By JONATHAN TILOVE
April 20, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) No sooner did the news break about the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech than Gregory Gibson, a rare books dealer in Gloucester, Mass., began to get calls from TV producers and newspaper reporters. In December 1992, Gibson’s son Galen was gunned down by fellow student Wayne Lo at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., and Gibson later wrote a beautiful book, both gripping and tender, called “Gone Boy, A Walkabout: A Father’s Search for the Truth in His Son’s Murder.”
Gibson told those who called he wanted no part of the media post-mortems. “Read the book,” he suggested in an e-mail. “It’s out there doing the work now. My family and I have `moved on.”’
For the parents of those slain at Virginia Tech, or any parent there but for the grace of God, Gibson’s book is a harrowing, healing testament. His walkabout (as he termed it after the Australian Aboriginal coming-of-age ritual), could prove a survivor’s guide, or at the very least demonstrate that you can, eventually, emerge with your marriage, your humanity, and even your humor, intact.
The relentless search to figure out the how and the why of Galen’s death drove Gibson to talk to everyone he could _ college officials, cops, lawyers, doctors, classmates, gun dealers, gun collectors and finally, Lo’s parents. It is the search that sustains him, even if, in the end, he must make peace with the mystery of madness. “My inability to understand became its own kind of understanding,” he wrote.
But to read “Gone Boy” in the immediate aftermath of Cho Seung-Hui’s killing of 32 people at Virginia Tech (Cho subsequently shot and killed himself) is also to be nearly drowned in a sickening, disorienting sense of deja vu. The horror of April 16 seems an eerie reprise of Lo’s shooting spree 15 years ago _ with Cho, Lo’s sullen replica, finishing what Lo started, and the phone again ringing for Gregory Gibson.
Had Lo’s cheap rifle not repeatedly jammed, he would have killed many more than Galen Gibson and a young professor, Nacunan Saez. (He wounded several others.)
Lo, like Cho, gave ample warning of trouble. But Gibson recounts how the dean at Simon’s Rock, a specialized college for high-school-age students, let Lo accept delivery of a package of ammunition and discounted an anonymous warning that he was about to use it.
Both Lo and Cho immigrated to the United States during their formative years _ Lo from Taiwan in 1987, the year he turned 13; Cho from South Korea at age 8 in September 1992, three months before Lo took his place in history. Lo’s parents opened a Chinese restaurant in Billings, Mont.; Cho’s work as dry cleaners in Northern Virginia.
Gibson wrote that after meeting Lo’s parents _ whom he and his wife Annie liked a great deal _ “Everything I understood about Wayne was now underscored by a sense of the enormous distance between Taiwan and America, geographically, culturally and in every possible way. …
“Just as the confusion of puberty was coming upon him,” he observed, Lo “had been dropped into an alien culture.”
While his parents worked long hours at the restaurant, Lo was responsible for taking care of his brother, his own music lessons, and securing “nothing but the best grades.” To be sure, Gibson wrote, “Many immigrants from many cultures faced similar pressures. Not many bought guns and shot people.” But after meeting and talking with Lo’s parents, “it was easier to believe that the pressures were part of the disability or defect that had overcome Wayne.”
When he killed, Lo claimed he did so at God’s command; Cho, in one of the videos sent to NBC, declared, “I die like Jesus Christ.”
Neither had any trouble getting guns. In 1992, Massachusetts law allowed out-of-state residents to buy a rifle without a waiting period if they would be permitted to do so in their home state.
“When the kid was so addled that he thought God was talking to him, it was still a simple matter for him to obtain a semiautomatic rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition,” Gibson wrote of Lo, who, like Galen, was 18 at the time. “It was a simple matter for him to carry them onto a college campus, and it was a simple matter for him to use them.”
Every step of the way, the Gibson of “Gone Boy” fashions himself as Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood on the grim trail of revenge. But his boiling blood cools as he encounters people who are complicated, decent and damaged, more guilt-ridden than guilty. His ultimate objective is his own survival.
“The struggle had kept me together, a single thread of purpose in my life,” he wrote. “It had kept me from winding up in a detox ward, or from jumping off a bridge, or from shooting someone myself, while I healed.”
It is toward the end of his walkabout that he contacts Lo’s parents. They had been waiting for his call so they could express their sorrow. They came to visit the Gibsons in Gloucester.
“Maybe it was empathy or compassion, or maybe there was no precise word for it,” Gibson wrote. “Whatever it was, they had drawn it out, and it had repaired something deep in my being. The need that had driven me was satisfied.”
Gibson had worried that the jury at Lo’s 1994 trial would conclude he met the legal standard of insanity and spare him prison; Lo, however, was convicted and sent away for life. Yet by the end of his odyssey, Gibson realizes “with a pang that Wayne was indeed truly, deeply crazy,” and that it was Lo, not Galen _ “always so much with us” _ who “truly was the Gone Boy.”
Then, in the most improbable turn of events, after the book was published in 1999, Lo read it and something snapped back into place: He had not been doing God’s bidding at Simon’s Rock. He wrote Gibson to acknowledge his guilt and apologize. They began to correspond.
In a new afterword for the book, written in April 2000, Gibson called America‘s failure to address the ease with which guns are obtained “a tragedy that far surpasses my own family’s suffering, and the suffering of any individual victim of gun violence. I consider it a great shame on our nation.”
He and Lo agree that tougher gun laws might have foiled Lo.
“Perhaps Wayne Lo and I will find a way to work together at getting this message across to people,” Gibson wrote. “I think it would be a powerful one, coming from us both, and it might save the life of some future Galen. Or some future Wayne.”
More recently, Lo, who is at the state prison in Norfolk, Mass., has had a Web site, launched on his behalf by Zachary Godwin, a 20-year-old student at Middlesex Community College who wrote Lo while taking a criminology course at another school. They correspond regularly.
“I got a letter from him today,” Godwin said Thursday. “He mentioned the fact that the shooter (at Virginia Tech) was Asian, like him. He thought that was pretty strange.”
On the site they sell Wayne Lo memorabilia _ art work, T-shirts, books by other people that Lo signs (the current list includes “When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon or Wound You.”) Sales are slow, only in the hundreds of dollars, Godwin reports _ but he thinks Cho will perhaps inspire renewed interest in Lo.
All proceeds go to Gregory Gibson for a scholarship fund in Galen’s name.
Gibson had wanted during his walkabout to meet Lo, but prison authorities wouldn’t allow it. The father no longer cares to meet his son’s killer face to face.
He explained in an e-mail: “I have no desire to make Wayne’s prison time more interesting for him, only to help him understand what he’s done and that it is something between him and God from here on in.”