When NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, 43, recently separated mother of twin 5-year-old girls and a teenage son, scorned lover of navy commander William Oefelein, 41, put on the MAG (maximum absorbency garment) to avoid pit stops during her nearly 1,000-mile drive to confront Billy O’s new girlfriend, Colleen Shipman, she headed for a destination she’d never intended. Carrying a BB gun, a four-inch Buck knife, pepper spray, a steel mallet, trash bags, several feet of rubber tubing, a trenchcoat, a wig, and a computer disc containing images of a woman in bondage poses, she made it as planned, from Houston to Orlando—but once there, she ceased to be an international icon of female achievement. Instead, Nowak followed in the footsteps of Jean Harris (headmistress of an elite private boarding school who shot her cheating lover, the Scarsdale diet doctor, Herman Tarnower) and Clara Harris (the Houston dentist who ran over her adulterous husband several times) as the latest lovesick woman who had it all and snapped.
If Lisa Nowak, NASA astronaut, who has risen both figuratively and literally about as high as any woman is able to rise, can lose it, is every woman discarded by her lover in danger of skidding out of control? The diaper in particular—an almost too-perfect symbol of the helpless, infantile state to which love gone wrong can reduce us—has prompted many women to ask themselves some version of: “I may have done some slightly nutty stuff. I may have snipped him out of all the wedding photos, I may have called his boss to say he was a two-timing lowlife, even keyed the other woman’s car. But I never put on the diaper. I could never be that crazy. Or could I?”
Louann Brizendine, MD, director of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Female Brain explains, “Every person who falls in love becomes crazily obsessed with their love object. Your brain is flooded with dopamine, oxytocin, estrogen, and testosterone. The amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex—your worry and caution centers—get turned way down. It’s a lot like being on Ecstasy.” Strangely enough, she goes on to say, “the state of early romantic love can be reignited by being dumped, which actually heightens the phenomenon of passionate love in the brain circuits.” So when a man breaks up with a woman, that can send her into an agitated, attentive state, where she becomes obsessed with getting him back.
“Now, most jilted women can’t eat, they can’t sleep, can’t work, can’t concentrate,” Brizendine says. “They cry all the time and may think about suicide. But Lisa wasn’t just any jilted woman, right? All her training said, ‘Fix the problem. Act.'” True, Nowak wasn’t used to taking no for an answer. The Catholic Standard reported that while speaking to schoolchildren about how she’d applied to test-pilot school six times and beat out thousands of applicants to become an astronaut, she said, “If something looks like ‘I can’t do this,’ it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road.” She advised the children to treat obstacles as opportunities.
“Nine hundred miles in a diaper,” says Brizendine, “ain’t nothin’ compared to all the other obstacles she’d overcome in her life.”
Which brings us back to the big question: With brains evolved to fight for our mates, could we all snap? Under the right set of love-gone-wrong circumstances, is each of us capable of committing an act so completely irrational, so utterly out of character, that we barely recognize the person who perpetrated it?
There’s no definitive study or body of research on the topic, but by all accounts the answer is no. While some women “lose control in a way that jeopardizes the public identity they have worked all their lives to achieve,” as Becky Beaver, one of Texas’s premier divorce lawyers puts it, legions of the rejected and brokenhearted take revenge in a way that, while embarrassing, doesn’t make headlines or land them in jail.
“Unfortunately,” Mersky says, “there is no correlation between cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence.” She agrees that women who live mostly for—and through—their men, are in real danger if the relationship fails. The idea that a boyfriend or husband will “complete you” is a fantasy better left for romance novels. A more realistic, and healthier, expectation, she says, is that “maybe 25 percent of our emotional needs will be met by our partners.” Which leaves resilient women to take responsibility for the remaining 75 percent—not only through finding meaning in work and family but by maintaining friendships, hobbies, and perhaps a spiritual life.
“What was it that defined Lisa Nowak’s identity at the time she snapped?” Brizendine poses. “Was it being a mom, a wife, an astronaut? Or had the love object, Commander O., seeped into her brain circuits, as lovers do? She had incorporated him into her own identity and let him define who she was. Without him, her very self snapped.