When I saw the picture of Colleen Ritzer, like almost everybody else in America, I was stunned. Smiling out from the picture was a 24-year-old woman whose warmth and humanity was apparent, and whose physical beauty shined because of it. And, like almost everybody else, I wondered why.
“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” This was a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that Ritzer posted on her Facebook page. This quote seems to say a lot about her.
“She was energetic and compassionate,” fellow teacher at the Danvers High School in Massachusetts Charlotte Dzerkacz said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more from a teacher or a friend. She cared about every single student and put in many hours after school every day, always thinking about how she could be better and better help students. She was truly a beautiful person.”
She was “a dynamic and brilliant ray of light,” according to the school district’s statement. “Colleen Ritzer was everything one could ask for in a teacher — dedicated, passionate and invested in her students. Our entire community will feel this loss for many years to come.”
Why did this happen? How could 14-year-old student, Philip Chism, murder a person who was almost universally loved? How could he kill the very math teacher who may have taken more of an interest in him at this small Massachusetts school than anybody ever had?
According to one report, Diana and Stacy Chism filed for divorce in 2001, three years after being married. He was just 2. The divorce agreement limited Stacy Chism’s time with the children due to “physical abuse, sexual abuse, or a pattern of emotional abuse.” The decree also asserted the father was guilty of adultery and “such cruel and inhuman treatment or conduct towards the spouse as renders cohabitation unsafe and improper.”
At an early age, Philip and his older sister were forced to move, first from Florida to Tennessee, then to Massachusetts. Friends in Clarksville, Tennessee noticed that the boy was quiet and only spoke to people when he was spoken to. “It’s kinda like an aura around a person,” said Marcus Evans, 19, who lived in his neighborhood. “He didn’t like moving a lot . . . family problems may have gotten to him.”
As a psychoanalyst, I have experienced how traumatic family discord and instability can be for a child. I have also seen what happens when parents separate and the mother is the victim of domestic abuse, as the divorce decree of Diana Chism contends. Often times when a mother is angry at the father and the father leaves, that anger is taken out on her son. The son at such times needs love and reassurance from both the mother and the father, but he gets just the opposite. The father is hostile and distant, and the mother sometimes treats the son as if he is a miniature version of his father. That is, she treats the son as if he, like his father, is a potential abuser. Sometimes such treatment can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A report in the New York Post stated that the Danvers police were exploring a theory that young Chism had a crush on Colleen Ritzer. “One of the theories going around is that this boy had a major crush on Colleen,” a police source noted about suspect Philip Chism. “She was a very friendly, approachable teacher and it is possible he completely misread her affable nature and made some kind of advance towards her,” the source told the paper.
This theory seems plausible to me. And probably the police have developed this theory because of what he told them during their interrogation. I would further speculate that she, being a very empathic person, was drawn to this moody, quiet boy and wanted to be of help to him. She was a dedicated teacher who seemed to love the challenges of teaching.
This was a boy who was unused to anybody paying attention to his feelings. He was a boy who had probably become enraged by parents who were angry and neglectful, parents who probably did not have the time or inclination to notice what was happening to him, since they were too absorbed in their own difficulties. The cruel things that can happen inside of families are never visible to the people around them.
When Collen Ritzer reached out in a loving way toward Philip Chism, it most likely did not provoke love, because he had apparently never known love. It provoked the hatred that comes from not having known love, and the jealousy one feels toward a person such as Ritzer, who has known much love and is so obviously happy with herself and able to give of herself.
The police theorized that Philip may have reacted in a teen-aged, sexualized way to Ritzer’s loving attempt to help him. He misread her reaching out and may have made an inappropriate advance at her in the restroom on the fatal day of the murder. She may have rejected his advances and all his pent-up rage came out toward her. He lashed out, slugging her in the face, then sliced her neck with a box-cutter.
The rage that came out was undoubtedly directed at the wrong person. It had probably been engendered by his mother, father, older sister or by the generally traumatic situation of his childhood.
Instead, one of the most beautiful human beings who ever lived was extinguished on a sunny afternoon in Danvers, Massachusetts. It seems as if it is always the kind-hearted person who takes the fall for life’s miseries.