Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blind Spots

By Irene Reed

Please welcome Friend-of-the-Outfit Irene Reed, a Chicago native and Harvard-educated lawyer who has come to her senses and now enjoys writing fiction. Despite her fascination with murder, mystery and true crime, she swears that she is perfectly harmless and sane. She is in my writing group, and she has a fascinating take on the Amy Bishop murders.

Violence in America is an odd thing. It exists everywhere, yet the details never cease to amaze. And sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Last week, professor Amy Bishop murdered three members of University of Alabama faculty. Before that, she had a history of erratic behavior, including suspected involvement in a pipe bombing, a meltdown at a pancake house, and difficult relationships with several graduate students. In 1986, at just 21, Bishop shot and killed her brother, then sought a getaway car from a local dealership.

Bishop, a Harvard graduate, mother of four and respected biology professor, has now taken as many people out of this world as she brought into it. Whether verbalized or not, the questions persist: how could this go on for so long? How did so many miss the signs—and why?

Maybe it’s because Bishop occupied a societal blind spot.

There were the Massachusetts police, reluctant to prosecute a young girl from a good family and middle-class suburb. And her parents, unwilling to face the possibility that their daughter needed help. Later, academic institutions probably focused more on Bishop’s academic success than her character or personality. And finally, there was the fact that Bishop didn’t fit The Profile. She was a 45-year old mother—she couldn’t possibly be that bad.

It happens all the time. Take the Washington, D.C. snipers. Nobody expected them to be Black, because the Profile says that most serial killers are White, male and smart. Ditto for Seung Hui Cho of Virginia Tech. The Profile always works—until it doesn’t.

Why, then, are we so committed to our summaries, analyses and pre-packaged beliefs? I think it is because we need to believe that we can understand evil. That if we encapsulate it, box it away, and break it down, it will finally make sense.

But imagination gives voice to the truth. Crime fiction is popular partly because it is an expression of our greatest horror—that evil cannot be anticipated, understood or controlled. The best fictional killers reflect our underlying fear: that evil is random, pervasive, and without reason. That it simply exists, like air, water or love.

Curiously, Bishop was also an aspiring thriller writer. She had three unpublished novels, including one about a scientist who was also an IRA operative. She is also related to John Irving, whom she hoped would help launch her literary career.
What, I wonder, prompted Bishop to write? Did she know, on some instinctive level, that something was wrong? Was she trying to give us clues? And what did Irving think of her work? Did he even read it? Did he try to help, or was she the crazy cousin he wanted to forget?

And what about the people in our own lives? How many blind spots have we missed? What new, unknown horror have we failed to identify? When I read about Bishop, I always wonder: how many other Ivy League-educated, cardigan-wearing, SUV-driving killers are out there, waiting to be recognized for what they are?

What do you think?

Thanks to Libby Hellmann, my mentor and friend, who has allowed me to guest blog. Also thanks to Michael Dymmoch and Jamie Freveletti, who have offered me endless friendship and support during my creative journey so far.


Rex Ray said...

He was such a nice boy. I'd never have thought.....

Dana King said...

Blind spots are always scary; it's human nature to want to give people the benefit of the doubt when ambiguous signals are received.


There's a key phrase in your post that makes all the difference in this case. After she killed her brother, police were "reluctant to prosecute a young girl from a good family and middle-class suburb."

Blind spot, or just plain wrong? Twenty-one year old girl from a West Baltimore family shoots her brother, she goes away. There are people who would be alive today had the police and prosecutors acted on what she had done, rather on their perceptions of her.

Mike Dennis said...

Serial killers spring from everywhere. In fiction, look at Dexter, or better yet, Trinity, the villain of DEXTER's season 4. A model citizen if ever there was one. Nobody would ever say of Trinity, "He always kept to himself."

The DC snipers are a good example of true-life killers. Or the BTK guy in Kansas, a code enforcement official. How about those little old ladies who took in homeless guys and killed them for the insurance? Zodiac--nobody knows what mold he/she came from. The beat goes on.

Irene said...

Dana--totally agreed about it being just plain wrong. As more comes out about Bishop shooting her brother, it just looks like the MA cops ignored what was going on. I don't even need to say what would have happened if Bishop had been black and had shot her brother in Boson in the '80s. How fast can you say Massachusetts State Pen?

David A Kentner, DA Kentner, KevaD said...

"Why, then, are we so committed to our summaries, analyses and pre-packaged beliefs? I think it is because we need to believe that we can understand evil. That if we encapsulate it, box it away, and break it down, it will finally make sense."

I disagree to a point with your statement.
We, human beings, seem to have been cursed with a predisposition to want to control the world we live in, and believe that we can.

We exercise that belief everyday by imposing upon others our expectations of what will keep our individual life/world safe from others around us. "If you will not use plastic bottles, I will survive. If you do not eat animals, I will survive."
It extends to "I need to know who is a danger to me so I will survive."

From that has evolved profiling. It is a nice simple methodology that reveals to us all who we should be watching for so we can avoid those people and be safe.
Profiling is also racist on so many levels, but affords us that comforting bubble we all desire.

Serial killers are white males. Drug dealers are black and hispanic. Psychotic women who kill their children live in mobile homes. When reality jumps up, it is a headline. "How could they have been so wrong?" Our safety bubble stretches to the near-breaking point until the danger passes and we can excuse the incident as an anomoly, one so remote that it probably won't happen again in our lifetime so we can get back to watching over our shoulder for those people we have been told are the threat we should watch for.

It is why thriller novels are thrilling. It is the unexpected threat that makes our blood flow and our adrenaline spill over.
It is the 'fact' that the situation could only happen to the people in the story, because we live our lives safe in the knowledge that we have a list of who is really the danger to us... until the next headline.

I leave you with this thought. How safe are you lving next door to an author of horror, thriller, or murder/mystery? We have to come up with our ideas somewhere. Maybe it was from what we would like to do to our neighbor who didn't mow their yard when we did and the heighth of our conjoined lawns isn't level anymore.
Or that cheap-ass piece of bubble gum you gave my kid Halloween...
You didn't conform to my requirement of how my world needs to be so I feel safe and secure, therefore you are now the threat and must be dealt with.

Dave K