Amy Bishop and the Intersection of Women, Violence and Art

I have read Sam Tanenhaus’s piece on the Amy Bishop case several times now and still don’t quite know what to make of it. Even though it is clear his frame of reference with regards to women and violence is stuck in the same time warp he discusses, and thus omits a fair number of more recent exemplars of the intersection between fiction and fact, I can’t dismiss the piece because he has a point that American culture is dumbfounded, more or less, by what Bishop did, recently and many years earlier.

The case is weird – and has already led to two quickie book deals that I know of – because the foundation it rests upon keeps shifting. First it was a school shooting; then a scorned woman whose fury required a 9-millimeter handgun to avenge her lack of tenure. Along came the secret past, first in the guise of an accidental shooting of her brother before the truth made things much murker, more premeditated, and a whole lot more complicated.

I’m intrigued by what both Patricia Cornwell and Chelsea Cain had to say:

“Everything is about power,” Cornwell, whose best-selling Scarpetta series is thick with forensic detail,

maintained in an e-mail message, when asked what she made of the Bishop

case. “The more women appropriate power, the more their behavior will

mimic that of other powerful people.” Also: “Firearms are the great

equalizer. You don’t have to be 6 foot 2 and weigh 200 pounds to kill a

room full of people.”

Chelsea Cain, the author of a crime

series that reverses the formula of “The Silence of the Lambs,” pitting

a male detective against a female serial killer, suggested that Dr.

Bishop is the latest version of an ancient figure, “the mother lioness

that kills to protect herself and her family against perceived threats.”

And while I can see why Tanenhaus would reach back to THE BAD SEED or WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, the comparisons don’t quite ring true for me. Maybe because if there’s a parallel to be made, it’s with another woman, quite a ways younger, who was similarly pissed off at both the world and her peers and brought a .22 caliber rifle to school one day. Maybe, like Brenda Spencer, Amy Bishop just didn’t like Mondays (or, more literally, Fridays.) And every time the pressure built up and the going in her head got too much, in kicked the killing mechanism – for no logic-based reason.

I’m actually surprised at how low-profile a figure Spencer has cut post-Bishop. She was denied parole last summer and won’t get another hearing for a decade (which, in all likelihood, will be denied a fifth time) but being so close in age (Spencer is now 47; Bishop is 45) it makes me wonder what might have been had Spencer taken her anger out in a more accidental, happenstance manner, and then was allowed to live her life outside prison walls. It’s a needless what-if, but if we’re going to reach for answers, picking the brain of the longtime inmate of the California Institute for Women in Corona, California is as much of a crapshoot as looking to art, books and films for cultural resonance.