A work of art or a harbinger of violence?
Grisly short story gets student expelled from S.F. academy -- and costs teacher her job
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Clarification: Jan Richman, the former writing instructor who is the subject of the following story, has written as a freelance contributor to SFGate, the online partner of The Chronicle.
Jan Richman had seen the work of some hyperactive imaginations in her time as an art-school writing instructor. This was something else entirely.
The quiet freshman from Seattle who sat in the back row had submitted a disturbing short story, a fictitious first-person account of a young serial killer. The story was so rife with gruesome details about sexual torture, dismemberment and bloodlust that the teacher panicked, wondering what to do now that she had already handed out copies to her class to take home and read.
"I've read a lot of student stories where they're trying to emulate some shock genre," Richman said last week. "This was different. It was full of sex and violence, incest, pedophilia. There was no story, no character development -- just hacking up bodies."
Still, she said, "he was definitely bright, and I thought there were parts of the story that were well written.'' In addition, it was not the first serial-killer story she had read in her six semesters on the faculty at the Academy of Art University (formerly College) in San Francisco: "It was not even the first story that had somebody slicing off someone's nipples."
Nevertheless, she went to her department coordinator looking for advice. Should she confront the student before the next class?
Though the story was cause for concern, Richman could not possibly have envisioned how far its implications would stretch. Before the week was out, the student was expelled and sent home, the instructor was fighting for her job, and many students and faculty were left wondering about issues of artistic and academic freedom in the post-Columbine era of heightened fear over student safety. The initial reaction was much less sensational. Tom Molanphy, head of the school's writing division, read the student's story and took notes. Richman said Molanphy suggested the instructor have her students read the first chapter of Alice Sebold's recent bestseller, "The Lovely Bones, " a novel about a 14-year-old rape and murder victim, for comparison. That story was a good example of grisly details presented in the service of literature. The student seemed to need a lesson in avoiding gratuitous repulsiveness.
According to Richman, Molanphy's advice was to "deal with it however you feel comfortable." But what happened next, just before last Christmas, made the instructor feel anything but comfortable.
News of the story shot up the administrative ladder, from Eileen Everett, chairman of the liberal arts department, to Vice President Sue Rowley and to President Elisa Stephens, granddaughter of the school's founder. By the time Richman's weekly class was set to reconvene, the university's director of security had called in the San Francisco Police Department's homicide division.
After a brief interrogation in his dormitory, the student, who did not respond to The Chronicle's requests for comment, was put on a plane and sent home to his family. The next day, according to Richman, the young man's parents called the university, alleging that their son had been encouraged to write about violence after reading a short story assigned in Richman's Narrative Storytelling class.
The story was "Girl With Curious Hair," the title piece of a 1988 collection by David Foster Wallace, author of "Infinite Jest," one of the most widely acclaimed novel of the 1990s. "Girl With Curious Hair" features a character called Sick Puppy, a yuppie who hangs out with a crowd of punk rockers for cheap thrills. One of the young women lets him extinguish matches on her skin.
Richman assigned the story, she said last week, as an example of "an unsympathetic narrator, a guy who is sadistic and sexist." But the story was not part of the class's authorized textbook, and fellow instructors say administration officials were angry that Richman had not offered the information sooner.
According to Richman, no one in the administration was familiar with the author, and Rowley and Stephens were none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace's story. "Nobody had ever heard of him," she said. "In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.''
In a series of meetings, Richman said, administrators warned her about her attitude. Despite her consistently high evaluations from students, the administrators suggested that she solicit character references from her colleagues.
"Am I on trial?" she remembered asking. "I need character witnesses now?"
She left for the holiday break uncertain of her job status. On Jan. 2 she found out: Molanphy, the English coordinator, sent an e-mail informing Richman that Rowley would not rehire her for the new semester.
She requested a reason for her dismissal, but none was forthcoming, she said. As an adjunct professor, like the majority of instructors at the private university, she was employed on a semester-by-semester basis. She contacted Lawyers for the Arts but was told that as long as the university declined to state a reason for dismissal, she had no case.
Senior Vice President of Public Relations Sallie Huntting would not acknowledge the fate of the student and the instructor, citing a university policy prohibiting comment on "personnel matters."
"Certainly there is a lot of creativity, and we encourage that," she said. "But when there is a questionable or disturbing issue, we contact the proper authorities.''
In an interview, Richman recounted her version of events last week sitting in the kitchen of her Dolores Street flat, where she now ekes out a living selling vintage clothing on eBay. The author of an award-winning poetry collection called "Because the Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything," she made no mention of the title of the student story that has caused her such grief: It is called "A Complete Loss of Hope."
Several of Richman's former students and colleagues say that both she and the student have been treated unfairly by the university and that the incident has fueled a climate of fear and repression that seems especially out of place at an art school, particularly one in San Francisco.
"These are college students, and I consider them adults," said one of Richman's fellow instructors, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Sometimes you have to teach them things that are a little edgy or else you're looking down on them.
"This is literature. Sex and violence are everywhere in literature."
Wallace, a creative writing professor at Pomona College who holds a chair endowed by Roy Disney, was surprised to hear that his story might have been instrumental in an expulsion and a fellow teacher's dismissal.
"If this college is taking it upon itself to protect kids," he said, "there are going to be a whole lot more books other than mine that they would not want them reading.''
Never a homicide case
SFPD Homicide Inspector Holly Pera confirmed that the university's director of security had turned the story over to the Police Department's Behavioral Sciences Unit, which in turn referred it to Homicide.
"This was never an open homicide case," she said, though she acknowledged she and her partner had consulted with a criminal profiler.
They uncovered no indication that the student had engaged in any wrongdoing -- no threats, no suspicious behavior. "We have no evidence that it was anything other than a story," Pera said. (As a result, The Chronicle has withheld the young man's name).
The student "has been interested in this stuff since he was a young child, and his parents were aware of some of his interests in this."
Apprehension over the content of the student's story grew when the university learned that the author also had brought a violent animation clip to film class after an instructor had screened excerpts of "Seven," the stylish 1995 serial-killer feature that was widely noted for its visual innovation.
Some classmates said that while they thought the expelled student's story was horrific, they already knew him to be preoccupied with slasher movies and books such as Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho."
"He seemed like a normal kid with a normal life," said Timothy Loui, who is studying 3-D design. "He liked video games and watching Japanese animation. He was a sociable guy."
And some students rushed to defend Richman. "She has totally been treated unfairly," said Chris Logan, a 3-D animation major, upon hearing that she hadn't been rehired this semester. "She was awesome, one of the best teachers I've had in the school."
Logan, 32, once worked as a civilian contractor for the military. He believes Richman handled the situation properly. "She took it up the chain of command," he said. "She did what she had to do. Does she deserve to get laid off?"
Many expressed the opinion that counseling rather than expulsion might have been appropriate for the student. However, Logan said, the school, which costs about $14,000 a semester including tuition, room and board, does not offer the sort of qualified counseling help the student may have needed.
"They have student advocates," he said. "They are not counselors, people with college degrees that a large university would have."
Inspector Pera agreed: "They don't have counselors on staff per se. The bottom line is, the school does not have a psychologist on staff to be able to review something like this."
Alan Kaufman, author of "Jew Boy" and editor of "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry,'' teaches modern art and popular culture at the school and has taught sections of Narrative Storytelling. "The (school's) system is based on corporate greed,'' he said. "It doesn't even give the bare minimum to students in terms of psychiatric counseling or social services. It just treats kids like credit cards, like clients, basically. There is no artistic vision."
Founded in 1929, the Academy of Art is the largest private art institution in the country, with 7,200 students. With several campuses in prime downtown locations, the university is said to be one of the largest real estate developers in San Francisco.
Kaufman was one of several instructors who were called in to assess the student's story. He said he had told the administration that despite the macabre subject matter, it was the work of a potentially talented writer.
"Some of these kids don't even have a beginner's grasp of grammar," he said. "That was an original story. You get a kid who did what that kid did, you should praise him to the skies. Instead, they called (the police) on him."
The novelist Wallace was equally dumbfounded. "You don't punish a kid for doing a story that's all (gratuitous content), because they're beginners," he said.
He acknowledged that potentially offensive material was a delicate topic on college campuses. "This stuff gets really tricky," he said. "It's a combination of moral spasms and legal terror."
One of Richmond's former colleagues, who declined to give his name, said he considered the administration's actions to be a matter of image control. "They don't want parents seeing sensationalized violence and sex," he said. "It's a marketing issue for them.''
'A real chill'
But such scrutiny "makes the students feel like they could get expelled for what their imagination gives them,'' he said. "It puts a real chill on writing classes.''
In the aftermath of the incident, students and teachers say they are the ones being victimized in an atmosphere of hysteria.
Kaufman said one of his students had recently been asked to leave the school when she submitted a paper alluding to suicide threats. Like Richman, the instructor approached his superiors for advice on possible counseling services, only to see the student swiftly expelled.
"They asked me if I plan to use my book 'Outlaw Bible' in class, because there are dirty poems in the book," he said. "The move is toward repression."
Kaufman says he teaches the free-speech trials of Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg in his popular culture class. Each semester, he takes his students to the City Lights bookstore and tells them, "We're here in San Francisco, where freedom of speech has been challenged again and again. You are artists. You are the front line of free speech in this society, and you have to define that line with passion and courage."
"This is supposed to be a school of creativity," said Logan, the 3-D animation major. The young man who got expelled "was a little strange," he said, "but honestly, all art students are. We're all a little weird in our own way."
Chronicle staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken contributed to this report.E-mail James Sullivan at email@example.com.
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