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.
His paranoid style paved the road for Trumpism. Now he fears what’s been unleashed.
Glenn Beck looks like the dad in a Disney movie. He’s earnest, geeky, pink, and slightly bulbous. His idea of salty language is bullcrap.
The atmosphere at Beck’s Mercury Studios, outside Dallas, is similarly soothing, provided you ignore the references to genocide and civilizational collapse. In October, when most commentators considered a Donald Trump presidency a remote possibility, I followed audience members onto the set of The Glenn Beck Program, which airs on Beck’s website, theblaze.com. On the way, we passed through a life-size replica of the Oval Office as it might look if inhabited by a President Beck, complete with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a large Norman Rockwell print of a Boy Scout.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the federal government to prevent rules about air and water pollution from taking effect.
Throughout the long campaign, and in the long month that has followed, President-elect Donald Trump sounded some odd notes about the environment.
He rejected the scientific fact of climate change, calling it a hoax or a fraud. He repeatedly announced his intent to repeal all of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations. He lamented, wrongly, that you couldn’t use hairspray anymore because it damaged the ozone layer.
And then, out of nowhere, he met with Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for educating the public about the dangers of climate change.
While the broad strokes of Trump’s policies were never in doubt, there was often enough bizarreness to wonder what he would do with the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As journalists push back against hoaxes and conspiracies, media skeptics are using charges of “fake news” against professionals.
For a term that is suddenly everywhere, “fake news” is fairly slippery.
Is “fake news” a reference to government propaganda designed to look like independent journalism? Or is it any old made-up bullshit that people share as real on the internet? Is “fake news” the appropriate label for a hoax meant to make a larger point? Does a falsehood only become “fake news” when it shows up on a platform like Facebook as legitimate news? What about conspiracy theorists who genuinely believe the outrageous lies they’re sharing? Or satire intended to entertain? And is it still “fake news” if we’re talking about a real news organization that unintentionally gets it wrong? (Also, what constitutes a real news organization anymore?)
Trinidad has the highest rate of Islamic State recruitment in the Western hemisphere. How did this happen?
This summer, the so-called Islamic State published issue 15 of its online magazine Dabiq. In what has become a standard feature, it ran an interview with an ISIS foreign fighter. “When I was around twenty years old I would come to accept the religion of truth, Islam,” said Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, recalling how he had turned away from the Christian faith he was born into.
At-Trinidadi, as his nom de guerre suggests, is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country more readily associated with calypso and carnival than the “caliphate.” Asked if he had a message for “the Muslims of Trinidad,” he condemned his co-religionists at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” More chillingly, he urged Muslims in T&T to wage jihad against their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.”
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Studies show that for most types of cognitively demanding tasks, anything but quiet hurts performance.
Like most modern “knowledge” workers, I spend my days in an open office. That means I also spend my days amid ringing phones, the inquisitive tones of co-workers conducting interviews, and—because we work in a somewhat old, infamous building—the pounding and drilling of seemingly endless renovations.
Even so, the #content must still be wrung from my distracted brain. And so, I join the characters of trend pieces everywhere in wearing headphones almost all day, every day. And what better to listen to with headphones than music? By now, I’ve worked my way through all the “Focus” playlists on Spotify—most of which sound like they were meant for a very old planetarium—and I’ve looped back around to a genre I like to call “soft, synthy pop songs whose lyrics don’t make much sense:” Think Miike Snow rather than Michael Jackson.
A stray observation helped one researcher to uncover the strange connection between the seashells and lobsters of his childhood.
Born in the Bahamas to a family of lobster fishermen, Nicholas Higgs spent much of his childhood diving in Caribbean waters, working on boats, and collecting shells on the beach. That connection to the sea stayed with him. He moved to the UK and became a marine biologist. He studied whales and marine worms. And on his wedding day, he asked his parents to bring some shells from the Bahamas to decorate the dining tables. Those shells, which symbolized his past, would also define his future.
At the wedding, his former boss picked one up and identified it as a lucinid clam—a group that feeds in a strange way. While most clams filter food from the surrounding water, lucinids get almost all their nourishment from bacteria that live in their gills. And the bacteria create their own food—just like plants, but with one critical difference. Plants make nutrients by harnessing the sun’s energy, in a process called photosynthesis. But the clam bacteria get their energy by processing minerals in their surroundings. That’s chemosynthesis—making nutrients with chemical power instead of solar power.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.