Published February 17, 2010
On Friday, February 12, Professor Amy Bishop allegedly opened fire in a meeting of her colleagues at the University of Alabama, killing three of them.
Bishop was reportedly denied tenure at the university after a long battle, and the appeals process had been exhausted. She was to leave the faculty at the end of the year.
Here's a news flash_ "Normal" teachers do not kill over being denied tenure, so the search for the roots of Dr. Bishop's violence (if she is guilty) must go deeper.
Already, police are reexamining two earlier chapters in Bishop's life story. She shot her brother to death "accidentally" back in 1986 and she was questioned in 1993 when a pipe bomb was sent to a rival colleague of hers at Boston's Children's Hospital.
If Bishop is guilty she will be by no means the first highly educated, high achiever to commit acts of terrible violence over a stretch of decades.
In 1990, for example, I lost a dear friend of mine named Dr. Paul Mendelsohn to a killer and doctor named Jonathan Kappler. Kappler, an anesthesiologist, ran Paul down with his car, claiming he heard voices commanding him to do so.
During Kappler's trial he explained he had been making attempts on the lives of others for many years--trying to kill them with overdoses of anesthesia during surgeries.
During 1985 Kappler also stole a car and drove into two wrecks on California's 405 freeway. He was briefly jailed, but back in the operating room within days.
Kappler had battled mental illness since the 1960s.
Many people think that mental disorders (and it remains to be seen which, if any, Amy Bishop suffered from) deprive people of the ability to function at work. But often they do not. Extreme impulse control disorders and even delusions like paranoia and auditory hallucinations can be masked by those suffering with them until they emerge when a "perfect storm" of stressors brings them to the surface.
There are, however, signs of impending violence.
In every case I have investigated, those who ultimately kill have, for a long time, demonstrated a failure of empathy. They violate the personal boundaries of others, again and again. They are quick to anger. They tend to overreact to perceived slights.
This failure of empathy has always, in my experience, had very deep roots, indeed. Again and again, I have traced it back to its origins, often in overwhelming emotional traumas in childhood. Those traumas caused the person to shut down psychologically--no longer feeling for themselves nor anyone else.
This no-man's land of the soul is the psychological soil in which killers grow.
While a killer's neurochemistry may be more brittle from birth than most, I have found that brittle, early, inescapably painful life events are what really turn people into murderers.
In other words, murderers are made, not born. There is no "bad seed."
When the whole story of Amy Bishop is told, the trouble will not have begun in 1986. She was already 20 years old then. The dominos, we will learn, had begun falling much, much earlier.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.