Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Not seeing the forest for the trees

The missing piece of the puzzle of why Amy Bishop shot six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, killing three, is mental illness. The idea that she was a perfectly normal person who just snapped due to stress brought on by the loss of her job is absurd.

However, exactly what disease she has is unknown. Her husband has said she never had seen a psychiatrist or had any psychiatric disorder. Yet every story which has come out about her past, including the fact that she killed her brother, possibly sent a bomb to one of her other colleagues and harassed her neighbors suggest she was a very disturbed person for a long time.

This ABC News story is the best I have seen at getting to the question of her likely mental illness:
Accused Alabama shooter Amy Bishop screamed and cursed at children, instigating confrontations with their parents, according to former neighbors who painted a frightening portrait of an woman accused of a killing rampage.

Former Massachusetts neighbors described the brilliant scientist as a woman who 15 years ago had "face-to-face, nose-to-nose confrontations" over evening basketball games, skateboarders and even whether an ice cream truck would be allowed on the child-friendly street.

"She picked fights with them," said one neighbor, who did not want to be identified because Bishop's children return summers to visit their grandparents -- Judy and Samuel Bishop -- who still live on Fille Street in quiet Ipswich, Mass.

"The ice cream truck was banished from the street because [Bishop] told them her children were lactose intolerant," said the neighbor. "She even had one of the children's teachers fired."

Last week Bishop was arrested for killing three professors and injuring three others -- all colleagues at University of Alabama in Huntsville -- during a faculty meeting. She is currently on suicide watch.

Soon more disturbing news emerged from Bishop's background. Investigators unearthed several disturbing pieces to the puzzle of the suspect, an accomplished cellular biologist and mother of four children aged 8 to 18.

In 1986, she shot her then 18-year-old brother Seth Bishop with a shotgun at their home in Braintree, Mass., but was never charged in the shooting.

And in 1993, she and her husband were questioned by police after a pipe bomb was mailed to one of Bishop's colleagues, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Paul Rosenberg.

I'm quite certain that Bishop's husband is completely innocent in her crimes. However, I sense that he cannot see the forest for the trees. For whatever reason, her very peculiar behavior and paranoid personality strikes him as perfectly normal. Yet everyone else saw Amy Bishop as off her rocker.
James Anderson has said that he and his wife were cleared in the mail bomb investigation and were never suspects.

Anderson told ABC affiliate WCVB-TV in Boston Monday that he had no idea why his wife would shoot their co-workers.

"Nobody understands what happened. Nobody knew," he said.

Anderson told The Associated Press that he and Bishop went to a shooting range just weeks before the killing, but said the family did not own a gun.

This is the first story on this case I have seen which gets the views of trained psychiatrists:
Though many at the university had heard grumblings that she had been denied tenure, police, psychological experts and even her own family say her motivation is an enigma.

"For a faculty member to murder colleagues after denial of tenure would probably require 'standard' experiences of disappointment, a sense of betrayal, and desperation and the additional burden of mental illness, either a severe depression or some form of psychosis," said Dr. Stephen Shuchter, professor of clinical psychiatry emeritus at The University of California, San Diego.

"We are likely to learn about these only if the perpetrator chooses to defend herself by presenting the mitigating circumstances of an insanity defense," he told

Bishop's strange personality was not unknown to some of her colleagues and neighbors:
Sylvia Fluckiger, a lab technician who worked with Bishop then, described her as "an oddball" and "socially a little awkward," according to the Boston Globe.

Among former neighbors, Bishop was cantankerous and not well liked.

Ipswich police logged two calls for neighborhood disputes from Bishop, and in 2002, she reported receiving harassing calls, according to local reports.

Once, neighbors organized a block party and didn't tell Bishop because of conflicts she had with people.

"We never had any issue with them directly," said the grandmother who knew the family. "But it was very uncomfortable with the other neighbors. Amy was not friendly. The high school kids at the time were very in to sports and they'd come out and play from 8:30 to 10 at night. The noise was bothersome to her."

If Bishop has a serious mental illness, it was not diagnosed:
... many psychiatric disorders can go undiagnosed for years, especially for those who lead insular lives.

"People in science and computers are solitary people," said Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman for the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein college of Medicine.

"They work in solitude and they don't need to interact in complex social situations and can be paranoid for a long time without someone realizing."

Schizophrenia can be marked by social isolation, odd behavior, "strange disordered" thinking and speaking, poor hygiene and lack of friends, according to Galynker.

Often people don't notice signs until more serious symptoms emerge.

"Brilliant scientists are supposed to be crazy," he told

My sense is that those who knew her and didn't think she was mentally ill likely assumed her eccentricities were normal behavior for a scientist.
Anti-social personality disorders can also result behavior that is "incompatible with laws," like stealing or shooting, he said. And in narcissism, a person can display disregard for the feelings of others or seek self-aggrandizement and, like Bernie Madoff, can be "very charming."

Psychotics like Seung-Hui Cho, the student who who killed 31 at Virginia Tech in 2007, are particularly dangerous.

Killers like Cho view others as inconsequential and often humiliation can set off a psychotic depression that could make a person violent or suicidal, said Galynker.

Those with personality disorders, such as Eric Harris, who went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, are particularly dangerous.

"They don't have a conscience," said Frank Ochberg, a Michigan psychiatrist and founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

"There is the fear of getting caught, and then you get away with it and you harbor a sense that all these other people are crazy," said Ochberg. "There's a sense of entitlement."

Any of those psychiatric disorders could justify an insanity defense -- lacking the capacity to know right from wrong , according to both psychiatrists.

Ochberg, who is an expert in psychopathic predators and mass shootings, said female shooters are rare, but he admits, "mothers have done tragic things. They have killed their kids."

"In general being a woman and a mother makes you more in tune with your feelings, more nurturing and sympathetic," said Ochberg. "I believe men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but some women are from Mars."

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