by Mike Roche
Exhibit I: The Killing of John Lennon
In the darkness of a cold December night, the assassin waited for his prey to return home. He watched in silence as the limousine dropped off the celebrity couple in front of their exclusive apartment building. As the couple approached, the killer drew his weapon, and at the opportune moment, he fired five shots. Four of his shots struck his victim who slumped to the ground and succumbed to his mortal wounds. The killer paced about nervously — then extracted a book from his back pocket and read seemingly dissociated from the murder he had just committed.
The murder of John Lennon in front of the Dakota Apartments by obscure killer Mark David Chapman shocked the world. During the years preceding Lennon’s death, Chapman had become obsessed with the book The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Chapman found refuge and affirmation in protagonist Holden Caulfield’s unceasing attacks on the hypocrisy of the world. Chapman was an under-performer and had already racked up a number of failed suicide attempts. He was a wanderer throughout his early years and settled for a time in Hawaii, where he worked as a security guard.
He initially focused on several possible targets including Johnny Carson, Jackie Onassis Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and George C. Scott, but ultimately focused on John Lennon. It was to some degree a practical decision in that Chapman believed that Lennon would be the easiest of the celebrities to locate and gain access to. Plus, Chapman was enraged by what he saw as Lennon’s hypocrisy, advocating for the poor, while enjoying the privileged lifestyle of the wealthy and famous. Chapman never forgot that early in his career, Lennon had been heavily criticized for making the claim that he and his fellow Beatles were more popular than Jesus. This was more ammunition and Chapman felt Lennon’s life was in conflict with the humble teachings of the Saviour.
Chapman was perhaps conflicted over his own hypocrisy. He had stood in front of the Dakota with the album Double Fantasy in hand and Lennon had been gracious enough to autograph the album and shake hands with his future killer. Who asks for an autograph and shakes hands with their intended target? In a sense, Chapman conducted his own autograph session when he signed the inside cover of his well-thumbed copy of The Catcher in the Rye, “This is my statement.”
Chapman told his parole board in 2010 that his initial target list was selected because, “They are famous; that was it,” and he thought that by killing them he would achieve “instant notoriety, fame.” “It wasn’t about them, necessarily,” Chapman said. “It was just about me; it was all about me at that time.” This reiterates the mindset of many mass murderers, whose primary motivation is achieving personal fame. Chapman stated, “I’m sure the big part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil.”
The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. It describes the adventures of Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old anti-hero who has been expelled from yet another elite preparatory school. Caulfield railed endlessly against the “phonies” of the world. The reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, provided a rare interview to Shirlie Blaney of Windsor High School in Cornish, NH, in which he told Blaney that the novel had an autobiographical aspect. Salinger stated, “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book. It was a great relief telling people about it.” The catharsis that Salinger experienced from writing the novel resonated and continues to resonate with many of the disaffected and abandoned in society.
Exhibit II: The Killing of Actress Rebecca Schaeffer
Actress Rebecca Schaeffer made a name for herself appearing in the television series, My Sister Sam, which premiered in 1986. In 1989, she was stalked and killed by Robert Bardo, an obsessed fan. Bardo, like many others, was infatuated with her beauty and eagerly mailed her a fan letter. He received back a glossy 8”x10” stock studio photo, which he perceived to be an affirmation of his love. A simple gesture like this photo caused him to completely misinterpret the reality of the situation and set him off on flights of fancy. Bardo traveled to Hollywood on at least three occasions and visited the studio, where he was rebuffed by security.
Temporarily deterred by his inability to get close to Schaeffer, he began to focus his attention on other female celebrities including Tiffany and Madonna. Prior to that, he had focused his attention on Samantha Smith, who had garnered worldwide celebrity status based on her letter writing campaign with Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Smith was killed in a plane crash in 1985 and Rebecca Schaeffer filled the void when My Sister Sam came on the air in 1986.
Robert Bardo was one of seven children who was raised in what is best described as a dysfunctional environment. He struggled with mental illness and was seen by a psychiatrist, but discontinued treatment. His neighbors viewed him as emotionally unstable; he would often become enraged, and he was described by one neighbor as a “psycho.” It is reported that Bardo threatened to get his .357 magnum and shoot another neighbor.
From all accounts, Bardo worshipped Schaeffer’s innocence. In one letter, he told Schaeffer that he identified with her character’s yearning to be famous. His path to fame, however, veered off onto the road to infamy.
Bardo became upset and disillusioned when Rebecca Schaeffer seemingly changed right before his eyes. She began to take on more risqué roles after My Sister Sam was cancelled, which Bardo could not abide. He asked his brother to purchase a .357 revolver for him and his brother foolishly complied. In one letter to the actress, he included lyrics from a John Lennon song and a self-authored song. He wrote to his sister, “I have an obsession with the unattainable and I have to eliminate (something) that I cannot attain.” He was not specific about his intentions.
Finally, Bardo went to Schaeffer’s apartment and rang her doorbell. Her intercom was not working and she answered her door in her bathrobe. She was polite but told Bardo to leave. He complied, went down the street, and called his sister, confiding to her that he was about to complete his mission.
He returned to her apartment and again rang the doorbell. Schaeffer answered, now out of patience, and told him to leave. Upset by this rejection, Bardo pulled out his gun and shot Schaeffer in the abdomen, fatally wounding her.
Bardo claimed that his inspiration to shoot Schaeffer came from the song Exit, by the rock group U-2. Bardo believed that some of the lyrics were references to Schaeffer and himself. Reviewing the lyrics of the song provides some insight into his mindset. “He wanted to believe in the hands of love.” The song describes the mixed emotions of love ranging from black to white with the singer, at least metaphorically, “fingering the steel” of a pistol in his pocket.
What other influences may have held sway with Bardo? When he was fleeing the scene of the shooting, he tossed away a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. He had previously written letters to Mark David Chapman after the assassination of John Lennon. After leaving the crime scene, Bardo was subsequently arrested the following day while running through traffic in Tucson, Arizona.
Exhibit III: John Hinckley, Jr., J.D. Salinger and Taxi Driver
A new PBS documentary on J.D. Salinger will discuss The Catcher in the Rye and will presumably analyze the fact that many killers have identified with the loneliness and isolation experienced by the book’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Although The Catcher in the Rye should not be seen as a contributing factor to their lethal violence, troubled readers undoubtedly identify with Holden’s loneliness and frustration and view his dilemma as support and affirmation for the similar emotions that they are experiencing.
John Hinckley, Jr. who attempted to kill President Reagan, and wounded four others, was also enamored with The Catcher in the Rye. Hinckley was also motivated by and obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver in which the main character, Travis Bickle, was played by Robert DeNiro. The character of Travis Bickle was loosely based on Arthur Bremer, the shooter of Alabama Governor and presidential candidate, George Wallace. In the movie, Bickel becomes enamored with an aide to a political candidate and when she rebuffs him, he targets the political candidate for assassination. Hinckley reportedly had seen Taxi Driver in excess of fifteen times and he became obsessed with the character of the 15-year-old prostitute portrayed by Jodie Foster. The movie poster for Taxi Driver read, “On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” Besides being voted one of the best movie taglines of all time, it also epitomizes the deranged thoughts and spirit of many a mass killer.
From jail, Mark Chapman sent a letter to J.D. Salinger apologizing for being inspired by the book. The cloistered author never responded. Catcher is not in itself particularly violent but it does provide comfort to those who have lost their way and are looking for some confirmation of their discontent and disillusionment. They have been sucked into the negative emotional vortex of an all-engulfing hopelessness.
While browsing at your favorite bookstore, the next time you spy someone reading The Catcher in the Rye, you might start looking for the nearest exit. If you look on my bookshelf, you will certainly find a copy. What does that say about me?
Please click here to view Mike Roche’s previous posts:
Mike Roche has over three decades of law enforcement experience. He began his career with the Little Rock Police Department, and spent twenty-two years with the U.S. Secret Service. The last fifteen years of his career were focused on conducting behavioral threat assessments of those threatening to engage in targeted violence. He is the author of three novels and two nonfiction works on mass murder and also rapport building. Retired, Mike is currently a security consultant at Protective Threat LLC, and an adjunct instructor at Saint Leo University. He resides in Florida with his family.
Mass Killers: How you Can Identify, Workplace, School, or Public Killers Before They Strikehttp://www.amazon.com/Mass-
Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an Ex-Secret Service Agent’s Guidehttp://www.amazon.com/Face-2-
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