people in charge at Dunster House with negligence. They felt that the university had plenty of evidence that Tadesse was melting down, and could have prevented the deaths.

After the murder, a debate erupted at Harvard over whether the school should establish a scholarship in the names of both girls or only in Ho's. They decided on the latter, and students can now apply for the Trang Ho Public Service Fellowship to pay for charitable good work during the summer after junior year.


Sinedu Tadesse (1974 - May 28, 1995) was a junior in college at Harvard University when she murdered her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, and then killed herself on May 28, 1995. The ensuing scandal played out in the courts and Boston newspapers, and may have resulted in a variety of changes to the administration of living conditions at Harvard. Tadesse is buried at the Ethiopian Orthodox Cemetery, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Tadesse had grown up in a relatively well-off family in Ethiopia. However, this period in Ethiopia's history was turbulent. Her father had been jailed for two years when Tadesse was aged about seven. She was ostracized by other students as well as her own family members during her childhood years in Ethiopia. Tadesse then devoted herself to her studies, gaining admission to the prestigious International Community School, where she graduated as valedictorian and earned admission to Harvard.

Unfortunately, she was unable to keep up academically when she arrived at Harvard, and was told that her below-average grades would keep her from attending top-ranked medical schools in the U.S. She made no friends, remaining distant even from relatives she had in the area. Tadesse sent a form letter to dozens of strangers that she picked from the phone book, describing her unhappiness and pleading with them to be her friend. One woman responded to the letter but became alarmed by the bizarre writings and recordings Sinedu sent her in return; she had no further contact with Sinedu. Another woman found the letter obnoxious and sent it to a friend who worked at Harvard to review.

After her freshman year, her roommate told her she was going to room with someone else. For her second and third years, Tadesse roomed with Trang Ho, a Vietnamese student who was well liked and doing well at Harvard, and Tadesse was obsessively fond of her. Tadesse was very needy in her demands for attention and became angry when Trang began to distance herself in their junior year. Tadesse apparently reacted with despair when Ho announced her decision to room with another group of girls their senior year, and the two women stopped speaking with each other after that.

The main events

Tadesse purchased two knives and a length of rope in advance, and the week before the murder, Tadesse sent a photograph of herself with an anonymous note to The Harvard Crimson, saying "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." She took one final exam, but got medical exemptions for two others, and had a brunch date with a fellow Ethiopian student named Neb; he later realized she was saying goodbye to him before she killed herself.

On May 28, 1995, Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate 45 times with a hunting knife, killing her. Tadesse also attacked one of Ho's visiting friends, a 26-year-old named Thao Nguyen, severely injuring her as well. Tadesse then hanged herself in the bathroom. The entire event took place on the third floor, making it difficult for police to enter.


In the days after the murder, it was speculated on campus and in the press that Tadesse had resorted to violence because Ho had asked not to room with her again in the fall. Members of Tadesse's family countered that she was the one who opted out of rooming with Ho, as she was often alone in the dormitory because Ho often stayed with her family in nearby Medford, Massachusetts.

Trang Ho's family thought Harvard could have prevented her death. In 1998, they filed suit against the school, alleging "wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering and emotional distress," and charging the university, as well as various people in charge at Dunster House, with negligence. They felt that the university had plenty of evidence that Tadesse was losing her mind and becoming fixated on violent vengeance, and that the university could have prevented the deaths.

After the murder, a debate erupted at Harvard over whether the school should establish a scholarship in the names of both girls or only in Ho's. They decided on the latter, and students can now apply for the Trang Ho Public Service Fellowship to pay for charitable work during the summer after junior year.

Halfway Heaven

Most analysis of the murder follows the 1997 publication of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, a book by 1987 Harvard graduate Melanie Thernstrom. Thernstrom was sympathetic towards Tadesse's outcast status and mental problems (though she also remembers rebuffing Sinedu's attempt to sign up for one of her creative writing classes, and being frankly relieved when Sinedu left her classroom and did not return), and sharply critical of how Harvard handled both what happened and the aftermath. The book also details several instances of students with mental-health issues having their situations exacerbated by indifferent and unsympathetic Harvard officials, as well as a campus housing structure with incompetent advisors.

Thernstom traveled to Tadesse's home in Ethiopia and gained access to her diaries, which revealed her deteriorating mental health, her obsessive fantasizing about an ideal friend, and her frustrating attempts to find competent psychiatric care.


Harvard Student Stabbed 45 Times

By Mark Mooney -

May 30, 1995

The enraged Harvard University pre-med student stabbed her sleeping roommate 45 times before hanging herself from a shower rod with a piece of rope, an autopsy revealed yesterday.

Evidence grew that Ethiopian honors student Sinedu Tadesse had planned the murder-suicide involving her estranged roommate, Trang Ho, at the Cambridge, Mass., school.

John Towle, spokesman for the Middlesex County district attorney's office, said a photo sent to the Harvard school newspaper last week "does appear to be Sinedu Tadesse."

The Harvard Crimson newspaper received a photo of a woman with a note that said, "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture."

Ho's bloodcurdling screams at 8 a.m. traumatized the quiet campus on the final day of school Sunday.

Harvard President Neil Rubenstine has yet to make a statement on the killings, which followed two suicides over the past two years.

An autopsy performed by Dr. George Kury determined that in her rage, Tadesse stabbed Ho 45 times in the face, neck, chest, arms, legs and hands.

Towle said Ho was sleeping when the savage assault began.

She tried vainly to fend off the rain of steel as Tadesse stabbed and slashed furiously with a knife that folded into a wooden handle.

A friend of Ho's who was staying overnight in another room of the two-room suite in the Dunster Hall dormitory was wounded when she tried to rescue her friend. She was treated at a hospital and released.

Towle said the murder-suicide remains "inexplicable."

"Our focus is on the relationship between them," he said.

Assistant District Attorney Martin Murphy ruled out any suspicion that they were sexually involved.

Both women were 20 and juniors at the high-pressure school. Officials said they were doing well in an honors program.

The women had been friends and roommates for two years, but recently Ho said she intended to live with someone else next semester.

The Boston Globe reported that Tadesse had sent a letter to Ho last month that indicated she felt abandoned.

"I thought we were going to do stuff together," Tadesse wrote. "You'll always have a family to go to, and I am going to have no one."

Towle said Tadesse has relatives in the Boston area but refused to discuss possible motives for the assault.


Harvard Student Stabs Roommate to Death

By Fox Butterfield - The New York Times

May 29, 1995

Students at a Harvard University dormitory awoke to screams, sirens and a blood-splattered courtyard today after a 20-year-old pre-med student stabbed her roommate to death, wounded an overnight guest and then barricaded herself in a bathroom where she hanged herself.

The attacker was identified by the authorities as Sinedu Tadesse, a 20-year-old junior from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The police said that an overnight guest of Ms. Tadesse's roommate, Trang Ho, was awakened about 8 A.M. by an alarm clock and that as she awoke, she saw Ms. Tadesse stabbing Ms. Ho.

The guest, Thao Nguyen, 26, of Lowell, Mass., said that when she tried to intervene, Ms. Tadesse stabbed her, too, and Ms. Nguyen fled into the courtyard of the dormitory, Dunster House.

Students said they found Ms. Nguyen in the courtyard, screaming and bleeding.

Timothy Cullen, a junior from Philadelphia, said he heard Ms. Ngyuyen scream repeatedly, "Someone killed my friend."

After Ms. Nguyen fled, Ms. Tadesse, barricaded herself in her bathroom and hanged herself from the rod in the shower stall, Martin Murphy, an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County, told reporters at a news conference outside Dunster House.

In a bizarre development in the case this evening, the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, announced that it had received an envelope on May 23 containing a picture of a woman believed to be Ms. Tadesse along with a typed note stating: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture." A news release signed by Andrew L. Wright, president of The Crimson, said the envelope did not have a stamp or postmark.

The statement said that the newspaper contacted the campus police today about the envelope, which had been thrown out. The paper said the the envelope and photo were recovered from a dumpster and were being checked for fingerprints.

Ms. Ho, a 20-year-old junior from Medford, Mass., was pronounced dead at Cambridge Hospital, where Ms. Nguyen was treated for multiple stab wounds and released, Mr. Murphy said.

The weapon was believed to be a 10-inch folding knife.

Mr. Murphy said the police knew of no motive for the killing. But a Cambridge police officer who asked not to be identified said there had been personal problems between Ms. Tadesse and Ms. Ho that "had built up over time." Several students also said Ms. Tadesse and Ms. Ho, who had been roommates last year, had been fighting with each other.

Both Ms. Tadesse and Ms. Ho were biology majors in a course that leads to medical school.

The incident occurred the day after exams ended at Harvard, as underclass students prepared to move out for the summer, and many parents were visiting the campus.

Harvard's president, Neil L. Rudenstine, visited the dorm this morning, and later this afternoon he spoke with students upset by the incident.

Christine Karnakis, a senior from Medfield, Mass., and a Dunster resident, said the sirens had awakened her. "It was a little scary to wake up this morning and find this happening in your house," she said. "No one can believe that it actually happened in someone's room involving students."

Another student, who also asked not to be identified, said he awoke to the sound of screams and ran to the courtyard when he heard Ms. Nguyen shout: "Help me! I'm hurt!"

Mark Baskin, a senior from Seattle, said he heard Ms. Nguyen scream "hysterically." He said she was largely incoherent but he could make out the words "friend," "kill" and "roommate."

One student who asked not to be identified said she knew Ms. Ho had been trying to find a different roommate next year because Ms. Tadesse "would play music too loud and was inconsiderate of her privacy."

The same student described Ms. Ho as a "quiet, very shy" student who liked to keep her room neat and spent many weekends at home with her family in Medford.

Other students said they did not know Ms. Ho and Ms. Tadesse very well and described them as quiet.

Amy Retzinger, a senior from Lincolnshire, Ill., who lived next door to Ms. Ho and Ms. Tadesse last year, said both complained when the dormitory was noisy.

"They would call up, or bang on the door, just if we were talking," she said. "They were polite, but they were just very quiet."

In April, a 1994 graduate of Harvard who had lived at Dunster House committed suicide, and a week later, a student who lived off campus but was affliated with the dormitory also committed suicide.


Harvard Deaths Leave a Puzzle Whose Central Piece May Never Be Found

By Fox Butterfield - The New York Times

June 5, 1995

On the last day of final exams at Harvard University a week ago Saturday, Sinedu Tadesse did what she had never done in a lifetime of unblemished achievement: she missed a test and was marked absent.

It was one of several little-noticed signs that something was terribly wrong with Ms. Tadesse, a gentle, brilliant 20-year-old junior from Ethiopia. But because of the weekend, Harvard officials would not learn about her absence for days.

Nor did they, or anyone else for that matter, know that Ms. Tadesse had grown lonely and isolated at Harvard; that although she maintained a B average in her pre-med studies, she felt pressured by the intense academic competition on campus. To all who asked -- and several did ask -- she insisted that she was happy and well.

No one, it seems, not even her family, fellow students or advisers in her Dunster House dormitory, knew that she was despondent over a decision by her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, to move out and live with another student in the fall -- a woman with whom, by one account, Ms. Tadesse had wanted to room herself. In retaliation, Ms. Tadesse had stopped taking phone messages for her roommate, and for the last two months had refused to speak to her.

But even knowing these fragments now, family members, friends and university officials are at a loss to explain why last Sunday morning, while Ms. Ho slept, Ms. Tadesse thrust a five-inch folding hunting knife into her 45 times, then hanged herself from the bathroom shower stall with a rope that the police said she used to tie her bathrobe.

"There had to be something more," some underlying problem in Ms. Tadesse's past, to explain such a gruesome murder-suicide, said Dr. Douglas G. Jacobs, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"You have all the possible signs of trouble," he said -- the loss of a roommate, pressure at a top college and the cultural difficulties of immigrants away from home. "But these are not sufficient causes."

Interviews with students and faculty members who knew the two women and with Ms. Tadesse's father in Ethiopia indicate that the key to last weekend's events has thus far eluded everyone.

Zelleke Tadesse, a retired school principal in Addis Ababa, said his daughter had never indicated that she was unhappy at Harvard or angry with her roommate. "This is a family where we all love each other, where there is no friction and no divorce," said Mr. Tadesse, a dignified, soft-spoken man.

The coroner's report on Ms. Tadesse is not expected for several weeks, but her father insisted that neither she nor any of his four other children abused alcohol or drugs.

As a child, his daughter never got angry, never lost her temper, was never depressed and always won the highest grades at the highly competitive schools she attended on full scholarship, Mr. Tadesse said. Even when he was a political prisoner for two years under the Marxist Government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mr. Tadesse recalled, she was cheerful and visited him regularly with her mother, a nurse.

"This is why it is very difficult to swallow that Sinedu committed murder and suicide," he said, weeping. "Impossible."

A younger brother, Seiffe Tadesse, a sophomore at Dartmouth College, found it difficult to accept that anything was amiss with his sister. She called him at midnight on that final Saturday, a few hours before the murder, and he was possibly the last person she spoke to before she died. "She seemed fine," he told Archie C. Epps 3d, the dean of students at Harvard. Tension and Tears In the Days Before

That Ms. Tadesse was not fine emerges only in retrospect, and only by drawing on fragmented recollections from an array of sources.

For example, Mohammed Khan, a friend and fellow student in her physics course, saw her in the library on the Tuesday before Saturday's physics exam. "You could see she was stressed out," he said. "She couldn't seem to study. Her face seemed very worried."

That same Tuesday, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, received an unidentified photograph with a letter that said: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture." The Cambridge police confirmed that the photograph was of Ms. Tadesse; they are still trying to confirm that she wrote the letter.

Then there was the note that Ms. Ho's older sister, Thao Ho, said Ms. Tadesse sent to Trang Phuong Ho after learning that the roommate was leaving her. "You'll always have a family to go to and I am going to have no one," it read, apparently referring to Ms. Ho's practice of taking the bus home to Medford, Mass., every weekend.

Although Ms. Tadesse had relatives living nearby, she was able to see her parents in Ethiopia only once in three years at Harvard -- and only because the university paid for the trip, her father said.

On that Saturday when Ms. Tadesse should have been taking her physics exam, she was sitting in her room "crying the whole time," said Thao Nguyen, who was helping Ms. Ho move out for the summer.

It was Ms. Nguyen who said that Ms. Tadesse and Ms. Ho both wanted Jennifer Tracy of Hartford as a roommate in the fall. Officials in Dunster House said they had no reason to believe that there had been a dispute over Ms. Tracy and that Ms. Ho had simply asked to have her as a roommate next year. The officials said Ms. Tadesse had also applied for a new roommate but had not asked for anyone in particular. About a third of the students in Dunster House change roommates in any one year, officials said, adding that they did not question the changes unless students volunteered information.

Ms. Nguyen, a recent refugee from Vietnam, was sleeping next to Ms. Ho and awakened, she said, at 8 A.M. to the sound of an alarm clock and the sight of Ms. Tadesse looking "crazy" as she wordlessly stabbed her friend. Though wounded when she tried to stop the attack, Ms. Nguyen escaped.

Ms. Ho's older sister said the roommates began bickering last fall over the commonplace issues of neatness and noise. Todd Milne, a student at Harvard Medical School who supervised a laboratory where Ms. Ho worked, said Ms. Ho was "too nice" to tell Ms. Tadesse that she planned to switch roommates. "She didn't want to upset her," Mr. Milne said.

Karel Liem, the master of Dunster House and a biology professor who served as academic adviser to both women, and Suzi Naiburg, the senior tutor of Dunster House, said that they knew the roommates were splitting up but that neither had come to them with reports of rancor.

Two Quiet Students Whose Paths Met

It was chance that brought the two women together in the first place. Both were admitted to Harvard on full scholarships. They were assigned to be roommates at the start of their sophomore year.

Other dorm residents considered the two to be hard workers who devoted considerable time to studying in the library.

Several students from Dunster House described Ms. Tadesse as reserved and shy. Humphrey Wattanga, a junior from Nairobi, Kenya, who described himself as her "good friend," said that her shyness had made it difficult for her to make close friends at Harvard and that she was "totally isolated, always by herself."

Others saw a different picture. Nan Zheng, a junior from Missoula, Mont., said: "She was a nice, polite and sweet girl. Whenever I saw her, she'd always be smiling."

Ms. Ho, who was 20, was also reserved and studious, but Vietnamese students who knew her said that with them, she was amiable and outgoing.

When Ms. Ho and Ms. Tadesse started rooming together, they certainly seemed well matched. Both had risen from humble circumstances, Ms. Tadesse in Ethiopia and Ms. Ho in Vietnam. Ms. Tadesse's father had been a political prisoner. At age 10 Ms. Ho had escaped from Vietnam on a fishing boat with her father and a sister.

According to interviews with friends and family members, 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 classes.

At the International Community School in Addis Ababa, where Ms. Tadesse was one of a handful of students on full scholarship, a former teacher, Telahoun Hbebe, described her as "the pearl of the school."

She was doing well at Harvard, Professor Liem said, receiving an A in a biology course in which she worked with prominent researchers at Beth Israel Hospital investigating the human immunodeficiency virus in monkeys. Professor Liem said that Ms. Tadesse, like Ms. Ho and many other students, had discovered that at Harvard she was no longer an academic star. But she was maintaining a B average with no difficulty, he said.

Two weeks before the murder-suicide, Professor Liem said, he met Ms. Tadesse in his office. She said she was looking forward to the summer, doing further research and living with nearby cousins, he recalled.

He said he had cautioned Ms. Tadesse that with a B average she would not be admitted to Harvard Medical School. But he advised her that she would easily be admitted to other good medical schools.

Professor Liem said that Ms. Tadesse "had not seemed distressed and was not particularly worried about getting into medical school."

Before she left, he asked his standard question: "Is there anything that makes you unhappy?" Without hesitation, she answered no. Then she walked out with a big smile. One Who Vowed To Make a Difference

By all accounts, Ms. Ho had slightly higher grades -- an A-minus to B-plus average -- and an even more distinguished record. Among the 16,000 high school seniors who applied to Harvard when Ms. Ho did, only two were given perfect scores by the university's admissions committee. Ms. Ho was one them.

Only a few years after she arrived in the United States, Boston Magazine chose her, along with Gov. William F. Weld and Bernard Cardinal Law, as one of "25 Who Can Save Boston." She was working as a volunteer at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, tutoring Vietnamese refugees and supporting her mother and sisters by holding down two jobs while attending Boston Technical High School.

In her valedictory address, Ms. Ho had said: "You decide where your life is going, whether you are going to make a difference or not. For me, I will make many differences."

Since her freshman year at Harvard, Ms. Ho had worked in a research laboratory at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and she had appeared as co-author of a paper in the journal Genetics.

Professor Liem said that in one of his meetings with Ms. Ho, "she came and said she was no longer a star, but that was O.K., because she had gotten into a very good lab."

Ms. Ho wanted to attend Harvard Medical School and eventually become a pediatrician. But Professor Liem said that he had given her the same advice he gave to Ms. Tadesse: that she would probably have to set her sights instead on one of several other good medical schools.

"She was pretty upbeat about this," he said.

Professor Liem called the deaths "a real tragedy and a real mystery." He added, "We will probably never know what the underlying factor was."


Satan Goes To Harvard

Is "evil" the best explanation for Sinedu Tadesse's savage murder of her college roommate?

By Mary Gaitskill

On May 28, 1995, a murder was committed at Harvard University: Sinedu Tadesse, a 20-year-old Ethiopian scholarship student, stabbed her roommate Trang Ho, a gifted 20-year-old Vietnamese immigrant also on a scholarship.

More precisely, Tadesse stabbed Ho 45 times with a hunting knife she had bought expressly for that purpose while Ho lay sleeping in bed. Tadesse then hung herself with a noose she had prepared in advance.

The crime was stunning not only because it was savage, but because, as a Harvard official commented at the time, "there (was) no apparent reason." All the ensuing media coverage, and all the speeches and meetings seemed to make the event more mysterious, not less.

In "Halfway Heaven," Melanie Thernstrom, a Harvard graduate who also taught there, addresses this mystery with intelligence, tenacity and courage. She appears to have felt the tragedy deeply and to have striven mightily to understand it. Unfortunately, she also strove to resolve it -- unfortunately because by the last third of the book her desire for resolution has apparently shriveled her capacity to understand. "Halfway Heaven" starts as a thorough, meaty and humane illumination; it ends as a Hollywood movie about Good and Evil. This ending not only disappointed me, it made me angry.

A story like this urgently needs our deepest compassion, for both the perpetrator and the victim, not only for the sake of the dead, but for the rest of us as well. And dramas of Good and Evil simply don't allow room for much more than a sentimental counterfeit.

Thernstrom would doubtless say that she did have compassion, and truthfully it is clear that she tried very hard. Of course, she didn't have to try to feel for Trang Ho; anyone would. She escaped Vietnam with her father and older sister in an illegal boat, arriving in America after staying almost a year in an Indonesian refugee camp which Thernstrom describes as "violent and dangerous."

Trang showed great courage and ingenuity in adapting to her new country, excelling in school and supporting her struggling father; the high school teachers interviewed by Thernstrom clearly loved her and were moved by her. She was a natural leader with a nearly overdeveloped sense of responsibility who worked hard at everything, was endlessly cheerful and, it would seem, almost single-handedly held her family together during an ugly divorce. "When someone dies you always portray the victim as so perfect and good," said a friend, "but with Trang it's really true -- she really was that perfect."

Although she came from an upper-class family, Sinedu faced difficult circumstances too. She grew up during Ethiopia's Red Terror, a time of mass murder and atrocities, when corpses were dragged to families' doorsteps by soldiers who then forced the bereaved to pay for the bullet before giving up the body. As Thernstrom puts it, it was a regime in which "the murderers had the power."

Sinedu's father was imprisoned by this regime for two years when Sinedu was 7, throwing the family into turmoil. In this deadly atmosphere, Sinedu worked single-mindedly to gain admission to the prestigious International Community School where she graduated a valedictorian and gained a scholarship to Harvard.

But the dream opportunity soon devolved into a nightmare as Sinedu proved completely at a loss to cope with the demands of the new environment. She was unable to keep up academically and she made no friends, not even with the relatives she had in the area. She became so desperately lonely that she sent a letter to dozens of strangers, randomly selected from the phone book, pleading with them to befriend her.

When Thernstrom traveled to Ethiopia to find out who this young woman really was, she couldn't; Sinedu apparently had no friends there either. Indeed, her family seems never to have known her -- or to have wanted to. Thernstrom described Sinedu's family as rigid and strangely surface-oriented; even their expressions of grief implied a refusal to look at anything beneath the immediate surface.

They praised their dead daughter, but almost as though she was a stranger, in terms of her accomplishments. They categorically refused to accept that Sinedu committed murder or suicide; they buried her with the words "While she was studying at Harvard University an unfortunate accident happened."

The way Thernstrom came to know Sinedu was through her diary. Through it, we see a picture very different from the dull, conscientious, diffident student described by observers -- and it is a picture of a soul in unspeakable pain. We see that Sinedu burned in a private hell of loneliness more profound than most of us can imagine; she never felt loved (and it seems likely that she was in fact not loved) and so did not have an ability to feel love or to relate to others in even the most fundamental way. She could not feel her heart and she knew it. As she put it in her hopeless public letter, "I am like a person who can't swim choking (sic) for life in a river."

Desperately, she tried to school herself in ways to "make people like you," writing to herself in the third person with instructions like, "Do not show what you really think. Put on a mask," or listening to inspirational tapes.

When these steps failed, she anguished about what she poetically called her "heart-failer thing," the way she felt "dead and it is hard to warm myself up." When she met Trang, Sinedu believed that finally she had found someone with whom she could have a genuine relationship. When that failed and Trang rejected her, it was more than she could bear.

Thernstrom is meticulous and empathic in drawing interwoven portraits of the two women. She is compassionate in showing us how much pain the murderer was in, even expressing a degree of respect for her doomed attempts to cope: "She left behind an extraordinary record: that of an intelligent, insightful, strong-willed person using all those capacities to fight as hard as she could for mental health -- and losing, day by day, hour by hour."

Thernstrom is at her best when she examines Harvard's handling of the catastrophe (and courageous, considering that institution's influence). The official response was one of complete mystification, but in fact the school had at least one loud, clear warning. One of the people to whom Sinedu sent her pleading letter was acquainted with an administrator at Harvard, and she forwarded it to that acquaintance for obvious reasons -- the letter reads like a fire alarm.

The administrator sent it to the dorm where Trang and Sinedu lived. The house master read it and filed it. Contrary to what Harvard officials claim, Sinedu sought counseling at the university's mental health center, and got it -- one day a month. (Her therapist is under a gag order from the university.)

Thernstrom builds a case against Harvard by arguing that the university is ill-equipped and even negligent in dealing with students' mental problems. As part of that argument, she characterizes Sinedu as mentally ill, bringing in a host of psychiatrists -- none of whom ever met Sinedu -- to make diagnoses based on her diaries. And this is where Thernstrom loses her compassionate voice.

Her discussion of Sinedu's diaries is proscriptive and mechanical; it almost seems as if she's willfully ignoring the emotional sense Sinedu makes, trying to interpret it according to a definition of sanity that does not brook human extremes or even metaphor.

"Her imagery is bizarre," says Thernstrom of a diary passage. "She writes that what keeps her from acting out her murderous desires is the feeling of being 'being hand and leg cuffed to a couch stuck in the ground.' And then she adds, as if by way of explanation: 'Sometimes even if a bomb falls beside me, I would be scared at first, and then not even bother to see what happened.'

"The internal connection between these images is oblique," continues Thernstrom. "We presume the couch she is handcuffed to (perhaps a therapist's couch) is depression, the bomb (perhaps an illusion to war trauma) her murderous rage, and her indifference ('not even to bother') to her internal state a description of the apathy of depression which makes it likely the bomb will go off."

I don't understand why Thernstrom finds any of this "bizarre." It reads to me like an accurate metaphoric expression of exhaustion, entrapment and pain. It is not rational because it is not describing rational feelings. I find Thernstrom's pedantic, ham-fisted attempt to decode it stranger than anything in the passage itself. Her weirdly literal-minded insertions ("perhaps a therapist's couch") would be funny if they were not so soulless and so blind.

Sinedu may in fact have been mentally ill and I don't mean to argue with any certainty that she was not. But the letter and the diaries presented by Thernstrom don't convince me that she was. She says extreme, scary things, the most striking of which is her statement that "the bad way out is suicide, the good way killing, savoring their fear and then suicide." This is an ugly, vicious and desperate thing to say, but human beings can be all of those things without being crazy.

One of the kindest, sanest people I know once told me that when her girlfriend was blatantly conducting an affair with another woman, she often made a point of putting kitchen knives away because she was afraid that if a knife happened to be on the counter at the wrong moment, she would kill her girlfriend. I've never had to hide knives, but I have experienced similar impulses, albeit fleetingly.

Those impulses may be grotesque, but they are also human; people can feel that way when they are very, very hurt and very, very scared, and I do not believe pain and fear equals illness, even if the pain and fear appear irrational. It's true that when I had those feelings, I didn't even come close to acting on them -- but I had far greater internal support than Sinedu did. This is because when I was growing up I was given a sense of myself as a loving person who could receive love. If I had not had that, I'm not sure what I would've done, and it is clear that Sinedu did not have that.

Thernstrom compares Sinedu's pain to Trang's, saying that, unlike Sinedu, the hardship Trang experienced seems to have strengthened her. She fails to see the obvious; Trang was loved. In contrast, Sinedu writes, quite rationally, about how she felt hated and attacked by her mother, how there was no feeling in her family, how they constantly ridiculed her as ugly and "very black."

Thernstrom notes repeatedly that Sinedu's childhood did not feature unusual abuse. But lack of feeling can be the greatest agony of all, especially for someone with a profoundly emotional nature. What Sinedu describes sounds to me like pure hell.

"While Sinedu's childhood was clearly not 'good enough' for her," says Thernstrom, "it may well have been good enough for someone with a different biopsychic makeup, and indeed it was apparently adequate for her siblings -- none of whom became murderers." Well, yes, and they didn't go to Harvard either. They didn't come out of a cookie cutter mold. Yes, Sinedu's family may've been good enough for others -- so what? What does that have to do with her? How does that make her biopsychically ill?

It's isn't that I think mental illness doesn't exist; I know it does. I'm not sure exactly what it is though, nor does it seem to me that many people do. Even if Sinedu was mentally ill, I think if we could have truly looked inside her, we might be shocked to see how like us she really was. This is why I am disturbed by Thernstrom's eagerness to lock her into standard-issue categories out of a diagnostic manual; she seems to want to put Sinedu in a place of otherness, somewhere far away from us and our normal lives, in the province of doctors, where we can feel sorry for her, then dismiss her.

I fully understand this impulse; I even share it to some extent. Truthfully, I would like to believe that a person who would act as Sinedu did must be insane because it would make life a lot safer if it were so. But reality does not support that belief. The Serb soldiers who raped, tortured and murdered their Muslim neighbors were ordinary citizens, family men who had lived in peace with Muslims for years.

The rapists and murderers known as the Klu Klux Klan were average citizens too -- people who may have loved their children and had moments of kindness like the rest of us. Does anyone believe that these people would've behaved differently if only there had been enough doctors on hand to prescribe medication? Literature, from Dostoevsky to Russell Banks, is full of stories about average people who commit terrible acts, and they are not stories of mental illness. They are stories of human frailty and suffering.

Finally though, my argument here may be semantic. Whether you call it illness or suffering, Sinedu clearly needed help. It does seem possible that a gifted therapist or pyschiatrist could've saved her -- and thus saved Trang. I may not like the way Thernstrom discusses mental health, but in fact, if all she wanted was to define Sinedu's behavior as mentally ill, I wouldn't be writing this.

However, Thernstrom goes farther than that. In an attempt to place the event in a deeper moral context, she blurs Sinedu's "illness" with evil, almost equating one with the other, creating an artificially profound effect. She doesn't even do this directly. She takes the equation from other people's mouths, and then, instead of questioning it, supports it with manipulative descriptions of the two women's grave sites. Here are the mouths, with Thernstrom's commentary woven in:

"We can never say why certain patients -- rather than other patients with similar or more serious diagnoses -- are the ones who actually commit some terrible act," Dr. Longhurst says. "Sinedu's diaries are clearly very disturbed, but they are less disturbed than other patients who didn't commit murder and suicide." If she wasn't more disturbed than others all along, then, at some point she crossed over. What caused that crossing? "If you push psychiatrists far enough," Dr. Longhurst says, "you'll find most of them believe in evil."

Thernstrom follows this with a clergyman talking about the evil "out there" as opposed to within, and then checks in with the law:

Assistant District Attorney Martin Murphy says that if Sinedu had lived she would have been charged with first degree premeditated murder. There would've been a trial, he says, in which the defense would have argued that she was insane and his office would have argued that she wasn't and the jury would have made a decision as to which of those two boxes to put her in.

If she wasn't mentally ill, what was she? What is the second box?"

He flounders momentarily. "Bad," he says.

A paragraph later, Thernstrom is at Sinedu's grave in Ethiopia: "On either side of Sinedu were finished graves: long white marble mausoleums, guarded by a cage of iron to keep the marble from being stolen. The head of each mausoleum is inlaid with a small black and white photo of the dead face. Forty days after the burial, Sinedu's gravestone was to be put in: I pictured the familiar photo of her, glimpsed between bars, caught for all time under a swirl of thick glass."

On the last page Thernstrom closes with an image of Trang's grave and a final summation: "I walk for a long time through the labyrinth of plots and flowering hedges, birds calling to each other in every direction, but it's Trang's grave I find my way back to. The earth has closed over now, the gravestone inlaid, flat as a jewel. I remember the grave at the funeral, the tear-shaped blossoms sifting slowly down over the onyx casket. I pluck a flower and stand staring down at the grave. 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 the Pure Land; Harvard couldn't prevent anything."

"Collapse" is an appropriate word here; Thernstrom threw away the care with which she painstakingly drew the two women and opted for a cartoon of good and bad in which one smiles down from heaven and the other is consigned to hell, "between bars, caught for all time." It's a very easy resolution, and one that many readers will doubtless approve of, and even experience as moving. But think about it: How does Thernstrom dare to comment on other people's souls?

It's a heavy way to put it, especially since Thernstrom doesn't make any such comment directly or use the word "soul." However what she does is actually trickier because it's less conscious; it's emotion-based in the shallowest sense. All the stuff about birds, flower petals and floating blossoms juxtaposed against the "dead face ... under a thick swirl of glass" -- it goes right under the thought-wire and heads straight for prejudice. To say directly what she aggressively suggests would require that she ask a lot of hard questions, and for whatever reasons, Thernstrom didn't choose to do that.

And she is not the only one. "Evil," as some mysterious force beyond the scope of normal people, is invoked with increasing frequency in the media as an explanation for crimes ranging from Jefferey Dahmer's cannibalism to the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh. We seem to have a hearty appetite for hearing about such crimes, yet we don't want to think they have anything to do with us. It is true that for a society to feel safe, such mental boundaries around that which seems unthinkable are necessary, to a point. But if we are going to look at such crimes with any real depth, we need to be able to look past those boundaries; to do otherwise constitutes a kind of moral irresponsibility.

Many of the reviews of "Halfway Heaven" have lauded its "compassion," and in the context of the current hellfire mood, it is relatively compassionate. But to me, the compassion in the book seems like a thin, sugary layer. It is not deep enough or tough enough for the subjects it raises -- especially the subject of human evil.

It's one thing to call a person's behavior evil -- and I do call murder evil -- but to call someone evil in their entirety is a judgment we as fellow humans are not qualified to make. Most of us will never commit murder. But who of us has not been cruel? Who has not inflicted pain on another, even if just with words or with an expression in the eyes?

On a practical human scale, there is a huge difference between murder and verbal cruelty. On a cosmic scale, I'm not sure the difference is as vast as we would like to think. Two of Christianity's most powerful precepts are that sin felt in the heart is as bad as sin acted upon, and that, without divine grace, we are all equally guilty, even those of us who appear perfect. Even non-Christians secretly feel the truth in this -- but it is a hard truth which we find convenient to forget.

On the night I finished "Halfway Heaven," I lay awake, thinking of Trang and how terrible her last moments must have been. My body grew rigid with fear and when a cat screamed outside my window, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned on the light, but the horrible images were still in my mind. I thought, maybe Sinedu really was evil. Then I thought, Sinedu isn't here. Whatever evil you are feeling is in your own head. That realization was harder to face -- and sadder -- than my fear.

It is true that we live in a practical world. We can, and should, protect society from people who murder, and that usually means locking them up. But we should never lock these people out of the common humanity, "under a swirl of thick glass." We should not pretend that they are so different from us, that they can only be understood in terms of diagnosis and illness because when we do that, we lock out a part of ourselves, the part that most needs our guidance and love. We lock ourselves into smugness. We cheat ourselves of the tenderness and humility that comes from allowing ourselves to feel the depths of human fallibility, including our own.


Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

By Joshua Wolf Shenk - Washington Monthly

Dec, 1997  

An early 20th century building perched aside the Charles River, Dunster House is known among Harvard undergraduates for its grand common spaces and awkward, cramped living quarters. And so, when police entered suite H-22 on May 28, 1995, the bodies were not hard to find. On the floor in the first of two small rooms, Trang Phuong Ho lay dead of 45 stab wounds, including 11 in the head, chest, and neck. Sinedu Tadesse, her roommate of two years, hung by a noose in a shower.

The story's basic outline was quickly apparent. Tadesse, a 21-year-old Ethiopian whose already deep troubles had festered in her three years at Harvard, had killed her roommate after Ho, a sweet, diligent, pre-med student, insisted on living with others the following year.

But this explanation raised as many questions as it answered. By what path did Tadesse descend into violent madness? What, if anything, had Harvard done to help her? And what meaning could be taken from the fact that these brutal acts -- the killing of another and the killing of self -- had taken place at a university which many consider synonymous with knowledge and human progress?

Several days before her death, Tadesse dropped off her picture at the offices of Harvard's daily paper, The Crimson, with a note that advised, "KEEP this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture" But what is that story really about?

Melanie Thernstrom tries to answer these questions in Halfway Heaven, a meditative "diary" of the murder-suicide. Thernstrom's relentlessly self-conscious style is sometimes tedious. But ultimately the book succeeds in highlighting the two critical themes of this tragedy: First, this is a story about mental illness and the mysteries of its depths, causes, and cures. Second, it is the story of a rarely seen side of Harvard University -- the self-interested bureaucracy that is less interested in student welfare or truth than in protecting its reputation.

Sinedu Tadesse was clearly a troubled young woman when she matriculated to Harvard from an elite private school in Ethiopia. She grew up under military rule; 30,000 people died in an official campaign of terror that began when she was two years old. A political prisoner for several years, her father was one of the junta's many victims, and the children were raised to be paranoid and distrustful. At home, "there was no comfort to seek ... no warmth," Tadesse wrote later.

By virtue of exceptional test scores, Tadesse won a coveted spot in a school for diplomats and foreigners. But her outward achievement was matched with intense loneliness. The summer after her freshman year at Harvard, Tadesse confessed these feelings in a letter that she sent to strangers, picked at random from phone books and Internet chat groups. "As far as I can remember my life has been hellish," she wrote:

Year after year, I became lonelier and lonelier. I see
friends deserting me. They would take every chance
to show me they did not have any love or respect for
me.... High school turned out to be even worse....
If I went early or left late, I would be roaming the
yard or deserted hallways alone while other students
roared with laughter or talked their hearts out
standing in groups. Home was not a comforting
place. I swallowed my pain and anguish just as my
siblings did to theirs. I was so lonely. But I hung on
tight because I wanted to come to the States in
search of a solution.

There is a moment in time, always difficult to discern, where common feelings of unhappiness verge into depression, where the vocabulary of ordinary experience should be discarded for the vocabulary of disease. By the end of her freshman year -- by the time she told her life story to strangers and begged them for "a few hours from your week ... please do not close the door in my face" -- Sinedu Tadesse had certainly crossed that line.

Desperate for friends, she found herself paralyzed in social situations. She was thrilled to find a roommate for sophomore year, but when this friendship proved to be less than perfect, Tadesse relapsed into bitterness and anxiety -- with an edge of mounting rage. The roommate, of course, was Trang Ho.

Looking for a Villain

When she decided to attend Harvard, Tadesse was surely drawn to the mystique captured by Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward Angel: "It was rich magic, wealth, elegance, joy, proud loneliness, rich books and golden browsing; it was an enchanted name like Cairo and Damascus."

Tadesse may or may not have been warned that the university was also famously indifferent to its undergraduates. For a lost young woman, thousands of miles from home without friends, Harvard offered nothing except a two-hour orientation for foreign students and occasional therapy sessions -- with a doctor of education. (Shortly before the murder/suicide, the therapist tried to reach Tadesse. Not because he sensed danger for his patient, but because he wanted to cancel an appointment.)

Far from the "solution" Tadesse sought, it is hard to imagine an environment worse for her than Harvard. Even the best-adjusted and most-confident high schoolers can be reduced to quivers there. Many students find a niche -- academic, social, extracurricular -- that allows them to enjoy, rather than be threatened by, the exceptional talents of their peers. But in such a highly-charged atmosphere, the search can be daunting and fraught with obstacles.

The first academic experience for many students is applying to freshman seminars and being turned down by most, or all. Tadesse, in fact, had been rejected for a seminar taught by Thernstrom, for which she had more than 100 applicants. "It was an unfortunate system," Thernstrom writes, "that in order to take a writing class to learn you had to prove you were already accomplished -- but it was the way many things were done at Harvard."

Harvard also does little to attend to students' emotional lives, though the qualities it seeks -- creativity, intensity, passion -- often coincide with vulnerability. "Achievement," Thernstrom writes, "can stem from insecurity, a need to prove oneself better than everyone else, or from depression -- a need to make oneself feel better -- as much as it can from talent or a desire to contribute to the world."

Harvard's environment can exacerbate these problems, as a former professor of mine, Pat C. Hoy II, illuminates in his Sewanee Review essay "Soldiers and Scholars," which was later excerpted by Harvard Magazine. Hoy came to Harvard in 1988 after 14 years as a professor of English at West Point and he was struck, he writes, "that Harvard students often become destructive when alcohol or sheer frustration break down their thin layer of civilized restraint."

At West Point, students are steeped in the values of teamwork and cooperation even when they're being put through grueling drills. Harvard is different. "If the greater world reveals itself only to those courageous and daring enough to re-imagine and test the very foundations of knowledge," Hoy writes, "Harvard seems to believe its task is to nurture and develop minds unsettled and unsettling enough to look into the darkness." And so it is no coincidence that students "lash out at one another, or ... on the way back ... from a night of partying, they turn destructive and walk on cars, smash glass entryway doors, violate one another's bodies."

Hoy was also an academic adviser at Mather House, next door to Dunster, and he was not alone in his commitment to understanding his students. But, for the most part, Harvard provides a very poor safety net for this highly volatile student body. Its counseling resources are thin and its academic advisors are often unqualified, lackadaisical, or overcommitted.

Thernstrom briefly discusses Damian Schloming, who drew as his freshman advisor John Fox, an esteemed former dean of the college. This might seem like an advantage, since most advisors are graduate students or low-level faculty. (Mine was an admissions officer.) But Fox is distant and unsympathetic. "I have received my medical care from the University for over forty years and am entirely satisfied," he responds to one of Damian's pleadings about his need for counseling and medication. "Your attacks on all things Harvard are tiresome. If you don't like it here go away."

This kind of arrogance isn't unusual. And that leads to the aspect of the book which, aside from the two deaths, I find most depressing. For many institutions, such a tragedy might force self-examination and lead to change. But Harvard's response was defensive, paranoid and accusatory. "In a case of this complexity," Dean of the College Fred Jewett told Thernstrom, "we prefer to centralize information. Everyone is looking for a villain and we don't want to be it."

Reading accounts of Harvard's behavior in this affair, it is hard not to think of it as more a shadowy corporation -- with an $11 billion endowment to protect -- than an institution of learning. At a faculty meeting, a dean instructed attendees not to talk to the press.

Cambridge police were refused essential interviews and documents and eventually had to cede the investigation to Harvard's own police, which Cambridge detectives found less than forthcoming. (A top detective told Thernstrom that the university regularly fails to report suicides, "by mistake.") Thernstrom reports the salient fact that Harvard, used to throwing its weight around in legal disputes, has 11 in-house lawyers. MIT, by comparison, has none.

Dunster House, where I lived as a Harvard student from 1990 to 1993, was a caricature of Harvard's style, combining ineptitude and authoritarianism. House officials had a copy of the desperate letter that Tadesse had written to strangers -- a letter that includes the phrase "if I live" -- but it's unclear what they did with it. Karel Liem, the senior faculty member in charge of Dunster House, told police he had read the letter, then denied to Thernstrom ever having seen it.

After the deaths, Liem told Boston Magazine that "I had no inkling there was a problem" Liem's deputy, the house's "senior tutor," was out of town at the time of the deaths -- though the term was not yet over, she was already on vacation. Meanwhile, Dunster House tutors who talked to Thernstrom later retracted their comments, saying they feared being fired. In a previous controversy, Liem had fired tutors who spoke to The Crimson. Afterwards, his contract was extended.

It should be said that Trang Ho, a victim unfortunately overshadowed by her murderer, seemed to thrive at Harvard. And whether the school deserves "blame" is a complicated question; Tadesse's path to that Sunday morning is a thicket of familial, biological, and social problems.

Still, Harvard is held to a higher standard by its own asking. It is a community, Harvard president Charles Eliot said in 1869, that "stands firmest for the public honor." But stonewalling and zealously denying responsibility hardly seems like the honorable course in the aftermath of two student deaths.

Though Harvard is steeped in history -- the lectures of Emerson, the scholarship of William James, the education of John Kennedy -- many there don't seem to understand that unflattering, even horrific, history may be the most important to remember, so that it doesn't repeat itself. Sinedu Tadesse and Trang Ho would have graduated in June of 1996. At the commencement exercises, they were never mentioned.




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