Thursday, March 29, 2007

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Thirty-five years ago today my friend Bridget died. She was 16 years old at the time of her demise. She was a reporter on the high school newspaper, and she found out a dirty little secret about a guy named Phil. I know Phil’s full name. I was his friend, too. But in the hopes that he’s still alive, and that he’s perhaps changed for the better, I’ll leave it at that. Phil was a straight A student. He was the captain of the golf team. And he was the biggest drug dealer in my high school, and Bridget wrote a story in the newspaper that exposed that dirty little secret. Two days after the story appeared, Phil beat Bridget to death. With a 3 iron. Then he buried her body in the woods, and she wasn’t found for several weeks. The day after her murder, Phil went out and shot a glorious round of golf, leading my high school team to a match championship.

Around the same time Bridget was murdered a man named John Wayne Gacy Jr. was in the midst of a serial-killing spree. He ended up murdering 33 young men and boys, 28 of whom he buried in the crawl space under his house. But before his arrest in 1978, he was best known as a clown, having attended countless children’s birthday parties and civic events dressed in a clown suit. “He was one of the most generous, friendly, and hard working men you would ever want to meet,” one of his shocked neighbors commented after his arrest.

I have lived with secrets. I understand the schizophrenia of such a life. I haven’t murdered anyone, but I’ve deceived people, deliberately, and pretended to be one thing while inside I knew I was someone else entirely. “You want to get creeped out?” I occasionally ask myself when I catch myself in a particularly judgmental mood. “Take a look in the mirror.” And I know plenty of people who are living with secrets now, who don’t even know that I know their secrets. But I do. These days I feel a great sorrow for such people. They are following a pattern that is as old as mankind itself. Deny. Rationalize. Run away. Adam and Eve did it. There are days when I still want to do it, too.

We like to think of light as a good thing. But there is such a thing as unflattering light, a light that lets us see all the ugliness and brokenness, that exposes the desperately pathetic charade of righteousness, and the dead corpses rotting beneath the foundation of the house. I’m fairly convinced that we can’t be healed unless and until we start to see ourselves in that unflattering light.

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
-- Sufjan Stevens, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”


e said...

Ugh. Such horrific stories.

I find it nearly impossible to allow my ugliness out into the light, in part because I'm just not convinced that those people around me that are commanded to "bear [my] burdens" just won't and I'll be isolated, marginalized.

It's why organizations like AA have spoken more to me about grace than the Church, often. It used to be in the Church that you used to have to be clean-cut, stiff, proper. Now you have to be unkempt, tattooed, cool.

Either way, you're asked to wear a mask in church, whereas in help groups you're bound together not by your mask but by the nastiness underneath.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Thank you for this hard-hitting post, Andy. When I read your blog I invariably copy the text or URL and send it on to someone I think needs to read it, too. The moment you mentioned Gacy I hoped you'd quote Sufjan Stevens' song, one that never fails to raise the hair on my neck.
Today, I am digging in the vegetable garden, rooting out giant clumps of weeds. I think as I work, and today I've been thinking hard about moving away from deceit, secrets, emotional neglect, and other moral weeds that infest our lives and relationships. Needless to say, your writing resonates deeply with me. Thanks for your brave and raw outlook.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Andy.

Andy Whitman said...

Erik wrote:

"It's why organizations like AA have spoken more to me about grace than the Church, often. It used to be in the Church that you used to have to be clean-cut, stiff, proper. Now you have to be unkempt, tattooed, cool."

You know, I hope not. Organizations like AA have spoken to me, too, and I'm thankful for them. But I hope there are alternatives in the church other than "clean-cut, stiff, and proper" and "unkempt, tattooed, and cool." Honestly, I can't possibly be either of those two alternatives. My personality is too unruly and improper to fit easily into the first scenario, and the hearing aid, receding hairline, and paunch exclude me from the hipsters. But I'd still like to think that there's a third category: broken people who understand their own culpability, and who don't judge people precisely because they understand that, but who also want to encourage people to relate to one another, talk honestly and openly with one another, worship together, and engage with God in the slow process of being changed from the inside.

I understand what you're saying about the church, Erik. Sadly, your experience is far from unique. But there really are people out there who take the "bear one another's burdens" notion seriously, and who won't isolate or marginalize you, regardless of your issues, because they've been there themselves, and because they honestly try to live according to the notion that it's better to try to come alongside human beings and befriend them than blame them or point fingers at them. What a radical concept, eh? I really hope that you find that to be true within the context of the Christian church.

Anonymous said...

Hey Andy,

Thanks for the post. I write for my seminary's school newspaper and each month I get to write about music and its intersections. I got the idea from your writing in Paste Magazine (by the way, I missed you this month). Anyway, one such song I wrote on was John Wayne Gacy, Jr. If you're interested, I've posted it as well as all the others on my blog under the category "Sweet Sound of Speculation." The blog is

Thanks again.