Last fall, I wrote several posts about the landmark Tarasoff case, which established the duty to warn for mental health professionals. I was drawn to the personal story behind the tragic 1969 murder, which involved two UC-Berkeley students, after I picked up an old paperback about the case at a used book sale.
I wrote about it here and then here. I worried that I might be in the grip of an unhealthy preoccupation. I wasn’t sure what it meant or how to bring it to a close. But then I let the story drop—as a recent comment by a Red Room member reminded me.
So now I’ll pick up the story.
The book that triggered my obsession was a battered 1986 paperback called Bad Karma: A True Story of Obsession and Murder. The lurid cover—and title—were a not-so-subtle attempt to evoke the setting, late sixties Berkeley, as well as an image of the accused killer, an Indian graduate student named Prosenjit Poddar.
I already knew something about Poddar from the brief summaries that I, like most mental health professionals, had read of the case. He was a poor but brilliant boy from one of India’s so-called Scheduled Castes. The personal and cultural divide between him and a liberated American college girl of that time must have been vast. It provided fertile ground for the misunderstanding that transformed rejection into shame, obsession, psychosis, and murder.
But I knew much less about Tanya Tarasoff, beyond the basics: She was a UC-Berkeley undergraduate who became friendly with Poddar, although they never dated. Tanya was killed in her family’s home, in Berkeley. Her parents sued the University, pursued the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, and eventually won.
Still, I did have an image of Tanya and her family—forged in my imagination, long ago, and in a place very far from California. Oddly, it had survived intact, frozen in time, despite my having moved from Chicago to Berkeley thirteen years earlier.
The outline of the case, along with some assumptions I had made about the city of Berkeley, led me to this conclusion: Tanya was probably a professor’s daughter. At the very least, her parents must been educated, professional people. Who else would live in a university town—and take on the Board of Regents of the University of California?
Then I opened the book. It was not the cheesy “true crime dramatization” I had expected. Deborah Blum, the author, had been a sophomore at UC-Berkeley in 1969, just like Tanya. Although she hadn’t known either the victim or the killer, at the time she’d thought: this could have been me. Later, when the California Supreme Court issued its rulings, she became obsessed with the case and devoted seven years to research, including trips to India.
The book opens with Tanya and a girlfriend at the weekly Balkan dance class at UC-Berkeley’s International House. Privately, they mock the awkward boys with their halting English and damp palms. But the inexperienced Tanya enjoys the male attention. That’s how she meets Prosenjit Poddar.
That Balkan dance scene took me back four decades. I remembered my own chaste adventures at a sister I-House at the University of Chicago, on a blind date with a shy, damp-handed Filipino graduate student. Just like Tanya, I was naïve but eager, tiptoeing my way around an enticing world—the liberated sixties—that I did not know how to enter.
But the parallels between my experience and Tanya’s ended there. She was not what I had imagined—and not even close to being a sophisticated Berkeley professor’s daughter.
Tanya Tarasoff was an immigrant. Her Russian parents had met in Manchuria, where her father was a railroad laborer. They married and managed to immigrate to Brazil, where Tanya and her brother were born. After years of waiting, the family finally got the visa that allowed them to leave Brazil for California. Tanya was thirteen, her brother eleven, when they arrived. A few years later, a little sister was born.
The Tarasoffs were a working class, Orthodox Christian, Slavic family. Life revolved around a violent, alcoholic father who worked as an auto mechanic; a passive homemaker mother; and a surly younger brother who dropped out of high school to work at a gas station. Incredibly, he had become Poddar’s roommate at the time of the murder.
Tanya’s father, as depicted in the book, was an unsavory character. He forbade his daughter to date and monitored her chastity with an incestuous zeal. He convinced Tanya that she was too stupid to attend a university. When she first met Poddar, she was a community college student. She went behind her father’s back and arranged to transfer to Berkeley the following year.
Tanya was murdered before she could complete the fall semester.
Tanya never felt she fit in—at Berkeley High or at the university. She wasn’t much more at ease in America than the foreign students she met at International House.
I had a heart-stopping moment of recognition. Change a few details, and Tanya’s people would have fit right in to the maternal side of my family tree. For more than a year, I had been obsessed with finding the truth about my dark Slovenian roots. Now I had discovered yet another dysfunctional, alcohol-ridden Slavic immigrant family, hidden in the shadows of this story I thought I understood so well.
To be continued.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders