… Cecilia Chang, the former dean at St. John’s University who has been on trial in New York (background here), has hanged herself.

The judge who questioned her yesterday calls her death “a Shakespearean tragedy.”

For UD, who thinks here of the very similar suicide of Karen Pletz, Shakespearean is not quite right. These two suicides are the type UD calls boxed-in. People have gotten themselves into a tighter and tighter place, and it now looks very clear indeed that they’re not going to get out. That they’re headed for just two boxes – a cell and a coffin – and that’s the end of the story. To decide to check out at this point seems not surprising.

Bernie Madoff and his wife reportedly tried to kill themselves before he went to prison.

These would be Shakespearean tragedies if these people had tried to lead good lives and been undone by unbidden catastrophe. If, tormented by those catastrophes, they had, to the last, struggled to go on leading valuable lives.

It is sad, but not tragic, when a criminal, outwitted, must reckon with terrible humiliation and punishment. You could say, in the case of Chang, that someone should have noticed that she was out of control (UD called her out of control in the last post she wrote about her) and put her on suicide watch. But you cannot, I think, say that her death was tragic.


You should really always try to speak directly. Especially in cases like this one.

“Mrs. Chang is no longer with us,” [the trial judge] announced to jurors, according to panelists.

For several seconds, jurors said they had no idea what Johnson was trying to tell them, before he went into the grim details.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
suggests doing it this way in order not to look ridiculous, and not to confuse people:

Jurors, I’m deeply sorry to announce that this morning police found Cecilia Chang dead by her own hand.

Trackback URL for this post:

6 Responses to “Jack, a UD reader, tells UD that…”

  1. Eric the Read Says:

    SOS should also excoriate the terrible copyediting in that Daily Mail article

    He died says later and no one has every been charged in his death.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Eric the Read: Yes – one can only imagine the speed with which that reporter was writing — trying to get a breaking story online pronto… My guess is that they’ll fix it as the afternoon wears on and they update the story.

  3. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I’m not sure mental illness is entirely ruled out in these cases. Among other possibilities, the abrupt swing from grandiose behavior (which could also explain the crimes both committed) to suicidal despair brings bipolar disorder to mind. I still wouldn’t be inclined to call the situation tragic, however (though I can imagine applying that term to the life of someone who managed to do great good while also struggling with mental illness. From the admittedly little I’ve read, that doesn’t seem to apply in Chang’s case). And crimes, once committed, still need to be prosecuted. If there’s mercy to be shown, it would be in post-conviction decisions (a possibility Chang’s suicide forestalls).

    I suspect that some of the judge’s difficulty in being forthright — perhaps with himself as much as the jurors — comes from the fact that he was probably the person most in a position to make, and act on, the decision that Chang’s behavior was so far beyond the normal range as to suggest that she was a danger to herself. But the bar for enforcing that decision in most states is very high, and he probably couldn’t have met it. The most he *might* have been able to do is order some sort of evaluation to ensure that she was competent to make the legal decisions she was making, and the prospect of being declared incompetent might have been as daunting to someone in her position as the prospect of prison. Even if it’s not a tragic story, it’s a sad and shocking one.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Contingent Cassandra: I agree with all that you’ve said – and said so well. I think – as you suggest – that the judge might be feeling some guilt at this point. Or at the very least some unease.

    As to the possibility of mental illness – I tend toward the skeptical here in most of the cases with which I’m familiar. It’s altogether the done thing these days for anyone seeking clemency to declare, after, say, thirty years of highly competent financial crime, that he’s bipolar and the illness, not he, did it.

    Chang’s greed and cruelty were decades-long. She behaved desperately and bizarrely on the stand because she knew she was trapped, and she was now seriously panicked. Anxiety at the prospect of going to jail because you’ve been caught committing very bad crimes is not a mental illness — it’s a rational response to being up shit’s creek. Only if she were a sociopath would she be calm up there.

    Her suicide, I’m afraid, seems to me also to have been rational. Plenty of suicides are the result of psychosis, but not this one. Like Pletz, Chang must have sized up her situation and decided she didn’t want to stick around for the final acts.

  5. Eric the Read Says:

    I was thinking about the Shakespearean angle, and perhaps Chang’s situation vaguely parallels Othello’s– in both cases, a character flaw leads someone into a terrible act that, when uncovered, causes them to commit suicide. There are tons of exceptions– she has no Iago, there’s no evidence of an initially noble character that was subsequently corrupted– but perhaps that’s what the article’s author was thinking of.

  6. Eric the Read Says:

    And now that I think of it, I bet you the author, in his rush to file fast, probably also meant “Greek tragedy”, not Shakespearean.

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE