It was one of the more unusual public relations nightmares to envelop NASA in the final rocky decade of its shuttle program. Four years ago this month Orlando police arrested astronaut Lisa Nowak after she assaulted (and, police believed, attempted to kidnap or murder) her rival for the affections of fellow astronaut William Oefelein (aka "Billy O").
As NASA launches its final three space shuttle missions, one of which the certifiably heroic Captain Mark Kelly is helming (Gabrielle Giffords's husband was Nowak's shipmate in 2006 and offered her moral support during the media frenzy that followed), 20/20 is giving over a solid chunk of its prime time Friday night to the story of Colleen Shipman, the woman Nowak attacked and the world forgot.
I viewed a complete pre-air of 20/20's story yesterday courtesy of ABC. Colleen proves to be one of Chris Cuomo's better interview subjects. She's clearly been waiting to tell her side, and it's time we give her a listen. Here's a clip.
When Nowak, disguised in an oversized trench coat, wig, and red glasses, chased down and pepper sprayed Shipman early February 5, 2007, Shipman believed Nowak intended to kill her. It's a reasonable assumption. Yet the court never considered it.
Nowak's first-rate lawyer succeeded in barring the cache of incriminating evidence police collected from any potential trial. That evidence included the steel mallet, knife, air pistol, gloves, and plastic tubing Lisa had ready in her car, all part of a mission she meticulously planned over three weeks, all the way down to her supply of high-absorbency space diapers (Nowak's 900-mile car trip from Houston to Orlando only required two).
In the end Nowak got off with a plea bargain of two days of time served and a year's probation. Shipman got post traumatic stress disorder. Like Nowak, NASA booted Billy O.
Her lawyer's skill meant Nowak never had to use the insanity defense he had ready and waiting for her, preemptively filed in the Florida court system like an insurance policy. Nowak's insanity filing included an assessment by psychiatrist Richard Pesikoff, who offered up diagnoses including bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Asperger's syndrome and insomnia as factors diminishing her culpability for her actions.
Paul Siegel, an assistant professor of psychology at Purchase College, isn't buying any of it. 20/20's piece features Dr. Siegel's opinion on the case, and I interviewed him this week.
"If [Dr. Pesikoff] was paid by her defense lawyer, he needs to come up with some sort of diagnosis to support her defense," Siegel tells me. "I'm not getting paid anything."
Asperger's would leave a wake dating back to Lisa's childhood, and made it more unusual to see her marry and have children, or start that affair with Billy O in the first place. Bipolar disorder does not mesh well with the Navy flight schools where Lisa excelled and surely would have been apparent in her work at NASA.
Moreover, if Dr. Pesikoff planned to place this all on a psychotic episode, bipolar mania does not last for the weeks on end Lisa used to prepare her quest.
It may seem like anybody could disintegrate under the pressure cooker intensity that was Lisa Nowak's career. Her spaceflight seven months before attacking Colleen Shipman was only the second manned mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster. That event that shook NASA to its core.
For Nowak the explosion also meant losing her close friend, Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark. Nowak stepped up her game accordingly in the ratcheted-up flight training that followed in the heavily scrutinized post-Columbia era, all while stepping in to care for Clark's family in addition to her own. It would not be long before her marriage fell apart and she would begin her infamous affair with Billy O.
So why doesn't temporary insanity explain what the high-flying Lisa Nowak tried to do that night to Colleen Shipman? As her lawyer said, clearly the whole episode was out of character.
Not at all. Her character actually is the problem, says Dr. Siegel.
"Typical mental disorders, like bipolar disorder or depression, are characterized by a pattern of sickness," Dr. Siegel says. "You can't concentrate, you're not eating and sleeping, etcetera."
A personality disorder is not something you have, Dr. Siegel tells me. "It's something you are."
Nowak doesn't have symptoms of illness. Rather, she has personality traits. Specifically, in the way she behaved toward Colleen Shipman, as you'll see on 20/20, Siegel identifies elements of antisocial personality disorder on display (she's not a perfect fit -- individual categories -- there are currently ten of them, don't describe most cases).
Personality disorders are disturbed patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that come to the surface especially in relationships. In day-to-day life, in settings such as work, many people with personality disorders will behave normally. In Nowak's case, that meant grace under fire in 70-hour work weeks.
But jealousy is a primeval emotion, a twisted concoction of anger and insecurity, that easily unboxes the beast waiting to get out.
It's a cardinal feature of all personality disorders -- an unstable grasp of one's own identity. Who you are, how you act, can shift markedly with your surroundings.
"The Lisa Nowak who terrorized Colleen in the airport that night was not the astronaut and suburban supermom raising three kids who likes to grow African violets in her garden," Siegel assures me. "An entirely different side of her emerged, a much darker side."
It's easy to see why NASA didn't see it coming. NASA is more concerned with seeing astronauts manage the stress that comes with flying rickety old rockets than in whether they can move on in the midst of unrequited love. To identify Lisa's problem would require putting her under extreme emotional stress in a test specifically designed to pick up on signs of personality disorders. And no test is perfect.
Dr. Siegel trained at Weil Cornell under Paulina Kernberg who along with her husband Otto are central figures in the history of personality disorders.
The collection of personality disorders, once termed "psychopathies," are among the more uncomfortable diagnoses in abnormal psychology. They're laden with the ethically fraught implication that a person with a personality disorder isn't so much "mad" as he is simply "bad."
Most mental health professionals hold little hope for identifying an effective treatment in any particular case (dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are attempted). And that slim chance only happens if patients seek treatment -- most people with personality disorders don't see a problem. Lack of self awareness is part of their disorder.
Without truly objective assessments or lab tests, personality disorders are always ripe for scientific critique. They're currently the subject of one of the major revisions in the DSM-V, due out in 2013. Some suggest chucking the personality disorder rubric in favor of "adaptation disorder" to emphasize an ongoing struggle rather than a fixed facet of one's character.
Whatever we call it, mental health professionals know personality disorders when they see them. Unfortunately they're quite common -- 9.1% of Americans in any given year, according to NIH statistics. Dr. Siegel is sticking his neck out somewhat in offering us his diagnosis on the basis of publicly available information. He hasn't examined Lisa. He isn't privy to events in the rest of her private life.
But between the court records, Lisa's videotaped police interview, disclosed emails, and media interviews with just about everybody concerned but Lisa herself, Dr. Siegel has far more information about Nowak's case than some others.
"I see a lot of personality disorders whenever I go to the post office," he admits.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”