[29 September 2011]
Excerpted from Chapter 1: The Lovelorn Astronaut, from How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by © Laura Kipnis, published in paperback August 2011 by Picador USA . Published by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
If any one scandal in recent memory provides an illustrated manual in the art of leaking massive amounts of unconsciousness in public, it was the case of the “Celestial Love Triangle.” Scandals come and go, but this one was like a gift from the gods to scandal lovers everywhere, though perhaps in a worrisome too-close-to-home sort of way for anyone who’s ever been unceremoniously dumped then contemplated some kind of dramatic gesture in the feeble hope of rectifying things, not that I know anyone like that personally.
“Astro-Nut!” screamed the headlines. “Star-Crossed Space Cadet!” “Crazed Nutbucket!” As scandal narratives go, it was canonical, a masterpiece. If the essence of scandal is social downfall, Horatio Alger in reverse, nothing says downfall like the descent of a national icon. Especially one who’d been to space—you can’t get much higher than that. And then caught in diapers, what more lacerating public shame? As someone deeply shame-prone myself, I always perk to attention when someone else is being put through the public shame machine; I imagine it’s similar for any scandal aficionado. (According to psychologists who research schadenfreude, malicious glee at the misfortune of others is always greatest in areas of what they call “self-relevance.”) The post-arrest pictures were grotesque: the once-feted lady astronaut looked like a lunatic—dark rings under her eyes, hair sticking out in every direction, a strange flush to her cheeks. What a contrast to the earlier shots of her prettily poised, waving and beaming in her orange bemedaled flight suit, a plucky heroine returning from a thirteen-day space jaunt as a mission specialist on the NASA shuttle Discovery just the summer before, a role model for young girls everywhere.
Needless to say, the before-and-after pictures ran everywhere, side by side, a graphic how-to in self-destruction and an invitation into the realm of human paradox (scandal’s favorite hunting ground), where dualities run amok: where rationality and irrationality battle, love and hate contend, and the line between fantasy and reality can get tenuous. Every scandal perches on a scaffold of such antinomies, which is what gives them their dramatic arcs, their front-page potential.
The story went like this. On February 5, 2007, Captain Lisa Nowak, forty-three, a married mother of three, had been arrested at 4 a.m. at the Orlando International Airport, after driving all night from Houston to Florida, some 950 miles, in order to confront Colleen Shipman, a thirty-year-old air force captain who worked at the Launch Support Squadron at Cape Canaveral. Shipman was Nowak’s alleged romantic rival for the affections of Captain William Oefelein, forty-two, a fellow astronaut whose NASA nickname was Billy O. Nowak was in disguise at the time, in a trench coat and wig. As if this weren’t enough to propel the story into the headlines of every newspaper in the country and keep it there for weeks, the diapers did it. The police reported that Nowak had used diapers to pee in during her road trip so she wouldn’t have to make pit stops; three used ones were found rolled up in a garbage bag on the backseat of her car. Follow-up stories helpfully explained that this wasn’t as weird as it initially seemed since diapers are actually a familiar item for astronauts, who wear them during launchings and space walks when they can’t get out of their pressure suits (who knew?), though NASA terminology for them is “urine collection devices.”
As scandal prowls the land on the lookout for likely candidates, it’s bound to be drawn to national heroes, but note the role that good props can play in the selection process. Diapers: what a brilliant piece of set design, speaking of leakiness. The great scandals often do have some iconic element that lingers on in the public imagination long past the shelf life of the scandal itself—recall Bill Clinton’s cigar, Monica’s thong, O.J.’s glove… We’re symbol-using animals, foraging through whatever detritus the culture tosses our way to cobble together makeshift morality tales and life lessons, everyday tutorials on social normalcy. Clearly the diaper angle with its dual connotations of the geriatric and the infantile—neither especially flattering!—wasn’t about to disappear anytime soon from the cultural landscape. It was just too good, the cringe-making high point of a supremely cringe-making story. The sadistic possibilities were too rich, and scandal would be nowhere without the pleasures of collective armchair sadism.
New scandals break out all the time, and the tale of the plummeting astronaut was soon succeeded by the next self-organized downfall, but the important thing to note about scandal in our time—and I mention this as a public service for anyone who may be on the verge of getting himself into one—is that the Internet is scandal’s new best friend. Consider the grainy image of a distraught Lisa Nowak pacing back and forth and sobbing at the Orlando airport police station, as captured by the camera hidden in the ceiling of the holding cell where she was placed after her arrest. A uniformed cop who brings her a glass of water asks a few preliminary questions. “None of what you say is going to leave this room,” he assures her, as recorded on the video footage now posted on the Web. Later that afternoon when detectives inquired of an obviously jittery Colleen Shipman, who’d just a few hours earlier been assaulted and pepper-sprayed by a strangely dressed woman in the Orlando airport parking lot, whether she’d ever heard her new boyfriend, Bill, mention the name “Lisa,” and Colleen, trying to be helpful—for she was the helpful type, frequently apologizing for not remembering more precise details about her ordeal—replied that Bill had accidentally called her “Lisa” in bed recently, it’s doubtful that she foresaw the day when the transcript revealing this salient bit of bedroom blundering would likewise be released and posted on the Internet, where it will probably remain for all of eternity. So that’s the thing to remember about scandal these days: nothing ever goes away.
Before scandal snuck up and clubbed her over the head, Lisa Nowak hardly seemed like the kind of person who’d end up at the top of everyone’s list for the most inexplicable public flameout of the year. Despite the high-profile career, she was actually pretty ordinary. She read mysteries and did crossword puzzles and had a standard-issue bad suburban marriage, living outside Houston with her husband, Rich, a flight controller at the International Space Station, though they’d recently separated after nineteen years. She’d been depressed and lost a lot of weight following the separation, both contributing factors, her lawyer would later argue, in her temporarily losing her marbles. Though Nowak had collected an impressive array of advanced degrees in highly technical-sounding fields and had been through Naval Test Pilot School, among the many things that surprised her co-workers at the Johnson Space Center when the scandal broke was that she’d somehow managed to navigate her way from Houston to Orlando by car—she was notoriously bad with directions. An astronaut with no navigational skills—it sounds like a bad midseason replacement sitcom premise. But what an ideal metaphor: Nowak had lost all sense of direction; some inner global positioning system had catastrophically failed. Whether humans are supposed to come factory-equipped with these devices or are responsible for acquiring one along the way (and who’s to blame when yours suddenly gives out midcourse) were some of the larger questions hovering at the edges of this story.
Then there was Bill Oefelein, a former Top Gun pilot, handsome in that bullet-headed, all-American way and perfectly cast in the role of romantic pivot. Like Nowak, Oefelein had also been in long-term marital Siberia, in his case coupled to his former high school girlfriend, Michaella, though after sticking it out for seventeen years they’d split up a couple of years before. He told police that he and Lisa had been involved for the last two or three years but that he’d ended things once he met Colleen. It was unclear whether he and Lisa had been seeing each other during his marriage, and the police didn’t press him on it (or not on tape). The relationship with Lisa had been “somewhat exclusive” for a period of time, though “nobody prohibited anything,” as he put it enigmatically. She was one of his best friends at NASA, they’d had a relationship, and she was now an “ex”... but he hadn’t really considered her his girlfriend, he said, at least he’d never used the word. He sounds like a guy groping around to define something he hasn’t entirely defined in his mind and is now being asked to spell out for a retinue of police, which can’t be the world’s most comfortable situation. Or maybe he just sounds like someone realizing a little late in the day that other people are largely unfathomable, one of those distressing facts of social and romantic existence that most of us have probably had to contend with at some point or another too.
Lisa told Chris Becton, the police detective who first interviewed her, that all she’d wanted was to talk to Colleen and to see what Colleen knew about her and Bill, but she was never going to hurt her. When asked if she thought squirting Colleen with pepper spray was likely to advance a conversation, she admitted, “That was stupid”—sounding as though she’d just then realized it. The police had also caught Lisa with a compressed-air BB gun that resembled a 9 mm handgun (loaded with BB shot and its safety off), a steel mallet, a folding knife with an eight-inch blade, four feet of rubber surgical tubing, and lawn-size garbage bags. The BB gun was just to get Colleen to talk to her, but she’d never have used it, she never even had it out. Her explanations for the other items were not entirely coherent; in fact, she seemed a little baffled by their existence, as though someone had planted them on her or they’d dropped from the sky. When the police eventually searched her car, parked at a nearby motel, they found more pepper spray, cartridges for the BB gun, latex gloves, MapQuest directions from Houston to Orlando that had been printed out two weeks before, copies of e-mails from Colleen to Bill, and hand-drawn directions to Shipman’s house (including longitude and latitude, in case she decided to get there by space shuttle). And those fateful diapers. Since Nowak had used a false name at the motel, paid cash, and had numerous deadly weapons in her possession, the police decided they had enough for an attempted murder charge.
And now comes the question on all of our minds: What on earth was she thinking? That this bungled attack on Colleen would win Bill back? That she wouldn’t get caught, exposed, and nationally humiliated? As with every major scandal, there were enigmas aplenty, and it’s the scandal audience’s task to piece together the incomplete, inconsistent, and illogical bits of data into a coherent narrative, filling in the gaps with projections and speculations of our own. One of the unacknowledged bonuses of scandal narratives is that they thrust us into unanticipated metaphysical and ethical discussions with one another about all the most pressing matters—free will, moral luck, the stranglehold of desire, the difference between right and wrong—topics that philosophers these days have turned into tedious abstractions but that the rest of us want a chance to converse about too. All scandals demand this participatory element, each of us constructing different accounts from the available facts, drawing on our respective experiences and temperaments misanthropy versus generosity, track records of romantic disappointment versus romantic triumph—with plenty of room to embellish freely.
And speaking of embellishment: about those diapers. A few months after Nowak was released on bail (to what must have been an entirely fresh form of hell) and the astronaut love triangle was still a hot item in every media outlet and raw-enough meat in the blood-spattered jungle of opinion and judgment that comprises the blogosphere, her large, blustery lawyer, Don Lykkebak, held an irate press conference to set the record straight. Nowak had not driven nonstop, he rebuked the assembled reporters, she’d spent the night at a motel along the way; the diaper issue was a “preposterous and scandalous story” fabricated by the police, spread irresponsibly by the media, and now Nowak would never get a fair trial because of all the diaper jokes. Predictably, the late-night comedians were still having the time of their lives, like a pack of jocular pit bulls with an injured lovelorn rabbit. Leno: “As you know, she went to court yesterday and was released on her own incontinence.” Letterman: “So this woman astronaut drives nine hundred miles wearing a wig and a diaper. This is one giant step for man, one giant leap to the nut house.” Leno: “And let me tell you something, ladies, nothing turns a man on more than a woman with a full diaper.”
Who could blame them? Bathroom elements in public: always prime material for public shaming rites. Though according to Lykkebak, Nowak had no adult diapers in her car, just toddler-size ones that dated from a couple of years before, when Houston was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita and Nowak and her family (which included five-year-old twins), camped in the parking lot of a motel that wouldn’t allow non-guests in to use the bathrooms, were forced to improvise solutions. Pressed by a clamor of skeptical questions, Lykkebak finally delivered an exasperated step-by-step account, in broadcast-tailored euphemisms, of exactly how someone might go about urinating into a diaper while in a parked car and attempting to maintain a semblance of privacy. The reporters tried hard to look serious, and Lykkebak tried hard to seem dignified, though you couldn’t help thinking that Monty Python could have done a lot with this premise. In fact, nowhere in the interview transcripts does Nowak admit to peeing into diapers on her journey to Orlando. But if she hadn’t, what was she doing driving around with used diapers in her car for two years, a hygiene-minded female reporter demanded of an increasingly sputtering Lykkebak, who seemed to take these questions as a personal affront, a technique that criminal defense lawyers presumably cultivate. Despite Lykkebak’s best efforts, the issue wouldn’t go away: if Nowak wasn’t a diaper-wearing nut she was definitely some other kind of nut, and a slovenly one at that.
Whatever the truth about the diapers (and scandal details don’t have to be true to be scandalous), they were a perfect symbol for falling afoul of social codes, for getting yourself in “deep shit” and winding up with your life “in the toilet”—given the wealth of such idioms, Nowak couldn’t have found a better motif if she’d tried. (Or… had she? The unconscious has its own particular sense of humor, not to mention a potty mouth, or so it’s been said; Freud wrote a classically unfunny book on the subject.) Real or invented, the diaper issue brilliantly distilled the scandalizer’s situation to its essence, since what’s an adult in diapers but someone whose self-management skills have critically failed?
Or to put it another way, self-management is what’s supposed to keep us out of scandals, and this is our fundamental social task. Consider the massive amount of managerial labor that goes into achieving and maintaining even the most basic levels of social normalcy, given the thousands of minute rules governing the body alone, rules that have been pounded into all of us from the crib beginning with toilet training, everyone’s introduction to socialization and the potential breach of which provides all the most colorful metaphors for public humiliation (as anyone who’s ever been a child and ever set foot on a playground knows firsthand). This is labor every normal citizen performs at every minute of every day, because even the smallest lapses can plummet hapless violators headfirst down the social ranks, leading to grisly forms of ritual shaming, despite the fact that the majority of these rules are unwritten and only ever articulated in the breach. Additionally, as everyone knows only too well, bodily control can be notoriously precarious at times, vulnerable to the grim realities of illness, aging, and the occasional bad oyster; yet even momentary surrender is potentially scandalous, and the more highly ranked you are the more ridiculous your body becomes. When the first President Bush threw up on Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa during a 1992 state dinner in Tokyo, what a scandal! Not only was it bandied about the news for months—how would it affect diplomacy between the United States and Japan, what about trade relations?— it lives on in the cultural memory to this day. In short, simply having a body is the first step on the road to becoming a scandal. (Which is why the out-of-control body—classically, slipping on a banana peel— is such a comedic staple, though in postmodern comedy bodily shame itself has replaced the pratfall. A TV sitcom like Seinfeld, purportedly “a show about nothing” but frequently about the permutations of bodily shame, could build an entire episode around Jerry’s being suspected of picking his nose in his car; in its successor, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry gets suspected of having an erection in wildly inappropriate circumstances, and so on.)
This is distressing, which may be why one senses a certain agitation in the nonstop mockery aimed at the “Star-Crossed Space Cadet.” What if self-sovereignty isn’t always as secure as one would like? What if you go around assuming you’re in the driver’s seat, then suddenly find yourself en route to Orlando on a crackpot romantic mission or in a police lockup being read your rights? These are a few of the many dilemmas Lisa Nowak presents us with. How someone previously rational enough to pass the battery of psychological exams inflicted on trainees before they’re admitted to NASA and blasted into outer space could suddenly become so deeply and flamboyantly unscrewed was an enigma the country pondered, and hastily deflected with a stream of lame jokes. “Houston, we have a problem” was the leading contender.
Houston, we have a problem. The jocularity made it far easier to ignore the pathos of the story, including the fact that plummeting astronauts have, after all, been a periodic source of national tragedy. The insistent levity surrounding Nowak’s spectacular plunge feels a little forced when you recall the decade’s other astronaut disasters, for instance, the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, which killed three of Nowak’s former NASA classmates and which, it was later reported, Nowak had taken particularly hard. One of her close friends was on board, and she’d spent a lot of time with the friend’s now motherless son after the explosion. There was something unsettling about the relation between the two forms of downfall, just as something seemed a little off in the viciousness of the humor aimed at Nowak, in the determination to treat the episode as high comedy. No doubt every scandal is also a ledger of social anxiety, but this one vibrated with a particular unease.
Colleen had flown back to Orlando late Sunday night from Houston, where she’d spent the weekend with Bill. They’d met at a party in Florida in November, the week after Thanksgiving (it was now early February) and started dating, but since he lived in Houston and she lived in Orlando, dating involved a lot of traveling and the accompanying hassles. Predictably, not only did Colleen’s return flight get in at 1 a.m., an hour late, but it turned out her suitcase had been lost too—the usual traveler’s nightmare—though it was supposed to be on the next flight, so she decided to just hang around until it came. Which is why it was well after 3 a.m. by the time she went outside to catch the parking lot shuttle, which is where she first noticed the strange-looking woman who was also waiting there—strange because she seemed to be wearing multiple layers of clothes and glasses with weird red frames that looked like they were from the eighties. It was Florida and nobody wears layers. Somebody’s gotta help this girl with her fashion sense, thought Shipman.
Colleen and Lisa had never actually met, but their lives had overlapped in some fairly intimate ways. When Colleen had landed in Houston the previous Thursday, Bill had picked her up at the airport and taken her back to his apartment, where she seemed to keep stumbling over annoying traces of Lisa. “Since when do you ride a purple bike?” Colleen queried Bill, who had two bikes stored in his bedroom. He said it belonged to someone from his bike team, and when she asked who, he admitted it was Lisa’s—they were training for a race together, so she was keeping it there. Colleen wanted to know if it was wise to keep Lisa’s bike if they’d split up. She wasn’t going to tell him to get rid of it, but it made her uncomfortable, it made her want to pull away from the relationship, because she was wondering if he’d really cut ties with Lisa. Bill said he’d get rid of the bike the next day, though he didn’t actually get around to it. Then Colleen used Bill’s computer to check her e-mail and saw that Lisa had done the same thing, since when she went to type her e-mail address into the fill-in field, Lisa’s e-mail address came up. Bill admitted that yes, Lisa had sometimes used his computer.
After things had started getting serious between them, Bill had told Colleen all about the relationship with Lisa, but he’d insisted that it was over and that Lisa understood the situation. She was even happy for him that he’d fallen in love; at least that’s how Colleen recalled Bill’s account of the breakup. From Bill’s point of view, that was as much as he needed to tell her—after all, they both had their pasts. In fact, the two of them hadn’t known each other all that long before their relationship was catapulted into the national spotlight, especially since Bill had spent half of December in orbit as co-pilot on the twelve-day Discovery shuttle and in preflight quarantine before that. Colleen wanted to know if it was really over with Lisa—she didn’t want some crazy lady showing up at her door trying to kill her!—and Bill assured her that it was, definitely. The detective taking Colleen’s statement perked up at that point and asked why she’d talked about someone killing her. Was there some problem with Lisa that she was aware of? Colleen said no, no problems, but you know how these things go. For one thing, it was a relationship Bill and Lisa had kept under wraps, and who knew how Lisa really felt about Bill’s breaking things off ?
The night after Colleen arrived in Houston, she and Bill went to a horror movie called The Messengers, about hideous dark stains that keep reappearing on the bedroom wallpaper no matter how many times you scrub them away. Given what was to come, it was an uncanny entertainment choice. Obviously you can’t ever entirely eliminate the stains of previous lovers either: around the house, on the wallpaper, in the bedroom—so it goes in serial monogamy and other varieties of romantic entanglement as practiced in our time. It was the next night that Bill accidentally called Colleen “Lisa” in bed, but they’d been out at a party and had a few drinks… For all that, Colleen had no doubt things were over between Lisa and Bill, at least that’s what she told the detectives when they queried her. She repeated it twice for emphasis: “No doubt.” It’s a well-known axiom that anyone who says “No doubt” twice in a row has some doubts. If one thing is clear, it’s that well before the parking lot confrontation these two women were in each other’s imaginations, which isn’t invariably a scandal waiting to happen, though when it comes to scandal geometry, the triangle is by far the most promising configuration.
I’m piecing this narrative together from transcripts of the police interviews, by the way, since unlike so many of the protagonists in recent scandals who feel compelled to explain their motives lengthily in television interviews or their subsequent memoirs, none of the principals in this case has thus far gone public, with the exception of Lisa, who at a two-minute press conference, looking as tremulous and unstable as a vial of nitroglycerin, apologized to Colleen “for having frightened her in any way,” read a platitude-laden statement (“The past six months have been very difficult for me, my family, and others close to me…”), and took no questions afterward. (As Nowak’s media consultant, Margaret Mackenzie, advises in her book Courting the Media: Public Relations for the Accused and the Accuser, “Apologize without accepting blame.”) The reticence was a futile gesture, since the press demanded and soon obtained the court documents (only Nowak’s psychiatric evaluations were excluded), a thorough reading of which not only reveals great nuggets of personal data about everyone concerned, but is also guaranteed to inspire a quick review of one’s own relationship-breakup behavioral excesses from junior high on—all DWDs (“dialing while drunk”), unannounced visits to an ex (“just in the neighborhood!”), drive-bys, Web-stalking, and so on—to assess the probability that at some future date an impromptu 950-mile road trip to rectify a romantic injustice or commit nighttime assaults on rivals real or imagined might suddenly seem like a great idea.
But how can you possibly know in advance what lengths you’re capable of, in extremis or otherwise? As psychologist Herbert Fingarette points out in his rather alarming 1969 study, Self-Deception, it’s not just that “spelling things out” to oneself is an acquired skill (like driving a car, as he puts it in a bit of avant la letter irony given the episode under discussion) but that there can be overriding reasons to avoid doing it and to avoid becoming conscious that you’re avoiding doing it. Additionally, as novelist J. M. Coetzee frets in a cautionary essay on “Confession and Double Thoughts,” it’s impossible to know whether the “truth” you discover in your occasional feeble attempts at self-examination is anything close to truth and not just some self-serving fiction, since the “unexamined, unexaminable principle” governing your conclusions “may not be a desire for the truth but a desire to be a particular way”— to seem rational and coherent to yourself, for instance. In other words, all the self-examination in the world isn’t going to help anyone bent on self-deception or when one part of yourself is bent on deceiving another part of yourself, which is no doubt true of any of us at least some of the time. That’s what having an unconscious means (and thanks for nothing).
Scandal protagonists who, unlike Nowak, do choose to retail their stories invariably have lengthy explanations or justifications for whatever they did or didn’t do that propelled them into scandal’s path; these explanations often even make a certain sense, or at least you see how they might in a hermetically sealed cognitive universe, i.e., the padded cell of your own imagination. But given the finely tuned equipoise between self-doubt and self-deception in the human psyche, how can any self-examination not be just an “endless treadmill,” as Coetzee puts it? Worse, how can you be sure that whatever’s perverse within yourself isn’t just feeding on itself, part of the same perverse pattern of self-delusion that’s galvanizing you toward the self-betraying act in the first place, while simultaneously producing convincing rationales for the self-destructive act or motive?
Given her stiff upper lip with Bill, Lisa was obviously gifted at public dissembling, though Bill doesn’t sound like someone who delved too deeply either. According to him, he’d broken things off with Lisa around the beginning of January, telling her he wanted to be exclusive with Colleen. Lisa seemed “disappointed,” Bill told the detectives, but she appeared to accept his decision—at least that’s what he told himself. But Lisa still wanted to stay close and she kept calling him a lot on his cell, even daily—sometimes more than daily—and he started not answering her calls, which apparently didn’t dissuade her. The messages she left were friendly, not hostile, the two of them were still training for a bike race in April and working out together at the gym, so in fact they continued to spend a lot of time in each other’s company. (It later emerged that Lisa was also doing a certain amount of behind-the-scenes jiggering of their schedules at the space center to ensure they’d do their mandatory flight training sessions together.) Bill had always thought of Lisa as just a really nice person, levelheaded, non-emotional; he’d certainly always assumed she was stable— he’d never even seen her angry in all the years he’d known her. He doesn’t make her sound like the world’s most exciting girlfriend: the spitfire tendencies seem to have been suppressed until that fateful weekend. She was shy, a bit private—maybe that was the problem, he now reflected, that she didn’t really have anyone to confide in. “We’re all full of theories,” he answered ruefully, when asked by the police if he had any theories about why she’d done it. But he’d never have predicted this. She’d even wished him a nice weekend earlier in the week, knowing that Colleen was coming to town, though by that point she’d already hatched the lunatic scheme to face off with her rival in Orlando.
Bill was certainly the trusting type: Lisa had keys to his apartment and knew the password to his computer, which he hadn’t bothered to change after breaking up with her. She was carrying copies of Colleen’s e-mails to Bill when she was arrested (“First urge will be to rip your clothes off , throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you,” was the most-quoted line in the news reports), meaning that she had snuck into his apartment to do a little reconnaissance when he was out and lifted Colleen’s e-mails from his computer. She’d also found flight details for Colleen’s weekend trip to Houston lying on the coffee table and had gotten hold of Colleen’s phone number, though Bill was sure that the only place he’d had it was on his cell phone. It turned out Lisa had gone through his phone bills and deduced which number was Colleen’s from how often he dialed it. Bill had no idea Lisa had been in his apartment; he hadn’t noticed anything amiss—either at his place or with Lisa herself.
Later he felt horrible and responsible: it was his fault for booking such a late flight for Colleen (he’d used his frequent flier miles), and he should have seen signs that something was off with Lisa. He flew to Orlando to be with Colleen as soon as he heard what had happened; she said she was freaking out and asked him to come, so he did. Bill was a stand-up guy, according to everyone he worked with; even his ex-mother-in-law said in press interviews that he was “wonderful,” despite his having divorced her daughter. (She also seized the opportunity to get in a few digs at Lisa about her supposed role in the demise of Bill’s marriage, though without quite coming out and saying there was an affair.) Feelings at work ran less positive when it came to Lisa, who rubbed some people the wrong way. The Johnson Space Center was a clubby atmosphere, and she struck a lot of her colleagues as standoffish—prickly and not particularly easy to get along with in situations where teamwork is called for, including in space, where she displayed “bad expedition behavior” according to a fellow astronaut. (One of the side benefits of getting yourself into a scandal is finding out what your colleagues really think of you.) And did the office mates suspect that Lisa and Bill had been an item for the past few years? Some had heard rumors or reported seeing them leave parties together, but everyone also knew that Bill now had a new girlfriend in Orlando, which can’t have been fantastically pleasant for Nowak, though she made sure to maintain that preternaturally cheerful face.
The strange overdressed woman on the airport shuttle that February night, who would of course turn out to be Lisa Nowak, got off the bus first, putting some type of hood up over her head. As Colleen neared her car, she spotted Lisa again because she seemed to be trailing her through the parked cars, five or six car widths away, but keeping abreast, which was totally spooking Colleen. Colleen started walking faster, taking bigger strides, and got her keys out. When she saw her car she hit the unlock button, threw her bag in the back and jumped in the front with her backpack, locking the door as fast as she could. She heard loud footsteps getting closer and closer, and suddenly Lisa’s face was pressed against the window and she was trying to open the door and slapping the window with her hand, pleading with Colleen to help her. She was saying something about a boyfriend—that he was supposed to pick her up but he wasn’t there, and could she use Colleen’s cell phone? Colleen was thinking that nobody who wants you to help them is going to try to open your car door. She shouted through the window that her cell phone was dead, which was true. Meanwhile Lisa was begging Colleen to drive her to the parking office, but she looked really crazy, like she was on drugs. Colleen told her through the window that she’d go to the parking office and send someone back to help. She started the engine, but Lisa was protesting that she couldn’t hear her, so Colleen rolled the window down a crack—or she tried to roll it down a crack but it was the automatic type that just keeps going—and as she was trying to put the window back up and plug her cell phone into the console, she looked up and as she did, Nowak squirted her with some kind of pepper spray through the crack in the window and started trying to shoulder her way into the car. Her eyes burning, Colleen managed to close the window, put the car in gear, and hit the gas, leaving Lisa behind. At the parking office, the attendant gave her some paper towels to wipe her face—her skin too was burning now—and called the police and paramedics. (The question of whether Shipman was actually hit in the face with the pepper spray would turn out to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the case, since it provided the basis for attempted kidnapping charges that Florida prosecutors brought against Nowak, the most serious count she faced. Shipman told police she’d been sprayed in the face, though Nowak’s lawyer later uncovered signed statements by paramedics on the scene contradicting Shipman’s account (the spray had missed her face, she told them at the time), statements the prosecutors somehow failed to turn over to the defense. )
Shortly afterward, the police picked up Lisa after spotting her tossing a white plastic bag into a trash can, which turned out to contain a black wig and the BB gun. In the duffel bag she was still carrying they found her nefarious arsenal—the mallet, rubber tubing, garbage bags—as well as $600 in cash and a pair of glasses with clear lenses. There was also a handwritten list with checked-off items—the things in the duff el bag and others that would later be found in her car. Lisa may have lost her grip, but at least she was being methodical about it. After paramedics flushed out Colleen’s eyes, police drove her over to where Lisa was being held. Colleen identified her though Lisa had changed out of the tan trench coat she’d been wearing into a darker one and her hair was different. Colleen, who thought of herself as having a big nose and was thus inclined to notice other people’s noses, had formed a distinct impression of Lisa’s while they were sitting on the shuttle bus, and it was the same nose. At this point, she still had no idea who Lisa was. Later, at the airport police station, when the cops asked her if she knew the name Lisa Nowak, she remembered that Bill’s ex’s name was Lisa but had to call him to find out if her last name was Nowak. She recalled once having seen a picture of Lisa on a poster at the NASA gym during one of her workout sessions with Bill, but she hadn’t connected it with the crazy lady in the parking lot. At first, after Bill confirmed Lisa’s identity, Colleen thought maybe someone had stolen Lisa’s ID and was claiming to be an astronaut, because why would an astronaut want to steal her car?
When Detective Becton asked Lisa, “Did he break your heart?”—meaning Bill—Lisa answered tearfully, “My husband is the only person who broke my heart.” Reading through the rambling, frequently incomprehensible transcript of her interrogation is like being confronted with obscure modernist poetry at its most incoherent, though you do get a distinct picture of what her internal state must have been like: an electrical storm of self-delusion crashing over a roiling ocean of romantic injury. There should have been a small-craft advisory for anyone in the vicinity.
At the outset of the interview, a disjointed Lisa tells Detective Becton that she and the man in question had “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.” She was trying to do damage control (“I don’t want to bring other people into it, if it’s not necessary”), so refuses to use Bill’s name and hedges around about whether they were lovers, implying that they couldn’t be since she was still legally married and not really “free” in that respect. Becton plays along, suggesting that they just refer to Bill as “Tim” if Lisa doesn’t want to reveal his name—Becton knew it already anyway, from Colleen—letting her know in the usual cop show fashion that if she cooperates he can go to bat for her with his superiors. He defers to her intelligence (“I can tell that you’re a very educated woman”), reads to her admiringly from her résumé, which he’d managed to obtain in the hours following the arrest (“You have a bachelor’s in science, an aerospace engineering in the Naval Academy [sic], a master’s of science in aeronautical engineering, and a degree in aeronautical and astronomical energy and engineering from the U.S. Naval postgraduate school”), and cajoles her with sympathy: “For you to be here something serious had to happen to you… Something had to happen for tonight to go down. And if you need help, you know… let’s face it, everybody needs help at some point in their life and you can’t always do everything by yourself.” He’s a regular station house Dr. Phil. “You have a lot going on inside of you. It’s either a lot of pain, a lot of anger, or it’s both. And right now you’re bottling it up a lot.”
As Lisa discloses more details about the relationship, Becton presses the consoling idea that Bill had been sending mixed signals—it’s always pathetically consoling to women when a man calls out another man for romantic bad behavior.
Lisa gratefully concurs: Bill had picked her up from the airport two weeks before, and you don’t do that for just anybody! Becton commiserates: “He’s showing you that it’s more than just friendship. But then he’s telling you that it’s just friendship, and actions speak louder than words.” They’re like two girlfriends decoding puzzling male behavior over margaritas. “You need to dump him out of your head,” Becton advises. “Girl, you’re just startin’ over!”
Becton has a less chummy agenda, of course; he wants Lisa to tell him where her car is parked so he won’t have to search every airport lot for it. Lisa, for her part, wants Becton to tell her what Colleen has said about her relationship with Bill (“Can you tell me what she talked to you about? That would help,” she wheedles), correctly surmising that if Becton’s heard about her from Colleen, then Colleen does indeed know about Bill’s relationship with her—knowledge that seems desperately important to Lisa. Evidently something in her makeup—pride? grief?—had prevented her from just asking Bill directly and sparing herself a lot of travail:
NOWAK: Did you tell her who I was?
BECTON: Yes, I mentioned your name. She says she’s never met you.
NOWAK: But she knows me?
BECTON: She knew of you.
Becton testified at a pretrial hearing that the interview with Nowak was the hardest of his entire career. It was like a chess game and he felt overmatched: “I realized I was dealing with somebody who was more intelligent than I was— more educated.” This seems unduly modest given how masterfully he manipulated her, so much so that her statements to the police were later thrown out by the judge, who ruled her revelations were coerced. There’s no doubt that Nowak was a smart cookie—all those degrees!—and used to getting by on brainpower. Astronauts are technocrats, after all: if anyone knows that information is power it’s someone who’s been shot into orbit and kept there by virtue of astrodynamic calculations. Dazed and sleep-deprived, holding on to her fraying rationality by a thread, Lisa was still bent on using what info she had as a bargaining chip to find out what Colleen knew—she keeps promising Becton she’ll tell him where the car is later. (He accuses her angrily of thinking he has “stupid” written on his forehead.) But at another level she was clueless: she keeps asking to speak to Shipman— he seems to think if she can just talk to Colleen and explain, she can get her to drop the charges. Becton tells her that’s not going to happen. At that point Lisa is still clinging to the delusion that NASA might not have to be notified (she even wonders if she might be able to get back to work the next day), and Becton strings her along, telling her he hasn’t contacted NASA security yet. “I can step up to the plate and speak up for you,” he promises—if she tells him what he wants to know. Eventually he breaks it to her that the FBI has to be informed since the assault took place on federal property and involved federal employees, around which time reality starts sinking in, like a sledgehammer to the head.
Nowak’s motive for the stalking, according to the press, was that she “wanted to know where she stood in the love triangle.” But this isn’t entirely accurate: Lisa knew where she stood— she’d been jettisoned for another woman. What she wanted was for Colleen to know where she stood. If you follow her logic, which I admit to finding not entirely alien, the issue she’d fastened onto was timing. Bill and Colleen had met at the end of November. Bill told Lisa about the relationship at the beginning of January. It was now the beginning of February. When Lisa keeps telling Becton that Colleen doesn’t have all the “information,” what she’s apparently trying to say is that there was a period of overlap, during which neither of them knew about the other. In her words: “Of course there is a period of time when you find out you didn’t know what was going on, and of course that hurt.”
Of course that hurt. What a lot of personal carnage condensed into four little words. And was Colleen aware of this overlap too, or happily oblivious to the existence of this minor complication, this other interested party? This was Lisa’s question, and depending on the answer she would perhaps be in a position to convey a hurtful truth to the pretty young Colleen, who, according to her statement, did indeed think she and Bill had been exclusive for the previous two months. What exactly did Lisa want Colleen to know— that Bill wasn’t such a hero after all? Or was it that the affair with Lisa had continued even into January, even after Bill had said it was over? Such things have been known to happen—you work out together or go for a bike ride, someone showers at someone else’s place… “I mean, why only be honest with me, why not be honest with her also?” Lisa demands of Becton, her state-appointed confessor, about what she suspects has been Bill’s policy of selective truth telling. It was the galling in equality of it that allowed her to convince herself that confronting Colleen was in Colleen’s best interests. “If some people don’t know, then that’s not the right kind of situation… I very much wanted to set it right.”
If the road to scandal is sometimes paved with good intentions, the desire to think the best of your own intentions is another snare in the already problematic business of self-examination. Social psychologists have a name for it: “the holier-than-thou effect”—a self-inflating bias when it comes to assessing one’s own motives and sincerity. In Lisa’s case, the obsession with rectifying the information imbalance between her and Colleen soon overtook all self-protection and rationality, swaddling the festering romantic wound with a purpose—enough of one to propel her those 950 long, solitary miles to Orlando. She didn’t want to hurt Colleen, she insisted. She just thought that if Colleen had all the information... Then what? Would something have been altered? Was Nowak really thinking that some sort of enlightened three-way arrangement might get negotiated, if everything were out in the open? That’s what she seems to imply when she tells Becton that if everyone knows about what’s going on and “they’re all okay with it, you don’t have to make a choice if everyone’s okay.” Becton asks incredulously, “So if he was going to date both of you that would be acceptable to you?” Lisa says that it depends. This is too much for Becton, clearly more of a traditionalist about such things: “How can you tell me you’d be okay with this guy being with the both of you at the same time!”
Apparently Lisa was willing to share Bill, at least until her divorce came through (“I had no intention of forcing choices,” she tells Becton)— but first she had to find out what Colleen knew and when she knew it. How Lisa thought she’d elicit the relevant details at 4 a.m., dressed in her absurd garage-sale disguise, having first doused Colleen with pepper spray or incapacitated her with some other tool from her henchman’s arsenal— this she hadn’t entirely worked out. The road trip itself had the same dreamy logic: it was supposed to repair something, it was meant to assuage an injury. Lisa did tell Becton that she hadn’t decided in advance whether to clue in Colleen that Bill had misled them both. But why not spread the hurt around?
It was Becton who nailed it on the head: Lisa was obviously a lot angrier at Bill than either she or he cared to know. Whether or not Bill had been romantically confusing—and it wouldn’t exactly be a first in human history—Lisa, despite her placid exterior, had clearly forgiven him exactly nothing. Some part of her had to be aware that at the end of the day Bill would be exposed along with her, that they’d end up in the toilet together. Aside from their image-dependent public roles, they were both active military, and the military still has a funny way of court-martialing people for adultery. Sure enough, the toilet was just where Billy O. landed— a public laughingstock, the flyboy-lothario, his career in shreds along with hers. If I were Lisa, or anyone else who’d ever been abruptly jilted in a self-serving, mealy-mouthed way (especially for someone younger!), in some feral corner of my being I might not have been entirely displeased with this turn of events.
And why should she have forgiven him, by the way? Here we come to the heart of this scandal: forgiveness is the least innate of impulses. Or as psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, one of Freud’s inner circle, puts it in a bracing little essay on forgiveness and vengeance: “Only fools, hypocrites or sick people deny the deep and voluptuous satisfaction adequate revenge can give, deny the extraordinary feeling of liberation, indeed redemption from stifling psychic pressure, which follows successful revenge.” Reik scoff s at the idea that there’s anything “natural” about forgiving someone who’s hurt you, dismissing it as empty sentimentality. “On the contrary, it is a very unnatural reaction,” he insists. “Nothing could be more plausible and natural for people than to take revenge.” Forgiveness is a far weaker impulse than retaliation, which is, perversely, only strengthened by all the guilty attempts to repress it. And the fewer outlets modern culture makes available for vengeance—no more duels or honor killings, unfortunately— the more intense the repressed tendencies become. Forgiveness simply doesn’t exist in the unconscious, says Reik. There’s little emotional significance in these socially imposed acts of conciliation that we’re all supposed to perform for propriety’s sake, no matter how self-congratulatory they make you feel—the conciliation ritual is undoubtedly one of the biggest shams around.
The problem for society is that the desire for revenge is so intense it has to be sublimated into more socially acceptable forms. That’s the true origin of forgiveness, says Reik—it’s not noble to forgive, since at an emotional level forgiving someone is really just a backdoor attempt to humiliate the supposed object of your largesse: payback in another guise, gussied up as righteousness. Anyone who’s ever felt the warm bath of smugness that accompanies being the “better person” in such situations probably knows what he means, or might if self-transparency were remotely possible. “Yes, one must forgive one’s enemies,” Reik quotes Heinrich Heine approvingly, “but not until they are hanged.” Trundling from Houston to Orlando in her silver Saturn on her spurned lover’s mission, Lisa was a perfect object lesson in the emptiness of turning the other cheek.
Clearly scandal favors certain motifs, but is it also drawn to particular locales? The question arises because, oddly enough, another spectacular revenge scandal had erupted just a few years before in the same bedroom community south of Houston where Nowak and her husband lived, involving yet another scorned woman behind the wheel. This was Clara Harris, a forty-five-year-old dentist who claimed that running over her unfaithful orthodontist-husband, David, with her Mercedes in the parking lot of the hotel she’d discovered him at in the company of their receptionist (the Harrises shared a dental practice in addition to a cancerous marriage) was an accident. David died of his injuries, which included a broken back, pelvis, jaw, and multiple smashed ribs.
Initially, after David confessed the three-month affair, Clara did try forgiveness (first firing the receptionist), though as Reik might have predicted, it didn’t take. The night David broke the news, he and Clara went to a bar together to talk over the situation. Though David promised to end the affair, he also justified his straying by telling Clara that she was overweight, pessimistic, and a workaholic and that she dominated conversations, whereas Gail, the receptionist/love-object, a thirty-nine-year-old former beauty queen, was, by contrast, petite, an optimist, and the perfect fit to sleep with; in fact he could sleep all night holding her. This last bit of information was particularly devastating to Clara, since David had never slept holding her all night, though on the plus side, Clara did have prettier hands, feet, and eyes. (Clara kept notes about the conversation on a cocktail napkin that was later introduced into evidence at her trial.)
Though David sounds like a husband anyone would be well rid of, apparently he had his charms, since within a day Clara embarked on a whirlwind plan to save their ten-year marriage by becoming everything she thought David wanted in a wife. This included quitting her job, having sex with him three times a night (or so she testified), cooking his favorite meals, hiring a personal trainer, and beginning bronzing sessions at a tanning salon. Her checkbook, which police found in the dented Mercedes following the homicide, was a manic itemized record of female abjection, with carbons for checks written in the days leading up to David’s death to a hair salon (she’d decided to go blond), a spa, a nail salon, a lingerie shop, a clothing store, a gym ($1,277.35 for a one-year membership), and two checks to a plastic surgeon with whom she’d scheduled both liposuction and breast enlargement surgery. There was also a check made out to the private detective agency she hired to trail David (which was how she learned he was at the hotel), the rather whimsically named Blue Moon Investigations, one of whose employees, stationed in the hotel parking lot with a video camera, ended up being perfectly situated to film their client plowing down her husband with her car. And one final check, to a local Baptist church for its building fund: if the plastic surgery god didn’t come through, maybe the other one would.
The hotel, the Nassau Bay Hilton, happened to be the same one where the Harrises had gotten married ten years earlier on Valentine’s Day. (It also happened to be across the road from the Johnson Space Center, where Lisa Nowak worked.) Now, just a week after David’s confession to Clara and following a romantic late-afternoon lunch at a lake-view table, he and Gail had checked into a room. Did he really have to go to the same hotel—does Houston have only one of them? Not only had David promised to break off the affair, he’d even confessed it to his parents and daughter; the purpose of the lunch was supposedly to end things with Gail, and Clara had agreed to a final meeting. Learning that David was at a hotel instead, Clara instructed the nanny to pack a week’s worth of clothes in an old suitcase and throw the rest of his wardrobe in the trash. Arriving at the Hilton in lethal form, she demanded the desk clerk call David’s room, but there was no record of him; he’d checked in under an assumed name. Clara finally reached him on his cell, inventing an emergency at home; when David and Gail appeared in the lobby Clara sprang on Gail, tearing her blouse. Hotel security guards broke up the fight, and the ménage retreated to the parking lot, where Clara keyed her former receptionist’s Lincoln Navigator, leaving deep scratches along the sides and rear, then ripped off the windshield wiper blades as her coup de grâce.
David was heading for his own car when Clara careened into him with her Mercedes. There would later be disagreement between the defense and state pathologists about exactly how many times he’d been run over, though it appeared to have been more than once. David may have been king of the cads, but Clara managed to lose whatever wronged-female sympathy vote she might have accrued by virtue of having David’s seventeen-year-old daughter with her in the car, as if to punish the child for the crimes of the father, in the classical mode. (Euripides’ Medea springs to mind, the original spurned woman—“Her mood is dangerous, nor will she brook her cruel treatment,” another character remarks of her—though Medea killed her children rather than her philandering husband, a somewhat more wrenching denouement.) Lindsey Harris testified against her stepmother at the trial, tearfully disputing Clara’s testimony that it had been an accident. “She stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him,” she told the jurors. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, it was an accident.’ She knew what she did and she wasn’t sorry.” Clara sobbed throughout her trial, shaking and weeping so loudly during the coroner’s testimony about her husband’s injuries—some fifty autopsy photos of David Harris’s body were shown to the jury—that the (female) judge warned, “We’re just not going to have a big show going on.” The jury concurred that Clara’s crime was “an act of sudden passion” as her lawyer had argued—a peculiarly Texan legal throwback to the code of the Old West—but sentenced her to twenty years anyway. At the sentencing hearing her pastor argued for probation in lieu of prison, noting that under biblical law David and Gail had committed the sin of adultery. He didn’t prevail, but at least that building fund check Clara wrote didn’t go entirely to waste. (The inevitable made-for-TV movie, Suburban Madness, came two years later. The television treatment of women murdering their husbands tends to be sympathetic these days (playing to the secret fantasies of the genre’s core demographic?), melodrama veering toward kitsch; the screenplays take an arch and knowing tone toward the male victims and their treacheries, and the actresses playing the leads invariably push it up a couple of notches, like late-period Joan Crawford. )
Reports occasionally surface of an obscure human tribe that lacks the propensity to overvalue those who’ve abandoned them, but reports occasionally surface of unicorn sightings too. The rest of us are left muddling through with makeshift forms of revenge that, in deference to social proprieties, usually stop short of outright slaughter. Shark like divorce lawyers and murderous property settlements generally have to do, though how can even the worst financial punishments suffice when someone’s fallen out of love with you? You want them dead. Clara Harris’s murderous impulse isn’t hard to fathom; what’s less clear is why she not only mowed down her husband in front of as many witnesses as she could assemble on short notice but also arranged to have the act captured on videotape, as though preparing the evidence for her own prosecution. Perhaps the score settling wasn’t with David alone: Clara blamed herself for the affair (if only she’d been thinner), then punished her husband for succumbing, then punished herself for administering the punishment. Clara Harris may have killed her husband, but it’s not as though she wasn’t also deeply beholden to social proprieties; unfortunately, they’re not so easy to elude.
Angry women with driver’s licenses: let’s assume we haven’t heard the last from this constituency when it comes to future scandals, to be filed under American crack-ups generally, or attachment disorders in our time. (A woman who thinks she loves a man she deeply hates is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, as Diana Trilling remarked of a previous Mrs. Harris (Jean), who killed her lover, diet doctor guru Herman Tarnower, a few decades ago.) Clara Harris’s checkbook should be on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian in the wing devoted to artifacts of American family life. So should an equally agonized item found in Lisa Nowak’s car: a handwritten letter to Bill Oefelein’s mother thanking her for her encouraging notes about Lisa and Bill’s relationship. “Bill is absolutely the best person I’ve ever known and I love him more than I knew possible. Your kindness of supporting us, even under such circumstances as have existed in the past is nothing short of extraordinary,” Lisa had written in a neat girlish hand. She’s referring to her own marital situation, which, she reports, is “finally coming to a close with the formal separation and separate living arrangements accomplished”; she’s now in the process of completing the official divorce paperwork. Her own parents hadn’t been nearly as supportive, she confides, and it means a lot to her to have another mom to turn to. “It has been my privilege and honor to receive such special caring from you,” she effuses. Who knows whether this letter was meant to be mailed, or what Lisa’s relationship actually was with Bill’s mother; Lisa was, after all, in something of a delusional state. But she did tell Becton that she’d met Bill’s kids for the first time the previous month at his apartment—apparently she’d met his whole family. In the semiotics of relationships such events have been known to be taken as signs though, needless to say, such signs can be misleading and open to multiple interpretations, which can be crazy-making in itself.
The notable element in both these scorned-women-in-cars scandals is their economy, the way they manage to accomplish two opposite purposes simultaneously: first the infraction, then the punishment for it, neatly tied up with a bow. According to Reik, vengeance directed outward has a tendency to boomerang and be redirected inward, transformed into self-inflicted punishment for an unacceptable aggressive impulse. Not in every case, obviously: people get away with all sorts of things that we never hear about, that don’t make the front pages and don’t wreck their lives. It would certainly be useful to know what distinguishes those who get caught from those who get a free ride—at least it’s the question every prospective vengeance-seeker will want answered. Reading Reik between the lines for tips on extracting revenge, I believe his implication is that virtuous types are the group most likely to set themselves up for social punishment. Here’s a gloomy thought: the ruthless let themselves off the hook for their aggressions, while those with overactive superegos string themselves up on homemade scaffolds.
Whatever injuries their boyfriends and husbands dealt Nowak and Harris in the romantic realm, their self-inflicted injuries were a thousand times more devastating. You’d think that soliciting national ridicule and turning yourself into an emotional sideshow—not to mention twenty or so years in the slammer—would vastly outweigh the pain of a lover’s rejection. It’s like chopping off your hand to get over a headache, though people in acute pain sometimes attempt desperate remedies.
“Do you feel better?” Becton asked Lisa, winding up the interrogation, as if he hadn’t just spent five hours getting her to incriminate herself. Lisa says that she does, then wonders—still in the grip of her idée fixe despite the lengthy catharsis if she can possibly see Colleen. Reading this, you don’t know whether to scream at her or laugh, or just concede the fact that loss can have a way of deranging a person’s reality checks. However unbalanced her nighttime exploit may have been, it’s not so difficult to identify with the hope that trying hard enough will fix things, that carrying out some risk-it-all ordeal, making the dramatic gesture—crashing the wedding, kidnapping the beloved, incapacitating the rival—will make someone care again and give you back what you’ve lost, though it usually works out better in the movies.
In Nowak’s case, the attempted murder charges were eventually dropped, though the attempted kidnapping and battery charges stood; the Florida prosecutors were determined to milk the case for every shred of publicity. Nowak pled not guilty, was released on $25,500 bail, and eventually entered a temporary insanity plea. After a series of rather masterful legal maneuvers by her attorney, Don Lykkebak, who dismantled the state’s case piece by piece by getting much of the relevant evidence excluded, Nowak pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to a year of probation. (She could have faced up to life in prison if the attempted kidnapping charge had stood.) In the months following the arrest, Nowak and Oefelein were both dropped from the astronaut corps—a first in NASA history—and reassigned to their military positions. But you can see NASA’s dilemma: as we learned from Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, astronauts are NASA’s funding chips, kept around to personify the space mission when congressional appropriations are being handed out; if NASA hadn’t needed space heroes for public relations purposes, they’d have sent monkeys up there. The fact is that astronauts spend far less time in space than they do cutting ribbons at shopping malls and delivering high school commencement addresses: as sullied heroes, the tabloid caption “Lust in Space” trailing after them in perpetuity, Nowak and Oefelein wouldn’t exactly do for such occasions.
Colleen Shipman made her first public appearance at a deposition in June. Blond and petite, with a pointy, resolute chin (and not so large-nosed, despite her fears), she clutched the muscular Oefelein firmly by the arm, her trophy. (Shipman and Oefelein both left the military shortly later and moved to his home state of Alaska, where they eventually got engaged. They’ve also started a business promoting themselves as adventure writers and motivational speakers.) She looked good. A few months later, when Nowak’s lawyer petitioned to remove the GPS ankle monitoring bracelet she had to wear as a condition of bail, Shipman made another court appearance to voice her objections. “Absolutely not,” she protested, when asked by the prosecutor if Nowak should be allowed to remove the device. She’d been the victim of an assault, she said, and felt much safer knowing that Nowak was wearing the bracelet. Shipman also strongly objected to Nowak’s eventual plea deal, telling the judge that she believed she’d escaped a horrible death that night and that she still suffered from nightmares, migraines, and high blood pressure. Every stranger she saw was a potential attacker. She’d bought a shotgun and obtained a concealed weapon permit.
No forgiveness for her. It seemed like she was enjoying her moment in the spotlight.
When someone you love dumps you for someone new, puts pictures of her on his desk in the office you share (was this really necessary?), and lets everyone at work know he’s got a new sweetie, the premise is that you suffer a bit, then move on. You get over your pain in private instead of acting it out on the national stage for the mass entertainment of your fellow citizens. Nowak’s feelings were just too incontinent: she was the quintessential leaky vessel. The spectacle of a personality so flamboyantly turned against itself, meticulously organizing such lavish public humiliations right down to those diapers, the possibility that any of us might be driven to such lengths by an unexpected blow to the ego, was just too grotesque. No wonder we were laughing so hard.