By Rachel Pergament, University of Southern California Law Library
This true story of a murder/suicide at Harvard University in 1995 is a good piece of
investigative journalism. The author attempts to explain the cultural displacement,
psychosexual tension, and mental illness, that led a Harvard Junior from Ethiopia named
Sinedu Tadesse to murder her Vietnamese roommate, Trang Ho, and then to hang herself.
The author, Melanie Thernstrom, has a unique perspective regarding the inner workings of Harvard. She graduated with a B.A. from Harvard in 1987 and taught creative writing there after her graduation. Both of Thernstrom's parents are Harvard faculty members.
Thernstrom presents the circumstances of the crime and the background of Sinedu Tadesse with great sensitivity. By traveling to Ethiopia and gaining access to Tadesse's diaries, the author explains how the young Ethiopian student was unable to obtain psychiatric care to help her overcome her obsessive fantasizing about an ideal friend. In addition, Thernstrom reveals the story of the woman murdered, Trang Ho, without objectifying her as a victim. Ultimately, the author succeeds in describing the private and cultural worlds of the two women, as well as why admission to Harvard was "halfway heaven," the bridge which would insure success for them and their families.
Near the end of the book, Thernstrom writes that investigating the crime altered her relationship with Harvard University. Thernstrom has been criticized for exploiting this tragedy, and she questions the ethics of investigative journalism in the book.
I found this book thought-provoking and feel that I gained insight into the difficulties of foreign students as they begin to assimilate into American culture. In addition, the book raised many questions about the responsibility of universities to provide professional services to students with mental illness.