One Story Is Enough

Why aren’t individual stories good enough? This is a question that has occupied a lot of my time for the past decade.

I have a good sense of why various concentrated kinds of intellectual projects (such as social history) have so consistently pushed to typify or generalize from vividly idiosyncratic instances of a single person, institution or community. And I know that no matter how particular the case in front of us might be, we eventually have to relate it to something other than itself to make sense of it. Meaning-making is always a comparative act.

Still, there’s a common impulse to very quickly fit a local or individual narrative neatly into some larger issue, and in so doing move beyond the unsettling contradictions that any closely-examined life will inevitably reveal. So it’s been with the story of Amy Bishop, accused of killing her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Reading around the web today, I’ve seen numerous conversations that take in the details of the case in a quick glance and proceed from there to argue that it tells us something about gun control and gun rights, about tenure and collegiality, about the pressures on scientists to produce, about the dilemma of youthful achievers when they hit middle-age, about autism-spectrum disorders, or about gender inequality.

I honestly don’t get it. Isn’t Amy Bishop herself interesting enough, as we learn more about her background and life? For that matter, aren’t the feelings and trauma of her colleagues’ families and her institution sufficient to draw our attention and sympathy? Amy Bishop seems to me for the moment to explain primarily herself. Of all the stories she is said to stand in for or suggest, in any of them, she is pretty much the only person to have done what she did. There have been many tenure denials in the last five years, but no one has gone into a meeting and shot their colleagues but Amy Bishop. In every story she is being made to carry or exemplify, she’s the completely idiosyncratic exception.

This isn’t just about scolding the weakness of our pattern-recognizing skills in the public sphere. (Another example: whatever you think about the science of global warming, one unusual month of snow in one narrow band of North America doesn’t tell you shit about it.) I also just get depressed that we feel such a need to rush past the mysteries that confront us any time there’s a rupture in the fabric of everyday life. We spend our lives guessing about even the people we know most intimately, often having to add surprising new information or unguessed-at dimensions to that knowledge. When an event like this comes along, staging the autopsy of a stranger’s life for a nation of coroners, there should be enough to occupy our conversations and trouble our uneasy hearts in that spectacle alone.

Additional note: Margaret Soltan’s been doing a great, eloquent job making this point. I guess what interests me is that there is a tremendous resistance to this kind of riposte to the public chatter.

Elsewhere, the use of Bishop to score cheap points or soapbox continues unabated, and as it gains momentum, becomes more and more indecent. One of the latest trends is to fasten on to her supposedly radical political views, known largely through a single reported characterization by a colleague, and pronounce this case to somehow reveal something about liberal professors.

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6 Responses to One Story Is Enough

  1. Carl says:


    It’s kind of textbook though on selective perception and narrative emplotment. Oops, there’s the historiographer making it yet another instance of a larger pattern… dang.

  2. Carl says:

    Re: the indecency of reducing a complex personal situation to an instance of larger impersonal patterns. Of course this enables the uncanny to be processed through the familiar; the alternative is, as you say, a profound and disturbing mystery, an existential category fail. Maybe one point to make is that the problem is not with categorizing and generalizing, but of using inadequate and inflexible categories.

    I’m not sure what to do about Amy in a more personalized sense. Beyond the sort of obvious portmanteau mental health diagnoses the specialized contours of individual psychoses and their convoluted relationships with a more conventional reality are pretty hard for outsiders to sort out. I feel like the best I can do is say ‘that chick is wicked messed up’ and insist on the sufficiency of that explanatory domain for addressing the case.

    Something that might be amenable to more focused and informed attention is what to do when colleagues become or reveal themselves to be unbalanced. There were two in my undergrad philosophy department and tenure kept them on staff for years.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. I do think that’s a good conversation precisely because it keeps the uncertainties intact. How do you know when someone you work with is unbalanced rather than simply awkward or a jerk? Same especially when it comes to students you’re working with. Running down the table of diagnostic signs doesn’t help much in real life precisely because you get that kind of layperson’s portmanteau.

  4. Carl says:

    Keeping the uncertainties intact, exactly. That’s the salto mortale.

    In some sense the question about unbalanced vs. jerk is about tolerable dimensions of diversity, and categorization again. The mentally ill are a stigmatized minority who legitimately need protection from discrimination as such. Jerks and incompetents are also stigmatized minorities (arguably) but not subject to protection. So it goes.

    As with other forms of disability it’s tempting to make reasonable accommodations around rigorously neutralized standards of performance. You’re entitled to your delusions and/or annoying personal quirks if you can get the job done with some regularity. But that seems like a license to make the workplace wicked unpleasant for everyone else, and when there’s tenure, for a long long time.

    What I’m groping for is a way to distinguish meaningfully and morally between racists booting colleagues because they’re Black and a pragmatic decision not to plague yourself with interpersonal misery for the next twenty or thirty years. Not even getting into the goin’ postal scenario, which is a true outlier.

  5. G. Weaire says:

    To push back a little: I doubt that many people really do respond to this with much beyond “she was clearly a very disturbed individual.” It’s just that such thoughts do not lead to blog posts.

  6. joe o says:

    I pretty much agree with you on the cheap point thing.

    However, there are countries like Japan and England without easy access to guns and these societies have a lot fewer of these problems. Freak single incidents are a lot more salient than statistics, so I can’t blame people for using the freak single incidents as an occasion to make gun control arguments. For 2nd amendment and cultural reasons, all feasible gun control laws in the US are too weak/avoidable to make much of a difference though.

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