Kafka suggested that to become famous, you just need to kill your landlady. (I never knew that particular quote, until I read this week’s Red Room blog prompt.) Perhaps. But he seems to have overlooked a far worse path to unwanted notoriety: Becoming the victim of a high profile crime.
Too often, of course, the victims of violent crime are forgotten. But sometimes they are remembered in a particularly poignant way—when their names are attached to legislation designed to protect future victims. Megan’s Law, requiring the registration of sex offenders, is a widely-known example.
It must be a bittersweet legacy for the surviving family, to know that the death of a loved one has had a positive impact, but at such a terrible cost.
In the past week, I have been thinking about the victim behind an even earlier piece of landmark legislation, the Tarasoff case, which grew out of a 1969 murder in Berkeley, California. This tragic case, and the family’s civil suit that followed, established the “duty to warn” for mental health professionals, when a patient threatens serious harm to another person.
WIkipedia has a good summary of Tarasoff vs. Regents of the University of California:
The California Supreme Court actually issued two decisions, in 1974 and 1976. They set an important legal precedent, and today most other states have similar laws. It was a sea change for the mental health field, and not necessarily a welcome one.
Therapists struggle with the implications of this complex ruling, because it requires violating the expectation of client-therapist confidentiality, which is also legally mandated. The so-called Tarasoff rule means, in the words of one of the justices, that the right to privacy ends where public peril begins.
The Tarasoff decision also states that it may not be sufficient to attempt to hospitalize a patient who has expressed violent intentions—or to notify the police. A mental health professional may also have an obligation to contact the intended victim directly and warn him or her of the threat. That is the part that remains most controversial.
I have been familiar with Tarasoff for thirty years. I have attended and taught seminars on legal and ethical issue for psychologists, where the case and its ramifications are always addressed. I have supervised interns. In my own practice, I have struggled with difficult clinical decisions. On a few occasions, I have had to make a Tarasoff warning.
A week ago, I would have said that I was very familiar with the Tarasoff case and with the legal and ethical standards that grew out of it.
But now I know the truth: I never knew much about the victim herself. All I knew about Tanya Tarasoff were the stark facts contained in the one or two paragraph summary you will find in textbooks.
It’s a sadly familiar story of stalking and murder by an obsessed and mentally unstable admirer. In most accounts, it reads like this:
Tatiana (Tanya) Tarasoff, a UC-Berkeley undergraduate, rejected the romantic attentions of a male friend named Prosenjit Poddar, a graduate student from India who was unfamiliar with American ways. He misunderstood her intentions and was devastated by her disinterest. He became obsessed and eventually began to have thoughts of harming her. At the urging of a worried friend, Prosenjit sought help from a psychologist at the student counseling service. The psychologist, alarmed by the threats, notified campus police, requesting that the student be involuntarily hospitalized as a danger to others. When the police picked him up, Prosenjit promised to stay away from Tanya, so they released him. Not surprisingly, he dropped out of therapy.
Two months later, Prosenjit shot and stabbed Tanya to death at the family home in Berkeley. Her parents brought a civil suit against the University, arguing that the mental health professionals and the police failed in their duty to protect Tanya or to warn her (or her parents) of the threats against her. A lower court dismissed the suit, but the family appealed. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled in their favor.
But the story of Tanya Tarasoff is more complicated than that—and even more poignant. I discovered this by accident, when I was browsing a used book sale and came across a long-out-of-print book about the case. The battered old paperback had a lurid cover—and a title to match: Bad Karma. But the price was right. And I was curious.
At first, I was put off by the preface, in which the author acknowledged that she'd taken a few liberties: reconstructing dialogue, creating scenes to fill in gaps, using some composite characters. (The book was first published in 1986, a time when "creative liberties" of this kind were perhaps questioned less.) But she had done extensive research. She also had the cooperation of the family, especially Tanya's mother.
Once I began reading, I couldn’t stop.
Now, after all these years, the Tarasoff case has become different for me. The place where it happened used to seem so far away, when I was living and working in Chicago. But now that I live in Berkeley, it all feels closer. As I have just learned, the crime happened about a mile from where I live and work, in a house that looks much like my own.
And it happened to a young woman who was coming of age at the same time I was, during turbulent years that I remember well.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders