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It’s the stuff of a tabloid editor’s dreams: A sweet, popular Harvard girl befriends an achingly miserable loner, and the loner proceeds to make the popular girl “the queen of [her] life,” seeing the popular girl as her ticket out of the depression and isolation that’s threatening to engulf her. The two become roommates, but the popular girl of course has lots of friends and family who require attention, and she has less and less time for the lonely girl, who grows increasingly clingy. Tired of the lonely girl’s neediness and “revolting messiness” but still feeling more than a little guilty, the popular girl decides to choose a new roommate. The lonely girl, jealous and already on the edge, falls into insanity, writing in her journal that “the bad way out I see is suicide & the good way out is killing.” So she drops a picture of herself off at the student newspaper with an anonymous typed note saying, “Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture.” On the last night of the school year, the lonely girl kills the popular girl by stabbing her 45 times and hangs herself from the shower curtain rod.
Even with no help from author Melanie Thernstrom, Halfway Heaven’s lonely girl (a student named Sinedu Tadesse) would be more tragic than King Lear and more pitiful than any character in Wuthering Heights. Pardon the English-major references—and if you can’t, don’t read Halfway Heaven. As then-Harvard English major Thernstrom wrote in The Dead Girl, her first book, “[My mother] once put her hands on her hips and told me and my friend Lisa that she never wanted us to use the words trope or metaphor or mimesis ever again. Living with you, she said, is like being trapped in a high school English class forever.”
Consider yourself warned. I certainly should have. After all, The Dead Girl had epigraphs from Milan Kundera and Clifford Geertz, plus a quasi-Proustian opening on how writing fails to recall the past. That book, which began as a senior honors thesis, was originally called Mistakes of Metaphor, but agents nixed that because it sounded like a grammar book. Thernstrom eventually earned a then-unprecedented $367,500 advance—not to mention a summa cum laude.
More than seven years later, Thernstrom is still nothing if not a good student. Halfway Heaven, her sophomore effort, is technically about the events of May 1995 better known as the “Harvard murders”—when Sinedu, an Ethiopian biology major on full scholarship, killed her Vietnamese roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, and then killed herself. But Halfway Heaven is also English 101, and not the For Dummies version.
Call it pretentious, call it intelligent—just don’t call it easy to read. I survived the GREs, but Halfway Heaven still had me reaching for the dictionary several times. Still, Harold Brodkey pronounced Thernstrom’s first book “better than In Cold Blood.” And I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish Halfway Heaven. Frankly, though, with material this good, you’d have to work hard to write a bad book.
It’s a gripping read—sometimes because of, but equally often in spite of, Thernstrom. Her cultural analysis and meditations on the nature of evil add depth to the book, while other parts, like her depiction of Harvard’s bureaucracy as the villain for its failure to get Sinedu help, are dry and clinical. They get boring fast.
Sinedu’s crime is awesomely awful. Said a teacher in Ethiopia who knew her: “Forty-five [times]. I tried it with a piece of meat and it was impossible. My arms were too tired. I had to give up.”
Sinedu’s diaries—which are public record, since the police seized them as evidence—offer a window into the girl and her losing battle to find friends at Harvard. She decides not to eat at meals with other students because she can eat any time, and she needs to use meal time to make friends. She must appear normal, she writes, and instructs herself, “Do not show off what you really think. Put on a mask. If you are talking about something serious, make yourself serious…” She calls one of her journals the “book of social rules” and records tapes of the rules so she can play them over and over.
Later, she decides her biggest problem is figuring out what people talk about with each other and orders herself to get up early and come up with three “fat” topics of conversation every day, and then give herself a grade for them.
Not long after her brother all but threw her out of his Dartmouth dorm room one weekend, she picked names at random out of the telephone directory and sent letters begging the addressees to befriend her. She also posted her plea on the Internet. A copy of the letter wended its way to her dorm housemaster, who did nothing.
The title Halfway Heaven comes from a phrase a friend of Trang’s used to describe Harvard as a ticket to the American dream, but for Thernstrom the university is not halfway anywhere—it’s the promised land itself, a place where she felt “nurtured” and “cosseted.” On the first page of the book she writes, “On one’s résumé, at work, on a blind date, [graduating from Harvard] 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.”
Halfway Heaven is billed as the book by the “ultimate insider”: Thernstrom’s parents teach at Harvard, her brother went there, and she is a 1987 grad who went on to teach creative writing there. Thernstrom’s status allows her to paint a fascinating portrait of two Harvards: her own cocoon and Sinedu’s hell. If you can get through the Harvard love-fest—which goes on intermittently throughout the first two-thirds of the book—without retching, you find Thernstrom “Looking for a Villain.” In that chapter, Thernstrom indicts Harvard for its poor counseling facilities, its hiring of resident advisers based on academic rather than counseling credentials, and its spin-doctoring. In the aftermath of Trang’s murder and Sinedu’s suicide, with swarms of reporters circling, Harvard claimed that, as the Boston Globe headlined, “Neither Student Complained of Problems.”
Other reporters accepted Harvard’s nonanswers and went away, but Thernstrom didn’t. She endured Harvard flacks who she alleges lied through their teeth, and she even traveled to Ethiopia to interview Sinedu’s family.
Thernstrom’s research is remarkable—the book is part biography, part cultural history, and part very successful psychoanalysis—but so is her self-absorption. Too often, she interrupts the narrative to complain about her inability to be nosy (“Am I really going to call the magazine and explain that I can’t get the interview—and I can’t even actually try?”). Thernstrom is as much a character in the book as Trang or Sinedu, and in this capacity she occasionally offers interesting insights into journalism: “Interviewing can work like psychotherapy….[people] want you to evade their defenses and talk them out of their reluctance so they can tell you what they know.” But more often, she treats herself as the protagonist, with the book’s plot tracing her fall from grace at Harvard. Thernstrom writes, “I knew, with a sense of loss, I would never feel quite the same about the school again.”
Thernstrom-as-character would be just fine if her search for information were all the information she had. But she’s obviously got tons of dirt. The only time her approach works is at the end, when she can give a personal account of the school’s loathsome spin control.
In 1992, when Thernstrom was teaching a Harvard seminar in autobiographical writing, a small, thin “heavy-lidded” freshman who’d submitted a writing sample that had “made no impression,” came to ask why she hadn’t been selected for the course. She’d seen “horrible violence,” she told Thernstrom, who dismissed her as yet another Third World student who would talk dramatically of poverty and turn out to be royalty. The girl’s name was Sinedu Tadesse.
“How intimately I would have known her—as I knew all my students—had I admitted her to the class,” Thernstrom writes. It is the supreme irony of Halfway Heaven that Thernstrom, who denied Sinedu the chance to share her story, invades Sinedu’s private diary to tell the tale herself. CP