Tanya Tarasoff lay bleeding to death on her family’s lawn and this one person had been told constantly that she was in danger: her murderer’s therapist.
And yet, neither the 20-year-old woman nor her family had been cautioned of the looming threat.
Today, if a therapist has reason to believe a patient aims to commit a crime that will harm another person, they have an obligation to report it to authorities and protect that person, it’s actually a crime not to. That’s now a standard feature of psychiatric care, but it hasn’t always been.
In fact, the “duty to warn” was the direct outcome of Tarasoff’s brutal murder in Berkeley, California in 1968. The landmark decision by the California Supreme Court to allow therapists to disclose threats constituted a major change to the doctor-patient confidentiality agreement.
At a 1968 folk dance in the mustard-colored auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley’s International House, a young Indian man eyed a fair young Russian woman as she twirled to an ancient melody that was once part of a courtship ritual. The woman, Tarasoff, was then an 18-year-old student at Merritt College in Oakland. The daughter of Russian immigrants who moved first to Brazil and then the U.S., Tanya had lived in the States since she was 14. Her parents were protective, even forbidding her from wearing makeup, and she resisted against their rules, sometimes lying in order to do what she wanted, or waiting until she was out of the house to apply her mascara. But she was permitted to go to folk dances at the “I-House,” where she tutored Portuguese-speaking students in her free time, as long as her brother Alex drove her there and back.
The student who’d been staring at Tarasoff was 22-year-old Prosenjit Poddar, a graduate student in naval architecture who lived at the I-house, worked as an inspector of marine structures, and built miniature model ships in his spare time.
Poddar seemed to Tarasoff like a kind, if intense, young man, but in fact he was unlike most every other UC Berkeley student. He was born in India as a member of the Dalit, or “Untouchable” class, a group so low that they are considered beneath the four castes that make up the Hindu system. Poddar had fought unbelievable odds to leave home, let alone end up in a graduate program at Berkeley. As Deborah Blum writes in Bad Karma: A True Story of Obsession and Murder, Poddar was “one of only a handful of Untouchables, in the whole of India, ever to leave for an American university.”
But Poddar fought with the absurd culture shock of landing in the Bay Area during the Summer of Love. Everywhere around him, young people were throwing off cultural expectations in favor of radical experimentation with music, fashion, sex, and drugs. Poddar was in a kind of shock observing his new surroundings, occasionally withdrawing into his room for days to work on his own projects, tuning out the chaos of student life outside his door.
Though he’d been engrossed by Tarasoff’s dancing the first time he laid eyes on her, Poddar didn’t work up the nerve to talk to her until a consequent folk dance. Tarasoff, increasingly interested in romantic love, was curious about Poddar, though she was breezy and non-committal in her early dealings with him.
The two began to see each other here and there, going out for pizza and to the movies. But Poddar, who came from a family where casual sex was unheard of and arranged marriage was the norm, had never dated or really interacted with women.
In part because of his inexperience, and in part because of what would prove to be his profound mental uncertainty, he misread almost all of the signs Tarasoff was sending. Within weeks of meeting Tanya, he had written to his parents back in their Bengal village, telling them details about the Tarasoff family, and especially about the accordion-playing young Tanya, who had “won a seat to the university.” “Quite naturally,” he wrote, “the family looks to me to express my intentions.” In truth, the Tarasoffs knew nothing of Poddar’s existence.
As Tanya’s interest in Poddar faded, his affection for her only ramped up. He couldn’t believe that the girl who had once seemed to like him now wouldn’t commit to hanging out, and didn’t even really seem to look him in the eye. He continued to try to change her mind, showing up at her house, standing with her at her bus stop, and calling nonstop.
Poddar felt toyed with by Tarasoff. In the following months, he sank into a deep depression, often skipping work and school and rarely leaving his room. Frantic, he befriended Tarasoff’s brother, Alex, who became his roommate. Twice, Poddar angrily told co-workers he would like to blow up Tarasoff’s home. According to some accounts, Poddar audio taped his conversations with Tarasoff, playing them back later for clues to her unpredictability.
Tarasoff eventually began spending time with Poddar again, but by all accounts did not think of him as a boyfriend. Rather, she liked the attention he gave her. She was freaked out occasionally, as when he showed her a detailed journal in which he recorded details of their every interaction, with headings like “Taking My Girlfriend to The King of Hearts”, but she had little sense that he was truly dangerous. According to Blum’s account, she would tell him he was crazy, and urge him to relax.
Eventually, at the persistence of a friend, Poddar sought help at a campus mental health clinic, where he was treated by Dr. Larry Moore, then a rising star in psychiatry. Moore was instantaneously concerned by the way Poddar spoke about Tarasoff, and wondered a number of times whether he ought to breach doctor-patient confidentiality and tell someone about the increasingly deranged threats Poddar made in his office. He’d said he planned to buy a gun. He said he would like to murder Tanya. But as Blum writes, Moore thought “the best predictor of future violence was a history of past violence,” and Poddar didn’t have one. So he simply asked Poddar for his word that he would cease all communication with the girl. Poddar agreed. Soon after, he stopped going to therapy.
Not two months later, Poddar showed up at Tarasoff’s house. When she asked him to leave, he said he needed to speak with her. She shrieked, and Poddar pulled out a pellet gun, which he promptly unloaded into her torso. He walked back out onto the family’s front lawn. Tarasoff, screaming, lunged toward him. Poddar then pulled out a 13-inch butcher knife and stabbed her eight times, to quiet her, as he would later tell police. He walked into the house, called the police, and said “I just stabbed my girlfriend.” When police arrived, he said calmly, “Handcuff me. I killed her.”
Tarasoff was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Poddar was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years. But following an appeal, a new judge agreed to release Poddar on the condition that he be deported to India. He returned to Calcutta, married, and had a child.
Tarasoff’s parents were still furious that university mental health professionals, especially Larry Moore, had known about Poddar’s plans and had told campus police but not the family, so they brought a wrongful death suit against the Regents of the University of California. The case ultimately went to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1976 that it is a therapist’s moral and professional obligation to report threats like Poddar’s in order to protect threatened individuals. Some members of the medical establishment argued that the decision would chip away at the entire practice of psychotherapy, of which confidentiality is thought to be the cornerstone. But the majority decision was clear, and has saved lives in the 40 or so states in which it is codified in law or upheld through precedent. As Justice Matthew O. Tobriner wrote in the decision, “The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins.”