Lessons from Lisa

I was reminded recently—thanks to a reference in Diane Kelly’s novel, Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte—of the case of Lisa Nowak. As you may recall, Nowak is the former Navy Captain and NASA astronaut who was arrested in Orlando, Florida in 2007 after attempting to kidnap her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, Colleen Shipman.

According to reports, at the time of her initial arrest Nowak was found in possession of gloves, a dark wig, a trench coat, pepper spray, a knife, plastic garbage bags, and other items—all of which suggested to police that her intent was not only to kidnap Shipman, but to do her harm. Nowak would later plead guilty to reduced charges in return for a sentence of two days time served plus one year of probation, and receive an Other than Honorable Discharge from the Navy.

Upon review of these facts, I am moved to ask: What we can learn from this case?

Is it that women can be as crazy as men when it comes to love? No.

Not that the statement itself isn’t true. One need only watch an episode or two of Snapped to see just how deranged women can get when it comes to romantic relationships and rivalries. So the fact that women can be crazy when it comes to love is not something we can learn from the Nowak episode. It just reaffirms what we already know.

Is it that NASA shouldn’t recruit and train women to serve as astronauts? Not even close.

Of course, shortly after the Nowak story broke there were those who suggested that NASA should let only men become astronauts—citing either the stress of the job as too much for women to handle, or the presence of women in the space program as too likely to lead to sexual liaisons that can adversely impact the work environment. These are the same people, no doubt, who think the problem of sexual assault in the military can be solved by keeping women out of the military. But just as men do not assault women because they are men, but because they are sexual predators, Nowak didn’t stalk and attempt to kidnap Shipman because Nowak is a woman. She did so because she was unstable and unhinged. So barring women from working alongside men is not an idea we should take from the Nowak case. Rather, it’s one that should be discarded and with all deliberate speed.

So, is the lesson here that NASA needs to do a better job of screening its applicants?

I’m tempted to answer that one with yes. Actually, I’m tempted to answer it with a big DUH. Because better screening sounds like a great idea and—like safer schools, higher fuel economy, and cleaner air—it’s hardly a concept anyone would argue against.

But let’s get real. All the screening in the world may not have prevented Nowak from working at NASA or trying to kidnap Shipman. Because you generally can’t tell who has the capacity to become unhinged unless and until that person is placed in a situation that would cause him or her to become unhinged. Oh, sure, you could subject all candidates to a battery of psychometrics and hope to weed out a few of the crazies. But unless you’re going to run some kind of long-term model whereby applicants are exposed to a variety of stressors to see if they’ll respond by, say, taking someone hostage or stealing nuclear warheads and selling them to terrorists, you aren’t going to find the real whack jobs. Because without a triggering event, genuine whack jobs look and act just like the rest of us, and they usually know the correct answers to even the trickiest questions.

So, I’m not going to go with better screening of astronauts. It’s sounds easy, but it’s hardly cost effective.

Instead, I’m going with option four, which—if you’ve been counting—is where we are now. And that is: When it comes to dealing with romantic rivals, women have a lot to learn.

First: Don’t attempt to kidnap a romantic rival from a public place. One of Nowak’s biggest mistakes was in trying to nab her target from the airport, where security cameras recorded her waiting for roughly an hour for her target to arrive, and where there are witnesses, security personnel and, often, members of law enforcement just standing or sitting around waiting for something to happen. A far better place from which to take someone by force is their home, their garage, or a dark alley. That way there are no cops, no cameras, and few witnesses.

Second:  When kidnapping a romantic rival, don’t come on too strong. Another one of Nowak’s mistakes was in trying too hard and being too obvious. According to reports, Shipman heard footsteps running toward her, which alerted her to the fact that she might be in danger. Soon after, Nowak allegedly hit her with the pepper spray. Even if she hadn’t been at the airport—surrounded by cameras, witnesses, and uniformed personnel—the running and the pepper spray would have been too much.  As any cold, methodical male serial killer will tell you, a softer touch is called for on these occasions. It would have been better, for example, for Nowak to feign a sprained ankle, lost keys, or car trouble than to launch a surprise physical attack in public. Doing so would have enabled her to earn Shipman’s sympathy and trust, which would have allowed her to gain access to the vehicle, and make her move somewhere away from prying eyes, where she should have been in the first place per the paragraph above.

Third: When your plan to kidnap a romantic rival starts to unravel, don’t lose your cool. Another one of Nowak’s mistakes was panicking when things started to spin out of control. According to reports, once she realized that things were not going according to plan, she took off her trench coat and wig, and hid them into a nearby trash can. Although on its face this seems like a sound decision, she would have had a much better chance of avoiding detection and evading capture if she’d walked briskly to a stairwell, removed her disguise, and then calmly walked to her car and driven away.

Fourth—and most important: Don’t attempt to kidnap a romantic rival. Of all her mistakes, Nowak’s most glaring error was in going after Shipman in the first place. As any scorned woman can tell you, the person who should be punished for dumping you—and hard—is the one who dumped you, not the one for whom you were dumped.

I’m kidding, of course. As tempting as it sounds, kidnapping is rarely the answer. For as bad as rejection feels, one can assume that going to jail and being publicly humiliated because you couldn’t handle that rejection feels a lot worse. And as delicious as disposing of the other woman sounds in theory, in practice it is likely an empty victory. Because even if you manage to remove her from the picture without getting caught, there is no guarantee that the man who dumped you will want you back when she’s gone, and even if he does, there’s no guarantee he won’t leave you again and force you to go to all that trouble with someone else later.

So when you have that thought, as Ron White would say, let it go. Because no man—or woman—no matter how talented or good looking, is worth your freedom or your self-respect. Instead, find someone smarter, sweeter, and/or better looking, and get on with your life.

Because it’s true what they say: Success is the best revenge.


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