When the news about the two Harvard coeds who died in a murder-suicide first broke in May 1995, it sounded like the kind of cheesy true-life tale that might be made into a TV movie starring Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. Sinedu Tadesse, an Ethiopian student who fatally stabbed her Vietnamese roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, 45 times before hanging herself, had even sent a note and a picture of herself to The Harvard Crimson a week before the murder, cryptically promising a ”juicy story.”
But in the thoughtful and capable hands of Melanie Thernstrom (The Dead Girl), a 1987 Harvard graduate, Halfway Heaven is more than juicy. It is a surprisingly moving and powerful investigation of the nearly unimaginable loneliness of an outsider at Harvard, written by the ultimate insider. ”I loved Harvard and felt cosseted and nurtured by it,” writes Thernstrom, whose father is a Harvard history professor and who taught writing there herself in 1992. ”I loved doing my homework in the stacks of Widener Library. I loved having lunch with my father at the Faculty Club.”
Yet after traveling to Ethiopia to visit Tadesse’s family and befriending Ho’s relatives and friends in the Boston area, Thernstrom pieces together a story about how difficult and alienating Harvard could be, especially for low-income foreign students on scholarship. Tadesse and Ho, both 20, coped very differently with the challenge Harvard posed. Both had overcome difficult pasts: Tadesse grew up in a cold, emotionally abusive family and hoped her scholarship to Harvard, attained after years of backbreaking study, would be her ticket to a happy life; as a child, Ho had escaped from Vietnam with her father and older sister and did not see her mother or younger sister for 10 years. But while Ho was optimistic and well-adjusted, Tadesse struggled with an inability to make friends. ”The terrible news that awaited Sinedu when she arrived at Harvard was that, although she had left a great many things behind, she had brought her problems with her,” Thernstrom writes. ”The dreamed-of land had turned out — as in a dream — to resemble the inner landscape in which she had dwelt all her life: impoverished, isolated and entrapping.”
The most powerful part of the book is Thernstrom’s analysis of the often bizarre journals Tadesse left behind: spiral-bound diaries with titles like ”My Small Book of Social Rules,” ”Set Your Priorities,” ”Depression,” and ”Stress” that detailed her efforts to overcome her loneliness and mimic the social skills of others. She also wrote a long letter about herself that she sent to strangers over the Internet and to people whose names and addresses she culled from the phone book. In the letter she described her ”hellish” life and asked people to help her be more sociable.
But despite her awkward attempts at reaching out and even after several years of therapy with a college psychologist, Tadesse was unable to ever bond with anyone. Ho, with whom she roomed sophomore and junior year, was her last hope. But when Ho began to be turned off by Tadesse’s neediness and messy living habits and decided to room with someone else senior year, Tadesse snapped. That May, right after final exams, Tadesse stabbed Ho to death while she lay sleeping in her bed. She then hung herself in the bathroom with a noose she had prepared ahead of time.
Thernstrom could have ended the book there but she devotes the last part of Halfway Heaven to a brave and chilling indictment of Harvard’s reaction to the scandal. She is repeatedly stonewalled by ”the middle-aged white men in suits” who try to intimidate her, unfairly accusing her of unethical tactics and using her insider status to learn more about the case. As a result, Thernstrom finally learns what it’s like to be an outsider at Harvard, realizing she will ”never feel quite the same way about the school again.” A