Sunday, February 14, 2010

The end of the Amy Bishop story?

Well, the Amy Bishop story is apparently winding down now.  Now all the stories are leading or featuring very prominently her previous killing of her brother, which now, at least in the press, is looking pretty bad.  The NY Times has a statement from the Braintree Mass. police department indicating that the release of Bishop "did not sit well" with the police department.

So, it appears that the tenure denial aspect of this event will become of lesser interest, and this whole episode will just merge into all the other crazy mass killings, which is a shame.  Of course, a bad event like a tenure denial doesn't lead a normal person to homicide.  In these pathological multiple murder cases that is never the point.  You need a confluence of multiple events to make them happen.  In this case it looks like it was the combination of the instability of Bishop AND the tenure denial which was the ultimate trigger of what happened.  OF COURSE a normal person would not go off killing people just because they were denied tenure.  That's not the point at all.

But look at Bishop's situation.  Sure, she was deranged, but not in a hugely major way (like say Fabrikant was).  She was able to get through Harvard grad. school, get married, have four kids, land a faculty job, and start up a biotech company.  She was unstable, but she was a high-functioning unstable person. 

But it can't be denied that a tenure denial is a huge stressor.  And I don't think this has been recognized enough.  The length of time involved in the process--usually at least six years--and the fact that it is presented to the candidate as a deep, careful, reasoned judgement from one's peers, this makes it not like other common stress events in one's life, like death of a loved one, or losing a job or having a business fail.  All those other events have elements of outside randomness to them.  You can rationalize that there was (at least partially) nothing that could have been done about the situation.  But I have been through two denials and I know that the committees always make their absolute best effort to present it to you as a careful, dispassionate, expert judgement of your entire career.  And you are found wanting.  The ENTIRE thing is all you, all your fault.  I don't mean that that IS true, but that is how the administrators and faculty members make it out to you.

In such a situation, it takes an incredibe force of will and personality to NOT have fleeting thoughts of (at least) suicide, if not homicide.  Of course--of course!--normal people do not act on such thoughts.  But in my entire life, given all the events which have come down on me, it was only during the denials that these kinds of thoughts came to the fore in a way sufficient enough that I clearly remembered it happening. 

1 comment:

  1. Your analysis reminded me of Erving Goffman's breakthrough article, "On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure" [Psychiatry. 1952 Nov; 15(4): 451-63] because it points out how one of the unacknowledged functions of our education system is to "cool out the mark."

    That is, it addresses the difficult problem posed for social systems by the necessary task of inflicting defeat and failure on some persons, since not everyone can be successful.

    It thus falls to education systems to provide a convenient rationale for the “sorting of persons,” if only because its central role has come to be so widely accepted. Your comments bear this out regarding tenure and the tenure system as well.

    Another feature of the "cooling out" process that Goffman treats are those that will not "go quietly" and make a fuss. Not limited to confidence games, these social processes have widespread significance.