Lessons in Law: Is a student writer paying for our post-Columbine hysteria?

January 10, 2001


"Twister" is the title of a story told by a 15 year-old boy to his creative writing class. It is the tale of an unnamed boy who had been "harassed and tortured all his life until he was at the brink of insanity and sanity," and , having discovered that life was pain, "retreated from the world." It describes his bad mood on a particularly bad day and alludes to dark thoughts that no one could see. It ends abruptly: "he went happily along, waiting for the right moment. He decided to detonate at 12:12 p.m. exactly. Everyone would be having lunch and having fun."

Because the author was a bit different and had himself probably been bullied, his classmates immediately assumed the story was autobiographical. And since the young writer chose not to bring the story to a "blood and gore" climax, everyone was left wondering as to what would happen next. Rumours began to fly around the school that he had a plan and that "the 13 packages of C-4explosives and the detonator" were for real.

With the gruesome images of mass killings in schools still fresh in our minds, it is understandable that authorities at Tagwi Secondary in Avonmore, near Cornwall, would become concerned about the rumours. It makes sense they would question the boy. When he denied having any plans and said the story was nothing more than his drama assignment, one might wonder why they suspended him. However, in the wake of a panic among students and their parents, that may have been necessary.

But, when two weeks later police raided the family home and, after searching the house and finding no evidence of planned violence, they handcuffed and arrested the boy, I was left thinking that "Columbine panic" had gone too far.

When a boy is charged with uttering death threats and spends the Christmas holidays in a detention center because he wrote a story in which the central character plans to kill fictional students in a fictional school, what does this mean? Is this boy truly dangerous? Is he guilty of some gruesome intent? Did he really threaten to kill his peers? Is his story "a twisted cry for help," as many of those rallying around him now suggest?” Or was it just an effective piece of fiction?

I asked the well-known Canadian author and creative writing teacher, Sharon Butala to read his story. She was not shocked by its content.

"Teenagers," she notes, "often write about death, suicide and killing. It is on their minds, in the papers, in published fiction and in the movies. It's an idea in their mind not something that they are necessarily planning to do."

Creative writing courses are intended to encourage students to write from their own experience, expressing moods and feelings, giving their story a twist and doing it dramatically to catch the reader's interest. From what we know of this young boy, that's what he did. Reportedly, he had often been picked on by other students, so he could identify with his protagonist's feelings of anger and despair. And probably, like any good writer, he researched the topic to get the details right. And evidently, he wrote it in a persuasive fashion that caught his audience's attention.

"If I knew nothing about this boy and just read the piece," Butala says, "I'd have thought it a pretty good piece of writing for an average student in Grade 11." Not a bad comment from a successful author to a budding writer.

However, instead of being encouraged, he is being treated as a dangerous criminal. Though prosecutors have not made public any evidence save the essay - no list of targets, no plan, no explosives, no weapons - the boy stands charged.

All of this is on the assumption that he is writing about himself. But no one charges Stephen King after reading one of his horror stories, dripping in blood and gore. And no one accuses Booker Prize winner Pat Barker, whose novel, Another World, describes a child who almost kills his little brother because he is bullied in the community he lives in and nobody understands just how bad it is, of having a criminal mind.

"Nobody has the right," Butala asserts, "o assume that this young man is talking about himself if he wrote this in a creative writing class."

But, of course, everybody does. For decades psychiatrists have been writing psycho-biographies of famous authors, suggesting to us that by analysing their works we can detect their psychopathology. With their encouragement and the musings of literary reviewers, we have come to believe that we can know a writer by his or her fiction. We assume that we can read intent and predict crime or detect a cry for help.

In the moral panic to prevent another Columbine or Taber, have the gates have been opened for people to be charged for what they might do, for their thoughts and fantasies? What if, instead of being a dangerous threat, an emerging criminal, or a psychological casualty, this boy is a budding author? Creative writing is his favourite course. He aspires to be a writer and, as evidenced by the reaction to this story, he may have some talent.

The assistant Crown attorney wants to keep him locked up because he "dwells on death and violence" and betrays feelings which are "disturbing psychologically." With foreboding, she asks: "What's he going to do for an encore?"

Perhaps he'll write a story about a boy who is arrested for a thought crime, and leave the ending open.

For Background Article


by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,
The Ottawa Citizen


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,