Healing from Tragedy Just Might Involve the Land

Matt Collins

You wake up late on a Saturday morning, peeling yourself off the bed from last night’s celebration marking the end of a long hard week of class and studying (or just slacking off). In your slowly more coherent state, you realize game time is an hour and a half away and begin revisiting the festivities from the night before. The excitement of the first Hokie football game since last December coupled with memories of last night's binge drinking cause moments of nausea. Nevertheless, you choke down any form of liquid containing alcohol disregarding the gag reflexes you experience telling you to stop. You might mix the alcohol with your preferred form of medication to slow down the pounding in your head. Hurrying out of your apartment door you head to the bus stop, rushing to make it to the tailgate you promised to attend before kickoff. You arrive at the tailgate, just in time to share a beer with your friends and file in through the student gate of Lane Stadium while Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is blaring through the loudspeakers.

A typical story of a Virginia Tech student’s morning before the first football game of the season, I have lived this story and shared it with fellow Hokies since my graduation from the university. Although I was not present this year and do not have a firsthand account, I am sure many Virginia Tech students could tell similar stories on this past Saturday’s football season opener in Blacksburg, Virginia. But, as opposed to previous years, this year’s season opener contained a different atmosphere.

Flashback to four months prior, on a cold April morning, when you make your way to an early class. Your professor enters with his lecture for the day. Groggily, you attempt to pay listen and take notes until a loud noise catches your full attention. “Maybe it’s just a student playing a gag with fireworks,” you want to think, until you hear several more loud bangs and people screaming. The gunman comes to the classroom door, peeks in, and then opens fire into the room. In a heroic effort, your professor throws himself against the door, barricading it with his body. The teacher was successful in saving most of the students in the classroom, but sustained fatal wounds in the process. You spend the next two hours huddled with fellow students on the floor until law officials come to the door deeming it safe to exit the building. You emerge from the building in a state of shock. The only thing you are able to ask yourself is, “What the…?”

This second narrative is a story that will probably become a legend for Virginia Tech and the surrounding area. What strikes me as odd is the story of a different massacre that occurred less than half a mile away in the area that is now the Virginia Tech University’s Duck Pond. British colonists settled a small frontier outpost known as Draper’s Meadow in the area in the mid 1700’s. During the summer of 1755, in the midst of the French and Indian War, local Shawnee Indians raided the outpost. The Indians killed at least four of the settlers, injured others, and captured several more. As there are no mentions of a stockade in any of the massacre reports, the Indians were probably not met with much resistance from the settlement. The settlers abandoned the outpost shortly thereafter in fear of future attacks (Kittredge, 2005). The obvious theme connecting these two stories within the same locale is violence.

In addition to being violent stories produced within a mile from one another more than two and a half centuries apart, these stories are also linked to a body of water called Stroubles Creek. In order to build a drill field for Virginia Tech cadets, the creek was subverted underground and covered with soil from the area where the Draper’s Meadow outpost once stood. The university then dammed and flooded a small pond upstream on Stroubles Creek, where the soil was taken for the drill field, to create the Duck Pond for public and student recreational use. The Duck Pond is also functional as a stormwater management facility for town runoff (Crawford, 2002). I will further consider the University’s influence on the land linking these two stories in themes of covering up (or overshadowing), competition and flooding.

If we were to ask Stroubles Creek about its feelings upon being covered up and directed underground there might first be reactions of anger. Looking deeper, we might find the Creek’s anger as an expression of its feelings of inadequacy. The inadequacy might be a result of feelings that there is no room for its natural existence. The Creek can no longer express its natural beauty because the university’s cadets need a space to practice drills. Thus, with the place’s acquired sense of inadequacy, the redirection of the Creek underground is no longer solely an ecological wound affecting the environment, but also a wound to the Creek’s and the environmental space’s psyche (Chalquist, 2007). The creek saw the university as announcing its precedence over the natural land.

The more recent story, of gunman Seung-Hui Cho, appears at first to not carry any connection to Stroubles Creek and Virginia Tech’s decision to direct it underground. Nevertheless, if we look into the history of this young man we find this common theme of overshadowing. At the age of eight, Cho moved along with his family from South Korea to the United States. The entire family did not know English, and Seung’s sister Sun noted that he became withdrawn after the move to the United States. His family and school teachers alike noted Seung spoke very little and would not interact socially or communicate with words (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). He might have felt the new culture he was living in as covering over his previous identity at such a young age. He might have felt inadequate in this new environment.

Cho received art therapy for a severe anxiety disorder, while in seventh grade he molded clay houses with no windows or doors. By the time he was in eighth grade he his art evolved into drawings of caves and tunnels. These instances correlated with his therapist observing an increase in withdrawal and signs of depression (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). It seems as though his mental states and creative outlets were expressing a dark shadow cast over Cho’s inner life. After reading about Cho’s drawings of tunnels, I begin to wonder if any of these pictures resemble the water pipes under the drill field, even though he was not yet a student (and probably had not visited) at Virginia Tech.

The hidden and overshadowing theme seems to have appeared in the massacre story of the more distant past. In considering the massacre story set in the more distant past, I would venture to say the ecological/psychical wound sustained within Stroubles Creek and the space surrounding it has a deeper history. James Alexander Thom’s historical novel Follow the River, describes Draper's Meadow as an “Eden folded between mountain ranges” (Kittredge, 2005). The theme of hiddenness or covering up is already apparent. In cultural terms, the nations surrounding this land were additionally attempting to express their way of life over the others.

The Shawnee Indians attacked the British settlers in Draper’s Meadow because they were infringing on their hunting grounds. The settlers were disregarding the Shawnee’s ways of life, and taking over lands they regularly used for hunting (Kittredge, 2005). On the other hand, in the midst of war, the Shawnees did not converse with the settlers and attacked in order to run them out of the land. The land’s use was never discussed between the groups of peoples as a potential exploration possibly to answer how the land would most prefer to be used. The settlers obviously did not feel welcome in the new territory and retreated eastward away from the frontier (Kittredge, 2005). Each civilization was seemingly wishing to overshadow the other for land use of their preferred choosing.

The struggle of feeling overshadowed or attempting to overshadow another further produces an element of competition. In each of the stories I chose surrounding the land on which Virginia Tech was built, competition is an inherent effect of one element of life attempting to overshadow another. Seung-Hui Cho’s older sister, Sun, was a graduate of Princeton University, and has held several different governmental jobs and internships (Shulte, 2007). Sun also reported that while in Seung’s presence she found a letter of rejection from a publishing company that would not print his novel (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). It would be logical for me to assume that if Cho held feelings of inadequacy, they would be intensified with his sister’s success.

Competition was typically fierce on the frontier during the French and Indian War. The French, as hunters and trappers, were allies with the Indians during the war because they lived a similar lifestyle to the local Indians. The British colonists in Draper’s meadow set up the outpost as if they were wishing to stay and grow as a settlement on the land, and it was probably unknown to them the Indians used the land for hunting grounds (Kittredge, 2005). Furthermore, it is my opinion that the British and French competition for colonizing land in North America started a cultural feud that is still apparent in American and French peoples general attitudes toward one another.

One might think in the midst of animosity, either of these groups of people might try to “flood” the other out. Eventually, it is possible on an unconscious level this is what played out. In Virginia Tech’s actions that dammed Stroubles Creek to create a stormwater management facility (Crawford, 2002), the university effectively flooded the general vicinity the 1755 massacre that reportedly took place. Taking a look at this event psychologically, I might conclude that the Duck Pond flooded out the memory of the violent events that occurred in this location. The actual facts on the Draper’s Meadow massacre are so vague the stone tablet marking the historical event says a date that historians now believe is not correct. The marker reads July 8; while historians generally concur the actual date was either July 30 or 31 (Kittdredge, 2005). Could this manmade flood be indicative of a flood of confusion in the localized psyche?

From the perspective of Strouble’s Creek we might just get that perception. First, the creek was redirected underground upstream from the newly made pond. It is now emerging from underground to pour almost directly into the Duck Pond. The term “flooded with the unconscious” immediately comes to mind from a psychological perspective. In terms of the emergent unconscious, if our development becomes arrested at a particular point we may experience stress as a result of our psyche being flooded with themes of understanding we have not yet developed. In terms of repression, a psychical block would cause one to hold a flood of the feelings they are repressing in the unconscious (Wilber, 1996). The pond is holding what was previously hidden.

A biological and physiochemical assessment taken of the Duck Pond found that the amount of fecal bacteria entering the pond from its two branching sources (two different branches actually merge into the pond) is greater than the amount downstream from the pond (Crawford, 2002). Literally speaking, the Duck Pond is filtering the crap out of the two branches of the stream. Moreover, the dam is also blocking the Duck Pond’s natural flow. One could take the dam to symbolize a repression of Stroubles Creek’s naturally creative expression.

Young Seung experienced a dam in his psychological life. From the time he was a young boy his outward expressions were limited. His family took his extreme quietness to mean he was painfully shy. After all, he was moved from his home country at a young age to a new place where he did not understand the language. It could only be expected that he would need time to adjust. As the years passed Seung did not show signs of adjustment. He was eventually diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. In April of 1999, shortly after the student shootings in Columbine, Colorado, he wrote a paper expressing thoughts of homicide and suicide that disturbed his teacher (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007).

In response to the paper, Seung’s parents took him to a psychiatrist, where he was diagnosed with selective mutism and severe depression. A diagnosis of selective mutism meant Seung consistently failed to make communicative attempts in social situation in which communication is expected, as a result of anxiety. There was apparently a psychological block, which caused Cho to hold in his thoughts and feelings. Despite his anxiety disorder, Cho graduated from his high school’s honor program with therapeutic assistance and accommodations. He was accepted to Virginia Tech and elected to attend college there (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007).

Virginia Tech is located in Blacksburg, Virginia, a fairly quiet town in an area called the New River Valley. Perhaps Cho selected Virginia Tech because he felt he had something in common with the quiet area. In my experience growing up in the area, the New River Valley does not typically get a lot of attention from the outside world, with the exception of Virginia Tech football or other university events. Deep within this quiet mountain area lies a “world that wants to be heard, and wants it with such yearning that it grinds on our bones and grows weeds in our minds until we take it seriously” (Chalquist, 2007, pg. 69). I can remember a time in undergraduate studies when my perception of Christiansburg, my hometown and Blacksburg’s nearest neighbor, was that of a small town with dreams of being a city.

In a way I feel that I grew up with my hometown. Places that were nothing but farmland when I was a small child slowly became a Wal-Mart, then K-Mart moved in next door, and then a mall. So many strip-malls and chain businesses set up in a new bustling area on the Blacksburg side of town that downtown Christiansburg slowly became desolate. A part of me had been taken for granted. By the time the first Starbucks Coffee opened in Blacksburg, I had finished my undergrad degree and became sick of the commercialization. I looked at the long line spilling out the front door of the new coffee shop and wondered where all these new coffee drinkers had been when there was only the local shop across the street. I wondered what had happened to the town legislators who had always prided the local businesses in Blacksburg. Was the small town charm no longer relevant? Had I lost my charm? Is this how Blacksburg makes its name heard, opening a shop with a name known across the country?

In college that anxiety and a less than sufficient vocal outlet would begin taking a toll on Seung. He switched his major from Business Information Technology to English in his sophomore year and began writing fervently. It was about this time that Seung’s sister found the letter from the publishing company turning down his book. Seung took a creative writing class from poet Nikki Giovanni and his writings reflected anger of the way the class was being taught. His writing in that class would become increasingly disturbing. Starting with papers filled with angst against the class because they were not discussing poetry, his writing evolved into more rage filled papers describing other members of the class as low-life scum (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). Whatever blockage was causing Cho’s anxiety was reaching a tipping point. His writing was expressing emotional flooding.

Deep inside, Cho’s voice also wanted to be heard. Dr. Giovanni requested that he drop or be removed from her class because of disturbing writing and unruly behavior. After contact with other members of Virginia Tech’s English department, he finished the class with individual tutoring from another teacher. All of his writing during that time was about violent actions toward others because he did not approve of their behavior or authority. His tutor often offered to accompany him to counseling. He would eventually receive counseling for incidents of stalking female students and making statements regarding suicide (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). Seung was posting many red flags, but they were somehow overlooked. The emotional flood continued, and eventually the dam would break.

Seung would finally speak loud and clear in a video he mailed to NBC news after he shot two people in a residential dorm on the Virginia Tech campus. After mailing the package, he marched unobstructed across the drill field and the underground branch of Stroubles Creek. In a class building Cho would kill another 30 students and himself in what is considered the largest mass shooting in modern American history. A pastor from a Centreville Korean church spoke of the tapes saying, “that is not the Seung-Hui we knew. It was the first time we saw him speaking in complete sentences” (Kleinfield, 2007, pg. 4). Is this how Blacksburg makes a name for itself?

So return to the first football game of the 2007 Virginia Tech football season. You are there for moments of silence, for videos depicting pictures of the victims, memories of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation speech ending in the infamous words of “We are the Hokies. We will prevail. …We are Virginia Tech” (Transcript of Nikki, 2007). You have new awareness of yourself drowning your college experience in partying and weekend drinking. In addition, you note as many of the therapeutic community activities take place you do not feel it will reach a point of complete healing. Virginia Tech wins the game against East Carolina, the words of quarterback represent an overshadowing wound: “There was so much riding on this game, outside of the game itself. There was so much attention and emphasis on things that were not related to football. Our heads were someplace else” (“Emotional Hokies,” 2007, para. 37).

After learning more about the story surrounding the Virginia Tech massacre, correlating it with a similar event from distant history and the land’s psychical wounds of a local creek, I see it as obvious that the ceremonies can only temporarily heal the psyche surrounding Virginia Tech. I also see it as obvious that this locale is starved for attention not from the outside world, but from the people who inhabit it (or who it inhabits). Stroubles Creek and the Duck Pond need attention from residents other than being a place for leisurely recreation, to learn its purpose and understand its beauty. The marker signifying the massacre at Draper’s Meadow needs attention, if solely for the purpose of representing the correct day. Finally, the Virginia Tech community needs to mourn the loss of the victim it has singled out in the massacre, the man who believed his last resort of making connection with others should be through rage and violence. He became the community shadow lurking in the darkness behind the Virginia Tech massacre.

As an addendum: This has been one of the hardest papers for me to write. This is not only because the content is such a part of me while I feel so distant from it here in California, but also because it was hard for me to hold these three stories and the trauma they express. I would have liked to walk alongside Stroubles Creek, get to know where it is coming from, and where it is going.


Chalquist, C. (2007). Terrapsychology: Reengaging the soul of place. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books

Crawford, M. (2002). Biological and physiochemical assessments of Stroubles Creek: Winter condition. Retrieved September 2, 2007, from http://www.vwrrc.vt.edu/publications/Stroubles%20- %20Mary%20Report%20Final.doc.

Emotional Hokies shake of slow start, beat East Carolina. (2007, September 1). Retrieved September 1, 2007, from http://scores.espn.go.com/ncf/recap?confId=&gameId=272440259.

Kittredge, K. (2005, May 1). Draper’s Meadow: Few traces remain of the site of a bloody 1755 Indian attack. The Roanoke Times. Retrieved September 1, 2007, from http://www.roanoke.com.

Kleinfield, N. (2007, April 22). Before deadly rage, a life consumed by a troubling silence. New York Times. Retrieved September 3, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com.

Shulte, B. (2007, August 31). Killers parents describe attempts over the years to help isolated son. Washington Post. Retrieved September 1, 2007, from http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2007). Mass shootings at Virginia Tech: Report of the review panel. Retrieved from http://www.roanoke.com/vtshootings/panel_report/chapter4_mentalhealth.pdf.

Transcript of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation address. (2007, April 17). Retrieved September 4, 2007, from http://www.vt.edu/remember/archive/giovanni_transcript.php.

Wilber, K. (1996). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

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