Beat-up cars and neuron computers: broken 'dream' of Amy Bishop?

The emerging portrait of neurobiologist and murder suspect Amy Bishop shows a disconnect between how she saw herself and her life and the actual reality of her experience.

By , Staff writer

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    In this photo taken Feb 12, Amy Bishop is taken into custody by Huntsville, Ala. police in connection with last week's shooting of six scholars at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
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Neurobiologist Amy Bishop, the suspect in last week's shooting of six scholars at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, liked to talk up her relationship to Harvard and the writer John Irving (a second cousin), but didn’t want her writing buddies to see that she drove a beat-up Chrysler.

After confronting a woman at a fast-food restaurant in 2002 for taking the last booster seat, Dr. Bishop, a mother of four, punched her while yelling, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!”

And after decades spent climbing the rungs of academe only to be denied tenure, Bishop allegedly responded to others' failure to recognize her achievements as she saw fit by pulling out a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun at a faculty hearing, opening fire, and emptying bullets until the gun jammed and clicked in the face of a colleague.

A disconnect between Bishop's actual life experience and the life of success and recognition she evidently expected is a recurring theme in the case of the woman with the dark past. Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, has told the press that his wife has had no mental health issues. But legal experts expect Bishop to plead insanity to several charges of murder and attempted murder.

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“You have to talk about Amy Bishop’s mental health in this situation as one of the variables, but being denied tenure when you’re in your mid-40s at an out-of-the-way obscure rural campus in the deep South is a catastrophic loss, and people don’t understand that,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “If you’re denied tenure, you’re fired. And in this economy chances are you’ll have to change your career, which is pretty hard for a woman who’s spent a decade in graduate school on a prestigious campus, Harvard, and had a good reputation for scholarship. Where is she going to go?”

Revelations that Bishops was a suspect in two previous violent acts – an unsuccessful mail-bomb attack on a Harvard professor and the fatal shooting in 1986 of her younger brother, Seth Bishop (ruled an accident) – have prompted a closer look at her patterns of behavior. The portrait that is emerging is of an “oddball” whose ideal of family and career may be, as a character in Bishop's unpublished novel says, “just a dream.”

Criminologists say that Bishop, a mother in her 40s, bucked nearly all existing profiles of mass killers last Friday when she opened fire on a roomful of colleagues at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, one of NASA’s civilian space hubs. Three colleagues were killed and three others seriously injured.

Bishop had been denied tenure at the state research university, a decision she had appealed. The increasingly competitive hunt for research money and the requirement of strong academic connections in that quest are being widely discussed as possible motives. Bishop had been working on a "living computer" built from mammalian neurons at the time of the shooting.

Now, The Boston Globe’s unearthing of an unpublished Bishop novel, “Amazon Fever,” gives another glimpse into Bishop’s state of mind. [] The novel, writes the Globe’s Meghan Irons, “is peppered with references to Harvard … and follows Olivia to Alabama, where she struggles to save a flagging career.… Through it all are Olivia’s anxieties about achieving success as a scientist.”

“She was here to save her career, which was flagging in perpetual postdoctoral fellowship,’’ Bishop wrote. Bishop sent the novel, which she evidently had been working on for years, to a friend in Massachusetts about six months ago, according to the Globe report.

Prosecutors are considering the death penalty.

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