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.
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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.
Three comics sat around a café table in the chilly atrium of the Minneapolis Convention Center, talking about how to create the cleanest possible set. “Don’t do what’s in your gut,” Zoltan Kaszas said. “Better safe than sorry,” Chinedu Unaka offered. Feraz Ozel mused about the first time he’d ever done stand-up: three minutes on giving his girlfriend herpes and banging his grandma. That was out.
This was not a case of professionals approaching a technical problem as an intellectual exercise. Money was riding on the answer. They had come to Minneapolis in the middle of a brutal winter for the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), to sell themselves and their comedy on the college circuit. Representatives of more than 350 colleges had come as well, to book comics, musicians, sword swallowers, unicyclists, magicians, hypnotists, slam poets, and every kind of boat act, inspirational speaker, and one-trick pony you could imagine for the next academic year.
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.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.