It had been three months since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and stories probing the life and possible influences of the shooter Adam Lanza were still all over the news, so when I opened my New Yorker to a piece entitled “A Loaded Gun” last February, I assumed it would be about Lanza (who killed himself along with 26 others). Instead, the piece, by Patrick Radden Keefe, was about Amy Bishop, the Harvard Ph.D. who in February, 2010, opened fire at a biology department meeting after being refused tenure at the University of Alabama. Keefe must have been working on his article long before the Sandy Hook shooting, but the timing of its publication gave it an allegorical effect, adding another possible interpretation to a piece about the way people interpret and reinterpret stories in attempt to make sense of their lives—and their tragedies.
“After massacres involving gun violence … one of our national rituals is to search for some overlooked sign that the shooters were capable of such brutality,” Keefe writes near the beginning of his piece. We reinterpret the past, and after the Alabama shooting, Amy Bishop’s biography seemed ripe for such exegesis. In 1986, when Bishop was 21, she shot and killed her younger brother, Seth, in the kitchen of the Bishop home in Braintree, Massachusetts. At the time, law enforcement ruled that the shooting was accidental, but after the Alabama shooting, the case was reopened. Had Amy been “a loaded gun,” a person at risk of committing violence, whose danger her parents and the Braintree Police Department had overlooked at great cost?
“A Loaded Gun”—which won the National Magazine Award for feature writing—tells the story of Seth’s shooting three times, each from a different perspective, each cohesive, and each leaving us with a new answer to the question: What does this mean? Our expectations are constantly thwarted, which creates a kind of suspense. We read on to find out what really happened.
In the first iteration, we live the story from the perspective of the Bishop family. The day Seth was killed, Amy’s mother, Judy, was at the stables from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Her father, Sam, had also gone out after he and Amy had a “spat” (Amy’s words). Amy told the police that she had loaded the gun out of fear of robbers and had asked Seth to help her unload it before it went off.
Here, the shooting seems a tragic accident that befell a close family. What we know about Judy so far is that she is she was a member of the town’s governing body: a good citizen. After Seth’s death she sometimes spotted a kid on a bike and mistook him for her dead son. Sam, who is Greek, “ taciturn and burly, with an Old World reserve,” denied that his son had died at first, which makes him seem fragile: “They kept saying he was dead, but he didn’t seem dead to me….He looked at me,” Keefe quotes Sam as saying. A woman renting the cottage on the Bishop property noted that Amy had “climbed into her parents’ bed” by the time she got home that day. Young Amy seems to be a good student and avid violinist who had a tragic accident with a dangerous weapon and was distraught about it.
Our views of these characters soon change. We learn that Amy only barely graduated Harvard; punched a woman at an IHOP for using a booster seat that she wanted for her child; bragged outrageously, claiming familial ties to novelist John Irving and referring, in one of her unpublished novels, to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, as “the M.I.T. of the South.” There were other examples of bizarre, troubling behavior.
The story also begins to explore another side of Judy. When Amy’s husband, Jim, called Judy to tell her about the Alabama shooting, she responded, “Jim, did you have a gun in the house?” This quotation sets the tone for a new way of interpreting events: Judy thought Amy was dangerous. Did she know something more about Seth’s shooting?
In the second iteration of the story, we learn that in old police reports it was not clear that the shooting was accidental. After Seth collapsed, Amy ran off and tried to steal a car by holding up a Ford dealership; she pointed her shotgun at some mechanics and at the police officer who apprehended her.
To show himself and the reader how it would feel to use the weapon with which Amy killed Seth, Keefe tried shooting a friend’s 12-gauge shotgun. He describes how to load and reload the gun and how to “rack the slide” between shots. While shooting, he remembered a detail from police reports: When police examined Amy’s gun, they found it loaded. “So at some point after shooting Seth and before being arrested, Amy must have racked the slide, jettisoning the shell that had killed her brother and loading a fresh one in its place.” This is one of the most affecting moments in Keefe’s piece, because it suggests that Amy had been prepared to shoot someone else after she “accidentally” killed her brother.
Amy had threatened a policeman—why did they let her go? The answer came in another tone-shifting snippet of dialogue. “John Polio,” said Paul Frazier, who was the Braintree chief of police when Keefe interviewed him. Polio was police chief at the time of Seth’s death.
According to a Braintree police offer, Judy came down to the station while Amy was being questioned and shouted, “Where’s John V.?” referring to Polio, who was known for cracking down on police corruption. Judy had apparently supported him in her dealings with local politics. “In this telling,” Keefe writes, “the famously incorruptible Polio ended up granting the ultimate political favor.” Judy’s citizenship is recast as an abuse of influence.
But now Polio, retired, is “a frail old man with concave cheeks, wearing a white baseball cap that said “#1 Grandpa.” This image conflicts with the earlier portrait of a police chief who would “fix a murder” for a political favor. He remembers that Amy had been “‘horsing around’ with the family shotgun when it went off.” Polio seems to not quite remember what happened, which both makes him seem innocent and highlights the fact that this cold case might be difficult to revive.
Keefe isn’t just telling an ambiguous story; he also comments on his own storytelling and on the evolution of his characters:
The newly disclosed evidence reframed the public persona of Amy Bishop. After the Alabama shootings, the media had initially portrayed her as an oddity, a “nutty professor” whose actions were an extreme expression of the pressures of academic life. Now she was depicted as something more malevolent and familiar: the bad seed.
Judy’s persona also shifted: “The grief-stricken mother transformed into a manipulative schemer who had subverted the law in order to protect her wayward child.” But more than one archetype fits: Keefe alludes to Euripedes (a fitting choice, given Bishop’s Greek background), the film Mildred Pierce, and the improbable story of an Inuit mother fending off a bear to save a child “one winter day … some years ago,” a passage with the quality of a bedtime story.
The third version of Seth’s shooting, gleaned from Amy’s novels, more police reports, and an anonymous tip from a townsperson, comes closer to revealing what might have been going on in Bishop’s head the day she shot her brother. The anonymous source confides to Keefe that the “spat” between Amy and her father was so serious that Judy canceled an appointment for tea that day with the source’s friend, Saran Gillies. “The hypothesis that these two women secretly shared,” Keefe writes, “was that Amy had no intention of killing her brother. What she may have intended, when she descended the stairs with the shotgun, was to kill her father.
Keefe doesn’t believe the anonymous source’s story more than the others and posits that Amy might have brandished the gun “to make a demonstration.”
In order to help us relate to the idea of a demonstration gone too far, Keefe again puts himself into the story. Keefe recalls a time from a childhood trip to the beach when, angry at his father, he threw a rock, meaning to splash him; instead, the rock hit him. In relating the way his anger had once turned to violence, if accidentally, Keefe identifies with Amy and forces us to do the same. If our objective narrator once hurt a member of his family by accident, the idea that Amy Bishop accidentally shot her brother becomes plausible once more. We may not sympathize with the Amy Bishop in prison today, but we start to feel some empathy for her 21-year-old self.
We next learn that one of Amy’s unpublished novels includes a scenario that seems a hybrid between Keefe’s story and Amy’s: a girl throws a rock, meaning to scare a friend, and ends up hitting and killing her brother. The account from the novel is the one Keefe essentially believes: “The passage echoed what seemed to be the most plausible account of Seth’s death: in a fit of anger, a young woman wields a dangerous weapon, intending to frighten one person, but ends up killing another.”
As with Polio, Judy and Sam have a vulnerability and innocence in old age that seems incompatible with a coverup. Keefe goes to visit the Bishops, and Judy seems like any older woman—traditional perhaps leaning toward tacky:
She was wearing an oversized Mark Eckō T-shirt that was tagged with fake graffiti. Her hair, which was still voluminous, had turned translucent white. “Growing old,” she said with a smile. “It’s not for sissies.”
Judy serves Keefe a tuna sandwich “at the kitchen table”—homeyness squared. Sam continues to puzzle over Seth’s death, describing his research into what can make guns discharge automatically.
Keefe’s telling of the story ends ambiguously. After Keefe tells Judy about the time he threw a rock at his dad and suggests something similar might have happened with Amy, Judy denies that her daughter meant to hurt anyone. It’s hard not to be unsettled by the final paragraph:
“All I know is what happened. I was there.” She looked at me intently, her eyes glazed with tears. “I was there,” she repeated. “I was there.” She held her stare, unblinking, until, eventually, I grew uncomfortable and looked away.
The inconclusive ending mirrors the way the story was left in life: Amy Bishop never went to trial for charges related to Seth’s death because she had already received a life sentence for the Alabama shooting.
“A Loaded Gun” teaches us not to place too much stock in stories, because their interpretations can be so slippery:
When violence suddenly ruptures the course of our lives, we tend to tell ourselves stories in order to make it more explicable. Confronted with scrambled pieces of evidence, we arrange them into a narrative. Faced with the same tragic facts, those who concluded that Amy Bishop murdered her brother and those who concluded that she didn’t both took messy events and formed them into a story. But neither story was particularly convincing.
If Keefe had just told the story several ways, without the meta-commentary, we would be left scratching our heads. Instead, he tells a tale about the very fallibility of storytelling, one which, bleak though its conclusion may be, we can believe.
Ashley P. Taylor is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared on blogs of the New York Times, the Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications.