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In Print: magic and murder at the U. of C.

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On December 13, 1994, Ted Anton was in Romania lecturing about the murder of Ioan Culianu, a history of religions professor at the University of Chicago. The murder, which happened on campus two and a half years ago, was unsolved. The room was packed with people taking notes, and in the middle of Anton's talk two men with video cameras bearing the logo of the state-run television station stood up and began filming people and their notebooks.

The men were simply ejected, says Anton. "It wasn't until after the talk at a cocktail party that we put our heads together and realized that those guys were there to disrupt the talk. But most people in Romania didn't make too much of that kind of stuff. Even Ioan was joking about all the threats two days before he was killed."

Anton was in Romania teaching magazine writing at the University of Bucharest and investigating the Culianu case for his book Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, published last month by Northwestern University Press. In it he argues that the murder was a political assassination performed on the orders of someone in the Romanian government, though he can't prove who it was. Culianu had become increasingly critical of the "democratic" government that overthrew the communist Ceausescu regime. The consensus among many dissidents then was that the 1989 popular revolt had been co-opted by elements of the former government--that in fact it had been a coup d'etat.

Culianu's attacks against the new government, published mostly in the emigre newspaper Lumea Libera, had been particularly vicious, and in the months prior to his murder he'd received numerous threatening phone calls and warnings. On May 21, 1994, as he sat on a toilet in the University of Chicago's Swift Hall, someone entered the adjoining stall, stood on the toilet seat, reached over the division, and plugged a .25-caliber bullet into the top of Culianu's head. The killer escaped unnoticed.

"When you look back at the Securitate methods of the 80s this act was almost a signature," says Anton. "Somebody went to great length to commit it in the rest room. Part of it had to do with the fact that Culianu was below the level of someone whose murder would create an obvious uproar. But it got the message across. After that the more influential exiles in Washington changed their activities. Everything calmed down, and people just clammed up."

At the beginning of his investigation Anton received a few hints that his own work hadn't gone unnoticed. Between 1991 and 1994 Tess Petrescu, Culianu's sister, mailed eight packages to Anton from Romania, most containing some information about the case. Only one piece of that mail--a Christmas card--ever made it. While conducting phone interviews with people in Romania Anton frequently heard a tape machine whirring, and on two occasions phone calls were cut off just as crucial information was about to be given. After he appeared on Chicago Tonight to discuss the case he got a series of mysterious phone calls; when he or his wife answered, the caller hung up.

"I don't mean to make too much of that stuff," says Anton. "Was I scared? Yes. But that era in Romanian history has passed. Now the former Securitate are well ensconced in business and banking, and things seem much more stable. Basically my book is a literary-theory thriller, so I read a lot of Culianu's scholarly work and his fiction and talked to a lot of people who knew him. There were very few meetings with Deep Throat in underground garages."

Anton is an associate professor of nonfiction writing at DePaul and a graduate of the University of Iowa, with master's degrees in fiction and journalism. He first wrote about Culianu for Chicago magazine, published a longer piece in Lingua Franca that explored the relationship between the murder and Culianu's unorthodox scholarship, then started work on the book. Part true crime, part scholarly biography, it details Culianu's youth in communist Romania, his emigration to Italy, Holland, and the United States, and the evolution of his work. Anton believes an understanding of Culianu's often esoteric work is essential to understanding how a seemingly harmless professor interested in Renaissance magic and speculative fiction could be a threat to a totalitarian regime.

It was rumored among his students that Culianu was able to predict the future using various arcane systems of divination, and he wrote a number of short stories that seemed to predict events, including his own death, months ahead of time. Many other extremely odd facts about the case suggest something supernatural was involved, but Anton plays down these elements. "He spent his life trying to understand history, and he thought his fiction was a way to uncover the world. It's not so much that he was a magician manipulating his audience. He was using his tools in a way that any good writer would--trying to motivate his audience. In my view he was killed in the line of duty."

As one of the cofounders of the Underground Press Conference, Anton requires his nonfiction writing students to produce their own zines. "I think it's important for them to understand that often the way you tell a story is constructed socially--by deadline, by the editor, by the magazine, by the money behind the magazine, and by the culture it comes from. I had a lot of agents and New York publishers whispering in my ear. At first they were saying, 'It's too mysterious. You don't know who did it.' Then they were saying, 'It's so clear who did it. There's no tension in the story.' I had to throw all of that away and pretend I was writing it for my friends."

Culianu often told his students that every story was an artifice and a seduction. That the story of his murder reads like one of his own short stories is an irony that's not lost on Anton, who never met the professor. "I don't have all the answers, and I wanted to do good scientific research and leave the gaps for the reader to make a call. I have plenty of my own experiences that I left out of the book. Ioan always said that dreams were important clues about what was going on in your life. I had a series of dreams where I had these encounters with him. There was this progression of him being sort of standoffish to where I was having dinner with him and he'd say, 'You've earned the right after five years and traveling around the world and putting up the time and effort to tell your version of the story.' I think he'd say it's a very interesting version."

Anton will read from and discuss his book at 7:30 PM Tuesday at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells. Call 312-642-5044 for information.

--Mike Sula

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ J.B. Spector.

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