A History of Violence

Something is very wrong with Amy Bishop, and there has been something wrong with her for a very long time. But just what is her problem, and how did she manage to keep it at least somewhat under control for so long? As a psychologist, I have found this story so fascinating that I have barely been able to focus on anything else for the past few days.

Amy Bishop is a professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville who shot six of her colleagues at a Biology Department meeting on Friday, February 12. She had taken a 9-millimeter pistol with her to the meeting, loaded with 16 bullets. She did not have a permit for the weapon. She has been charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder so far. From The New York Times:

Those killed were Gopi Podila, 52, the chairman of the biology department; Maria Ragland Davis, 50, a professor who studied plant pathogens; and Adriel Johnson, 52, a cell biologist who also taught Boy Scouts about science.

Two of the wounded were Joseph Leahy, 50, a microbiologist, and Stephanie Monticciolo, 62, a staff assistant, both of whom were in critical condition. The third was Luis Cruz-Vera, 40, a molecular biologist, who was released from the hospital on Saturday.

A neuroscientist with a PhD from Harvard University, Bishop was working on a start-up company to market a portable cell incubator that she had invented with her husband. The couple had won the $25,000 seed money in an Alabama business competition. Bishop and Anderson have four children, the oldest of whom is 18.

Bishop had been denied tenure twice by her department, and her appeal had been denied in April of 2009. At the end of the Spring semester she would have had to leave UAH. She felt she had been unfairly treated because of personality issues, and had apparently retained a lawyer to help her fight the decision. However, with her qualifications, Bishop should have been able to find another teaching job easily. On the other hand, why did she end up at UAH in the first place when she had such outstanding qualifications?

According to the Boston Herald, quoting “a family source,” Bishop

was a far-left political extremist who was “obsessed” with President Obama to the point of being off-putting.

In addition, many right-wing blogs are trying to turn this tragic story into a political issue, claiming that Amy Bishop is a radical socialist, and supposedly that should explain her losing control and going on a shooting rampage.

At least one blog is suggesting the shootings were based on race, because most of the people Bishop shot were people of color. I also saw this suggestion made on Twitter several time yesterday.

…Bishop shot almost every non-white faculty member in the department. (She also shot and wounded two white victims, a professor and a staff member.) She killed both African-American professors in the department (one of whom was too junior to have had anything to do with Bishop’s tenure decision). She killed the department chair, who was ethnically South Asian. A Latino faculty member was wounded. There may only be two non-white faculty left in the department. Whether she intended it or not, Amy Bishop effected a racial purge of the Alabama Huntsville biology department.

The following is a summary of what I have learned about Amy Bishop so far.

Amy Bishop was born on April 24, 1965, in Braintree, Massachusetts.

Seth Bishop

Over the past few days, it has become clear that Bishop has a history of violence. In 1986, Bishop killed her 18-year-old brother Seth Bishop with a shotgun blast through his heart. Seth was reportedly a serious violinist and had won numerous science awards. Various reports claim that Amy was either 19, 20, or 22 at the time and was living at home. If she was born in 1965, she would have been 23 or 24 in 1986.

This is what happened, based on a number of accounts I have read, including the preliminary report of the Massachusetts State Police investigation. Amy had had an argument with her father (Samuel Bishop), who then left the house to go shopping.

Amy claimed that she was nervous about a break-in that had recently occurred at her home, and she suddenly decided that she should learn how to load one of the shotguns that Samuel and Seth used for target shooting. She went to her room and put bullets in the gun, but was unable to remove them and during this process she accidentally pulled the trigger and blew a hole through the wall of her bedroom.

In the meantime, Amy’s mother Judy had come home and Seth had gone to the grocery store to get food for lunch. Amy came downstairs carrying the shotgun and went into the kitchen where her mother was. Just then, Seth came home carrying a bag of groceries. Amy said she then asked Seth to help her unload the weapon, which she was carrying pointed downward by her side. She claimed that Seth told her to point the gun up. As she raised the firearm, she “accidentally” pulled the trigger for the second time and shot Seth through the heart.

Bishop then ran out of the house, firing the shotgun a third time through the ceiling as she left. Bishop then went to a car dealership near her home, held a gun to the chest of Thomas Pettigrew, then 22, who now lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Bishop appeared agitated and nervous, Pettigrew said. The University of Alabama professor now accused of killing three colleagues Friday said she needed a car because, “I got into a fight with my husband and he’s going to kill me,” the worker recalled.

Pettigrew then watched as Bishop walked through the dealership looking at cars, all the while grasping the gun.

By then, police arrived and swarmed the parking lot. One armed officer climbed up on a nearby roof, Pettigrew said, and could have taken her out.

Instead, they arrested her. Braintree police Chief Paul Frazier has said officers on duty claim they were forced by retired former Chief John Polio to let Bishop, whose mother was a member of the police personnel board, go. Polio denies that and said then-District Attorney William Delahunt [now serving in the House of Representatives] investigated the case and ruled it an accident.

In the light of recent events, the Braintree Police are currently searching for the 1986 police report, which somehow conveniently disappeared sometime between 1986 and 1988. Current Braintree Police Chief Paul Frasier was an officer in 1986, and says many on the force were frustrated when the case was dropped. He is now looking into whether the case should be reopened.

Are you getting the feeling the Bishops had a highly dysfunctional family? I am. From the Boston Herald:

A classmate of Seth Bishop’s recalled yesterday that the boy, who was “painfully shy,” never talked about his older, only sibling.

“It was as if he was a complete stranger in her life. It seemed like a dysfunctional family. We just accepted them as being odd,” said the classmate, who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity.

Amy Bishop, he said, “wasn’t mean because she wasn’t someone you could get close to. She wasn’t an attractive girl, she didn’t have friends. She didn’t work at having friends. I think people probably, over time, learned to leave her alone.”

The Bishop household, he said, “was anything but a home . . . It was just a really dreary, dark place where there wasn’t a lot of love.”

That makes sense, because so far no one seems to have heard anything from Bishop’s parents, who currently live in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Perhaps they are in Huntsville now with their four grandchildren, one of whom is only in the third grade, but if they are it hasn’t been reported in the media yet.

Bishop and her husband James Anderson had met in the 1980s, when they were students at Northeastern University in Boston. Bishop went on to get her PhD at Harvard and in 1993, she held a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard and worked at Children’s Hospital where she again got into trouble–this time she was considered a suspect in the mailing of a package containing two pipe bombs to a faculty member with whom she had had a disagreement.

Amy Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, were questioned after a package containing two bombs was sent to the Newton home of Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a professor and doctor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.


Rosenberg was opening mail, which had been set aside by a cat-sitter, when he returned from a Caribbean vacation on Dec. 19, 1993, according to Globe reports at the time.

Opening a long, thin package addressed to “Mr. Paul Rosenberg M.D.,” he saw wires and a cylinder inside. He and his wife ran from the house and called police.

The package contained two 6-inch pipe bombs connected to two nine-volt batteries.

In March 1994, the Globe reported that federal investigators had identified a prime suspect in the case. But the article did not name the suspect.

But it turns out that the subject was Bishop. She and her husband were both questioned by the Feds and their house was searched.

…the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms focused on Bishop, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow who was working in the human biochemstry lab at Children’s Hospital at the time, and her husband, Anderson.

Bishop surfaced as a suspect because she was allegedly concerned that she was going to receive a negative evaluation from Rosenberg on her doctorate work, the official said.

A pattern seems to be forming, doesn’t it? James Anderson claims that neither he nor his wife were suspects in 1993, but Sylvia Fluckiger, who worked with Bishop as a lab assistant says otherwise. According to Fluckiger, Amy Bishop smirked when she talked about being questioned, and others in the lab were “knew she had a beef with Paul Rosenberg” and didn’t see how the bombing could be a coincidence.

During the search, the Feds found a novel on Bishop’s computer about a woman who had killed her own brother and wanted to “make amends by becoming a great scientist.”

I have no doubt that a lot more information is going to come out about both Bishop and Anderson. But based on what we know so far, she was a ticking time bomb just waiting for the right trigger to set her off. Maybe we’ll never know what it was, but it seems clear that she should have been arrested after she killed her brother and there should have been a thorough investigation. I also have no doubt that Bishop has something seriously wrong with her psychologically. Normal people do not go on shooting sprees because of career setbacks.

I’m hoping that with more information it will be possible to understand better what happened to Bishop. There are a few clues. First, after she shot her colleagues on Friday, she called her husband and asked him to pick her up, making no mention of the shooting. In addition, students reported that earlier in the day, Bishop taught two classes and seemed the same as always–calm and in control. Then when she was arrested, she denied that the events could have happened:

A stunned Bishop, dressed in jeans and a pink sweater, was seen being driven away from the University of Alabama campus by police after the incident, shaking her head in disbelief.

“It didn’t happen. There’s no way. They’re still alive,” she murmured to local television station WHNT-TV as she climbed into the vehicle.

To me, this suggests some kind of dissociation. Could she have been subject to dissociative fugue states? After she shot her brother, Bishop also claimed not to recall leaving her house or putting on a jacket first. She could have been lying, but then why wouldn’t she claim not to recall any of the incident? She also concealed the death of her brother from everyone she knew in Alabama–no one even knew that she had a brother, much less that she had killed him. And no one knew about her being a suspect in the mail bomb case.

Another possibility is that Bishop developed a psychological disorder as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, killing her own brother, and apparently not really dealing with what she had done. I can only imagine what it would be like to live with that kind of knowledge and guilt. It would not be at all surprising if she suffered from depression, but she was so highly functioning and successful that that seems unlikely. I don’t want to speculate any further just yet, because not enough is known yet.

I think we can feel free to speculate in the comments though. And I will keep following this story with avid interest.

UPDATE: I did not mean to denigrate UAH or state universities when I expressed surprise that Bishop ended up in Alabama. I was trying to suggest that she may have had less than stellar recommendations from faculty supervisors and so chose to go as far away from Harvard as she could. I come from the Midwest, where many of the top schools are state universities, so this implication did not even occur to me. In fact my father was a professor at a state university in Indiana.