Familiar Storyline.


Surprise, surprise – she was crazy all along – no other questions need to be asked:

The revelations about the past of the biology professor accused of shooting three colleagues to death at the University of Alabama Friday are stacking up by the day.

First came the news that the professor, Amy Bishop, shot and killed her teenage brother in suburban Boston under hazy circumstances in 1986. Then that she was investigated in 1993 in an attempted mail bombing of a Harvard professor who was evaluating her work as a postdoc.

While much is still not known in the case, all the facts seem to be pointing to one question: how did a person with such a troubled past appear, from the outside, to have been carrying on a successful, normal life?

Case closed.

13 thoughts on “Familiar Storyline.

  1. Most likely not crazy at all but a case of sociopathy or narcissistic personality disorder (or whatever the terms are going to be when DSM-V comes out). Sociopaths and narcissists are not insane: they are just morally empty. I doubt that it is ever possible to introduce someone’s exhibition of such personality disorders as a consideration in an academic tenure review, but it is possible that the administrator who turned down Dr. Bishop’s appeal of the first decision on her tenure knew what she was from personal contact or had been influenced by people who knew.

    • Tenure is not a personal taste judgment – you don’t have to like everyone – it’s a professional assessment and tenure guidelines exist for a reason. Overturning solid tenure case due to some issues with the person shouldn’t be allowed. It would be like firing an employee because you don’t like them and not because they’re doing a bad job. Denying tenure in her case is basically ending her academic career (she’s 45), which could be interpreted as necessary, but denying her tenure when she wins the appeal, that is to say, when the professional requirements are met, is not right. That doesn’t justify her actions, but it helps explain why this is not necessarily the case of a sociopath just going nuts over nothing…

  2. “Not necessarily the case of a sociopath just going nuts over nothing.” –You should put stress on the word “necessarily.” Yes, it is possible that it really was an accident when this woman shot her brother dead and that she really had nothing to do with the pipe bomb that she was suspected of having sent to a colleague. Possible, but I think in any reasonable estimate (given the facts available at this point) very unlikely.

    Your remark about “personal taste judgments” is a straw-man criticism of my comment. Perhaps you have never dealt with people who exhibit personality disorders, but you could at least learn something of what the terms mean. (I know of, in fact in some small degree personally know, such a person, and know of some of the things that said person did to students within his/her power, and some of the things that said person did to gain tenure — all a very ugly story. And now the department is stuck with him/her.) If you have some understanding of what the terms mean, then your equating finding someone to have a (potentially dangerous) personality disorder with making a “personal taste judgment” is a piece of dishonesty.

    I’m not saying that the treatment of this Professor Bishop was on the up-and-up. I am saying that it is highly probable that she has a serious personality disorder, a circumstance with which, so far as I know, no academic process is well-equipped to deal; and it is probable that that is why the treatment of her was so irregular.

    I think I have managed to write a civil reply to your fatuous comment, but I must say that it was not easy.

    • Fair enough. I didn’t mean to critique your comment as such, I was just sort of thinking along the lines of it and further. I don’t disagree with anything you say as such. I was simply suggesting that there should be more objective guidelines for tenure – certainly a personality disorder would be an issue, but then many academics are sort of strange (that’s an observation, not an argument, of course). All I am saying is that when one enters on tenure-track, one is usually given a set of goals one must reach in order to get tenure, and those are not things like “make sure people like you” – it ends up being very important and in Bishop’s case (we just don’t know) maybe it was a correct decision to deny her tenure – I’m simply saying that a) it shouldn’t be mysterious, b) it shouldn’t be decided by one person’s executive decision (in this case provost’s overturning of the appeal decision).

      I had to look up “fatuous” to make sure I know what it means. I don’t think my comment was “fatuous” but if it was, it wasn’t meant to be. However, I’m not very civil so I hope there’s no offense where none was intended.

      • Okay; I was just ticked off (you probably know what that means!) by what seemed to me a reductive dismissal of what I had written. Now that you know the word “fatuous,” I’m sure that you will find many applications of it, not least of all in academe!

  3. No problem. I’m not defending Bishop and I certainly do know that a serious personality disorder would be a great burden for any department. No matter how unfairly she was treated (if that is the case, again, all of these things are still just speculations), she was clearly “disordered” to even contemplate murdering her colleagues (or anyone for that matter). Shit happens, people are fired for no reason, people get promoted for no reason, people fight and form all sorts of childish cliques, academy is a strange place (I think). I’m simply trying to think about the situation in terms of challenging myself (no one really reads this blog anyway) to grasp this situation in all of its complexity, not just, as the cited author suggest, dismiss it as the case of a loner-crazy-person.

    I’m sorry, I feel awkward addressing you as MKR, what first name do you go by?

    • I used “MKR” because it is my Google Blogger login, but apparently I can just use any name here, so the next time I comment I will use my given name, minus the link to my blog. (It is semi-anonymous: anyone who knows me personally can see that I am the author, but strangers are not likely to identify me.)

      There is an article in the Chronicle that provides a bit more information, but not much. The comments are interesting, especially this one (no. 24):

      We currently have a problem on our campus that exhibits uncanny similarities to the Amy Bishop story. We have an assistant prof with obvious mental stability issues that has had police reports and formal complaints filed about her behavior on campus over the past several years. She too was recently denied T&P, goes off on disruptive and unrelated tangents during department meetings and has isolated herself from the other faculty. She has been admonished by the administration for her wildly out of control behavior and was compelled to complete anger management therapy, which did nothing but piss her off. She is currently on a [we believe forced] “medical” leave but will return for summer term. She is not getting the help she so desperately needs because she believes her problems are caused by those around her. We in the department are very concerned about her return, but return she will. It appears our administration cannot do anything more until after she actually picks up a weapon or harms someone. It is easy enough to identify unstable individuals, but removing them from the academy is quite another issue – if not an impossible task. If anyone has any bright ideas to share on what more could be done, we would love to hear them.

    • Yup. I remember the elevator doors opening on the Philosophy floor at my undergrad one day. A very large man, a senior member of the department, was standing hunched right in the center of the doorway glowering in at us. After a few tense seconds he shook his head as though clearing fog and shambled off. He had developed a severe psychosis, but the department couldn’t get rid of him because he had tenure. Things continued like that for years, and were repeated after his death by another faculty member who lost it following her divorce, sunk into depression-related substance abuse (she had always been at least borderline, if not bipolar) and despite all efforts to get her to seek treatment continued to ‘teach’ classes as if nothing was amiss, requiring a regular rotation of ’emergency’ fill-ins by colleagues. All this not to mention my more personal experience with a close friend’s paranoid psychosis and fierce resistance to treatment because it’s all everyone else’s fault.

      These experiences dispose me to leap to the mental illness conclusion, but then so does gunning down six people over quite an ordinary life difficulty. That’s chilling enough, but the thing where doing so made any sense at all to big chunks of the academic blogosphere (see also Ads w/o Products, e.g.) as an understandable stimulus/response loop or proportionate response to prior offense is … words fail.

      • These experiences dispose me to leap to the mental illness conclusion, but then so does gunning down six people over quite an ordinary life difficulty. That’s chilling enough, but the thing where doing so made any sense at all to big chunks of the academic blogosphere (see also Ads w/o Products, e.g.) as an understandable stimulus/response loop or proportionate response to prior offense is … words fail.

        Agreed, Carl. I thought for a minute if that’s a good way to think through the shooting on an earlier comment and it just strikes me as disingenuous and at best, hasty. It’s interesting that a good deal of comments at the Chronicle website and the NYT largely tend to shift focus from the act itself to broader issues, e.g. let’s use the tragedy to bitch about how unfair the tenure process is, or more broadly, attempt to foreground (or implicate)some sort structural injustice that was somehow caught up in the shooting. Clearly, there are broader structural (whether political or economic) injustices, I’m just not sure this particular case warrants that sort of connection. Not least that many comments are focused on her Harvard pedigree, which betrays a weird attitude towards meritocracy and class, but again, that’s taken from the comments, not the shooting.

      • I’m growing more and more worried about my own initial reaction to the matter which was basically the kind you describe (minus the Harvard pedigree angle). As wrong-headed as it was, I think it does speak about the way we see the academic world as such. I mean no one immediately jumps to some sort of anti-Postal-Service-as-an-Institution diatribe if some postman shoot up people, but many academics did use this as a chance to talk about some real or perceived institutional injustices (I mean, in comparison with some non-academic difficulties, most of these are not very significant, I think). I think the general question here is whether it is possible to imagine that a psychologically “normal” person would react in some similarly violent way to some of the academic pressures? I mean she was troubled before academia and I’m sure being in academia didn’t help her, but is it too difficult to imagine that someone quite “normal” could enter the academic world (say starting with years in the PhD program) and then somehow acquire some “personality disorder”?

        I think Carl’s comment is really what got me thinking – if personality disorder or any other issues are medical conditions and therefore cannot be used against a person (just like gender, race or disability), then how exactly is one to proceed in this case? It seems that there’s always a chance that someone with personality disorder will get a job and become that unbearable colleague – I think it’s unavoidable and I think the real question is whether by doing something to prevent it from happening we would not do more damage than good. Unless, of course, the numbers are just staggering and it’s not just a person here or a person there. I suppose that I’m swinging all the way back from seeing Bishop as a systemic issue to seeing her as a very particular case – go figure.

  4. Mikhail, I think you’re being fair and scrupulous here, but I also see in various academic reactions to this situation an unsurprising tendency to read it through the lenses of our own histories and concerns. For example H-Man, now secure in his comfortable post-tenure professionality but otherwise disposed to underdog thinking, identifies with the shooter but doesn’t perceive a level of tension worthy of deadly force. You, perpetual gruff champion of the downtrodden and caller of institutional shenanigans, size up the power dynamics and select the narrative that puts the little guy in the best light. Meanwhile I, and possibly MKR, have a rich and vivid history of coping with folks with personality disorders and see a realistic worst-case here that has little to do with any macrodynamic but our species’ current self-destructive insistence on enabling the persistence in fubar of our most damaged members.

    I don’t buy the dead career angle. Harvard docs with research patents get second chances. As for procedural objectivity in the tenuring process, formally personality disorder is a medical condition that should not be used against the candidate. Yet, even though I don’t think racists should get to boot qualified Black colleagues, I don’t think goodwilled departments should be forced to put up with assholes for the next thirty years just because they checked all the procedural boxes. I’d appreciate any help folks here can provide in moralizing this pragmatic distinction post facto.

    • There are so many words I need to look up, Carl, that I might have to postpone my substantive reaction. I agree with you on the matter of perspectives. Certainly, I catch myself immediately blaming “the system” when I don’t know any of the real circumstances (or only know the ones I gleamed from the press). I can see how this story could tell us literally nothing about such complex issues as “tenure” or “collegiality” and such.

      So the ultimate question is then: How do we surround ourselves with qualified colleagues that are also awesome dudes and chicks? We probably can’t. What should be our priority then – qualifications or personal awesomeness? Clearly, admins would rather have a “star scholar” and profs would rather have a “cool personality” – here’s your essential class struggle then.

  5. From this published summary of an as-yet-unpublished study:

    Overall, an average of five times as many students in 2007 surpassed thresholds in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who did so in 1938. A few individual categories increased at an even greater rate—with six times as many scoring high in two areas: “hypomania,” a measure of anxiety and unrealistic optimism (from 5 percent of students in 1938 to 31 percent in 2007); and depression (from 1 percent to 6 percent).

    Twenge said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.

    The study also showed increases in “psychopathic deviation,” which is loosely related to psychopathic behavior in a much milder form and is defined as having trouble with authority and feeling as though the rules don’t apply to you. The percentage of young people who scored high in that category increased from 5 percent in 1938 to 24 percent in 2007.

    There’s no way the genetic inheritance of aberrant brain chemistry has changed that much in 70 years. A more plausible interpretation: societal conditions in the US are more likely to trigger symptoms in genetically predisposed people than was the case back then. Respondents in 1938 were undergoing THE Depression, so go figure.

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