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Why successful people snap

Psychiatrist Dr.  Keith Ablow  speculates that the astronaut charged with first-degree attempted murder 'lost perspective'
/ Source: TODAY

What would cause a highly educated, seemingly successful person to snap?

Some are asking that question in the case of an astronaut accused of trying to kill another woman in a purported love triangle.

Wednesday on TODAY, psychiatrist and television personality Dr. Keith Ablow offered his perspective, saying astronaut Lisa Nowak may have underlying "unresolved issues" and as a result "lost perspective."

"It is very hard for people to understand," said Ablow, "but these are feelings that cut across all social barriers. They cut across how accomplished you are at work. When affairs of the heart are involved, people sometimes tap very primitive and primal unresolved issues in their psyches and those come to the fore."

Nowak, 43, an astronaut who flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery last year, returned home to Houston on Wednesday after posting $25,500 bail. She was charged a day earlier in Florida with attempted murder of the woman she believed was her romantic rival for a space shuttle pilot's affections. Nowak is also charged with attempted kidnapping and three other crimes.

According to police, Nowak, wearing diapers, drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando to confront Colleen Shipman, who arrived in Orlando aboard a plane Monday. Nowak disguised herself in a wig and trenchcoat, approached Shipman's car and sprayed her with pepper spray, authorities said. Nowak had all the tools necessary — tape, a knife, a BB-gun, a steel mallet, garbage bags and other items — to kill the woman, police said.

Whether Nowak and Shipman really were competing for the affections of astronaut William Oefelein is irrelevant to the question of why Nowak did what she is accused of doing, Ablow said on TODAY. People who become lovesick are capable of doing extraordinarily reckless things that are out of character and have lingering consequences, he explained.

"I've testified in cases in which people become completely irrational about jealousies," Ablow said. "I had a man who was a Harvard dermatologist say, 'I think I killed my wife' — and, as strange as it sounds, to always have her love. He had kids and did it in front of them."

'A desperate woman'
Nowak, who recently separated from her husband of 19 years, has three children — a teenage son and twin 5-year-old girls.

"This is a question of degree and perspective," Ablow said. "And she's lost perspective here."

Nowak's younger sister Andrea Rose told PEOPLE magazine that Nowak also never quite recovered from losing three former classmates in the 2003 Columbia shuttle explosion. "We knew Lisa was under a lot of stress," said Rose, 41, a lawyer. "But there's no way of knowing how a particular person will react to stress. We love Lisa and we're worried about her well-being."

Nowak's attorney, Donald Lykkebak, urged the public and the media to keep the incident in perspective. Nobody was hurt seriously, and the charges, particularly the attempted murder count, are merely unproved allegations, said Lykkebak.

"What she did was spray her with pepper spray, no more," Lykkebak said. "What we have here is a desperate woman who wants to have a conversation with another woman.”

Retired astronaut, Jerry Linenger, told the Associated Press that NASA should review its psychological screening process. With the space agency talking about a 2½-year trip to Mars, it would be dangerous for someone to “snap like this” during the mission, he said.

“An astronaut is probably the most studied human being by the time you go through your testing, your training,” Linenger said. “I think there’s still a lot of unknowns out there.”

— John Springer and news reports