Looking for Blame and Souvenirs From the 'Obliterated' Cho Family

Unabomber's brother, David Kaczynski, identifies with the family's plight.

April 26, 2007 — -- In the five days that elapsed before the family of Seung-Hui Cho issued a public apology for the 32 Virginia Tech murders, Americans played the blame game.

Should the shooter's parents answer for his crimes? Why was the response so late? Why has the family not shared their pain on camera?

"The court of public opinion deals harshly with these families," said Dr. David Fox, a criminologist from Northeastern University who has worked on numerous mass murder cases. "Family shame is not limited to the Asian culture."

Families of killers are hounded by media and public venom. Curious onlookers stalk these families, peeking through their windows and looking for souvenirs. Some families are so persecuted they try to sell their homes.

Last year Fox led a task force following a mass murder in Seattle. Kyle Huff, 28, stormed into a rave after-party and killed six people, then turned the gun on himself. The family had to plan the funeral in secret for fear of reprisal.

In another case the mother of a victim said she "had it better" than the murderer's family, said Fox. "They have lost a child, too. There's lots of sympathy for the victims, but not for the perpetrator's family. Everyone is suffering."

"Historically, we have blamed parents for anything bad our kids do -- since Freud blamed his mother," said Fox. "If we don't blame ourselves, we think 'I should have seen it coming or recognized the impulse.' It happens all the time, even when it is totally unfair."

In a letter released by Cho's sister Sun-Kyung, the family said it was deeply sorry for the tragedy, naming each one of the victims.

"We are living a nightmare," wrote the Princeton University graduate.

The family is now reportedly under a suicide watch, and friends have moved them from their home in Centerville, Va.

Some Korean-Americans wondered why the Chos haven't already killed themselves. "What happened was unforgivable," confided one grown daughter of immigrants, who is well familiar with the traditional culture of shame.

In the nuances of Korean society, community and family take full responsibility for both their children's triumphs and their transgressions.

"How your child turns out is a reflection on you," said Katherine Moon, a Korean-American and associate fellow at the Asia Society.

"Their son has, in effect, killed them too. The Cho family has been destroyed -- obliterated by their own son. You don't recover from this," she said.

No one understands the Chos' desolation more than David Kaczynski, whose brother was dubbed the Unabomber for the mail bombs he sent to universities and airlines. From the late 1970s, Kaczynski's older brother went on an 18-year rampage, killing three and injuring 23. A brilliant academic, Ted Kaczynski suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

In 1995, The New York Times and the Washington Post published the former mathematician's "manifesto" -- a 35,000-word diatribe against technology -- hoping someone would recognize the author's style.

David helped the FBI identify the writings and led them to a reclusive Montana cabin where his estranged brother was arrested.

Today Ted Kaczynski is confined to the federal Supermax prison in Colorado and has refused all contact with his brother and 90-year-old mother.

The Virginia Tech shootings "triggered a lot of dark memories for us," David Kaczynski told ABC News. "You are so full of questions. We didn't know Ted was violent, and we felt the same isolation as the Cho family. It's hard to disassociate yourself from your family member."

Kaczynski said his family was so tortured they considered changing their name. "What life is left for you?" he asked. "Will you ever have the respect of other people again? When they finally got a statement from us, I would have rather walked through fire."

But immigration experts say the Cho family faces a grief compounded by living in a new culture. Poor and looking to forge a new life and a fresh future for their children, the Chos moved to Virginia a decade ago.

Their then 13-year-old son -- uncommunicative and troubled even as a toddler -- was caught between two worlds. His family worried about him, but never sought help.

Rising up the social ladder is hard for new immigrants, said Frederic Bemak, professor of education at Virginia's George Mason University, particularly when they are isolated.

"It's a tough road to uproot," said Bemak, who has worked with Asian refugees since 1982. Family dynamics change as children enter school, learn the language and more easily maneuver the new culture.

The burden of having a child with problems is even greater in "collectivist" cultures where families and community are held responsible for a child's upbringing. In such countries, which make up 70 percent of the world, "social networks predominate and the individual is secondary," Bemak said.

Americans seemed baffled by the outpouring of apologies from Korean groups, but having watched the reaction to Muslims after Sept. 11, Korean-Americans felt "a unique combination of fear of discrimination, shame and embarrassment -- and a reflection on them," said Bemak.

Some criticized the Cho family for waiting five days to respond, but Bemak said the shock of their son's crimes was paralyzing. "They had to regroup," he said. "I have a feeling they didn't know what to do and were running scared."

Finding help for Asian immigrants who deal with mental illness presents unique challenges, according to Sung Ha Suh, assistant professor of counseling at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Emotion Is a Self-Indulgence

"Our parents' generation valued action and hard work," said Suh, a Korean-American. "Emotion is a self-indulgence. You aspire for the capacity to control emotions, so going to a mental health professional is a foreign concept."

The Virginia Tech tragedy has forced Korean-Americans to think about their identity in a more public way, as they try to remain loyal to their heritage while becoming American, Suh said.

Since the shootings, Korean-American stereotypes have been sadly reinforced, said Professor Moon of Wellesley College. Americans often view them in extremes: gun-toting shop keepers who staved off looters in the Los Angeles riots or mathematical brainiacs who attend MIT. "We've read a lot of viscous commentary with too little information," said Moon.

Some have criticized the Cho family for not speaking directly to the media, instead offering a letter. But writing a statement "is an understandable response," said Moon. "For a lot of Koreans, to put something on paper is a very meaningful and sobering act and carries moral weight."

Still, said Moon, the Chos will be pariahs in centers of Korean life, no matter how hard friends try to bring them back into the fold. "The loss is unthinkable," she said.

For his part, David Kaczynski hopes to reach out to the Cho family and help them heal in a most American way. His own experience has taught him that families of murderers can survive -- with the help of others. But, he said, "the process takes time."

At 57, Kaczynski now serves as executive director of the New York Citizens Against the Death Penalty. Working with victims on both sides of the crime, he has made peace with his past.

But he still remembers one event that he said "changed the course of my life."

Unabomber Victim Is a Friend

"Ted had hurt lots of people," Kaczynski said. After the Unabomber tragedy, Kaczynski made calls to the victims, expressing his sorrow.

One was Gary Wright, who had survived a 1987 Salt Lake City mail bomb with severe injuries requiring years of multiple surgeries. Wright told Kaczynski, "You did something very brave, and if you ever need to talk with someone give me a call."

The relationship has endured a decade. Wright even called Kaczynski on Sept. 11 when old wounds of trauma were resurrected. "It was tremendously healing for me," said Kaczynski.

"There is no way you cannot be haunted by what a family member has done," he said. "You go through this period of mourning for the life that you had. Your innocence is lost."

Over the years, the Kaczynskis have received 1,000 letters, mostly from strangers, expressing compassion for their grief. With support and time, Kaczynski and his mother have healed.

"Part of it is the realization that nothing can change the past," he said. "Try to connect with society and reconnect with relationships."