My interest in Tanya Tarasoff began last September, when I wandered into a used book sale in my Berkeley neighborhood. I picked up a copy of an out-of-print paperback called Bad Karma, which turned out to be a vivid novelization of the notorious 1969 UC-Berkeley student murder.
As a psychologist, I was already very familiar with the legal precedent that had grown out of the case, the so-called Duty to Warn, sometimes known simply as the Tarasoff Rule. In most states, a therapist is now required to warn or protect the intended victim, if a client threatens serious harm. I knew all about the legal and ethical arguments that had swirled around this controversial ruling, and I knew how to implement it in my professional life. But I never knew more than a few details about the victim herself.
After I read that book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tanya Tarasoff. I began to feel haunted by her story.
Tanya's story resonated for me at many levels. We had both been college students in the late 1960s. I had made my home in Berkeley for the last fourteen years. So the time and the place were very real for me.
But the big surprise was an unexpected parallel in our family backgrounds. I’d always imagined that Tanya was a Berkeley professor’s daughter. But the Tarasoffs turned out to be a working class Russian immigrant family who struggled with poverty, alcoholism, and a harsh, sometimes abusive father. It reminded me of my mother’s stories of her Slovenian American family, which I had begun to chronicle in the past year.
From the book, I was able to figure out the location of the Tarasoff house. It was about a mile from my own home, as it turned out. I felt compelled to see it for myself. I wrote about my first visit here.
My second visit, a week later, was even more unsettling. A black cat, looking very much like my own, suddenly appeared in the driveway and glared at me. I kept picturing a nineteen-year-old-girl, bleeding to death on her parents' lawn, in front of a bungalow that looked so much like my own.
I continued to walk by the Tarasoff house about once a week, or whenever I was in the neighborhood. I approached from different directions, sometimes from across the street. Except for the black cat, I never saw a sign of life.
I didn’t know why I kept making this strange pilgrimage—or what, exactly, I was seeking. I kept wondering what happened to Tanya’s surviving family. She’d had a younger brother and a sister. How had they survived that kind of trauma? How did her parents manage to go on?
I wanted to find meaning in their suffering. Or at least closure.
Then it ended. I stopped walking by the house. I even left the story hanging on Red Room, until a reader pointed it out.
Here is how it ended. The final chapter.
One weekend in the fall, I decided to walk over to the big yearly street fair held on Solano Avenue. It is always a festive event, aimed at families and kids. The street is filled with musicians, concession stands, arts and crafts, and booths for community organizations. But I knew I had a darker agenda, too: one more visit to the Tarasoff house.
But before I turned off Solano, a booth caught my eye. It was a display for a local organization called WriterCoach Connection. The group trains volunteer writing coaches to work with students in nearby public schools. I’d read about this organization about six months earlier, but had just missed the deadline to sign up. What luck! Here they were again. And I was just in time to sign up for one of their last trainings, before the fall term started.
It was good timing, all right—more than I realized. It was just what I needed to help me pull away from an unhealthy preoccupation with a tragedy from the past that I could do nothing about.
In October, I started volunteering once a week as a writing coach at a middle school near my house. I’ve written about it here. I was sad to see the school year end. I’ll be back next year.
After that street festival, I somehow stopped visiting the Tarasoff house, even though I’m in the neighborhood at least once a week.
I no longer feel quite so haunted by Tanya’s story. I like to think I’m channeling my concern for others in a healthier direction.
A few weeks ago, I decided to visit the house again. This time, it didn’t look nearly as foreboding. As I walked away, I passed a group of children and a couple of mothers, walking in the opposite direction. They were probably coming from the nearby school. I felt lightened by the sight.
I turned and watched them. I lost sight of the little group when they passed the old Tarasoff house. Maybe they even turned in there. I hoped so. I liked to think of that house filled with happier voices.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders