Melanie Thernstrom’s account of a Harvard murder-suicide struggles with the personal

The crime

“The morning that students were supposed to move out of their residence, Dunster House, for the summer … Sinedu set her alarm for early in the morning and then stabbed Trang forty-five times with a knife as she lay sleeping in her bed. … [S]tudents called the police, but by the time they came Sinedu had hanged herself in the bathroom, with a noose she had prepared ahead of time, and both girls were dead.” (4)

Sinedu Tadesse’s murder of her roommate, Trang Ho (and attack on Trang’s friend, Thao Nguyen, who survived), is the catalytic crime Melanie Thernstrom tries to untangle in Halfway Heaven: Diary Of A Harvard Murder — while also parsing the lesser crimes the institution itself may have been guilty of by failing to support a depressed and struggling student from halfway around the world. Why did Sinedu latch onto Trang, and then onto killing Trang and herself as the only solution to problems those around her only dimly understood? Who is responsible when “outsiders” can’t assimilate at legendary schools like Harvard? Why did this happen — and if Thernstrom’s right about the possible causes, why doesn’t it happen more often?

The story

Thernstrom, who attended Harvard as well as teaching there for a time (Sinedu actually applied for a spot in Thernstrom’s writing section, and was not accepted, a fact that haunts Thernstrom perhaps more than it should; more on this later), talks a lot about the “twinning” of killer and victim, their rising from “humble circumstances” (in Trang’s case, escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat at age 10), their quests to belong at that most revered American ivory tower. There’s a twinning at work in the nature of the subject she’s chosen, too, or a duality: it’s one of those stories that fascinates us because, in the end, the true motive will always remain elusive. But at the same time, it’s one of those stories that can fall prey to filler, sidebars, and/or overly subjective speculation because, in the end, the true etc.

For the first half of the book, Thernstrom keeps it tight. Traveling to Ethiopia to meet Sinedu’s family strikes me as a bit contrived, and there are a handful of references to how awkward she feels calling various friends and relatives for comment, which I empathize with — this is why I’m not a reporter — while also feeling that it’s a little bloggy and should have got cut, but on balance Thernstrom’s background on Sinedu and Trang, and in particular the “isolation” Ethiopians “are culturally unprepared for” when they come to college in the U.S., is well written and paced. She gets good observations from the very interviews she appears not to enjoy doing, too, like the one with the daughter of “a prominent Pakistani family,” Shugu Imam, who remembers Sinedu, “‘which is interesting because she wasn’t very interesting. … She was not a compelling personality. She was completely ordinary-looking.” The paragraph goes on like this, and underlines Sinedu’s challenges — she knew she couldn’t relate to people; people didn’t particularly care to relate to her in turn — with that unwittingly dismissive phrasing particular to students who do believe they belong at an Ivy.

And Thernstrom also does well capturing the…Ivyness of the situation. Comparing these deaths to the unmasking (well, that one unmasking; they keep happening) of James Hogue a couple years prior at Princeton doesn’t quite work, but in the coverage of crimes at Ivies, both outside the walls and inside, there’s a sense that the closing of ranks and the “here among the world’s elite” and all that noise makes the whole of the story greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to explain, and obnoxious to boot, but Thernstrom’s good at interpreting that atmosphere.

But there’s some overwriting — the “bereft and weary gaiety” of moving-out day, for instance — that can undercut the points she’s trying to make about mentally ill students slipping through the cracks at elite schools, as does the speculation late in the book about which personality disorder Sinedu might have suffered from. Some of that is a casualty of the book’s age; we’re better informed now about depressive episodes, and DSM diagnoses generally, than when this book came out in 1997. And the fact is, there is no “solving” this. There’s guessing, and assumptions, and Sinedu’s journal, and the peculiar and gusty changes adolescent women’s friendships can sometimes undergo, but no firm conclusions, and while this is exactly the kind of true-crime story that gets under my skin, it’s also the kind that can suffer from going book-length instead of confining some of the longer-winded ancillary research in a longform magazine piece.

All of that said, it’s quite readable, and by a couple of chapters in, you can tell which bits you might do better just skimming through. I do think Thernstrom’s editor did her a mild disservice by not reining in the parts in which Thernstrom herself steps into the story, but Thernstrom is creditable at that kind of writing, and Halfway Heaven did make me want to read her first book, The Dead Girl, which was Thernstrom’s senior thesis and concerns the disappearance of her best friend, Bibi Lee.

Thanks to my esteemed colleague Stephanie Green for the loan of the book.

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