Mark Chapman would have you know that he has not consented to address the public since the night he shot John Lennon, Dec. 8, 1980. Until now he has given no interviews except to attorneys, ministers or mental-health professionals, nor has he allowed his picture to be taken. This is important to him because he insists—prosecutors’ arguments to the contrary—that he did not kill John Lennon in order to become famous.
His defense attorney had planned to contend that Chapman killed Lennon in response to hallucinations, that he was legally insane. This too Chapman denies, and it is an argument he rendered moot, with all others, more than five years ago, when he elected to plead guilty to murder. The facts behind John Lennon’s killing and Mark Chapman’s motives for it will be set forth in due course, but I should say here and now that I find the prosecution’s thesis interestingly flawed: It requires the belief that a man who would decide to spend his life in prison rather than one more day in obscurity is in his right mind.
When I first met Mark Chapman, who is now 31, little was known about him. He had been a fervent Christian, a camp counselor and a board member of his local YMCA; he had also been a security guard and had attempted suicide. He had made only two public statements since the murder. The first was a terse letter to The New York Times in which Chapman said the reasons for the killing could be found in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The second came in court when, just before sentencing, he read a passage from the book:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean, if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye….
We met 18 months later at Attica state penitentiary in upstate New York. Chapman was taller than I had expected, spoke with a surprisingly strong accent of Georgia, where he grew up, and was decidedly less coherent, madder, than I had anticipated. He was dressed in prison green, and he meticulously swept every imaginary crumb from the table between us before focusing his gaze somewhere behind my eyes and telling me that John Lennon’s murder was “meant to be…from before time.”
I have seen him many times since that day, over the course of many different moods and obsessions. On occasion, when something he said reminded me of the horror of his crime, I was tempted to take the prosecutors’ view, to write off Chapman’s crime as a monstrous exercise in upward mobility. Finally, I could not leave it at that. John Lennon’s death was a stunning loss because he carried so many dreams with him, and my wish to know the reasons for his murder was like the wish, when a family member dies, to know exactly how, at what time, of what. It doesn’t help to know but it is somehow necessary. In the Chapman case, no clinical or legal theory was adequate. Yes, I found myself saying, but why?
Under the archway is a man with a book in his hands, dressed in a dark raincoat buttoned to the neck for warmth on this December night. His head is bowed over the book, which he holds in both hands the way a preacher holds the Gospel, and he is slowly pacing. His lips are moving, but he is not reading, and there is no sound in this dark corridor but that of his slow footfalls on the pavement.
The explosion of gunshots stopped ringing off the stone walls of the archway only moments ago, and the man who pulled the trigger finds this quiet unnerving. At the spot where there should be a body there is nothing. No one is walking by on the sidewalk. No cars are waiting for the light at the corner. For these few seconds, in this enclosing silence, it seems to him that he is alone in the world.
In the days leading up to this moment he had wondered often what it would be like. For a time he thought that after the shooting he would curl into a fetal position and sink forever into a coma in which he could still see and hear, but from which the world could never rouse him and into which it could never intrude. Earlier he was sure that he would turn, body and soul, into Holden Caulfield, the catcher in the rye himself, tall, lanky, with a shock of straight brown hair showing from under a red hunting hat—”a people shooting hat,” Holden had called it. Holden Caulfield had come to mean everything to him. At home in Hawaii a few weeks before, he had even written to the state attorney general’s office about changing his name to Holden’s. In his imagining, when the police came to arrest him he would shout, “I am Holden Caulfield, the catcher in the rye of the present generation!” Then he would hold up the book and refuse to say another word. Oddly, though, at this crucial moment and in this resounding silence, the book’s message and comfort elude him.
A moment before, a silver-haired man wearing a doorman’s uniform had approached him and grabbed his right wrist, He shook the gun loose and kicked it across the driveway. “What did you do?” the man cried. “What have you done? Get out of here! Go away!”
“I’m sorry,” Mark Chapman said. “Where would I go?”
The sound of his own speech surprised him. Things were not happening as he had planned. There was no oblivion. He was not Holden Caulfield. And now, without thinking, he had broken his vow of silence. He felt suddenly that his world was collapsing, and he was startled by feelings of shock, anguish, confusion and fear.
Patrolman Peter Cullen of New York’s 20th precinct was in the first police car to respond to the report of shots fired at the Dakota apartment house at 72nd Street and Central Park West. Though he suspected the call was a false alarm—there had been fireworks in Central Park that night—he approached the building with gun drawn. Under the archway there were three people—Chapman, the doorman and a handyman. “Everyone was like frozen, in shock,” Cullen remembers. “Being the first one in the alcove, I was trying to get it all straight, but it was hard to read the cast of characters. Nobody wants to get shot. I remember saying to myself, ‘I wish I’d put that damn bulletproof vest on.’ ” His first thought was that the handyman was the shooter. When the doorman indicated it was Chapman, Cullen’s instincts were offended. “He looked like a guy who worked in a bank, an office. Not a loser or anything, just a guy out there trying to earn a living. I remember taking a look at him and saying, ‘Why? What did you do here?’ He really had no answer for it. He did say several times, ‘I’m sorry I gave you guys all this trouble.’ ”
Cullen, whose first assignment as a rookie had been on a security detail for the Beatles’ visit to New York in 1965, felt something more than bewilderment—a sense of symmetry, of his own place in worldly events. “It was like this thing was meant to be,” he says. He remembers his partner that night, Steven Spiro, becoming extremely agitated in the patrol car as they took Chapman in. “This is history, man!” Spiro was saying, almost shouting. “This is history!”
Efforts to resuscitate John Lennon at Roosevelt Hospital had long since been abandoned by the time Chapman signed a statement for police. “I never wanted to hurt anybody,” he said. “My friends will tell you that. I have two parts in me. The big part is very kind; the children I worked with will tell you that. I have a small part in me that cannot understand the world and what goes on in it. I did not want to kill anybody and I really don’t know why I did it….”
He spent the predawn hours in handcuffs in a cell on the second floor of the station house. In the morning he was put in a bulletproof vest and taken by van to the New York City Criminal Courts Building. Meanwhile police were seeking a motive for the crime among the artifacts of his life, which were arrayed like totems on the bureau in the hotel room where he had been staying: a small leather Bible, an expired passport, a snapshot of a ’65 Chevy and a still photograph from The Wizard of Oz, showing Judy Garland, as Dorothy, wiping a tear from the cheek of the Cowardly Lion.
Looking at the throng of reporters and photographers outside the courtroom at Chapman’s arraignment the next morning, Jonathan Marks, a young former assistant U.S. attorney, felt a surge of jealousy toward Chapman’s court-appointed lawyer, Herbert Adlerberg. Earlier that year Marks had successfully defended a man accused of pushing a pretty flute student under a passing subway train, severing her right hand. The case had been front-page news in the New York papers, and Marks had come to enjoy a measure of celebrity. Then, two days after Chapman’s arraignment, he learned that Adlerberg was withdrawing from the murder case. Marks had been avoiding repeated phone calls from Frank Veit of the appellate division, who was in charge of assigning attorneys to indigent clients. Now, even before Adlerberg had finished making his motion in court, Marks ran to a pay phone and returned the call. Sure enough, Veit had wanted him for the Chapman case, and three hours later Marks was holding a press conference before several dozen print and television reporters. “I enjoyed being in the limelight again,” he confided in his tape-recorded journal.
For the first week after the killing Chapman portrayed himself as a mild-mannered, anxious young man who had been a lifelong admirer of John Lennon and who was confounded by the fact that he had committed a murder. “I think I have some problems, and I don’t know what some of them are,” he told Marks, who recorded their interviews. “My main problem is all my life I’ve been too sensitive. I’ve pent up all my aggression, kept swallowing it and swallowing it.”
What did it feel like to be too sensitive, Marks asked.
“It feels like you’re like a little dog, a little animal, not respected, and nobody cares for you. They just use you, and every little thing that happens to you, you worry about it for three days. Things that happened to me 10 or 15 years ago still haunt me, things people did to me. I still can’t figure it out, why they would do those things.
“Maybe my problem was I kind of sounded feminine. About a year ago I played my voice in a tape recorder and I thought that was what it was…. One time about a year ago in a store I was just trying to make up my mind what to get, you know, and this salesgirl, she says, ‘You’re just like a woman—can’t make up your mind.’ You get somebody saying something like that and it just crushes me…. I just felt like I wasn’t worth anything.”
Initially Chapman refused to follow TV or newspaper coverage of the murder, but he heard reports that people were committing suicide over Lennon’s death, and he learned of a Central Park vigil at which thousands of fans had mourned the singer. The security around Chapman was intense: Windows in the rooms where he slept were painted black to protect him from snipers, and he was moved from place to place in bulletproof vests, surrounded by phalanxes of heavily armed guards. He was convinced he would be killed and told Marks a week after the murder that his only wish was that death would come quickly. “I’m not afraid of dying,” he said. “I’m tired of all the struggle, the bother and worry, and maybe that’s just the best thing, if someone out there knew what they were doing and would just shoot me and it wouldn’t hurt.”
Three days later, on Dec. 18, Marks brought the noted psychologist Lee Salk to talk with Chapman. By that time the dam was breaking. After leading Chapman through a history of his last five years, beginning with a suicide attempt in Hawaii in 1977, Salk asked him when his thoughts had turned to murder. Chapman replied that he had first considered killing Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi. Why? asked Salk. “I don’t know,” said Chapman. “I guess because he was the governor. He was popular.”
Jonathan Marks asked who else he felt like killing. Chapman said he had considered Johnny Carson.
“Why?” Marks asked.
“The only reason I can think of is because he’s popular…. Actually I kind of like Johnny Carson.”
“Why did you want to kill her?”
“What she did to John F. Kennedy, whom I admired greatly. She disgraced him after that incident in Dallas, with Aristotle Onassis.”
The list, it developed, was a long one: Paul McCartney (“until I found out Lennon was more accessible”); Elizabeth Taylor (“just her personality…. I despise people who flaunt themselves”); George C. Scott (“I went to a play he was in, front row, stage right, and I planned to come back and shoot him onstage. I don’t know why. I like him. He’s great”); a man he had seen on the street in New York (“I just don’t know why”); and Ronald Reagan (“I don’t think I wanted to kill him really, just disrupt the inauguration by firing a few shots”).
Chapman told Marks and Salk that he had been to New York before, in November. On that trip he had visited the election-night parties of both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, though he had left his gun at his hotel. Soon afterward, when he found he couldn’t buy bullets in New York City, he went to Georgia to get some from his friend Dana Reeves, a police officer. He left the gun in New York but thought about taking it with him. “I was going to fly to Atlanta,” he told Salk, “and break into the house and go into [my father’s] room and put the gun up to him and tell him what I thought about him. And he was going to pay for what he was doing to my mother…. I was going to blow his head off.”
What did he do to Mark’s mother, Salk wanted to know.
“He would beat her up. I’d wake up hearing my mother screaming my name, and it just scared the fire out of me, and I’d run in there and put up my fists and make him go away. Sometimes I think actually I pushed him away. [The next morning] she had black eyes and bruises on her head and no telling what else.”
And what was the father like with the son?
“He just never showed me love in any way, at least not emotionally. He just gave money. Mother always told me my father couldn’t show his feelings but gave in other ways—he was always home, he never drank, things like that. But I needed more than just a father who was responsible morally. I needed emotional love and support, which I never got…. I don’t think I ever hugged my father. He never told me he loved me. And he never said he was sorry—one of those guys.”
Kathryn Chapman (1) is a large blond woman in her 50s with an engaging smile and the mannerisms of someone half her age. She has been living in Hawaii since 1978, when she left Mark’s father, David. “It was an amicable divorce,” she says. “There was nothing to it. That’s just it, it was nothing. I should have left ten years earlier. But I don’t understand Mark’s anger against Dave.” Yes, her husband did hit her once or twice, and she remembers calling out for Mark in the night. “But I didn’t call him to intercede or anything. I just wanted somebody to be aware. I just wasn’t thinking. I had never been hit before in my life. Anyway, I remember I brought it on myself. The fact is Dave kept a darn good roof over our heads for all those years, and I would say he was a better parent to Mark than I was. The truth is I was never like a mother with Mark—more like his best friend.”
Despite her stated feelings for Mark, neither she nor her ex-husband, nor Mark’s younger sister, Susan, has been to see him since the murder six years ago. Mrs. Chapman says she agreed to be interviewed because she believes her son is emotionally disturbed and needs treatment he is not receiving in prison. Still, she is mystified by the killing. “This thing hit me totally out of the blue. I mean it just never seemed real. It seems like fiction. Even if I say it sometimes—you know, ‘My son killed John Lennon’—I almost want to laugh. That’s why I suppose in some ways it would be hard for me to see Mark, because then it would probably be more real. I really had a great urge not to go under with this thing. I loved my life, and I wanted my life back. My first thought when this whole thing happened was ‘My God, I’ll never be happy again.’ ”
To Kathryn Chapman, the confounding question is “Why?” “I pretty well know there was nothing that drastic in our lives that would cause anything like that,” she says. “As far as I can see, we were pretty normal. It’s true that Dave didn’t show his emotions, but he would do anything for Mark. That’s where it’s so unfair. What more did you want from a person? Did you want total understanding? Who gets that? My father didn’t even look up from the paper at me half the time. I didn’t care.”
Mark David Chapman was born in Fort Worth, Tex., in May 1955, within a year of his parents’ wedding. His father was then an Air Force sergeant and his mother was a nurse on the night shift at Harris Hospital. A few months after Mark was born the family moved to Indiana, where David enrolled at Purdue University for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. For three years Kathryn worked at a nearby hospital while David took care of Mark. “I remember a neighbor saying to me, ‘When does David do his studying? He’s always rouncing around the yard with Mark,’ ” she says. “Dave was really proud of Mark.”
After graduation David went to work for the American Oil Company, and after three transfers in the next five years the family settled into a new three-bedroom house on a shady corner lot in Decatur, Ga. Wherever they moved, Mark seemed to make friends easily. “I’ve seen him described as being a loner,” says Kathryn. “Are you kidding? He had lots of friends. I never had to tell him to go out and play. And when he was inside he was always on the couch talking to me. I was the one who wanted to be the loner.”
In 1964 Mark’s IQ was measured at 121—on the lower end of the superior range. At school he worked in the library and as a patrol guard, and he filled his free time with projects. He collected coins, started a neighborhood newspaper, opened a shop in the garage where he would oil and wash bicycles for 50 cents. He buried treasure and time capsules, sent up high-flying kites carrying “bug astronauts,” floated messages to distant places in helium balloons and launched a series of rockets he built from mail-order kits. He earned a pin for three years’ perfect attendance at Sunday school. And he liked music. From the time his father bought him the first Beatles album, Meet the Beatles, he was a devoted fan. He used to invite the neighborhood kids into his garage to watch, for a small admission fee, his lip-synch version of She Loves You. His father taught him to play the guitar. “He always thought he was a little better than he really was,” says his mother. “He wasn’t as talented as his father.”
Looking back, Kathryn can think of only two things that might have indicated Mark was abnormal. First was “the shaking, the rocking,” she says. “We had to take the casters off his crib, because he would rock it right across the room, and it carried on to quite an old age—maybe 12—just rocking back and forth all the time. I know my mom thinks that’s what the problem was—that with all that rocking he hit his head one too many times. But our doctor didn’t make anything of it; she said it could be a sign of musical talent.”
Kathryn’s other memory dates back to a day when Mark was about 12 and she was sick with the flu. He was sitting by her bed talking with her when he happened to mention his friends the little people. “A lot of times with Mark I just thought he was kidding, because he did have a good sense of humor. I said, ‘What do they do?’ And he said they sat along the wall. I guess he said he talked to them. I didn’t pay that much attention to kids.”
About a month after the murder, in an interview with a psychological expert for the defense, Milton Kline, Chapman described for the first time the vivid fantasy life of which his mother knew practically nothing. Starting in third or fourth grade, he said, he had felt like a misfit in school. Other boys called him names and, feeling helpless to fight back, he retreated into a world in which he was admired. “I used to fantasize that I was a king,” he told Kline, “and I had all these little people around me and that they lived in the walls…. And that I was their hero and was in the paper every day and I was on TV, their TV, and that I was important…. And I’d give concerts for them, and…I got these army men and cut off their rifles and [glued on] little guitars…and set them…right in the middle of the [living room] floor when my parents would go away….
“When we would go on trips to Florida to visit my grandmother I’d be in the car and I’d be rocking and the hand crank for the window was the volume control and I’d turn up the signal to send back this music that was in my head to the people in the kingdom…. They all kinda worshipped me, you know. It was like I could do no wrong. And sometimes when I’d get mad I’d blow some of them up. I’d have this push-button thing, part of the [sofa], and I’d like get mad and blow out part of the wall and a lot of them would die. But the people would still forgive me for that, and, you know, everything got back to normal. That’s a fantasy I had for many years.”
In Chapman’s view, his family life was an emotional desert. He described his mother as “dreamish…moody…right out of Glass Menagerie.” She was afraid of getting old, he said, and he remembered her saying she would probably commit suicide when she turned 50. She felt romantic about Charles Boyer but remote from David Chapman, whom she criticized for lack of feeling. “She always slept in another bedroom as far as I can remember,” Mark said. “I never once saw them kiss. Never.” The son believed his mother had turned to him for affection, and he resented it. “It wasn’t fair because it really distorted me,” he said. “It wasn’t fair to do that to your child.”
His father had failed him in other ways, Mark said. “For instance, when he put up the Christmas tree. It was just, ‘This is Christmas, it’s time to put up the tree.’ Nothing like, This is a beautiful tree.’ He would never say anything like that. He never read anything. He just watched television all night long, from when dinner was finished through Carson…. He has all the TV Guides back to the 1950s…. He was always a shy, reclusive type of a man—very unemotional, very blank, and then when he’d get mad, he’d really get fierce. It’s how he’d let out his emotions, I guess.”
During the counterculture’s halcyon year of 1969, when Mark was in ninth grade, he slipped away from his family into drugs. He became a “garbage user,” in the parlance of the day, sniffing glue and lighter fluid, smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine and occasionally heroin, taking LSD, uppers, downers, whatever was around. The outward signs of the change—he let his hair grow, stopped bathing, gave up on school—horrified his parents, but they didn’t let themselves believe he was taking drugs. “It happened like overnight,” his mother remembers. “Just all of a sudden he was anti-parent, anti-everything, and I didn’t feel we deserved that. We had never leaned on him. He stopped going to school, and I just let him go. There didn’t seem anything we could do to stop him.”
During spring vacation that school year, Mark ran away. “We were frantic,” says Kathryn. “The police wouldn’t even pay attention—they had thousands of these cases. Finally his friend told me [Mark] had gone to California to join the hippies, and his mother made him tell it all—that he was on drugs. So then I was just very worried. The doctor had to put me on tranquilizers, and after that I relied a lot more on Dave. I just couldn’t handle things like that.”
Two weeks after he had left, Mark came home—from Miami, not California. He remembers that his father took him in to see his mother, who was in bed with her pills on a tray beside her. She never asked him what he did while he was away, and he didn’t say. “Honestly, to tell you the truth, I was afraid of him,” says Kathryn. “I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally. I didn’t want to get to the point of saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have a home here anymore,’ but we felt like it. He had power. In a way he was probably the nucleus of our family, which was wrong. He could ruin everything and he knew it. Dave and I just weren’t that strong, not that together.”
Later that summer, after an especially harrowing LSD trip, Mark was taken in by the police and after a night in jail was picked up by his father. “I remember Mark saying that was the only time he’d ever seen his father cry,” Kathryn remembers. “That was a turning point for Mark. He said he never wanted to spend another night in prison.”
The cure seemed to come as suddenly as the problem.
By the summer of 1971 he had been footloose in the drug scene for two years and was becoming increasingly suspicious of the friendships he made there. The crisis came during a visit to his grandmother in Florida. “I had a terrible day,” he recalled recently. “These two friends, so-called, at the beach—I found out they had gone through my wallet. I just felt so alone, like I had no true friends in the world, and I remember I was sitting on my grandmother’s couch and I started to pray and I felt His presence in the room with me. I couldn’t see Him, but I could feel Him, sitting right by my left side here, and I felt this tingling from the top of my head down to my toes, and I remember I cried because I felt like I had finally found the answer.”
Mark returned to Decatur and joined the ranks of the “Jesus people,” a ragtag army of recovering druggies, ex-hippies and reformed radicals hooked on a positive addiction they called the “gos-pill.” He began passing out tracts, “witnessing” to school friends, wearing a large cross around his neck and attending charismatic prayer meetings. Kathryn Chapman was delighted with the change. “I was so relieved,” she says. “I mean, if I hadn’t been through the drug thing, I don’t think I would have liked having a fanatic in the house. He would try to convert the neighbors when they dropped by. But I remember helping him pass out tracts—like in restaurants we’d leave them before we left—and his behavior was so much better. I mean, we could take him to see his grandparents again.”
Cindy Simpson (2) met Mark Chapman during the period of his greatest religious fervor, when she was 7 years old. He was 17 and a senior counselor at the YMCA camp in Decatur. Like all the kids, she called him “Nemo,” after the mysterious captain in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He led the singing in the morning on his guitar, he led the field trips, and his campers all remember him as the counselor they would have been with all the time if they could. “My parents forced me to go to camp,” Cindy said recently. “I was just real shy and real stubborn, and I didn’t get along with people very well. The other kids were so outgoing and everything, they kind of scared me to death. Anyway, he saw that and took me under his wing. He’d take me aside and we’d go shoot arrows and things. I remember I really hated swimming, but he taught me to swim. And one time we climbed up Stone Mountain and I got too tired. He just put me on his back and carried me down. He was about the best friend I had when I was growing up, and he was the nicest person I think I’ve ever known. I could see no wrong in that guy at all.”
Cindy’s mother, Olivia, was a kind of surrogate parent to Chapman then. “Cindy was shy and he brought her out of her shell. We owe that to him. He just became like part of our family,” she says. “He was over here all the time, and he always brought something for each of the children. Sometimes he’d have them gift-wrapped. I mean, even a little package of gum or a tiny toy.” Her most vivid memory of Mark goes back to a hot Indian summer day when Cindy was in fourth grade and cut her knee on a broken bottle. “We realized she needed stitches,” says Mrs. Simpson, “so I said we’d better take her to the emergency room, and she said, ‘I want Nemo to go.’ Then when we got there she wanted to sit in his lap, and of course when they gave her the novocaine shot she started crying. I’ll never forget, he put his arms around her and he put his head on her shoulder and he cried and just saturated her hair with his tears…. She said, ‘Have you ever had any stitches?’ And he said, ‘No, no…I hurt because you hurt.’ ”
In fact, Chapman’s feelings about children, which were deeply involved in his eventual identification with The Catcher in the Rye, were more complicated than the Simpsons knew. Years later, in an interview with the defense team’s Milton Kline, he said he feared he might have gotten too close to his young charges. “I have always loved children,” he said. “I think maybe I loved them so much, identified with them so much, that it became a confused kind of thing.”
His confusion, he remembered now, had once led to a peculiar act of half-intentional violence. “I never told anybody this. I was driving down the road in my car, and there was a small boy on the curb. I remember thinking he shouldn’t be so close to the road, and then…I looked in the rear-view mirror and I had knocked him down.”
At that point Chapman began to cry, in long, heaving sobs. When he could speak again he was nearly beside himself. “I don’t want to cry,” he gasped. “I haven’t cried before. I can’t take this…. I don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want to be crazy. I don’t think I am crazy.” Then he sighed deeply.
Fundamentalist religion was in a way just what Chapman needed. In his senior year of high school he was drug-free, a diligent student and a dedicated YMCA volunteer. The absolute standards of good and evil that he adopted with his new faith would eventually prove a signal bedevilment, but for now religion sealed off the emotional problems that drugs had masked and made the adolescent Mark Chapman a child again, an innocent. He refused to play Beatles songs on his guitar anymore because of what John Lennon had once said—that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
Mark was named “best counselor” during Cindy Simpson’s first year at camp in 1972, and for the next four summers, the last two as assistant director, he was one of the camp’s mainstays. He fared poorly at junior college in Decatur, dropping out twice, but at the YMCA he was a success. His superiors were sufficiently impressed to nominate him for an overseas assignment in Beirut in 1975. When civil war broke out there two weeks after his arrival that summer, the evacuated its employees, and he was offered a position at Fort Chaffee, Ark., a resettlement camp for Vietnamese refugees.
Before he left for Fort Chaffee that August, he began seriously dating Jessica Blankenship, a friend from fundamentalist prayer groups. In one such group, led by a Decatur psychologist, Chapman and Jessica had their first experiences with some of the rarer, more dramatic forms of charismatic Christianity: the laying on of hands, miraculous healing, speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy and the deliverance from demons. “At times I would be on my back and five or six people would be laying on hands,” Chapman recalled years later. “At other times there would be manifestations of demonic power. I remember one man barking like a dog and then assuming a karate position…. We talked about demons more than we did about Jesus.”
He and Jessica a corresponded after Mark went to Arkansas, and in October she went there to visit him. “After that I think is when I first started noticing that he was just having a lot of struggles with himself,” she later told Jonathan Marks. “It was like a big war was going on inside him.”
The armor of fundamentalist faith was beginning to fail him, depriving him of its security but leaving him in its world of moral blacks and whites. The war Jessica witnessed was one between the Good Mark and the Bad Mark, both fictitious but vivid to him at the time, and both palpably engaged in battle for control of their vulnerable host. The Good Mark was “probably the most diligent worker with the refugees [at Fort Chaffee],” recalls a colleague. “Especially with the children. He was like the Pied Piper. They were just all over him all the time.” The Good Mark didn’t eat junk food, flirt with the girls or play the guitar—because, he said, it took him away from the Lord. The Bad Mark played the guitar anyway, drank beer with the guys and lost his virginity with one of the refugee workers. His letters to Jessica were filled with guilt and a feeling of dread. In late September he wrote: “Oh, Jessica, I’m so sinful and filthy.” In November: “I’m constantly struggling with my identity.” The next week: “For days the flesh has battled the Spirit…I can’t say how bad it has all been.” The next: “My ship is nearly sinking….”
When his work at Fort Chaffee ended in December, Mark enrolled with Jessica at Covenant College, a conservative Presbyterian school in Lookout Mountain, Tenn. There Jessica saw at close range the war raging inside him. He cried after their petting sessions, dreamed of making love to a prostitute in front of her and dreaded the morbid daydreams that came to him in class—the feeling that life was all about dying, that the history of man was the history of war. In the grip of a major depression, he entertained his first thoughts of suicide.
That summer he was assistant director of the YMCA camp again, but he quit within a month after an argument with the swimming director. “The next day I just didn’t show up,” he said later. “I just couldn’t hack it anymore.” With his psychic armament failing, he beat a strategic retreat, setting up a new line of defense against an enemy he could face down effectively. His reasoning for the career change he was about to make was banal—he wanted to make some money—but on a deeper level his decision was eloquent, as the least conscious choices often are. At the suggestion of his friend Dana Reeves, Chapman became a security guard.
He was unarmed at first, working at a metal detector in the Atlanta airport. “I think when we were teenagers Mark was the most nonviolent guy I ever knew,” Jessica told Jonathan Marks, “but I had some pictures that I took of him in his security outfit and…he had this horrible expression on his face, like just a mean look. I tore them up later. I just couldn’t stand to look at them.” Mark refused a promotion to corporal in the guard service later that summer (“I just didn’t feel I could handle any more responsibility”) but began taking firearms training—again ostensibly to get a higher-paying job. During that summer he outfitted his car with tear gas and a spotlight, and carried his gun and a club in it. The slightest provocation could set off an explosion of temper.
He passed his shooting-range test and took a job as an armed security guard at DeKalb General Hospital outside Atlanta. Unfortunately his demons were bulletproof. In January he wrote to Jessica: “Concerning my life—things are pretty rough lately. Nothing to worry about, though.” The next month he decided to go to Hawaii—a place whose qualities of peace and distance had captured his imagination while he was at Covenant—and kill himself. He was finished praying-to God for deliverance, but his loss of faith did not extend to the powers of darkness. “I began to pray to [Satan],” he told Jonathan Marks’s co-counsel, David Suggs, after months of refusing to talk about what he referred to as the “spiritual matters” relevant to John Lennon’s murder. “I said, ‘Just make me crazy—I want to be psycho…. I don’t want to have to take this.’ It wasn’t like I’d get down on my knees. It was like I’d be walking down the street or just doing what I was doing and I’d say, you know, I want to be crazy ‘I wanted to be totally mad, out of touch with the world.’ ”
When those prayers too went unanswered, Chapman pasted a picture of a United 747 on the steering wheel of his car and began planning his escape to Hawaii and oblivion. Over several months he saved all he could and sold everything he owned that would not fit into a single suitcase.
In June of 1977 Chapman flew to Honolulu to carry out his fatal intention. Deciding to enjoy one last fling, he stayed at the turn-of-the-century Moana Hotel and was stunned by the island’s beauty. He drank mai tais in the hotel’s Banyan Court, toured Oahu’s spectacular sights and began to feel not so lost after all. At night the depression would return, but during the day the dazzle of life in Hawaii chased away thoughts of suicide. After a few days he moved to the YMCA, and late one night he called Jessica in tears, telling her he had planned to kill himself but now he just wanted to come back to her. “Oh, please,” she said, “come home.”
So he did—almost overnight, as if he wanted to get away from Hawaii before changing his mind. Jessica felt guilty about bringing him home under false pretenses. “I just wanted him to come home because I was so worried about him being out there,” she explained later. “I had no intention of going back with him.” When she told him the truth, he seemed to take it well, but a few days later he said he was going back to Hawaii—though not, he assured her, to kill himself. This time he was going to start a new life; it was about time that he found a career.
Instead he rediscovered despair. Soon after returning to Hawaii, Mark called a suicide hotline. Referred to the Waikiki Mental Health Clinic, he began therapy with Judy Herzog, a psychiatric social worker. His talk of suicide told her he was severely troubled, but nothing more. Herzog arranged to get him antidepressants, but after two days he stopped taking them. Within the week he rented a car, drove out to the deserted north side of the island and fitted a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe. He opened the hatchback and put the hose inside, packed the gap by the lid with old clothes and towels and got back in the car to die. He remembered later how calm he felt then. All the anguish of the years was behind him, and he was at peace.
Fifteen minutes later a Japanese fisherman knocked at the window. Chapman was startled. Why wasn’t he dead yet? He got out and looked at the hose. The exhaust had burned a hole in it. Taking this to be an expression of God’s will, he abandoned his suicide, drove back into Honolulu and spent the night sitting on the sidewalk across the street from the Moana Hotel. When Judy Herzog got to work the next morning, she found him waiting in a chair outside her office with the burnt hose in his lap. After he told her what he had done, she said to herself, “This poor kid can’t even kill himself right.”
(1) Mrs. Chapman requested that her first name be changed. No other facts have been altered.
(2) The “Simpsons” requested that their last name be changed. No other facts have been altered.