On Friday, February 12, 2010, biologist Amy Bishop stood up in a conference room at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and shot six of her colleagues; three died. Nature correspondent Meredith Wadman visited the campus to recount the horror of those moments and efforts to rebuild a shattered department. “Life After Death” appeared in Nature on May 13, 2010.
Here, Wadman tells TON co-founder Jeanne Erdmann the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why did you decide to write a feature after covering this as news?
The shooting happened on a Friday afternoon, and I remember scrambling that weekend to write the story as breaking news. But within a week, I was talking to my editors and saying it’s begging for a bigger story. I thought I should go there several weeks or months later to see how the department was coping. I also thought that you couldn’t take a simple cross-section at one point in time, but needed to look at the recovery as a process, and that would require more than one trip. My editors agreed. I ended up going down in March 2010, and again in late April. The story appeared the week before graduation in May.
Your feature reporting began with your news reporting. Whom did you speak with on the first weekend after the shooting?
I was able to talk to Chris Gunter, who was a valuable point of access. She had been a manuscript editor at Nature for many years and had only recently moved to the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, because that institute is connected with the biology institute at UAH [the University of Alabama in Huntsville]. She had her finger on the pulse of how people were reacting and coping and was able to give an immediate sense of the shock and trauma.
Chris put me in touch, by phone, with Rick Meyers, the president and director of the Hudson Institute, and he talked to me about the reeling sense of shock, and about how the University of Alabama at Huntsville and the Hudson Institute were interwoven. Chris knew one of the slain biologists, and had met with him two weeks earlier. She had a sense of what he was like as a person and teacher. One of the other slain biologists was Adriel Johnson; I was able to reach one of his grad students, and she talked about what he was like as a man. Another grad student talked about Maria Davis, another of the slain biologists. So for the first news story I was able to talk about someone who had either been taught by or been in contact with all three of the dead. That gave a sense of what was lost.
How did you prepare for your first visit to the campus three weeks later?
I went straight to the faculty in the department. The University’s main spokesman, Ray Garner, was, I am assuming, pretty overwhelmed with requests and the demands of managing the crisis. So I called [biologists] Joe Ng and Debra Moriarity—whose name, incidentally, to my chagrin, is misspelled in that story throughout. That was a lesson; three of us [at Nature] went over that story with a fine-toothed comb and no one picked up that error. But she was very gracious.
Joe Ng heads the Ph.D. program and he was my point of contact for both trips. He gave me as much access as he could get to the 3rd floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology, including looking in through a tiny window in the door of the conference room where the slayings occurred. The room [where the slayings took place] was locked, so I looked at an identical conference room on a floor underneath. Dr. Ng was extremely open about the shootings’ impact on his own life, what it was like being in that room, and the struggles he’d had since.
Did you have to convince Dr. Ng that this story needed to be told?
We did have some negotiation on the phone. He wanted to run it past colleagues and get a read on whether there was anyone who simply could not tolerate my presence there. He came back and was all right with it, but it was clear there were some folks that were not going to talk to me. The other ground rule was that there was not going to be classroom access. I could walk through the halls but I was not going to be sitting in class with students or interviewing them. A significant part of that reason—beyond the students’ initial trauma—was his feeling legitimately protective of Amy Bishop’s daughter, a student in the department at the time.
Whom else did you speak with?
Debra Moriarity was also very open—nothing to hide, and very patient. She was probably the closest faculty member to Amy Bishop. She would go over the details of the shooting: who was in what position where in the room, and how she crawled under the table. It was hard for me to picture, and she would go over it as much as I needed. I have a sense that in some way that talking it through is part of the grieving process, and it was somehow therapeutic.
One of the grad students who agreed to be named and interviewed was Kimberly Hobbs. I’m sure it was not easy to speak with me—and yet she made herself available. I think that came at a price for her, and I was really grateful for that. She was really traumatized; her mentor was one of the dead. She had almost walked down the hall past the conference room to seek him out, minutes before the shooting, and had decided at the last minute not to do that, so it was sort of a near miss. A year later [when I was doing a one-year follow-up article], I think she’d had enough of the media. I sensed her reluctance—not in a rude way, but she was quite minimal in responding.
There were other faculty who just understandably didn’t want to talk to me. It’s a small department; Joe knew who those people were, and we didn’t pursue them.
How did you decide to lead with Dr. Ng’s search to replace the faculty members?
After an initial attempt with a different lede [editors’ note: see supplemental material below] and talking it through with my editor, we decided to start in the present moment and not to start by re-treading the same ground; a letter advertising for so many faculty positions at once said it all. The visual image of Joe Ng sitting there drafting that letter seemed strong to me.
How did you reconstruct the day of the shooting in such detail?
Ninety percent of that came from interviewing Deb Moriarity. She drew a schematic of the table on the back of an 8-by-11 envelope. She drew out the coffee table, and the small refrigerator, and the doorway, and who was sitting where. She went over with me in serious detail the length of space between the table and door and how she rolled into the hall and who turned in what direction.
I came back to that envelope again and again; it was just an anchor, in terms of thinking how to describe the movements in the room. There had been various press reports about what happened in the room, but some conflicted, and you just don’t like to rely on that.
You never spoke with Bishop. How did you get the details of her background?
That came mostly from the Huntsville Times and Boston Globe, and basic facts, like her date of birth and her NIH grant, came from the university. I was able to talk to her husband via email, moderated by his lawyer, and he gave me facts like the ages of their children at time of shooting; not the kind of legal stuff he was going to have to be really careful with like what he suspected when and why he ever lent her his gun and so forth.
Have you tried to talk to Amy Bishop?
I got as far as calling the jail several times, but they would never pick up the phone. I did talk to her lawyer, who claims she was in solitary for all but one hour a day. I called the jail to confirm solitary—I knew that if we were going to print that she was in solitary 23 hours a day, we absolutely had to have it confirmed by the jail.
This is the kind of thing where in another life—one where I didn’t have kids and a household—I would be Truman Capote. I would love to go down and stay in Huntsville for a month and talk to her every day in the jail and really try to learn who this person was and write a really gripping story. I really think this is an “In Cold Blood” type of book begging to be written by someone, because of her weird history. Part of that, too, is that you really have to live with this character in your head—and I’m not sure I want to spend that much of my mental time in the company of Amy Bishop.
A glimpse behind the scenes:
Jeanne Erdmann is co-founder and editor-at-large of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.