On Friday, the University of Alabama at Huntsville suffered a horrific tragedy: Biology professor Amy Bishop shot five colleagues, killing three, over an alleged tenure dispute. One news outlet suggests it was a nerd rage crime, motivated by D&D.
It’s been a long time since the psychopathic nerd stereotype stalked through cheap paperbacks and across TV screens. The Boston Herald digs deep into 1980s D&D paranoia to produce this shockingly clueless set of paragraphs:
Bishop, now a University of Alabama professor, and her husband James Anderson met and fell in love in a Dungeons & Dragons club while biology students at Northeastern University in the early 1980s, and were heavily into the fantasy role-playing board game, a source told the Herald.
“They even acted this crap out,” the source said.
When questioned about it yesterday, Anderson, 45, a research scientist in Huntsville, Ala., dismissed the egghead escape as “a passing interest. It was a social thing more than anything else. It’s not the crazy group people think they are.” . . .
The popular fantasy role-playing game has a long history of controversy, with objections raised to its demonic and violent elements. Some experts have cited the D&D backgrounds of people who were later involved in violent crimes, while others say it just a game. A federal appeals court recently upheld a prison ban on the game in Wisconsin, where prison officials reportedly testified they were afraid the game could promote “hostility, violence and escape behavior.”
The best part is the anonymous “source” making fun of nerds who “act this crap out.” I’m assuming the “source” is referring to LARPing, or possibly just displaying the same ignorance about D&D that the Herald itself does.
The facts of the Bishop case as they’ve emerged over the past few days hardly suggest that the troubled professor’s crimes were a result of a LARP gone wrong. It’s beginning to seem that Bishop’s life was plagued by violence, and not the swords-and-spells variety. In 1986, when Bishop was 19, she shot and killed her younger brother Seth. Though police at the time ruled it an accident, disturbing details have come to light since Friday’s shootings. The crime was never fully investigated, despite the fact that Bishop and her mother gave contradictory stories about what happened.
Though Bishop claimed the gun went off “accidentally,” she had already shot a wall upstairs before coming down to shoot her brother. After shooting him in the chest, she fled her house with the gun and ran to a local car dealership. A mechanic who worked in the car dealership, Tom Pettigrew, described what happened then. According to the Boston Globe:
“I yelled, ‘What are you doing?’ and she screamed at me to put my hands up. So I put my hands up,” Pettigrew, 45, said in an interview at his home in Quincy on Monday.
Pettigrew recalled that Bishop said she had had a fight with her husband and he was going to come after her, so she needed a getaway car. Pettigrew said that Braintree police briefly questioned him and several other employees, but authorities never contacted him again.
Investigators now say that Bishop may have murdered her brother. It seems just as likely that Bishop did shoot him accidentally, but that the incident left her scarred – and possibly pushed her toward violent acts later.
Several years later in 1993, when Bishop was a graduate student in biology at Harvard, she and her husband were questioned after one of her advisers – who had been critical of her work – received two pipe bombs in the mail. She was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case, but the circumstances seem eerily similar to what happened in Alabama.
Before she shot her colleagues in a department meeting, Bishop had been denied tenure. When she appealed, and charged the university with sex discrimination, she was again denied tenure. Bishop had just received her second denial of tenure via email before the meeting where she pulled out a gun and systematically shot her colleagues in the head. Ironically, given her charges of sexism, one of the colleagues she killed was female. In 2002, Bishop had also assaulted another woman, whom she punched in the head in an IHOP restaurant.
As a neuroscience researcher, Bishop was about to embark on a project to build a biological computer that she called the Neuristor. On her research page, she wrote:
My laboratory’s goal will be to continue in our effort to develop a neural computer, the Neuristor™, using living neurons. This computer will exploit all of the advantages of neurons. Specifically, neurons rich with the nitric oxide (NO) dependent learning receptor, N Methyl D Aspartate receptor (NMDAR), will be utilized.
Bishop has spent most of her adult life studying NO, which is crucial to the process of learning in the brain. But in high doses released during times of stress or injury, NO can be toxic and causes brain damage.
Bishop has been charged with capital murder.
While the biology professor certainly lead the life of a geek, did that have anything to do with her homicidal rage on Friday? Was she driven to attack her colleagues because she liked D&D, or because she believed she could build a computer out of living neurons? Many news stories underscore how Bishop was “socially awkward” and didn’t socialize with her neighbors. But are these typically nerdy attributes the cause of her crimes? Obviously not. Awkward geeks who love games and biotech fill our universities and corporations, and lead nonviolent lives.
You’d think by now that pop media would have gotten beyond the idea that nerdiness leads to crime. Apparently they haven’t. I am cringing as I await the next round of evil geek TV specials, featuring mad scientists building biological computers while playing “Mazes and Monsters” and plotting the murders of their colleagues.