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.