"Who is she?" asked a graduate student and a law student earlier this week.
The question surprised me. Bishop has gotten so much media attention, including my first blog about her. To recap: On February 12, a biology professor at the University of Alabama/Huntsville who had been denied tenure, she took a pistol to a department meeting , killed three colleagues, and wounded three others. The New York Times has published two front-page articles and more. People Magazine had a March 8 story, "Murder on Campus." It may have been at the back of the book, but there it was----between the scary coverage of a minor celebrity gone missing at the Winter Olympic Games (since declared a suicide), and the sweet coverage of a nice man who rehabs sneakers for poor kids.
As a result, we know more and more about this newly public figure. She was proud of, even flaunted, her Harvard doctorate. She was distraught when she was denied tenure at Huntsville. She and her husband, Jim Anderson, were Trekkies, an aspect of her interest in science fiction. People wrote that he stayed home to care for their four children. And, she was a companion of violence. In 1983, when she was 21, she killed her brother with a shotgun. No charges were brought. Far less drastically, in 2002, she hit a woman in an International House of Pancakes who took the booster seat she wanted. She screamed at barking dogs. People's first line: "You crossed Amy Bishop at your peril."
Such vivid portraits of Bishop fit only too neatly into three stereotypes. She compels our attention because all three apply to her. The first, which can have its harmless charms, is that of academics as strange, nerds, indifferent to norms and forms. A university student evaluation said disapprovingly of a professor, "He wears the same pants every day." The second and third stereotypes mark the passage of the strange into the frightening. One is about the scientist, the proud proponent of reason, who unleashes irrational forces of destruction. The other is about women. Meant to engender and nurture life, they turn vicious, female pit bulls without lipstick.
Beyond press coverage and beneath stereotypes, who is Amy Bishop really. I wish I knew. I do gingerly map her onto other angry people ---both men and women---in academic life. They are always on the edge of hysteria and temper tantrums. They exercise power by oscillating between threatening to jump over the edge and actually doing it. Bystanders and colleagues respond through placating gestures and through shrugging denials of the psychic violence around them. How much did Bishop's family cover for her in this manner?
The incessantly enraged are both far more overt and far less common than standard issue passive aggressives. They content themselves by projecting themselves as innocent victims of circumstances they have actually helped to create. A trivial example: the man who complains widely that he was refused access to the gym. He had never bothered to renew his free membership.
My dismay in not knowing who Amy Bishop is really is more than the cliche-ridden inability to know who anybody really is---be that anybody an intimate or a somebody with whom we connect through the illusory intimacy of modern communications. My dismay is the symptom of commingling fears: fear of impotence if a passive aggressive's self-serving narrative goes viral and finds wide acceptance; fear of participating in a cover-up of the behavior of the perpetually angry; and worst of all, fear that someone will "snap," that oddly benign word for the eruption of violence, in my presence, in my subway car or faculty meeting.