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Tarasoff or “boy meets girl, girl pisses boy off, boy kills girl”

Probably the most famous Berkeley murder happened a few years after I was born. It was the fall of 1969. The campus had become something of a battleground over the Free Speech Movement. The smell of marijuana and tear gas mixed with the aroma of coffee.

There was, as Bob Dylan said, revolution in the air.

Strangely enough it was a rather mundane case of boy meets girl, girl pisses boy off, boy kills girl that would become the most famous event of that year. A stabbing that would change not just California law, but law just about everywhere in the world.

It all started at a folk dance in the International House in the fall of 1968. Prosenjit Poddar – an Indian grad student in Naval Architecture – met Tania Tarasoff, a seventeen year-old student at a local college. She had dreams of going to Berkeley, but had not done well in high school so was biding her time. He was a brilliant Untouchable – a young man who had risen from absolute poverty in a small Indian village to attend UC Berkeley. Untouchables are the lowest caste in Indian society. The worst occupations are reserved for them and few ever learn to read. But Prosenjit’s intellect had taken him away from generations of servitude. Taken him all the way to Berkeley.

Unfortunately a young American woman was not as easy to understand as the intricacies of ship design. On New Year’s Eve 1968, Tania kissed Prosenjit – an act that led him to believe marriage was in the air. Tania had no intention of getting married

Nine months later, after an on/off relationship, Tania’s betrayal, a gift of a sari that was completely misunderstood, Prosenjit moving in with Tania’s brother as a room-mate, many sessions at the UC Berkeley mental health clinic and a late Fall confrontation at the Tarasoff home – a body lay on the sidewalk, oozing life, as the song would put it.

Various psychiatrists and psychologists who treated Prosenjit failed to tell Tania that he had directly threatened to kill her. They told the police – who, with our normal subtle understanding of reality – interviewed Poddar and decided that his short hair and polite manner meant that he could not possibly be a threat to the girl.

The police report of the interview said that Prosenjit had “changed his attitude.”

Apparently not enough of a change, as a few days later he stabbed Tania to death with a kitchen knife.

Prosenjit was convicted of a second degree murder, but allowed to return to India after a few years when the case was reversed on a technicality.

The Tarasoff family sued the University of California for negligence in not informing Tania of Prosenjit’s threats. After several trials the Tarasoffs settled for a large sum out-of-court and “Tarasoff” became a standard throughout the world.

“The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins.” So wrote the California Court of Appeals and it became a standard pretty much everywhere. A shrink’s duty to protect confidential counseling records ends when the patient starts to threaten people.

The results of Tarasoff?

First, Prosenjit Poddar returned to India, where he is happily married to a lawyer by all accounts.

Yes, a lawyer.

Hope Mrs. Poddar doesn’t look at the judge in the wrong way when her husband is in court.

Second, police departments everywhere receive frantic calls from psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, college counselors – pretty much everyone in the mental health caring professions – when a patient says anything even vaguely threatening toward someone else.

The maddening thing about it all – and something Prosenjit should have considered before hopping on that bus (how very Berkeley, taking a bus to murder someone) – is that this kind of case is the exception rather than the rule.

9999 times out of 10,000 schizophrenics don’t kill lovers who have spurned them.

Put another way, Prosenjit Poddar is exceptional for two reasons – the second even rarer than the first. One, an Untouchable at UC Berkeley. Two, a paranoid schizophrenic who kills someone.

And there you have it. For all the Nobel Laureates who have lived in the International House at UC Berkeley in their tender years, it is Mr. Prosenjit Poddar who is the most famous former resident. The girl he murdered joined that elite band of brothers (and sisters) who are known by a single name –

Elvis, Mozart, Shakespeare, Jesus … Tarasoff.

A final thought – the other day I was looking through property records for another case and came across an address that I recognized. 1838 Tacoma.

In the early evening I wandered down Solano Avenue, past the cafes and bookshops, then took the right turn, wandered a few blocks and found the house. Apparently not much has changed in the last forty years. The same modest residence, a dog barking from a few doors down, a child riding her bike along the sidewalk. Then the small front lawn – the place where Tania had bled out on that October day when the  1960’s were ending, along with all the dreams.

I looked down at the grass. Absurd to think that there would be any physical sign of what had happened there.  More strange, no atmosphere either – none of the hint of evil that often lingers around a murder scene. Just some scraggly grass, thirsty for the first rains of fall. Just memories of a long-dead girl whose ghost had obviously moved on to pastures new, but whose name will live as long as there is law.

Tarasoff.

 

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