Amy Bishop Didn’t Snap

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Wired reports on the case of Amy Bishop, the university professor who shot her coworkers during a meeting, apparently because she had been denied tenure even though that happened a year earlier.

The first question that one should ask is, why is this in Wired?  It doesn’t deal with tech or boosterism.  Wired often runs “cool” stories, like a heist story or going off the grid, but this story isn’t so cool.

But it does appeal to geeks, if the premise of the story is that she was a geek– or autistic or Asperger’s or crazy genius– making the story: “Do Geeks Kill?  Discuss.”


The article can’t answer why she killed, but in my mind it dances very, very close to it:

Bishop was starting to wonder whether it might be a good idea to take her Harvard credentials where she’d be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Maybe then, she confided to friends, she’d get the recognition she deserved.

Bishop wrote 3 (unpublished) novels, all apparent attempts at reworking her own history.  They all shared similar elements (death of a young brother, genius woman, etc), and (an excerpt from her novel):

Beth’s temper flared and she couldn’t stop herself even though she knew it could be the death of her career… The thought of being some unemployed loser, a non-Harvard, a non-scientist made her shiver at her loss of identity.
— from Easter in Boston

Amy’s own brother died, mysteriously, by a shotgun blast from Amy’s gun that she shot at him, after having shot it off in her bedroom earlier.

Bishop cared intensely about appearances, particularly those that connoted status. She wanted an address in Ipswich, she told friends, because the area north of Boston seemed classier than the city.

Meanwhile, the inside of her home “was a disaster”– bringing to my mind a  Daniel Tosh joke about inside and outside appearances: “plastic surgery affords you the unique opportunity to make your outer appearance reflect your inner self:  fake.”

The article is worth reading, and, as you do, pay attention to her motivations for… everything.


But the ultimate question of why she killed can’t be answered.  I can, however, tell you confidently why she brought a gun to work.

Every time Bishop had gotten into scrapes with the law, she emerged unscathed, her record never seriously marred.

Throughout her history, others shielded her from the consequences of her actions.  Sometimes it was out of love, like her parents did when she shot her brother.  Other times it was out of fear, like the woman in the restaurant who had the last booster seat; and other times people just didn’t think a confrontation was worth it, like all her neighbors who tried to avoid her, and then finally held a pizza party the day she moved out.

She surrounded herself with weaker people.  Not just her husband, whom she dominated easily and would have no worry that he might call her on her behavior, but even as a life plan.  She married him because she could dominate him.  She chose to move to a small college specifically because she’d be a big fish in a small pond– and could probably dominate there as well.

Faced with a candidate who had a doctorate from Harvard, he says, “the natural reaction of a small university trying to grow is to think, wow.”

I don’t blame them for getting out of her way– no one wants to deal with a nut– but I can’t help but wonder if instead of experiencing a life of passive permission in deference to her credentials and her bullying, she had experienced a life of active frustration– “hey, you can’t do that, no, I don’t give a damn who you think you are!”  Things may have evolved differently.

In one court appearance, Amy Bishop appeared before the judge wearing her white lab coat.  It worked.  Amy figured that wearing the coat would help her case, which it did; but for that specific reason it should not have been allowed to work.

We let people get away with murder, and then are surprised when they murder. 

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21 Responses to Amy Bishop Didn’t Snap

  1. cph23 says:

    And sadly an entire generation of kids just like her are being raised right now.

    • philtrum says:

      Oh, come on. An entire generation of kids is being raised to shoot their siblings and attack people in restaurants?

      The “kids these days” refrain is getting awfully tiresome.

      • TheBoyDetective says:

        Further, the “the ‘kids these days’ refrain is getting awfully tiresome” refrain itself has doubtless been becoming-tiresome for hundreds of generations.
        Regarding that comment as refrain, I would venture to say it has been becoming-tiresome since around the beginning of newspaper printing (?). Regarding the recursive nature of this, I would say it’s probably been in a self-referential loop since about now/forever.

        • philtrum says:

          Absolutely. I meant more specifically that it keeps showing up on this website and TLP, and it’s tiresome in that context. Isn’t it, fundamentally, rather a narcissistic way to think of oneself or one’s generation? “We are special because we were the last age group to be raised right. After us, everyone will be a tantrum-prone murderer.

          • eqv says:

            I don’t think the people making those kinds of comments feel they were the last age group to be raised right, just that there are some vast differences between theirs and the one that’s currently being raised.

          • philtrum says:

            Maybe. But even that assumption is highly questionable, particularly when it leads to outlandish statements about how all of today’s children are going to grow up into Amy Bishops.

  2. George says:

    I know how this may sound, but… I know a guy who worked with her. I asked him about her after the shooting and he told me “she was a nut and everyone knew it”. The shooting surprised him, but didn’t. Which leads me to:

    ” but I can’t help but wonder if instead of experiencing a life of passive permission in deference to her credentials and her bullying, she had experienced a life of active frustration– “hey, you can’t do that, no, I don’t give a damn who you think you are!””

    Our culture seems to allow bullying and I’ve long wondered why that is. How did we get to a point where bad behavior is acceptable?

    • thestage says:

      late stage corporate capitalism. I mean, do you even have to ask that question? our economy revolves around “bullying,” and our identity revolves around our economy.

      but this has nothing to do with the article and I’d rather not (anymore).

    • philtrum says:

      I think the more relevant question is whether there has ever been a society where bad behaviour was truly unacceptable.

    • Rookie says:

      I see it purely in terms of behaviourism and learning theories. Every action in a social context is a learned social tactic designed to pursue a person’s needs. If she bullied people then they probably felt pretty crap. They could then had two choices:

      a) Stand up to her, resulting in a more volatile reaction, or

      b) Give her whatever minor thing she wants, which will calm her down, giving the victim a sense of relief.

      Now option b) gives the victim immediate relief, but reinforces the bullying, leading to a chronic course of bullying behaviour (if repeated). Option a) only works if a person is willing to tolerate her ‘upping the stakes’ and becoming more volatile, and keep chosing option a) despite the temporary discomfort it will cause the victim. If however the victim doesn’t tolerate the discomfort and choses option b) the second time around, it not only says ‘bullying gets you what you want,’ but also says ‘if you become more of a bully to people who resist, then you will get what you want.’ That means the next victim has a longer and more distressing time if they opt for option a), which reduces the likelyhood they will chose it.

      Vicious cycle.

  3. rawford says:

    Bullying is just a new word for a very old phenomenon. It’s the manifestation of a fundamental thesis that every society and every human being grapples with: “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” It used to mean you got to kill your enemies and sell their women and children into slavery.

    That’s why you have to be careful about success gurus who try to sell you life as a game. If life is a game, then that’s the only rule, and it’s not very much fun unless you’re Genghis Khan.

    The article depicts a woman who lived by that credo. For someone who operates like that, not getting their way is a sin. Ultimately, not becoming Caesar is unforgivable. Caesar can be whatever, tenured professor, best selling novelist, manager of the gelato shoppe. They’ll do anything, and when there’s nothing left to do, well, they’ll do something ugly. Maybe not murder, but sometimes. I don’t know why Bishop decided to kill those people. But it’s not inconsistent with this way of thinking.

    “We let people get away with murder, and then are surprised when they murder.”
    If we’re going to move beyond the frame of the strong over the weak, it’s crucial that people don’t allow themselves to become the second half of that equation. Don’t be weak. I don’t mean dominate others, I mean don’t suffer assholes.

    Occasionally it is incumbent on us to have some integrity. When you’re at the I-Hop and a Harvard Phd tries to steal your kid’s booster seat, stay calm. Don’t back down when they punch you in the head. When they tell you who they are, you tell them that who they are has got nothing to do with this. Sometimes integrity is worth an unpleasant conversation or a sock in the mouth.

  4. nohope says:

    If Dr. Bishop had been a man, he would have been either in jail by age 25, or repeatedly pummeled, or both.

    • fraula says:

      You’ve missed all the stories about narcissistic men who end up as murderers. Well after the age of 25. And who left a wake of destruction behind them, also “oh that’s just how he is”-d away by their parents and entourage.

      Indeed, what struck me most – to the point of a “ha!!” out loud – was the BPD thing. TLP’s said it so often: women are diagnosed BPD, men with NPD. The psychologist herself gives a big clue: to the difference of usual BPD, this woman became violent. Of course she did. She doesn’t have BPD, she sounds like a classic narcissist. Right down to the demeaning remarks about her husband.

      • Rookie says:

        A woman with borderline PD can be violent, very violent. But it’d be from a transient emotional force, the reactive anger of the undefined person getting buffeted around by life’s winds. This is the rage of a very well defined person infurated at reality for not conforming to her definition.

      • thejohnnybrown says:

        > The officer told her to drop her weapon, but she complied only when another officer surprised her from behind.

        If Dr. Bishop were a man, he would have been dead before he ever got a PhD

        • Carol the Long Winded says:

          Oh, bullshit. If Dr. Bishop was a man…pretty much the same stuff would have happened. Men bully people every day. Plus, there is the cultural trope of women submitting so it is even more normalized in males.

          Boys that are bullies are frequently called “normal boys.” (Yeah, I have a kid in the maelstorm of Middle School.) Girls – not so much.

  5. TheDavid says:

    “A big fish in a small pond.” Another example would be an alcoholic psychiatrist starting another of his own blogs, wouldn’t it.