Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Where Illness Ends and Evil Begins: Why Did Cho Seung Hui Do It?

A year ago, at the time of the Virginia Tech massacre, I wrote a post about where illness ends and evil begins. The killings raised all kinds of questions for me: theological and philosophical ones along side scientific ones.
Here are some excerpts from that piece, which you can get to by clicking here.

Was Cho Seung Hui–the shooter identified in the Virgina Tech killings–mentally ill or irreparably evil? Did he suffer from a treatable mood disorder, or was he a psychopath unable to be helped?
It’s a theological, psychological, and sociological riddle–an ugly one. Even as the genetic studies of mood disorders continue to pinpoint specific genes that predispose people to those disorders, and the brain-imaging technologies can identify regional patterns of brain activity that distinguish depressed people from non-depressed people, we can’t say for now where illness stops and evil begins.
For my own sake, I hope Cho was more psychopathic or fundamentally evil than he was sick, because I’m on a serious mission to educate people about mental illness, and I’d rather not include him in our flock. We already have Andrea Yates and one if not both of the Columbine murderers among our ranks.
Stories of how Cho simply “cracked” frustrate my efforts at explaining my own suicidal depression and two psych ward stays. If I’m mentally ill, does that mean I could supposedly snap at anytime too, and write freaky expressions of my rage–penning a manifesto against the world–and send NBC a video saying that “Jesus loved crucifying me”?
That depends on how we define evil, mental illness, and the murky terrain in between.


“Evil, that’s what some call it: mass murder, mass shootings, serial killings,” writes Washington Post Staff Writer Neely Tucker in his excellent article, “Dark Matter: The Psychology of Mass Murder.” “The shooter on the Texas tower, Charles Manson, the Green River Killer, the Clutter family killers. People search religious texts to divine the dark mysteries of man, looking for a spiritual answer to physical violence. Others delve into psychiatry, grasping for an answer Freud missed, something about childhood violence and sexual dysfunction and rage. Nowadays they trace neurons through the cerebral cortex with glow-in-the-dark chemicals and talk about brain injuries and paranoid schizophrenia and thorazine drips. All anybody has ever found, in the research of evil, is shadows and darkness, misfiring neurons and reverberating psychic pain.”
If I label Cho as an incredibly sick individual, then am I contributing to “continued attempts to psychologize and ‘understand’ such deviance…to avoid applying moral categories of judgment” as Anne Henderschott, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego suggests? In other words, is labeling him “mentally ill” letting the guy off the hook–kind of like how my sister’s 18-year-old neighbor shot his brother and was classified “insane,” so instead of serving time, he’s drinking Coke and snacking on popcorn inside a rehabilitation center, with more freedom and visitation rights than an incarcerated 40-year-old man who drank some extra beers before driving home?

  • nillawafer

    my husband worked in the mental health profession for 15 years as a licensed professional clinical counselor. most of those years he was a case manager or ran case management programs for the severely mentally disabled, helping them to exist in the community. i remember he often used to remind me that the incidence of violence among the severely mentally ill is not greater percentage-wise than the general population and that it is not always possible to predict who will lash out violently, just as it is not always possible in the general population.
    my husband’s brother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. he thought there were witches in his boots, that he was a woman and jesus christ, and if a bug crawled across a passage in his bible he became obsessed it was a sign from god. once a bug led him to a passage in the old testament about avoiding certain foods. i reminded him about the passage jesus spoke about what comes out of the mouth, not what goes in. he was unable to conceptualize the message of the bible as a whole but obsessed on certain random passages. i never felt threatened in his presence. he thought we all might be evil. he went missing for four years and finally his skeletal remains were found by hunters in the woods where he had been camping/living alone. the only person his schizophenia hurt was himself. a bible and some christian self help tapes were found at his campsite. it is my prayer he had enough sense of mind to offer his life to god in his last moments and be taken in to healing and peace. the last time i saw him he asked to be dropped off in a park. his normally handsome face was covered with sores, there was algae growing on his jeans, and he had become emaciated from drinking water from puddles. god rest his and my husband’s soul.
    we just cannot control everything. anyone around us could snap, mentally ill or not, and do something they wouldn’t normally do. remember to keep the mentally ill in your prayers.

  • Marion

    I hate the word evil. I think it’s used as a way to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are mentally ill, but ‘they’… ‘they’ are evil. It sounds like a nice hand washing.. not our problem to solve, ‘they are just evil’. Period. End of discussion.
    I’ve heard it some many times, pointing to Hilter, pointing to Darfur, pointing to the Catholic sex abuse scandal, pointing to rapists and murders… to me something TRULY evil would have to be a very, very rare occurance. I think we are afraid. We are afraid to look ourselves in the mirror, eye to eye, and really look inside to soo if maybe, we are not that far removed for those poeple we label as evil. It’s normal to recoil from just ugliness, of course it’s normal… but least we forget, Hitler was an elected official and he wasn’t alone. All those officers, all those who did the leg work of his Final Solution… or were they all evil too?

  • Alyssa Morris

    One of the scariest things about Andrea Yates to me was that I could relate. Thankfully, I only struggled with post-partum depression and not the psychotic version she had, but it is possible for me to imagine being that out of control. In addition to post-partum, I have been dealing with major depression for at least 20 years. It’s pretty obvious to me that depression blocks normal thought processes.
    However, I think rapists, murderers and child molesters are different. I think they are insane in some way, not depressed in some way. If we are going to acknowledge that depression is a disease of the brain, we have to know that there is more than one kind, just as there are several things that can go wrong with the heart.
    Thanks for all you do Therese. I’m glad I found your blog. I’m trying to research bi-polar II and hypomania, but have had a hard time finding much. I’ve always wondered if my depression had a small manic aspect and this could affect my treatment. Thank you. Alyssa

  • Richard

    Starting with the basics, I believe that there is mental disease and there is evil. There have been times in my life when my behavior missed the mark, you know, sin. When I hurt someone or something for my enjoyment and that action takes all forms, physical and not physical. There are some events, even from childhood of too long ago which I still remember and wonder what in the world was I doing? I thought I was a better person than that. There might be some who would say that this was the beginnings of my disease and I would say that they might be partly correct. Most any action could be a combination and how much each “side” contributes probably depends on the individual. But some I think were just evil.
    A handful of years ago my mental disease was really starting to kick in and my personality was changing. Life’s circumstances were particularly difficult at the time and I was in new territory. I know now that a lot of my inappropriate behavior of the time was because I was changing with my disease. Were there times when there was some evil and some disease? I have to believe that, if for no other reason than there were occasions when I could have gone “dark side” and didn’t.
    Perhaps that is a fundamental difference between illness and evil–a choice. Your mind doesn’t make a decision to have a fever, it happens. The mind can make a decision about fighting the fever but the fever may win. Score one for disease. There is also the battle of evil and not-evil, dare I say good? But the question was where illness ends and evil begins; so, by necessity, we are discussing just one side of that situation.
    Keep up the good work Therese, your thoughts and the experiences behind are helpful and sometimes even entertaining. 😉

  • Nancy

    I follow very closely the events surrounding people such as Andrea Yates and Cho Seung Hui. I try to understand how various environmental stimuli might trigger certain parts of the brain, fluctuations in neurotransmitters, etc. and how they may play a role in these tragedies. I had bad reactions to Zoloft and Paxil…always try to learn what medications these individuals may have been taking.
    One thing that I found most interesting is a report from two of Cho’s
    former roommates. From Wikipedia…
    “Andy Koch and John Eide, who once shared a room with Cho at Cochrane Hall during 2005 and 2006,[47][48] stated that Cho demonstrated other repetitive behaviors, such as listening repeatedly to “Shine”[49] by the alternative rock band Collective Soul, a 1994 singles chart hit from their album Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid.[50] Cho wrote the song’s lyrics “Teach me how to speak; Teach me how to share; Teach me where to go” on the wall of his dormitory room.[38][51][52]”
    What does this tell us about this young man?
    I recently read a very interesting book about some experiments that were done by Rick Strassman, MD regarding the effects of a hallucinagen, DMT…which Dr. Strassman calls the Spirit Molecule. I
    bought the book because of a quote someon had mentioned on a quake sensitives board I read. (I’m trying to understand what happens in the brain when it’s exposed to various forms of radiation.)
    “I’ve been nursing a theory along these lines for some time. Briefly, that the N-methylating enzyme responsible for DMT production turns on in everyone across the planet at the same time, thus ushering in the eschaton, messianic age, non-corporeal [cosmic] consciousness, or what have you. … This time would be an astrologically determined event, such as solar flare, or a particular constellation alignment.”
    –Rick Strassman, M.D., Psychiatrist
    University of New Mexico School of Medicine
    There are times when I question whether free will actually exists.
    I know I’m touching on very controversial issues. I care deeply about
    what happens to the brain…and the often tragic consequences. I think a lot of the answers are already out there…it makes me crazy each time there’s a mass killing that more isn’t being done.

  • Jan

    I was just going through the comments and really liked Marion’s input. I wasn’t going to write anything specific but after reading what she wrote felt compelled to add..
    I think Marion you have been brave enough to state here what a lot of us are afraid to acknowledge/even dream of acknowledging. If we think about it objectively is there really a ‘them’ and ‘us’..i’ve been following the news of what’s been going on in zimbabwe and i think this is a good illustration point. Here is a president who was instrumental in the libertion of his country from colonial rule. He was a hero and I’m old enough to remember that zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of africa, under his leadership. Today, under the same man’s leadership,inflation is up to about 100 000%, over 4 million people have left the country in search of greener pastures and the country is just in state of shambles, yet the same ‘hero’ president denies it and says ‘his country’ is fine. It is acknowledged that this downfall is largely due to land ownership changes that the government began enforcing around 1999.
    So,these days, understandably a lot of blogs and statements are being made that this man is evil and heartless and all. I would never condone his present actions at all, but my question is : He became evil? How could this be the same man, who was the people’s hero. The same man who was admired by people near and far when he became leader and led his country to initial prosperity?
    What is evil then really, could it be (???) a state that any of us really could inexpicably find ourselves in or again is my example of the zimbabwean leader an ‘exception’ along with the countless number of rapists, murderers,hitlers and people we have labelled ‘evil’ over the course of time?
    just some very objective thinking here. I am not here to say these people’s actions were not horrendous (obviously not!), but think about my question concerning the zimbabwean president at least…

  • Lynne

    I would think there are some questions only God holds the answer to because he is the only one who can read hearts and minds. I believe however that in order for someone to be evil there must be intent. The knowledge of right and wrong and whether or not the person was in control of their faculties at the time. How often have lawyers thrown the term “temporary insanity” around? Is that a matter of convenience or fact? Gee there are some people I’d chuck in the circular file if it were’nt illegal or immoral, but that’s the rub I guess.

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