This morning, on my way to Dulles Airport to catch a flight, I was listening to radio coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. The reporter was talking about shooter Cho Seung Hui, analyzing his personality and background, and trying to understand what may have motivated the college student to murder 32 people and then commit suicide.
In the recitation, the reporter made a point of Cho’s religious background. Evidently, his mother is a devout Christian. Cho, the reporter said, experienced a rift with his mother over issues of faith and had rejected her beliefs. Since the shooting, Cho’s family has remained in isolation, issuing no statement to the press. One news outlet reported that his mother had been hospitalized for shock.
Other than being the mother of one of the murdered students, I can imagine nothing worse than being the mother of the murderer, a murderer who committed suicide. How isolated she must be. She, too, is grieving, mourning the loss of her only son, mourning her dreams for him, and mourning her memories of his childhood. She has little – except confusion, guilt (however misplaced that may be) and questions.
One of the things I regularly do as a writer is to listen to stories – happy ones and tragic ones; old ones and unfolding ones – and try to understand the experiences of all those involved. In the Virginia Tech shootings, attention has been rightly directed toward the innocent and toward the guilty. But the grieving mother? Where is she in this story? Other than “Mrs. Cho,” I do not even know her name. This morning’s Washington Post quoted her neighbors as saying that she is “quiet, modest, and hardworking.” No one seems to have known her well.
I am not calling for a media pursuit of this anguished woman. Rather, her absence from the story strikes a heart-breaking cord, causing me – also a Christian and mother – to wonder about her silence.
That silence brings to mind another silence: the silence of Eve. In Genesis, the first words uttered by Eve after the expulsion from the garden are those of joy at the birth of Cain, her son: “I have gotten a man from the LORD!” No long thereafter, she bore Abel, a second son.
But joy turns to tragedy as the two grow to manhood. Cain, jealous of his younger brother, killed Abel. And there, in Genesis chapter 4, right at the beginning of biblical history, the first murder occurs. God chastises Cain and punishes him by making him a “fugitive and a vagabond” upon the earth.
Throughout the story, however, Eve says nothing. She is silent. One can only imagine her anguish: Have I birthed this violence into the world? My son, my beloved son, the firstborn of all humanity, is a murderer. He has killed his brother. Is this my fault? What have I done?
Finally, at the very end of the tale, Eve says one thing. She bore a third son, named Seth. “For God,” said Eve, “has appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.” Cain is not only a fugitive from the earth but banished from his own family, exiled from his mother’s heart. Only Abel is remembered; Seth replaces him, the beloved son. The sin of murder destroyed more than life – it destroyed memory and motherhood. For all intents and purposes, Cain was dead, too. Eve birthed both victim and perpetrator. No wonder she was silent.
Silence may well be the primal response to sin: a mother’s choked pain, the pain of birthing sin, and the pain of birthing children victimized by sin. What can one say in the face of it all? Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are mute. But we are not entirely alone; we are embraced by the silence of Eve.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco).