When Amy Bishop was hired by the University of Alabama in Huntsville seven years ago, she appeared to have everything going for her: she was young, Harvard-trained, passionate about her field, a mother of four. But there were many things that her new colleagues didn’t know. They didn’t know her adviser at Harvard had forced her to resign her post-doctoral fellowship. They didn’t know she and her husband had been questioned by federal investigators in connection with a plot to kill that adviser: after Bishop resigned from his laboratory he received a package at his home containing a pipe bomb. They didn’t know that, in 2002, she had been arrested at an International House of Pancakes in Massachusetts after punching a woman who’d taken a booster chair she’d wanted for one of her children. (‘I am Amy Bishop!’ she’d screamed.) They didn’t know that, in 1986, she had ‘accidentally’ killed her 18-year-old brother Seth with a shotgun in the family’s Victorian mansion in Braintree, Massachusetts; or that she’d fled the scene, shotgun in hand and another round in her pocket, and held up an auto dealership, claiming that her husband (this was before she had a husband) was threatening to kill her and demanding a getaway car.
In other words, when Bishop killed three of her colleagues on 12 February because she’d been denied tenure, she had no criminal record. She was never convicted of assault in the ‘pancake rage’ affair, merely put on probation and encouraged to take anger-management classes; and the death of her brother was judged an accident by the local police. Clearly there was no reason for her to bring these things up when she applied for her job. There were, of course, people who had noticed she was a little crazy – ‘within striking distance of the edge’, as one person put it. But reference letters tend not to include outspoken appraisals of a candidate’s personality: employers are afraid of lawsuits.
If Bishop had a sense of impunity, it’s no wonder. She was white, well-connected and well-off. She’d long been coddled by the law, and until Huntsville there seemed to be nothing she couldn’t get away with. In 1986, for example, she was immediately released by the police, even though she refused to put her gun down when they first tried to arrest her. One of the investigators in Braintree decided she was ‘too emotional to interview’, so she wasn’t questioned for another 11 days. Sitting beside her mother, Judith Bishop, an influential member of the town committee, she explained that she wanted to learn how to use her father’s shotgun just in case a robber came by, and that the gun had accidentally gone off when she was trying to unload it; her botched experiment just happened to take place after a family argument. The police were satisfied with her explanation: no charges were filed, not even for firing a gun without a permit. ‘You cannot imagine how kind the Braintree police were to us,’ Judith Bishop told a local paper. Indeed they were. After a group of neighbours cleaned up Seth Bishop’s blood from the kitchen floor, a police investigator paid a visit to see if the family needed any food. Amy Bishop’s behaviour after the killing wasn’t even reported to the state authorities investigating the case. Now the case is under review.
No one in Huntsville knew about the pipe bomb investigation either, and for the first few years at least, Bishop was mostly on good behaviour. She struck her colleagues as ‘funny and extroverted’, though some noticed she could also be arrogant, and brooked no dissent: ‘arguing with Amy was a one-way street.’ Displaying an entrepreneurial streak that made them minor celebrities in Huntsville, Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, created and patented a ‘portable cell incubator’, designed to keep nerve cells alive longer and make experiments easier. It was really just a fancy Petri dish – she wasn’t much of a scientist, contrary to some claims about her genius in the blogosphere – but they talked the university into marketing the device. The president declared proudly that it would ‘change the way biological and medical research was conducted’. Bishop’s smiling face graced the cover of the Huntsville R&D Report in the winter of 2009, and Anderson’s company, Prodigy Biosystems, raised $1.25 million to develop the device.
In part of her mind Bishop knew things weren’t that rosy. She was also a novelist – the second cousin of John Irving, she often boasted – and in her three novels (so far unpublished) she was less confident of her prospects. The heroine of the most recent, Amazon Fever, is a female scientist at an Alabama university who is burdened by guilt over the death of her brother, and afraid that she won’t get tenure before the world ends – a herpes-like virus has spread, causing pregnant women everywhere to miscarry. (Bishop had a scientific interest in herpes, and after the killing spree in Huntsville, campus police were notified by people close to the university’s biology department that she might have booby-trapped the science building with a ‘herpes bomb’.)
In March 2009, the university denied her tenure bid on the basis that her research and publication record was inadequate. Though she appealed the decision – according to one colleague, her attitude was ‘when are these idiots going to clear this up?’ – she may have understood how weak her case was. She hadn’t published anything in 2007 or 2008, and her last paper was co-signed not only by her husband but by three of their four children, none of them older than 18. That article appeared in the International Journal of General Medicine, which is published by Dove, a vanity press which, according to its website, ‘will publish your paper if it is deemed of interest to someone. Therefore your chance of having your paper accepted is very high – it would be a very unusual paper that wasn’t of interest to someone.’
When the story first broke, much of the discussion revolved around tenure and gender discrimination. In Psychology Today, Katherine van Wormer said she ‘instinctively grasped the pain that had driven this apparently violence-prone woman to take her revenge’, and wondered: ‘Given the strong emotions related to tenure denial, one question is why does it lead to homicide so rarely?’ Had Amy snapped because of the ‘brutal’ rejection inflicted by the university? Was she giving it to The Man, payback for the exclusion of women in science departments (never mind that one of her victims was a female colleague)? Calls to improve the tenure process were raised; otherwise, one academic suggested, ‘going professor’ might share a place alongside ‘going postal’ in the lexicon of American mass murder. But since then the story has swung: Bishop has gone from being the female avenger to being the daughter of privilege, a spoiled sociopath who got away with murder because of her class and Harvard pedigree. The right-wing blogosphere, from comparatively mainstream journals like the Christian neo-conservative First Things to more wild-eyed sites, seizing on her enthusiasm for Obama, now refer to her as the ‘socialist professor’. Will nothing go Obama’s way?