Friday, February 26, 2010

The Bad Seed: Amy Bishop Spared to Kill Again

"I am Dr. Amy Bishop!"

Sam Tanenhaus's book The Death of Conservatism may be setting a Guinness record for rapid removal to the remaindered bin, but he does have an insightful article on how heroic feminism is now deader than "Thelma & Louise." Indeed, when Amy Bishop wiped out the University of Alabama-Huntsville biology department with her 9mm. handgun, she became a different kind of killer, as Sam explains...
the landscape of unprovoked but premeditated female violence remains strangely unexplored. Women who kill are “relegated to an ‘exceptional case’ status that rests upon some exceptional, or untoward killing circumstance: the battered wife who kills her abusive husband; the postpartum psychotic mother who kills her newborn infant,” Candice Skrapec, a professor of criminology, noted in “The Female Serial Killer,” an essay included in the anthology “Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation” (1994).

Ms. Skrapec was writing at a time when Hollywood seemed preoccupied with women who commit crimes — in productions like “The Burning Bed,” the 1984 television film in which a battered wife finally sets her sleeping husband aflame, and “Thelma & Louise” (1991), in which a pair of women go on a outlaw spree after one of them is threatened with rape.

Both are essentially exculpatory parables of empowerment, anchored in feminist ideology. Their heroines originate as victims, pushed to criminal excesses by injustices done to them. The true aggressors are the men who mistreat and objectify them. So too with “Monster” (2003), in which Charlize Theron, in a virtuosic instance of empathy (and cosmetic makeover) re-enacted the story of Aileen Wuornos, a real-life prostitute who, after years of sexual abuse, began murdering her clients.

Those are the old victim turning against tormentor archetypes, but Dr. Amy represents an entirely new level of social pathology:
It is not hard to imagine Mr. DeLillo or Mr. Scorsese mapping the interior circuitry of Timothy McVeigh; Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer; or Bruce E. Ivins, the Army biodefense expert who, the F.B.I. concluded last week, committed anthrax terror in the aftermath of 9/11 — the paranoia, the lethal mix of fantasy and ruthless plotting. But what artist might do justice to Dr. Bishop and her complex story, as its details have so far been reported: the privileged upbringing; her stable marriage to a uxorious husband, who was also her collaborator on scientific inventions; their four children, some of whose homework Dr. Bishop is monitoring from her jail cell? And what of the accounts given by associates and neighbors of her personal qualities — assertive, bristling with sharp opinions, vocal on the subject of her brilliance, harboring fierce resentments?

The uncomfortable fact is that for all her singularity, Dr. Bishop also provides an index to the evolved status of women in 21st-century America. The number of female neurobiologists may still be small, but girls often outdo boys in the classroom, including in the sciences. (Mattel recently announced a new addition, Computer Engineer Barbie, to its line of popular dolls.) A Harvard Ph.D. remains a rare credential for women (as well as for men), but women now make up the majority of undergraduates at many prestigious colleges. And the tenure struggle said to have lighted Dr. Bishop’s short fuse reflects the anxieties of many other women who now outnumber men in the work force and have become, in thousands of cases, their family’s principal or only breadwinner.

But art did prefigure life in a hopscotch manner in the Bishop case, as middle-aged Dr. Amy perhaps was a fossil from the fifties, a decade before bras & other accoutrements of an earlier femininity were consigned to the dustbin of history:
two middle-aged classics of genre literature eerily prefigure aspects of the Bishop case. In William March’s 1954 novel “The Bad Seed,” later adapted for both stage and film, an 8-year-old girl viciously murders a classmate but is protected by her mother, only to kill again. This parallels the allegations in Dr. Bishop’s case, at least according to the resurfaced police report on the death of her brother nearly a quarter-century ago.

No genre writer had sharper antennae than Shirley Jackson, whose gothic classic, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” first published in 1962, was reissued last fall. Its narrator is an 18-year-old multiple murderess who lives with her devoted sister and fantasizes about killing again. She is “socially maladroit, highly self-conscious, and disdainful of others,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in a penetrating essay recently in The New York Review of Books. “She is ‘special.’ ” Words that ring ominously in the context of Dr. Bishop.

Ms. Oates, of course, has examined violence as thoroughly as any living American writer. When I asked her what she made of the case, she drew an implicit comparison between Dr. Bishop and Shirley Jackson’s narrator: “She is a sociopath and has been enabled through her life by individuals around her who shielded her from punishment.”

Slate has a dialogue between a Huntsville history prof and Slate regular Emily Bazelon in which the prof questions Emily's musing about a gender discrimination suit she'd filed because of her tenure rejection:
...Amy was unstable and violent long before she entered the workforce and in other contexts beyond the workplace. In addition to (probably) murdering her brother, and (possibly) mailing a pipe bomb to her lab supervisor, during a visit to an IHOP she punched a woman in the head over a booster seat while yelling, "I am Dr. Amy Bishop." Many of her "publications" also indicate a certain instability, as she lists her young children as co-authors. She also had an enormously difficult time working with (male or female) graduate students in the lab, which was part of the reason she was denied tenure. A lab can't function without grad students, and hers kept quitting or being fired.

The basis of the gender-discrimination suit was that a colleague referred to her as "crazy." As a historian, I am well-aware that "crazy" is a label often reserved for women who don't know their place, but in this situation it meant that she is, as one student put it, "bat-shit crazy." (That's a quote that didn't get into the paper.) When a colleague here in the history department heard that there had been a shooting in the science building, her first thought was, "Amy's lost it." The shooting was a horrible surprise, but nobody was surprised it was Amy.

Dr. Amy's high wire act on the edge of flipping out was evidently widely known at UAH and no more a function of her female gender or Harvard PhD than Ted Kaczynski's maleness, Harvard undergrad degree, U of Michigan PhD & UCalBerkeley Asst. Prof. position distinguished him as predisposed to lunacy.

But Joyce Carol Oates hit the nail squarely on the head when the IHOP screamer "I am Dr. Amy Bishop" announced that she was "special" and that like The Bad Seed, was a child of the entitlement era who, sheltered from accountability for the murder of her brother, went on to bigger and nastier exploits in the archives of crime.

Ars gratia artis.
UPDATE The Spearhead notes that Bishop "always got a pass." [h/t: Mangan's Miscellany]

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