Virginia Tech Gunman's Writings Hinted at the Demons Within

Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui's writings provide an inkling of the monsters that lurked within during the years leading up to the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history, according to a psychiatrist who analyzed the 1999 Columbine massacre with the FBI.

Cho shot 32 students and faculty on Virginia Tech's campus Monday before turning the gun on himself.

"I’m beginning to think that he could have been schizophrenic," Dr. Frank Ochberg, chairman emeritus of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, told, though he stressed that it's too early to jump to any conclusions about Cho's mental state.

Ochberg read two 1995 plays attributed to Cho, "Mr. Brownstown" and "Richard McBeef," and found the imagery suggests mental illness.

"In both of the plays you have the character John who seems to be standing in for Cho and then you have some monster man who is a stepfather or a teacher," Ochberg said. "The monster man ... he prevails, he destroys."

That goes against what one would expect for someone planning to exact revenge on a real-life antagonist.

"I expected John to kill the monster but it went the other way, as though the monster that’s inside Cho is getting ready to kill him," Ochberg said. "And he knows it’s inevitable. He’s dying and he’s taking people out with him because he’s enraged."

This differs from the writings of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the masterminds of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that killed 13 and injured 24.

"I see them as very different," said Ochberg, who worked with the FBI to create a profile of the pair. "I think Harris and Klebold operated from a joint conviction that they were superior, and they held others in contempt, and neither of them alone fit the definition of major mental illness. And neither of them alone was sufficiently capable of wreaking the havoc they could as a deadly duo."

Cho's plays are disturbing, said Gregory Mack, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"There’s a lot of sense of loss or being put down, somewhat neglected," he said.

Cho's case may be a case of a troubled boy trying to fight the demons within.

"If he's schizophrenic, if he's got a major biologically driven illness of the thought process, he doesn't have to be embarrassed by people in his life [to be set off]. It can all be coming up within his mind, out of the material that's in everybody's mind," Ochberg said. "And it doesn't mean that the media is to blame or that he's seen monsters in the movies or in videogames and that's to blame. We've had monsters in our minds since the dawn of time."

Schizophrenia, which affects a half-percent of the U.S. population, is a mental illness that can be difficult to diagnose at its onset, Ochberg said. Those grappling with the early stages may become defensive as they recognize their own mental faculties are failing.

"Along the way it blunts your instinct for social behavior so you look a little like an autistic or Asperger's person," he said.

One of Cho's suitemates remembered him Wednesday as a lonely kid who kept to himself.

"If I was told before that he was depressed or suicidal, I would have definitely kept an eye open and reported anything unusual about him," Karan Grewal said. "When I saw that he had no friends after an entire semester living with him, I would have definitely tried harder to be his friend or know him a little bit better."

But there were cracks in Cho's facade.

Virginia Tech police Wednesday released details of two encounters the department had with Cho in the fall of 2005 after receiving complaints from female students.

In November, police referred Cho to the university disciplinary committee after a student complained of phone calls and physical contact from him. Then in December 2005, police sent Cho to Carilion's St. Albans Behavioral Health in Christiansburg, Va., after one student complained about an unwanted instant message and another said Cho might be suicidal.

Also that autumn, Cho's professor Dr. Lucinda Roy alerted police to some disturbing writings Cho submitted for a creative writing class.

"The writings did not express any threatening intentions or allude to any criminal activity, and no criminal violation had taken place," Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said. "Dr. Roy chose to reach out to this student, out of concern for him and his mental wellbeing."

Roy did the right thing bringing the works to the attention of campus staff, experts say.

"The teacher had just right kind of compassion and intelligence to be disturbed by what was read and to make a referral," Ochberg said.

In the months and years to come, it will be up to a team of experts — detectives and psychiatrists among them — to decide what motivated the gunman to take 32 lives.

"We're just beginning to gather the evidence that it takes to reach conclusions, and nobody should have a scientific conclusion at this point in time," Ochberg said.