This riveting book recounts the stories of these women, whose admission to Harvard was "halfway heaven," a bridge to the American dream after lives of hardship. Sinedu grew up under communist tyranny in Ethiopia, while Trang was born in a Vietnamese forced labor camp, and fled the country with her father and sister to end up on welfare in Boston. Despite their similarities, the two were never friends; Trang was friendly and outgoing, while Sinedu, awkward and shy, had trouble adjusting to a culture vastly different from her own. Drawing upon her astonishing diaries, New York Times bestselling author Thernstrom, a Harvard graduate herself, reconstructs Sinedu's inner life to reveal a girl struggling against isolation and depression. The book reveals Harvard as an institution ill-equipped to deal with mental illness on campus that apparently cared more for its reputation than for its student body.
A brilliant synthesis of cultural analysis, psychological study, and first-rate investigative journalism, Halfway Heaven is a haunting exploration of the power of profound loneliness and an expose of one of America's most distinguished universities.
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Harvard's commencement is among the most festive in the land. By the first week of June the square of lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Chapel has been reseeded and grown new and green again. A large pastel tent has been erected, as if in preparation for an enormous wedding, and red silk flags are strung all around on trees, bearing the Harvard motto "Veritas" and the insignia of each of the Harvard houses where undergraduates live. World eminences give historic speeches--Mother Teresa, Colin Powell, Václav Havel. The Marshall Plan was announced at the commencement of 1947.
The whole of undergraduate life at Harvard seems to lead toward the moment of graduation. With a ninety-seven percent graduation rate--among the highest in the country--students understand that to attend Harvard is to have the opportunity to graduate from Harvard, and all that that bestows upon one. On one's résumé, at work, on a blind date, it is a fact that connotes not so much intelligence as chosenness--a destiny to do significant, lucrative work, a kind of good luck charm whose spell is always new.
As the seniors are welcomed to the company of educated men and women, their parents clap and cry--it is their laudes too. Among the most touching sights are the immigrant parents: gathered around their sons and daughters, the American Dream seems alight in their faces--everything they journeyed to this country for accomplished in a moment.
The speaker for the 1996 commencement--Harvard's three hundred forty-fifth--is Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health. He gives an earnest account of his journey from studyingliterature at Harvard to committing to medicine when he realized the power medicine has to alleviate human suffering. He describes the enormous progress of medicine in his lifetime--the development of the kidney transplant and the cure of polio, the crippling disease of his childhood--and reminds the audience how much there is still to be done. He enjoins the new graduates to enlist in the front lines on the battlefields of science.
There is no reference, in his speech or throughout the long commencement day, to two girls who are not there to graduate with their class, and whose fate reflects a problem that has not disappeared with the progress of medicine: the problem of evil.
On May 28, 1995, shortly before the previous commencement, Sinedu Tadesse, a twenty-year-old junior from Ethiopia, murdered her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, an immigrant from Vietnam. The girls had lived together for two years, but during the spring of their junior year Trang had decided not to live with Sinedu again and had chosen new roommates for senior year. During the last week of term, Sinedu sent a photograph of herself and an anonymous typewritten note to the student newspaper. The note said: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture."
The morning that students were supposed to move out of their residence, Dunster House, for the summer--the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend--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. Lying beside Trang, sleeping head to toe, was a visiting girlfriend, Thao Nguyen, a recent Vietnamese immigrant who had been staying with her for the weekend. Thao awoke to see her friend being stabbed and tried to grab the knife from Sinedu, but was injured herself and went for help. She ran downstairs, bleeding, into the courtyard, where students 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.
The events were met with stunned bewilderment. The questions were endless. "Could Harvard have intervened? Why did Tadesse snap? Were there unseen warning signs? Why does evil exist?" Newsweek asked. "The sense of mystery is unlikely to lift anytime soon," People magazine wrote. "Neither Student Complained of Problems," the Boston Globe reported. Another Globe story quoted a Harvard official: "There is no conventional motive. It is not about sex or revenge. There is no apparent reason." Under the heading "Harvard Deaths Leave a Puzzle Whose Central Piece May Never Be Found," the New York Times reported that "interviews with students and faculty members who knew the two women. . . indicate that the key to last weekend's events has thus far eluded everyone."
The media descriptions of Sinedu and Trang invariably made them sound like twins: polite, gentle-mannered, petite, five-feet-tall, hard-working twenty-year-old foreign premed junior biology majors "destined for some of life's highest pinnacles." Under the heading "Two Quiet Students Whose Paths Met," the New York Times detailed the twinning: "They certainly seemed well matched. Both had risen from humble circumstances. . . Ms. Tadesse's father had been a political prisoner. At age ten Ms. Ho had escaped from Vietnam on a fishing boat. . . 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."
The deaths were also seen as wrapped in the mythology of Dunster House. Old and beautiful, by the banks of the Charles River, Dunster--one of thirteen upper-class residences--has an aura of gloom, and was connected with two previous suicides that spring. Students in the house recalled having seen the two students always together, taking courses, studying, or eating. As Leslie Dunton-Downer, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and an affiliate of Dunster House, explained: "In the mind of Dunster House Sinedu and Trang had this twinlike co-dependency--this complete linked heterogeneity, living together in one of those dark little embryonic double rooms."
Part of the sense of mystery was owing to the extreme rarity of the crime. Less than nine percent of murders are committed by women and almost all those are mothers killing their children or women killing abusive partners. It was the first murder between two students in the University's history. The last comparable crime at Harvard took place in 1849, when an instructor at Harvard Medical College, John Webster, killed and dismembered a former classmate, George Parkman, hiding the body parts in a school privy--a crime that shocked the Boston Brahmin community.
Sinedu and Trang's deaths presented a puzzle the university would prefer to have forgotten. A few months after the murder a letter to all Harvard parents from Harry R. Lewis, dean of Harvard College, assured parents that both girls had been integrated into Harvard's "carefully woven advising system." The letter concluded: "Although several news articles have speculated on what might have caused Ms. Tadesse to act as she did, it seems unlikely that we will ever have an adequate understanding of the event."
As it happened, the murder/suicide occurred just a month after a scandal when the Harvard admissions committee discovered that an applicant, Gina Grant, had bludgeoned her mother to death with a candlestick five years previously. A great deal of debate ensued: should a murderer be admitted to Harvard? The answer was no, the acceptance withdrawn.
Sinedu, however, was rarely spoken of as a murderer. A peculiar discourse developed on campus in which, rather than being viewed distinctly, as murderer and victim, the girls were recalled in one breath, as if their deaths were the result of some unfathomable blood rite, like a suicide pact, about which no one could say who was to blame or where the evil lay. In a small campus service of "Prayers and Remembrances" in which neither girl was referred to by name, the Reverend Peter Gomes, the university minister, said only, "For all that was good in these girls, Lord bless them; for the forces of evil beyond their control, Lord forgive them. Lord, heal, as well, the rupture the evil has made in our hearts. For words fail us; analysis runs cold."
There was a good deal of discussion on campus about whether there should be a joint scholarship in the name of both girls--a macabre kind of Political Correctness. There was a confused sense that there were two victims; as Diep Nguyen, the co-president of the Vietnamese Students Association and a friend of Trang's, explained, "In some way we don't understand we feel Sinedu is a victim as well--we're not blaming anyone."
"They seemed so similar," a student at Dunster House commented. "Why would anyone kill someone so like herself?"
Sinedu would certainly have been pleased by the confusion. A kindred spirit--a perfect partner to complete and mirror her, like the missing half of Aristophanes' divided egg--was something Sinedu seems to have believed, at one point, she had found in Trang. Through her single act of violence, Sinedu's reality became the ultimate one, linking the two girls through death in a common fate, so that in memory they are bonded in a way in which Trang has no choice, and which in life never existed.
Excerpted from Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder by Melanie Thernstrom. Copyright © 1997 by C Melanie Thernstrom. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.