The day before Elizabeth Shin set herself on fire in her dormitory room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her parents and little sister drove up from suburban New Jersey for a quick visit. The Shins did not know that Elizabeth had been threatening suicide or indeed that the very night before she tried and failed to summon the nerve to stick a knife into her chest. They did not know that a school psychiatrist had considered hospitalizing her. And so they saw what they usually saw, or perhaps what they wanted to see: their giggly, harried 19-year-old caught up in her busy, overachieving life.
It was a last-minute trip, a Sunday jaunt with a trunk load of presents. After unloading on Massachusetts Avenue in front of Random Hall, the Shins lugged cases of spring water and tomato juice, boxes of cereal and lo mein, up to their daughter’s room. For a finale, they delivered and hooked up a new television and VCR. Elizabeth seemed like herself; she was palling around with a dorm mate whom she teasingly introduced as her male twin. Her eyes did look tired and puffy, but her parents knew that she had a lot going on, what with her studies, her clarinet performances, her fencing meets. That was M.I.T., they thought, and that was Elizabeth, always pushing herself.
During an early supper with her family at a Chinese restaurant, Elizabeth hunched over sheet music, preparing for a rehearsal later that evening of her chamber music quartet. She discussed getting passport photos taken for a summer trip to Korea, her parents’ homeland. She invited her little sister, Christie, to spend a weekend with her. And then she more or less ran off, and her father, as usual, shouted after her, ”If you need us, we’re only a phone call away.”
The Shins’ phone call came the next night, but not from Elizabeth. ”There’s been a fire,” an M.I.T. official began. The Shins have been plagued ever since by that final visit with Elizabeth. They suspect that people wonder about them, about how they could have driven away that chilly April night and left Elizabeth to her fate. ”Some people might ask, ‘How could you not see?’ ” Cho Hyun Shin, her father, says. ”How we wish. How we wish we had seen some sign. How we wish that we had known. How we wish, more to the point, that we had been told.”
Two years after Elizabeth’s death on April 14, 2000, the Shins have filed a $27 million wrongful death suit against M.I.T. in a Massachusetts superior court. The Shins claim that M.I.T., overly concerned with protecting Elizabeth’s confidentiality, failed to inform them of their daughter’s precipitous deterioration in the month before her death. This, they say, robbed them of a chance to oversee her care or perhaps even to save her life. M.I.T., the Shins claim, made matters worse by failing to act in their place, ”in loco parentis to the deceased.” The school did not provide adequate, coordinated mental health care for their daughter, they claim, nor a proper emergency response to the fire.
The Shins do not blame the intense character of M.I.T. per se; they do not claim that M.I.T. drove Elizabeth to the brink and over it. But, with 12 suicides since 1990, M.I.T. is battling a reputation as a pressure cooker, and it is against this backdrop that the university is vigorously defending itself. M.I.T. denies any responsibility for what it described in a statement as a ”tragedy.” More broadly, M.I.T. sees this as a high-stakes case that touches on timely, knotty issues affecting all institutions of higher education. ”We have to win,” an M.I.T. official told me several times. ”If we don’t, it has implications for every university in this country.”
Indeed, other colleges and universities are tracking Shin v. M.I.T. because it has the power not only to set legal precedent but also to sharpen an evolving national conversation about a more demanding, more needy and more troubled student body. Colleges are grappling to minister to what administrators describe as an undergraduate population that requires both more coddling and more actual mental health care than ever before. They are struggling with liability issues arising from student deaths. And they are scrambling to redefine their relationship with parents and their role in the nonacademic lives of students who are adults by many yardsticks, and yet not quite.
CHo and Kisuk Shin left Korea decades ago and met and married in the United States. He owns a real-estate business in Manhattan; she sold her beauty salon after Elizabeth died. Elizabeth was the oldest of three; Daniel, 20, attends Yale, and Christie is 14. The Shins make no bones of the fact that they always told their children, as Kisuk Shin says, that ”education is the most important thing in our lives.” And education meant all-around education. The Shins spared, and still spare, no expense in supplementing school with private lessons. Christie now takes eight such lessons, which Cho Shin told me recently he finds ”a bit ridiculous.”
For the Shins, M.I.T., whose undergraduate population is 30 percent Asian-American, was the gold standard. Elizabeth was accepted at Yale too. It is possible, her mother says wistfully, that Elizabeth would have been happier there. She was an artistic soul, and if her SAT’s were any measure, she was stronger in English — she got 799 out of 800 on her SAT verbal and her SAT II writing test — than in math and science. But Elizabeth wanted to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases, as she put it. If that is your goal, her father says, and you get into M.I.T., ”you don’t think twice about it.”
”As far as M.I.T., to me, it’s the best institution on earth,” Cho Shin says.
The Shins are strivers, but it’s not solely classic immigrant striving; they live in an upper-middle-class America where many parents believe in giving their children every opportunity to enrich themselves, to excel, to become Überkids. It’s a culture of ambition but also one of high anxiety that is shaping a kind of Generation Stress. And colleges, whose ever-increasing selectivity fosters this phenomenon, reap the good and the ill effects.
”It starts with the fact that it’s now harder to get into Harvard and to our competitors,” Thomas A. Dingman, an associate dean at Harvard College, said. This is true for good public schools too. The University of Illinois, for instance, recently raised its admissions requirements because it was being swamped by significant yearly increases in applicants.
Administrators, especially at elite schools, worry about students who start college ready to do graduate-level research and yet are unprepared to be one among thousands of other ”perfect children.” They talk about kids who seem as if they have been bred in a ”hothouse” and who, after a high-school experience packed with electives, college-level courses, test preparation classes, internships and after-school activities, are simply burned out by the time they arrive for their freshman year.
”More and more kids want to position themselves to get into college early admission,” Dingman continued. ”You have high-school juniors feeling right from the get-go that they can’t make mistakes. Everything is too costly. Ultimately, this makes some of them less resilient and less equipped to handle college.”
Nonelite schools also believe that their students arrive at college stressed out by a high-school experience described as replicating ”the adult lifestyle too much too early,” as Nancy Schulte, a therapist who works as an administrator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., put it. A greater number of them are working, to earn tuition money or simply to buy the extras that have become necessities: laptops and cars. Their school day starts at 7:15; their workday begins after school; their studying time — more pressured because of new statewide standards of learning and graduation requirements — stretches past midnight.
As a result, college freshmen’s self-reported emotional well-being hit a ”record low” at the start of this academic year, according to a large, national survey of student attitudes conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. And that survey, the 36th annual one, was conducted before Sept. 11.
The repercussions have been felt by campus counseling centers across the country, which report staggering increases in visits. M.I.T.’s numbers are typical. Between 1995 and 2000, visits jumped by 63 percent. In 2000, the last year for which numbers are available, some 12 percent of the college’s student body visited M.I.T.’s mental health services an average of five times each.
”We all have more needy kids,” said Bill Murphy, spokesman for the University of Illinois. And it is not just rising anxiety but a complex cocktail of factors that is driving undergraduates to seek help. First, the stigma attached to seeking counseling, although it still exists, is eroding. Then, colleges say, students are having more trouble coping because their family lives are more complicated.
And finally the student population has changed in one fairly substantive way. It now includes many more college students with mental illnesses and learning disabilities; because of improvements in psychopharmacology, they succeed in high school and move on to college as never before. Many still need help though, often more help than campus counseling centers can provide.
And that shows up in other statistics. M.I.T., like other schools, reports a steep increase in the number of student psychiatric hospitalizations — a 69 percent rise between 1995 and 2000. The overall number remains quite small, however. And, of course, some of those hospitalizations involve students whose problems first emerged only in college; late adolescence is the time when such illnesses as schizophrenia tend to manifest themselves.
But regardless of when a student’s serious problems first come to light, universities are very worried about this trend. Suicide, while still relatively rare, is the second leading cause of death among college students; about one-third of colleges recently surveyed reported at least one suicide in the previous year. And every student death produces a sobering ripple within a college community, prompting a period of self-examination and sometimes, as at M.I.T., provoking litigation and change.
In a sense, I met Elizabeth before I met her parents. Her family’s lawyer sent me a slick CD-ROM that contained pictures, writings, psychiatrists’ reports and documents related to her death. A photograph of Elizabeth as a beaming salutatorian at her high-school graduation was followed, without warning, by a grisly black-and-white close-up of Elizabeth with her eyes closed and tubes snaking from her face. Click, I saw Elizabeth the accomplished clarinetist; click, I saw the charred remains of Elizabeth’s brassiere on the singed carpet of her dorm room.
The disc also included entries from Elizabeth’s journal, which were found on her computer by the campus police. Who can know whether she anticipated that there would one day be an audience for her reflections? They certainly do not have a ring of finality. But now they are being perused by a bevy of lawyers as a portal into the bedroom where she self-immolated. And they give an idea of Elizabeth’s dizzying blend of charming, witty and disturbed thoughts.
Sometime on the day before the fire, Elizabeth apparently sequestered herself in her room, lighting four candles to create a soothing mood. ”Yoga chick,” she began lightheartedly, musing on a workout that had afforded her a respite from her crushing anxieties. ”Unfortunately, I can’t spend all of my life in a yoga position. Or, maybe I can?”
Then, quite suddenly, she shifted into dark verse, directed at a boyfriend who had recently broken up with her. ”May I have white roses when I die, my love?/ Will you place them at the head of my grave?” Just as quickly, however, she caught herself. ”Uh oh, I am in a morbid mood. I only write death poetry (bad unpoetic stuff at best) when I am morbid.” Elizabeth explained that she was trying to shake herself out of a state. ”Here I am, typing away aimlessly, hoping to exorcise my demons. Rats. It’s turning out to be more like exercising them. Are my demons in better shape than me?”
Kisuk Shin has not read these diary excerpts. She has not been able to make herself read any of the documents that her husband, with the help of David A. DeLuca, a lawyer, has so assiduously gathered. Perhaps Kisuk Shin protected herself from painful information when Elizabeth was alive too. Though she and her husband consider themselves pretty touchy-feely for Korean parents, they deeply and instinctively respect privacy. ”I do not pry,” Kisuk Shin told me.
When I visited Elizabeth’s parents this winter, I took a bus from Manhattan to the West Orange, N.J., skating rink, as Elizabeth had done so many times, and waited for her father to pick me up. I clambered into his black Lexus S.U.V., and we drove making chitchat to the Shins’ modest ranch house in Livingston. At the door, I took off my shoes and put on the cushioned slippers that Kisuk Shin handed me. We settled into their living room with cups of barley tea.
For my visit, the Shins had displayed photographs of Elizabeth on their piano and also a large vase filled with origami cranes that students brought to the hospital while Elizabeth lay dying. On the coffee table, Kisuk Shin had built a hill of greeting cards. Elizabeth, it seemed, had sent them cards on every holiday short of Groundhog Day. Kisuk Shin was sensitive to the idea that I might get an impression from M.I.T. that Elizabeth didn’t get along with her parents. Indeed, Matthew Cain, Elizabeth’s friend and dorm mate, had told me point-blank in an Au Bon Pain on campus, ”Liz didn’t like her parents, plain and simple.”
As if to refute any such idea, however, Kisuk Shin pushed toward me a Valentine’s Day card. Two months before her death, Elizabeth wrote in purple gel: ”I just wanted to let you both know that I’ll be thinking of you today. I hope that your day is filled with much love and happiness . . . and I’m going to be happy on Feb. 14 because I don’t have lab (no lab on Mondays!) and can celebrate by . . . studying some more!!! Yippee! Love, Liz.”
Kisuk Shin says she always believed that she was close to her daughter and that Elizabeth told her not only ”what a mother should know,” she said, but some pretty intimate things. (Sometimes, she disconcertingly speaks of Elizabeth in the present tense, but that is largely a language issue.)
”She talks about relationships with her dorm mates,” Kisuk Shin said. ”She tells me about her good friend, he’s gay. My friends, their children don’t talk to them about gay. But I don’t like to push her, because the time she’s with us is for relaxing. She works so hard. I cannot believe this girl.”
Kisuk Shin continued: ”I ask her, ‘Are you happy there?’ She say, ‘Yeah, I’m happy.’ And I know Elizabeth. She’s brilliant, beautiful, very self-oriented, very trustworthy. She’s the kind of girl, when she gets a cold, she goes to the doctor. When she gets knee pain, she goes to the doctor. She take care of herself ever since she’s young. And I believe in my heart that Elizabeth is in good hands — best hands — at M.I.T.”
Like many parents, and especially immigrant parents (whose numbers are growing), the Shins did not fully comprehend the nature of the university-parent-student relationship in America and how it has evolved over the years. Educators are so well versed in the way that the pendulum has swung from hands-on to hands-off and then started back again that they sometimes don’t realize parents and students are often fuzzy about the history.
Universities began withdrawing from their role as surrogate parents during the late 1960’s with a rapidity and completeness that revolutionized campus life. By the time 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972, curfews and dress codes and dorms were already archaic. Students were put in charge of every aspect of their lives that universities used to govern — from laundry to libido, as an education journal once put it. New federal privacy regulations made students the guardians of their own academic, health and disciplinary records too. Many students moved off campus, most professors out of dormitories. And parents? They didn’t really factor in. Colleges began sending students the bills, and the grade reports too.
With new rights came new responsibilities for students. Across the country, state courts found that colleges were not obliged to protect students from their own bad judgment; if they wanted to be adults, they would be treated like adults. In Colorado, courts concluded that it wasn’t a university’s duty to keep trampolines off frat-house lawns to prevent drunk students from falling off them. In Louisiana, the courts found that a university had no special obligation to prevent students from sledding downhill on garbage-can lids and crashing into light poles. In states like Massachusetts, where the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis has not been seriously tested — it will first be by Shin v. M.I.T. — it remained the law of the land; that is, universities were still, legally speaking, standing in the place of students’ parents. But it was presumed that it was only a matter of time before in loco parentis died legally as it had socially.
That presumption changed, however, after the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in 1987. Suddenly, most college students were no longer fully adult, altering the dynamic on campuses since drinking still thrived and binge-drinking gradually became almost epidemic. To protect against liability and litigation, universities began passing new rules that once again made them overseers of their students’ nonacademic lives. And then Congress amended privacy laws to allow universities to report drinking violations — and other risky behavior — to students’ parents, which most colleges now do. Some schools started parent orientation programs and began to engage mothers and fathers in a kind of co-parenting alongside the university; others simply started debating what parents should be told when.
”It’s a real Pandora’s box,” Nancy Schulte from George Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Public Health said. ”Is it fair to parents who are paying the bills to find out after it’s too late to do anything that their child has been asked to sit out a semester? If there are once again higher expectations on colleges and universities to look after the welfare of students, shouldn’t we be asking parents to help us? Or is that a real affront to the students’ right to privacy?”
No one expects a full return to the past. But it remains to be seen how colleges will redefine parents’ rights and responsibilities and their own new hands-on role. Many schools are creating so-called living-and-learning communities that break larger campuses into more manageable units and take professors back into student residences for the first time in decades. Even M.I.T., which long had a culture of granting freshmen a considerable amount of independence, has changed its housing policy — although, in a striking example of how tragedy and liability are reshaping campuses, that was a result of a student death before Elizabeth Shin’s.
In the fall of 1997, five weeks after he started college, Scott Krueger, 18, died of alcohol poisoning incurred during an ”Animal House Night” at the fraternity where he lived. For years afterward, his parents railed against M.I.T. for refusing to own up to any responsibility for Scott’s death. But in the fall of 2000, after considerable legal negotiation and a good deal of negative publicity, the president of M.I.T., Charles M. Vest, flew to Buffalo to apologize to the Kruegers. And M.I.T. paid them a $6 million settlement — which includes a scholarship fund in Scott’s name — acknowledged its failures and overhauled its housing policy to require freshmen to live on campus.
The Shins see the Krueger case as a model for what they expect from the university — an apology, a settlement that compensates them and honors Elizabeth’s memory and a change in school policy. But when I chatted with M.I.T. students, their greatest fear was that the university would ”overreact,” which is what many think the school did by changing its housing policy, and enter a new era of greater intrusion in their lives and closer contact with their parents.
In the Shins’ living room in New Jersey, the heartbreak, self-torment and anger were palpable. The Shins were engaged in what felt like a slow-motion wrestling match with their own feelings and, in a detached, enervated way, with each other.
They maintain in their lawsuit that their daughter developed her psychological problems after she arrived at M.I.T. The university denies this and says that Elizabeth’s ”emotional problems” predated her matriculation. ”They are taking the stance that they took over some damaged goods from high school and did their best,” Cho Shin said. His wife winced. ”Don’t put it in those words,” she said, grabbing her husband’s hand to stop him from making a slicing motion across his wrist.
M.I.T., which has chosen to respond to the specifics of the lawsuit only in court documents, backs up its assertion with what it refers to obliquely as ”circumstances at the time of her high-school graduation.” It is a reference to Elizabeth’s admission to psychiatrists that she cut her wrists very superficially after she was bumped from valedictorian to salutatorian of West Orange High School.
The Shins say that they did not know that Elizabeth had done this until it was revealed in the records that their lawyer obtained. They did know, however, that she was upset by what happened at the end of her senior year in high school; Cho Shin was, too.
Elizabeth, despite having the highest grade point average, was disqualified from being valedictorian because she missed a physics test, and she never made it up, giving her a D. He told Elizabeth, ”We know it’s not justified in your mind, but once you go out into the world, valedictorian or salutatorian doesn’t matter.” But he himself wondered if Elizabeth was denied the top honor because of racism. He considered suing the high school, he said, but he didn’t want to sour things with Daniel’s graduation coming up the following year. And then Daniel ended up having to share valedictorian with ”let’s say, two white girls,” Cho Shin said.
As her husband spoke, Kisuk Shin looked fretful, but she waited him out and then wondered aloud if he should have revealed this. She didn’t want him to come across as overly concerned with his children’s success or paranoid or litigious.
And her concerns are well placed. Although M.I.T. is tight-lipped about its legal strategy, the lawsuit, by its nature, has started a blame game about who is more responsible for putting pressure on a girl who ultimately put unbearable pressure on herself. And about who knew what and who should have come to her rescue — if, indeed, she could have been rescued.
The Shins insist that they were kept in the dark by a teenager who loved them so much that she didn’t want to disappoint them, worry them or cause them pain. M.I.T., however, is suggesting in its court filing that the Shins knew more than they are letting on and chose to ignore evidence of Elizabeth’s troubles and deflect responsibility onto the school.
It is, in many ways, a tawdry fight. And on the M.I.T. campus, it is reviving the trauma of Elizabeth’s suicide for those who lived through it and in many cases remain haunted by it. Elizabeth’s former dorm master as well as deans, campus psychiatrists and campus police officers are named as co-defendants in the suit; her friends are being deposed.
DeLuca, the Shins’ attorney, who specializes in wrongful-death and product-liability cases, told me that he doesn’t enjoy dragging the students back through the events surrounding Elizabeth’s suicide. ”I have a great deal of sympathy for the kids. As we see it, they were the ones who took the lion’s share of the effort to get some kind of effective treatment for Elizabeth. But M.I.T. had two years to extend an olive branch and open a dialogue with the Shins, like it did with the Kruegers — and they never did that.”
The Shins’ case grew out of a personal quest for answers that may not be obtainable, but it also grew out of an aggrieved sense of being treated from the very start, right after the fire, not like bereaved parents but like potential litigants.
”I can see how it would happen that way,” one college president told me. ”Our society has become so litigious that we are often paying more attention to the legal ramifications of our interactions than to the human beings involved.”
M.I.T. is a decidedly urban campus, with none of the leafy grace of Harvard, its neighbor on the Charles River in Cambridge. M.I.T.’s buildings tend to be known by number, not name, and there is a similar nuts-and-bolts quality to the education. The students pride themselves on being problem-solvers and entrepreneurial. In Elizabeth Shin’s dorm, the students have wired things so that they can tell whether the laundry machines and showers are in use by checking a Web page.
Some M.I.T. students rail at the school’s reputation as a pressure cooker, but others nurture it. ”There are those who take a quiet pride in the fact that M.I.T. is so tough that students are driven to their death,” Robert M. Randolph, an M.I.T. dean, told me. ”I’ve even heard kids exaggerate the numbers.”
Much to the chagrin of M.I.T. officials, however, The Boston Globe last year compared M.I.T.’s suicide rate with that of other schools and concluded that it had a festering ”culture of suicide.” It calculated that M.I.T. students were 38 percent more likely to commit suicide than Harvard students, and that M.I.T. had a suicide rate almost three times the national average for undergraduates.
M.I.T. officials, however, dismiss The Globe’s statistical analysis as meaningless. ”You can’t determine a trend with any number smaller than 20,” Phillip L. Clay, the chancellor said. It’s not that M.I.T. doesn’t think it has a problem; it just thinks every college does, given the rising anxiety levels and mental health problems of this generation of students.
Some schools choose to confront suicide frontally. In a highly successful, model suicide-prevention program, the University of Illinois targets those students who make a nonlethal suicide attempt as high risk. Every suicidal gesture or attempt triggers an incident report and a follow-up response. Students are ordered to undergo four weeks of mandatory assessment sessions, and some continue on in therapy. Of about 1,500 students who have gone through Illinois’s program over the last 17 years, none have committed suicide.
”Students who make attempts don’t voluntarily seek help,” said Tom Seals, the counseling center director. ”They are usually too busy reassuring everybody they didn’t mean it and won’t do it again.”
That’s what Elizabeth did.
By the winter of Elizabeth’s freshman year at M.I.T., she was starting to panic about academic success. M.I.T. seeks to ease the stress on freshmen by not recording first-year grades; students either pass a course or it is not mentioned on their transcripts. Nonetheless, Elizabeth saw it as a failure when she did not pass physics in her first term. She promised herself she’d redouble her efforts in her second semester, only to find herself battling an incredible fatigue. Then one day in February 1999, she found out she had mononucleosis. That night she took 15 of the Tylenol with codeine tablets that she had been prescribed. Her boyfriend found her disoriented and called the campus police, and Elizabeth was rushed to the hospital and then, as is standard in such cases, she was admitted for evaluation to McLean, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont. According to the discharge report, she explained the overdose as ”fatigue.” She was released to her parents, who had been called by Nina Davis-Millis, a campus librarian who served as her dorm master, at Elizabeth’s request.
”I was really shocked,” Kisuk Shin said. ”Nina Davis asked me, ‘Do you know your daughter try to suicide?’ I said to Liz, ‘I want to hear from you what happened.’ She said: ‘Mommy, I’m not stupid. I know how many pills you have to take to kill yourself.’ She told me: ‘I was so frustrated. There was a test coming. I had to study. I took what I thought was just enough pills to sleep really well and get up fresh.’ I believed her. I trusted her.”
M.I.T., however, said in its legal response that McLean records show that Elizabeth’s mother indeed considered the overdose to be a suicide attempt, adding that she was ”reported to be” not only saddened but also angry at her daughter and disappointed in her. M.I.T. also notes that the Shins escorted their daughter from the hospital right back to M.I.T.
Several days after Elizabeth got out of McLean, her boyfriend accompanied her to the mental health center for a follow-up visit with a psychiatrist. The doctor reported her mood as ”up and happy.” In early April, the M.I.T. doctor saw her again, noting that Elizabeth continued to ”minimize her OD” but ”feels happy that the suicide was not successful.” The doctor assessed her to have only ”situational issues” and recommended that she buy ”Feeling Good,” a book that bills itself as a ”drug-free treatment” for ”anxiety, guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem, and other ‘black holes’ of depression.”
Elizabeth ”survived” her first year at M.I.T., as she put it to a friend, returning home to work in her uncle’s legal office over the summer. The summer was very normal, her parents said. Elizabeth read ”Harry Potter” in Spanish, which impressed her mother. She talked to her family about joining the Peace Corps after college and then getting a Ph.D. in genetics. She jogged; she Rollerbladed. Elizabeth never talked about ”the McLean incident,” and her parents didn’t bring it up. ”She was so happy and relaxed,” her mother said. ”I can see her face glowing, lying in bed with her stuffed animals all around her. I knew that if she needed help at M.I.T., she would find it there.”
In the fall of her sophomore year, Elizabeth returned to her tight-knit dorm, Random Hall, a series of interconnected old row houses. She began the year with intense anxiety that she would not excel academically; her friends told me that she was objectively doing well at M.I.T. in almost every regard, academically, socially, athletically and musically, but was nonetheless overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy.
I asked Kisuk Shin if she thought her daughter was a perfectionist, and she said yes. Before Elizabeth’s death, however, she didn’t think that was a bad thing. She told me about a performance of the New Jersey Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in which Elizabeth gave a clarinet solo. Afterward, Elizabeth was practically in tears. ”She said this squeak sound came out of her clarinet,” Kisuk said. ”We said we didn’t notice any squeak sound. She insisted. We said, ‘If you did make a squeak sound, it’s done, you have to go forward.”’
Her sophomore fall, after a breakup with a boyfriend, Elizabeth voluntarily made her first visit of the year to the campus mental health center. A therapist there reported that Elizabeth told her that she had ”passive thoughts” about death — 10 percent of college students do, according to a C.D.C. study — but did not have any plan to kill herself. Elizabeth did, however, report that she was cutting herself, superficially.
The act of cutting had apparently become a habit. She described the self-mutilation in counseling sessions as a way of forcing herself to feel something when she otherwise felt hollow or to distract herself from emotional pain. In the journal entries, she described it more graphically: ”My blood spills out. No, it seeps out. It fascinates me to watch the little beads forming, coming to the surface, emerging until a thin red line forms and then wells up, spilling out of the incision, slice, cut, whatever. A moment of absolute interest and fascination, peace and beauty.”
In November, Elizabeth’s friends pushed her to meet with a dean. Elizabeth described the cutting to him, rolling up her sleeve at his request to show him six or seven scratches. The dean called M.I.T.’s chief psychiatrist and made an immediate appointment for Elizabeth at the mental health center.
The next month, Elizabeth sent an e-mail message to a biology instructor, in which she said she was despondent over getting a low score on a test. She confessed that she had purchased a bottle of ”sleeping pills” but that she fell asleep before taking any. Her boyfriend then walked in and saw her ”little pile of blue pills,” and she was caught, she wrote. She signed off: ”Sigh. I let myself down too much.”
The instructor, ”freaked out,” forwarded the e-mail message to a professor, who sent it to the same dean. ”No action was taken in response to the e-mail message,” the Shins claim in their lawsuit. M.I.T. denies this in its court filing but without elaboration. DeLuca said he sees the
e-mail message as one of many cries for help that went ignored. ”An awful lot was left to Elizabeth herself,” he said. ”You promise to throw away sharp objects, right? You promise not to hurt yourself, right?”
Despite the anxieties roiling Elizabeth, she did not hide in her dorm room and still came across as gregarious. In fact, her room was a magnet for her dorm mates because she had affixed to the door a protective torso from fencing; students would take turns putting their professors’ names in the name tag and then jabbing it with one of Elizabeth’s old épées.
By mid-March, though, after another break-up with a boyfriend, Elizabeth’s behavior grew more worrisome. After midnight one night, her friends woke up their dorm master to alert her that Elizabeth was very upset and had a knife. Davis-Millis, whom the Shins portrayed to me as very caring, rushed Elizabeth to the infirmary. There, the psychiatrist on duty described Elizabeth in his 5 a.m. notes as a ”quiet, sad” young woman who ”struggles with chronic feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness.” He wrote that she did not have ”acute suicidal plans”; his impression was that she suffered from a ”depressive disorder” and a possible borderline personality disorder. He admitted Elizabeth to the infirmary for observation; he released her the next day for spring break.
Elizabeth’s father picked her up; he knew she had been in the infirmary, but he didn’t know why because the school wouldn’t say, he said. He didn’t ask Elizabeth; she fell asleep in the car on the way home. Over the next few days, her mother took Elizabeth to a Korean grocery to stock up on supplies; she gave her a facial wax; they went with Christie for a Ladies Night at the Olive Garden. Kisuk Shin gently questioned her daughter about what might have landed her in the infirmary.
”We had some talk inside the car,” her mother said. ”I said, ‘Obviously you are upset.’ She said, ‘Oh, Mommy, I don’t want to talk about it.’ I said, ‘Whatever upset you, it’s not worth it.’ She said, ‘O.K., Mommy, let me be quiet and think.’ Later, we giggle. Make a lot of jokes. All signs, so far good. She told me she break up with her boyfriend. I say, ‘If he upset you in any way, it’s not worth it.’ ”
Until the very end, Elizabeth retained an ability to right herself that made it difficult even for clinicians to gauge the seriousness of her situation. To her parents, she seemed fine. They saw no reason to keep her home. But she wasn’t fine, and the next doctor to be brought into the orbit of her despair started Elizabeth on antidepressants. That doctor, an independent contractor working at the health center, found her anxious about her schoolwork and afraid of disappointing her parents, although she mentioned that Elizabeth considered her mother supportive.
A week later, a boyfriend accompanied her back to the mental health service; her friends were taking turns staying up late at night with her. They were all concerned, if not scared, and Elizabeth was upset about upsetting them. Often she would switch gears from hysterical to subdued by the time they brought her situation to an adult’s attention. This night, however, the doctor — the same one who started her on antidepressants — saw that Elizabeth seemed worse. She confessed morbid thoughts — watching herself bleed to death, thinking about hanging herself. The doctor instructed her to report to the medical center immediately if she felt she couldn’t get sufficient support from her friends or if she was suicidal. The doctor made Elizabeth aware that ”hospitalization is an option and may be recommended.” The doctor contacted a dean of students.
The next day, Elizabeth stopped by to see that dean to ask about dropping organic chemistry; he reported that she was worried that her parents would stop paying tuition if she didn’t graduate on time. ”She also said that she sometimes wonders why she worries about long-term plans because she thinks she may not live long enough, that she might just end it one day,” the dean wrote.
The dean did not contact Elizabeth’s parents, although, unlike a psychiatrist, he is not proscribed from doing so by privacy laws. But M.I.T., like many universities, does not usually involve parents; it asks students to do so themselves. Administrators only engage parents directly if they have reason to believe the parents will provide invaluable assistance. They decide on a case-by-case basis; M.I.T., like many schools, operates from the premise not that parents have a right to know but that students are adults with a right to privacy and a responsibility for self-care. And Elizabeth specifically asked that her parents not be contacted, M.I.T. officials have said. Her friends told me that they never would have considered calling the Shins, either, because, Cain said, ”getting them involved wouldn’t have helped, by our estimation.”
After another few days, Elizabeth was referred to an outside social worker, who quickly came to the conclusion that Elizabeth needed more than she could provide and started making arrangements for her to attend a five-day intensive program in dialectic behavior therapy at a center near M.I.T.
On Saturday, April 8, Elizabeth’s friends got so nervous that they called in the campus police. The officers found her crying, with another student’s arms wrapped around her. The student told the police that Elizabeth said she wanted to kill herself by sticking a knife in her chest but that she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The officers persuaded Elizabeth to go with them to the mental health center. The health center called the psychiatrist on call — another doctor still. The psychiatrist spoke with Elizabeth by phone, and decided it would be fine for her to return to her dorm. He jotted down in his report that she wanted to go to sleep early so that she could attend a yoga class the following morning. That was the class that she described later in her journal.
On Sunday, April 9, Elizabeth’s parents and little sister paid her that quick visit. Later that same night, she started melting down. She asked a friend to erase her computer files, told him that she was preparing to kill herself with a cocktail of alcohol and Tylenol, then fell asleep. He went to wake the dorm master. Davis-Millis phoned the campus psychiatrist on call. Together, they decided to let her sleep and contact administrators in the morning. Again, if anyone discussed contacting Elizabeth’s parents, it was not mentioned in the written records.
The Shins cannot bear the thought that everyone but them knew that Elizabeth was in a downward spiral. ”We know about privacy laws and we respect them,” Kisuk Shin said. ”But this was a life-or-death situation. They told us Elizabeth didn’t want us to know. Was she in right state of mind to make judgments?”
The next evening, Elizabeth locked her door and lighted some candles. At about 9 p.m., a student smelled smoke and heard a smoke detector sounding inside Elizabeth’s room. He wrestled with the door handle and called for another student; they could hear Elizabeth crying and moaning. Together they called the campus police and told the dispatcher that Room 421 was on fire and that its resident was suicidal. There were two sprinklers in Elizabeth’s room, but they did not go off, according to the local fire inspector’s report. The dispatcher told the students to pull the fire alarm and leave the building. Elizabeth’s dorm mates rushed outside without coats and, in some cases, without shoes. Then they stood shivering on the cracked sidewalk as emergency vehicles arrived.
The campus police officers kicked in Elizabeth’s door, found a fireball in the middle of the room and a young woman flailing about engulfed in flames. They blasted her and the room with fire extinguishers. The smoke was thick. One officer managed to fan it aside and find Elizabeth’s foot. He dragged her into the lobby. The police poured gallons of water from the dorm bathroom on her. They performed CPR, put her on oxygen, placed her on a stretcher and sent her to Mass General.
The Shins rushed to Boston. A doctor told them that Elizabeth had suffered third-degree burns on 65 percent of her body. Several days later, Elizabeth died, and the medical examiner ruled Elizabeth’s death a suicide.
At first, the Shins suspected ”foul play,” thinking, Who could have done this to her? Then they wondered if her death had been an accident — a desperate gesture for help that got out of control,” Cho said. Elizabeth, who was so expressive, had left no note; the self-immolation seemed out of character for someone squeamish about pain and seemingly too sensitive to put a dorm full of friends at risk. Cho Shin found a receipt for a week’s worth of groceries purchased just before the fire.
As the Shins gradually obtained more information, however, they came to accept the medical examiner’s conclusion. They came to believe that, although her illness was never fully diagnosed, Elizabeth had been mentally ill and finally succumbed to a potent combination of antidepressants, academic pressures and hopelessness.
At their Presbyterian church, the Shins know, the other Korean families pray for them. But no one pries. ”They don’t dare ask questions because this is a mental issue,” Cho Shin said. Kisuk interrupted him to say that there was nothing shameful about mental issues. ”It’s not shameful,” Cho Shin continued, ”but people think if we were the perfect family, why would someone suffer mentally?”
In the end, it remains unknown, of course, whether anyone could have predicted or prevented Elizabeth’s death. But these days more and more universities are taking the positions that they don’t want to fall short of trying to do all that they can. ”I think I’d rather err on the side of overextending to someone who isn’t in trouble than missing those who are,” said Judith Rodin, a psychologist and president of the University of Pennsylvania. ”We are a community, and we need to be responsible for each other. You can’t guarantee these things don’t happen, even if you create that ethos. We had two suicides this year after 10 years with none. But you can provide the social and psychological support.”
Like Harvard, which was traumatized by a murder-suicide in 1995, M.I.T. has started reordering its priorities. Clay, the chancellor there, talks about creating a ”more effectively caring community,” about sponsoring more official ”fun,” about putting more adults in mentoring roles in students’ lives. After Elizabeth’s death, the school created a mental health task force, although it didn’t include her parents or those of any other student suicide. And two years later, it is starting to put into practice some of the task force’s recommendations: increasing staff and extending hours at its busy mental health center, promoting ”campus-wide awareness” of mental health issues and resources and figuring out a ”communications protocol” for dealing with a student’s family in an emergency situation.
As M.I.T. moves forward, however, the Shins are feeling left out, even shunned. Now they see more clearly the clues they missed, and they regret that, working on the assumption that ”the university knows best,” they weren’t more aggressive with their daughter or with her school. If only, they say, again and again. If only they had known they could have done something — hospitalized Elizabeth, devoted themselves full time to coordinating her care, something.
”If they just let us know, just the one phone call, we — she — would be alive right now,” Cho Shin said. His wife nodded and dabbed at her eyes. Then she quietly began packing away Elizabeth’s personal effects — the greeting cards, the stuffed animals, the condolence notes. Christie would be home soon.
Correction: May 19, 2002, Sunday An article on April 28 about Elizabeth Shin, an M.I.T. student who committed suicide in 2000, misstated her score on the verbal part of the College Board examination. It was 790, not 799, out of a possible 800. The exam is scored in increments of 10 points.