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Fitting In and Social Misfits

February 22, 2010

I have been following the story of Amy Bishop, the professor who shot several of her colleagues, with a bit of trepidation. I feel that when something like that happens, it is so unexpected and shocking and incomprehensible that we feel that the person must be intrinsically and irrevocably damaged in some way. It is not that they had a bad day or don’t handle stress well. It is that they are in some way crazy (a comment not on brain chemistry or not fitting in but on behavior). Because do not want to admit that we, too, could respond in this way. That we, too, are this vulnerable. We don’t want to confess that we, too, could change our lives so quickly as Amy Bishop did hers and theirs.

So while I do believe that there’s a place here for judgment, I don’t now where that place is. I’m not the person to pass it. But I empathize with the others who are trying to understand what happened, either by finding an appropriate box or taking it out of the box and examining it in its full complexity. I empathize with this need to understand.

I mentioned earlier that I go to church. This doesn’t give me any moral foundation to judge. Or comprehend. Or, really, do anything else in this situation except to wonder… she, too, conformed in some way to the standards expected of her. She was educated. She was a professor, for crying out loud. (I won’t get into the difficult of female professors and academia and what is expected of them here.) She must have, at some level, looked as though she matched the image to have jumped through so many hoops of success.

I have heard the words, too: “Social misfit.” “Too complex.” These are the kindest of them. They emphasize the disconnect, the slippage, the fragile hanging on to how others see us — even if it is not who we ultimately are. I suspect the words will be different now, and I won’t speculate on what they will be other than to say that they will be clinical ways to explain this, that they will not be generous about the mismatch between people and their society, that they will be harsh and pointed and suggest intrinsic unchangeable flaws.

There are no words for this pain. Not on either side. I am so removed from the situation that I can’t really talk about it except in theory. I can say that this story happens at the cusp: we can continue to believe that any flaw is internal, or we can break the mold ever so slightly and admit that sometimes fitting in is hard to do. We can ease the pain of being a misfit, not by labeling it as an illness but by finding real solutions.

I don’t know what the best course of action here is. I just hope that there is a better course of action than what we’ve found so far.

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