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- June 22, 1981
- Vol. 15
- No. 24
Descent into Madness
The Life and Crime of Mark David Chapman
—Mark David Chapman
There were no news cameras rolling when he called out to John Lennon from the dark of a cold December night, but the reconstructed images of those nightmarish seconds assume a clarity that imitates memory. There is Lennon slowly turning to acknowledge the greeting, Chapman crouching in a combat stance and opening fire, Lennon staggering into a security booth, Yoko bending over him, screaming. Recalls witness Sean Strub: "I never saw anything like the look on her face. Her mouth was open wide like a whale's, her arms covering him like an animal. She looked as though she had been electrocuted." On Chapman's face there was a smirk. The doorman asked him if he knew what he had done. "I just shot John Lennon,' he said evenly. Then he took a dogeared copy of The Catcher in the Rye from his pocket and began to read.
The first word from New York police summed him up succinctly—"wacko"—and common sense seconded that description. But Mark Chapman, whose trial begins next week, could not be dismissed so easily. Violence has always been the province of the young, but the friends of Mark Chapman fear that their generation is too much at home there. Interviewing them requires first hearing out their own questions. Mark was, after all, so like them once, so apparently normal, so amply described in that now chilling phrase "ordinary people." A pal from Chapman's Atlanta neighborhood confesses to nightmares since the shooting: "Mark is walking up to me smiling and all of a sudden he has a knife and he stabs me. It takes about 10 people to hold him, and we put him in some kind of cage but he breaks free. We run after him and catch him and cage him up again, but I'm still scared to death he's going to get out." Newton Hendrix, who sang in the school choir with Mark and now is director of music at Fortified Hills Baptist Church in Smyrna, Ga., admits he cannot shake the thought that Mark Chapman's crime says something about him: "I mean, this guy grew up in my neighborhood and we went to the same school. I remember seeing him witnessing about Jesus to one of our classmates. That meant a lot to me. And now here he is stalking John Lennon and killing him? Is there something wrong with all of us?"
Chapman and his classmates were and were not of the '60s. They came to puberty at that decade's crest, but came of age in its backwash. They inherited its spirit of rebellion without its causes, its mistrust of the Establishment without its belief in a new order. Chapman, moreover, was a Southern boy, whose time and place put conflicting demands on him: The decade proffered protest, hard rock and hard drugs; the region continued to demand conformity and faith.
Mark was born to an Air Force sergeant and a nurse in Fort Worth on May 10, 1955. The family settled in Decatur, Ga. when he was 7, and their home there was a suburban set piece on a shady corner lot just one block from a good elementary school and a half mile from Columbia High. After leaving the military, Mark's father became a credit manager, first for Amoco, then at a local bank. He taught guitar at the YMCA, and he taught Mark to play—but hootenanny style, not in the '60s manner of gonzo obbligatos and crazed shrieks of feedback. "I'd say it was a very happy family," says Tony Adams, executive director of the YMCA in Thomasville, N.C., who knew the Chapmans at the DeKalb County Y. "And Mark was a happy, well-adjusted boy."
But Mark and his peers also had been born at the peak of the baby boom, and now they found themselves in a peer group so large and powerful that the civilizing influence of teachers and parents was gravely blunted. Mark smoked marijuana for the first time in ninth grade—the year of the Beatles' benchmark album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—and he took his first tablet of LSD the next year. Tony Adams saw nothing ominous in his demeanor when Mark worked summers as a counselor at the Y's day camp, where campers called him Nemo and begged him to play Mr. Bojangles around the campfire at night. But during his sophomore year Mark became heavily involved in drugs. "He must have taken hundreds of trips," a friend from that time and scene recalls. "He tripped all the time, sometimes for four or five days in a row. It was mostly LSD, but he took a lot of mescaline and barbiturates too. Heroin was his favorite drug until a friend of his got burned by it. He said it turned everything white, like heaven."
Throughout his adolescence, and into young manhood, Mark was an all-out disciple of whatever came along—a believer. In junior high it was the UFO craze; on warm nights he could be found sitting on his front lawn watching the sky, waiting. When rumors of Paul McCartney's death swept the nation in 1969, he believed in them too, and set about proving them with a bulging sheaf of fan-magazine articles and third-hand reports of ominous coincidences. Now he put his faith in drugs. "One thing about Mark, he didn't take them for recreation," says a friend who did. "He really believed in mind expansion. It was almost a kind of religious thing with him." So was his belief in the Beatles, whose pictures papered his room. He wrote a fellow drug user a birthday message during this period which began: "On the first day God created [—-]—no, God created heaven and earth. That's better. And God created the Beatles and other great groups." Recalling Lennon's observation in 1966 that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus, Mark laughed with his friends, seeing truth in Lennon's sardonic boast. Along with all the other things, Mark believed in John Lennon.
Meanwhile, Chapman's drug abuse worked havoc on his life at home. His mother tried to face the problem squarely, perhaps too squarely. She confronted him, grounded him, continually searched his room for drugs. Once, in frustration, she locked him in. Furious, Mark took the bedroom door off its hinges, carried it downstairs, propped it against the wall and went to a friend's house, where he stayed for a week. "He told me he hated his mother," the friend remembers. "He talked about burning down the house, though he said he'd wait until they weren't home. His father was okay—he'd let him do things—but then his mother would come along and say no. He kind of resented his father for not standing up for him." But as time went on, Mark seemed increasingly to fear for his sanity; he had lived through more than his share of bad trips. "It was the usual thing," says a friend who took drugs with him on occasion. "Sometimes he thought the trip would last forever, or that the place he was in was burning down."
Then, in the fall of his junior year at Columbia High, Mark was reborn as a Christian. "It was him and 200 other kids," says a classmate who was not converted. "One day this evangelist came to a pep rally at the school and that night everybody went to a revival he staged and got saved." Mark's life changed utterly. He quit drugs flat. For several months he preached and witnessed openly during school, antagonizing several old friends. He got a haircut, discarded his rumpled fatigue jacket and began wearing a large, hand-crafted cross. He carried a notebook inscribed JESUS, and turned vociferously against rock 'n' roll.
In doing so, the new Mark turned against John Lennon in particular. Most Americans had taken Lennon's remark about Jesus as offhandedly as it had been intended, but the South had not. There had been a wave of anti-Beatles demonstrations, Beatles albums were burned in community bonfires, and no fewer than 35 radio stations observed a boycott of Beatles music. The Beatles' 1966 tour of the South was their last. They were pelted with rubbish and frightened by firecrackers thrown at them onstage. Six years later, in Mark's prayer group at Columbia High, memories of the remark were still fresh. Lennon's hit that year was the hopeful anthem of peace Imagine. "There were some kids in the group who had a joke about it," one member recalled later with a shudder. "It went, 'Imagine, imagine if John Lennon was dead.' "
In 1975, as a YMCA coordinator at the camp for Vietnamese refugees in Fort Chaffee, Ark., Mark was still haunted by what Lennon had said, and brought it up to co-workers as an example of the singer's "arrogance." He appeared by then to have conquered his drug-ridden past. He had dropped out of DeKalb Community College after only one semester, but he was succeeding in YMCA work and seemed headed for a career in social service. Earlier that year he had worked bagging groceries and washing cars to send himself to Lebanon as a YMCA youth counselor. But after less than a month in embattled Beirut he was evacuated with other Y workers. The Fort Chaffee job followed immediately, and Mark set out to prove himself. As an area coordinator in charge of as many as 6,000 refugees, he was conscientious to the point of exhaustion. "He was really caring with the refugees, and he worked his tail off to do everything exactly right," recalls David Moore, then director of YMCA Refugees Services at the camp. "He was a super kid."
He saw his future clearly then, and imagined enshrined in it Jessica Blankinship, a girl he had met in the prayer group at Columbia and had dated faithfully ever since. He and Jessica dreamed of being missionaries together, and after she came to visit him at Fort Chaffee in October, his faith seemed to grip him even more firmly. "He wouldn't even drink a Coke," recalls one of his co-workers. "He thought it was bad for his body. He wouldn't have any kind of junk food. He wanted to be pure for Jessica. He was really in love with her, and he was a one-woman man."
Just before Christmas 1975, he returned to Atlanta, planning to enroll with Jessica at Covenant College, a strict Presbyterian school in Tennessee. "He drove off in a blaze of glory," a fellow YMCA employee recalls. "There's no doubt in my mind that Chaffee was the high point of his life. As he left he told a colleague of ours, 'One of us is going to be famous someday.' I was just sure Mark was going to make it if any of us did."
Yet even at Chaffee there had been evidence that Mark was not as uncomplicated as he seemed. "One time in the music room," a colleague recalls, "a bunch of Laotians were playing our band instruments. Mark stood there with this funny expression on his face, and then finally went over and picked up a guitar and joined in. He played a really wild song—the Surfaris tune Wipe Out—and really got into it. When it was over he was really mad at himself. He told me, 'I don't ever want to do anything like that again. It takes me away from God.' He said he felt like the guitar had some kind of control over him."
There were other chinks, too, in Mark's facade of purity. On his last day at Chaffee, an Atlanta friend named Dana Reeves came to drive him home. "Dana had a long-barreled six-shooter," a fellow staffer remembers. "Mark was very excited showing it to us. He said it held really well in the hand." Coworker Gregg Lyman was surprised; he had always had the impression that Mark disapproved of guns. "Dana had a strange effect on Mark," says a mutual friend in Atlanta. "He was older than Mark and rougher, and Mark seemed to be excited around him, but in a different way than I'd ever seen him."
Mark left Covenant College after he had finished one semester, and Jessica, an intensely religious girl with a deep commitment to a missionary career, ended their relationship. Mark was shattered. "I wasn't enough of a Christian," he told a friend two years later, but he told his former pastor, the Rev. Charles McGowan of Chapel Woods Presbyterian Church, that it was more serious than that. "Something happened to me [at Covenant]," he said. "I don't know what it was." McGowan said that Mark described what sounded to him like "a mental breakdown...I think the pressure of the academic courses and the feeling that his romance was falling apart all combined to send him into an emotional tailspin."
Soon after, Chapman became a security guard. Friends say Dana Reeves led him into it. In the summer of 1976 Mark took a one-week course for guards at Atlanta Area Technical School. As always, he was determined to excel, and on the firing range test he scored 80 points on a scale of 100. He worked for two local security firms after that. Then in the fall he gave school one last try, enrolling at DeKalb Community College again, taking evening courses in world literature and economics. Once more he quit, this time before the term was over. He had failed at college now for the third time, the love of his life had left him, and his future appeared bleak and uncharted. He had failed miserably and absolutely, for good.
Or had he? Was it possible that others had failed him, that he had been betrayed? Hadn't Jessica's love been conditional on his success in school? David Moore, almost a father figure to him, had said his YMCA career would be limited without a college degree. Was that how it would always be? Where was the innocent Christian love they talked about if all you had to do was make passing grades in some course that made your head ache? It was clear to him now: The world wanted to be rid of failures.
The Beatles' Eastern influence in the late 1960s had always intrigued Mark. Now he needed some of the peace of mind those songs had once seemed to promise, and that LSD had failed to deliver. David Moore had told him about Hawaii, describing it as a meeting place for East and West, a place where one could find relief from the spectacle of a world gone mad. Didn't the betrayal he suffered put him in need of such a place?
In early 1977 Mark flew to Honolulu, apparently intending to kill himself. "He told me it was a whole series of things that made him go," recalls a friend in whom he later confided. "College, Jessica—he said there was nothing left to do in the world but die." According to Mark, he had written postcards to all the people who had cared about him, then driven out to a beautiful canyon, strung a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car and sealed himself in.
A passerby rescued him, and he was taken to nearby Castle Memorial Hospital on the windward side of Oahu. He told a friend later that Jessica had called him there to ask him to come home, saying she still loved him. He said he had gone to Atlanta, realized she hadn't meant what she said, and, devastated, returned to Hawaii. There he attempted suicide again, and again was saved. "I was such a failure I even failed at killing myself," he told David Moore later with a rueful laugh.
He stayed at Castle longer this time, and after his discharge took a job in the hospital's housekeeping department. Co-workers say he enjoyed his work, menial as it was. "He felt comfortable and unpressured," says Paul Tharp, the hospital's director of community relations. "When I offered him a more challenging job he said he wasn't interested." Patients and staff alike enjoyed him. He was helpful, amused the sick by drawing cartoons, and spent time talking with the older patients. "He was thoughtful and sensitive and had a wonderful sense of humor," recalls his girlfriend at the time, a psychiatric nurse more than 10 years his senior. "He'd often bring me flowers with notes like 'Have a nice day.' " She knew nothing of his suicide attempts, but during their four months together, she remembers, Mark sold all his Beatles records and his stereo equipment. He didn't say why; she didn't ask.
That December Mark's parents came to Hawaii to see him. Neither they nor he have spoken publicly of that visit, but not long after their return to Atlanta, David and Diane Chapman began divorce proceedings. Even their closest friends were shocked. During their marriage of 24 years they had seemed happier than most couples. Mark's mother left Atlanta immediately to join her son in Hawaii. Mark has not spoken to his father since.
The stability that Mark had found in Hawaii proved to be only an uneasy reprieve. His solution was to run away again. He booked an around-the-world trip on borrowed money and set off with letters of introduction from David Moore to YMCA leaders in several foreign cities. Early in his trip he visited a former colleague in South Korea: "I didn't recognize him. He had always been slim and neat and fun to be around, but this guy had long, greasy hair and dandruff. He'd put on a lot of weight, and he was really depressed." Near the end of the trip he visited David Moore at YMCA headquarters in Geneva and left a different impression, but one that was no less disturbing. "He'd met and stayed with some of the top YMCA officials in the world," Moore recalls, "and he seemed excited about his future." He told Moore he thought he was in love with a Japanese-American named Gloria Abe, the travel agent in Hawaii who had planned his tour. He talked all night about his plans for new life, and the more he talked the more elated and hopeful he seemed. But when the sunrise ended their conversation, Moore was less reassured by Mark's high spirits than haunted by what Mark had confided about his shocking suicidal depressions.
In a way, though, the trip served its purpose; what had begun as Mark's panicky flight from himself ended as a triumphant homecoming. He told Paul Tharp he was ready now for a more challenging job—running an offset press in the hospital print shop. He mastered it quickly and proved as industrious as ever. "He was almost obsessive about getting things exactly right," Tharp recalls. In the months that followed, Mark never played the guitar; Tharp had no idea he even knew how. He attended church regularly, courted and married Gloria, and wrote expansively to friends of his job and its promise of advancement.
Then, inevitably, his house of cards tumbled again. There would be no promotion, his friend Tharp told him gently when Mark's frequent hints and feelers turned insistent. There was no opening, and in any case Mark needed a college education if he really wanted to get ahead. "I told him the hospital would pay his tuition," Tharp remembers, "but he told me he was afraid to go to school. He said he couldn't handle that kind of competitive experience."
The rest is an all too common tragedy of signals for help unheeded, last connections missed—and a poisonous sense of betrayal escalating into ruinous interior warfare. Quitting the hospital, Mark took a job as an unarmed security guard at a luxury condominium in Waikiki. He made Gloria leave the travel agency when she was offered a promotion, then he sold their car. He reportedly forbade her to read newspapers or listen to the radio. Developing an obsession with art, he spent hours bearding local gallery owners and borrowed money to buy first a Dali work and later a $7,500 lithograph of Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait. He spent weeks researching that purchase, but when he finally made it he was nettled by doubts. Was it authentic? How could he really know? There was a misspelling on his photocopy of the certificate of authenticity. He demanded the original and, tiring of his incessant complaints, the gallery complied.
In the summer of 1980 there was a series of robberies at the building where he worked. Despite reassurances, Mark was convinced his co-workers felt he had failed on the job. Finally he announced he was quitting. His superior persuaded him to stay on as a maintenance worker, but that truce with his feelings was soon to be broken. "Yes, I've gone nuts," he wrote a friend, Lynda Irish, enclosing a sketch he had made of an idyllic Hawaiian scene and signing off "Catcher in the Rye."
On Oct. 20 an article appeared in the Honolulu Star Bulletin concerning the imminent release of the Lennons' heralded Double Fantasy album and tour. Three days later Mark signed out in the condominium's logbook for the last time, inscribing the name "John Lennon," then crudely crossing it out. He had sold the Rockwell lithograph; now he bought a Charter-Arms .38. "He said he had personal problems that needed straightening out," recalled coworker Fua Liva. Says a friend who works in an employment agency: "He told me he had a bigger job."
"My wish is for all of you to someday read The Catcher in the Rye" Mark Chapman would say when it was all over; he inscribed his copy for police: "This is my statement." But he found in the book only what he wanted to find, what fit. As if seeking to reconnect one last time with his past, he flew to Atlanta in early November and made the rounds of old acquaintances. But when he tried to visit Jessica, her parents snubbed him, and by the time he arrived in New York on that trip he was desperately depressed. He contemplated turning his gun on himself. Life was no longer a game worth playing. Holden Caulfield agreed. [Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.]
This time his grim mood lifted; for now both Chapman and Lennon were safe. He called Gloria. "I've won a great victory," he reportedly said. "I'm coming home. I'll tell you about it when I get there." Back in Hawaii, he made an appointment with a psychologist, but didn't keep it. The murderer's impulse began to build in him again. Holden would have understood; he had felt that way about a cocktail pianist he knew. [I certainly like to hear him play but sometimes you feel like turning his goddam piano over... because sometimes when he plays he sounds like the kind of a guy that won't talk to you unless you're a big shot.] And Holden would have realized too the need Mark felt to settle old scores, [As soon as old Maurice opened the doors, he'd see me with the automatic in my hand, and he'd start screaming...]
Yet Holden's fantasies had never drawn blood; Mark's were about to prove lethal. Flying back to Manhattan on Dec. 6, he tried to ensnare a cabbie in his delusion. "He told me he was a recording engineer and had just come from a session with John Lennon and Paul McCartney," recalls Mark Snyder. "Then he started shaking his head in a mad frenzy, smiling to himself like he had some inner thoughts that were sending him into outer space." He offered Snyder some cocaine, and later launched into "a jealous rage at people that were successful, like rock stars." [...But I'd plug him anyway. Six shots right through his fat hairy belly.] "Remember my name if you hear it again," Mark told Snyder as he left the cab.
Later Mark would try to explain to the Reverend McGowan. "I've been going through a torment for the last two or three months," he said. "It's a struggle between good and evil and right and wrong...I just gave in."
But to which moral extreme did he imagine he had yielded? In Mark's disordered mind, good and evil were absolutes waging war for his spirit; they wrenched him apart. When things went right for him—with Jessica, in the Y, at the print shop—Good was ascendant, and he was a Believer. When things went wrong he became the dangerously wounded Mark the Betrayed, moving closer to the brink of obvious madness. The two—Believer and Betrayed—could not peacefully coexist within him, and with each turn of the cycle, the conflict became more antagonistic and less real. Finally the internal stress became too great: There had to be a resolution.
"Mr. Lennon?" he said, and held out his album for an autograph. When he got it he seemed as thrilled as he might have been in high school. "Nobody in Hawaii is going to believe this," he told Paul Goresh, a photographer who had taken his picture with the hero of his teens. But Mark did not forget why he had come. When Goresh started to leave, Mark said, "I'd wait. You never know if you'll see him again."
"Mr. Lennon?" he said again several hours later, as John and Yoko returned from a recording session. Why would he address his victim so politely, with such propriety, unless he felt now that he was the security guard of righteousness, the savior of purity from the seduction of a rock star whose guitar made music that snatched souls away from God? In this mission Mark the Believer and Mark the Betrayed were together at last—and neither of them was Mark David Chapman, who had long since surrendered to the welcome peace of derangement.
November 26, 2015
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