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New Hope, Old Anguish

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“My son shot the President.”

The speaker is John Hinckley Sr., oil executive and self-made millionaire, conservative Republican, faithful churchgoer, loving husband and paterfamilias of a tightly knit clan once described by a close friend as “red, white and blue all the way.” Friends know him as a strong, disciplined go-getter who never once doubted that he was in full control of his world, who was always determined to foster the same drive, the same self-reliance, the same rationality in his three children.

But then, in one awful instant, his well-ordered world was irrevocably torn apart.

“My son shot the President.”

That’s the way John Hinckley Sr., 58, begins the speeches he is making these days, in hopes his story will help the parents of other troubled children. It has been almost three years since John Hinckley Jr., who was described in reports in the New York Times as a “well-off dropout,” fired six Devastator bullets from a .22-caliber pistol, wounding President Reagan and three others, including Presidential aide James Brady. Hearing the news that day is something Jack Hinckley will never forget: “I couldn’t say anything. I heard it over a radio in our office. One of our employees called me in to hear it. I had just gotten back from lunch. And I went in there and I heard John’s name mentioned and just a few days before we had put him on a plane for L.A. and now they were saying he had done this thing in Washington. I just couldn’t think of anything to say or do. I thought, ‘Could they be wrong?’ But then I thought, ‘It’s such an unusual name I don’t know how they could make that up.’ Or how there could be two John Hinckleys from Evergreen, Colorado.”

It has been a little less than two years since Jack Hinckley, his voice breaking with emotion, described at his son’s trial his last meeting with him. For two years he and his wife, JoAnn, had not known how to deal with their son’s bizarre behavior. He was depressed, listless, unresponsive. They consulted a psychiatrist who told them their son was “immature” and needed to fend for himself. At their last meeting, at Denver’s airport a week before the shooting, Jack was determined to make him do so. He handed his broke and seriously disturbed son $200 and told him, “You’re on your own.” “I’m the cause of John’s tragedy,” Hinckley testified at his son’s trial, as his wife was led sobbing from the courtroom. “We forced him out at a time when he just couldn’t cope.”

And it has been a little more than a year since their son, ruled not guilty of his crime by reason of insanity and committed to the maximum security ward at Washington’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, tried to commit suicide by swallowing an overdose of medication in his room. “When we were talking to John this Valentine’s Day, I said to him, ‘You know, this is really a great day because it has been a year since we had a crisis,’ ” Jack says. “He kind of smiled and agreed. It was a pleasant time for all of us.”

That’s small comfort, perhaps, but comfort nevertheless after such a devastating three years. Today the lives of Jack and JoAnn Hinckley have changed dramatically. Tormented by his failure to recognize the gravity of his son’s aberration, Hinckley has resigned as president of Vanderbilt Energy Corporation, the publicly owned company he founded in 1970, turning the company over to his elder son, Scott, 33. He and JoAnn have rented their comfortable Colorado home and moved to a two-bedroom apartment with leased furniture in McLean, Va. There they can be near their younger son. And, most importantly, the Hinckleys now devote their considerable energies to the American Mental Health Fund, an organization they founded last year. Working out of a tiny office in McLean donated by a friend, Hinckley gives lectures, raises money and tries to regain the control that somehow slipped away from him and his wife. “We didn’t realize what we were dealing with at the time,” Hinckley says now. “We’re trying to publicize the warning signals of mental illness so other families can see them where we didn’t. We want to bring mental illness out of the closet.”

The organization already has accumulated $200,000 from the Hinckleys’ savings, outside donations and fees Jack has earned (between $500 and $1,000 per speech) lecturing to groups. That sum is small, but Hinckley hopes to build the AMHF into a concern as large as the National Cancer Foundation and plans a massive public-education campaign about mental health.

The fund had its beginning following the outcry over Hinckley Jr.’s not-guilty verdict, particularly a Reader’s Digest attack by Sen. Orrin Hatch. Describing Hatch’s criticism as “vicious, unfair and full of untruths,” Hinckley wrote a defense of the verdict, which appeared in the magazine last March. (He donated his $4,000 fee to the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation and the National Mental Health Foundation.) “We thought, ‘That’s it. We’ve gotten it off our chest,’ ” says Hinckley. Instead, letters poured in. “One guy had the nerve to say, ‘Look, your name is mud. You’ve got nothing to lose, so why don’t you speak out,’ ” Hinckley remembers. “That was the truth, and I knew it.” JoAnn, much less outgoing than her husband, admits that it is painful for her to relive her experiences at each lecture. When Jack says he finds speaking about their experiences beneficial, JoAnn mutters, “Maybe for you.” But, she says, “I’m very proud of Jack. He’s going to make a success of this fund.”

In addition to their work on the fund, since mid-November the Hinckleys have been attending a weekly 90-minute family psychiatric session with their son behind the forbidding walls of St. Elizabeth’s. The sessions are held in a plain room with a metal desk, a linoleum floor, tile walls and barred windows. “We’re trying to let him know how sorry we are that we didn’t understand the extent of his anguish,” says JoAnn. Her husband adds that the sessions “are no bed of roses,” but communication is better than before. “He has his opinions and we have ours, and we’re learning how to talk them out and still be a part of the family,” says Jack, who admits that he had always wanted his children to agree with him. “But now I realize that John is an adult and we won’t always agree on everything. I’m having to learn to accept that, just like he is.”

The Hinckleys have not visited their son’s room in the hospital. He has been allowed to keep his guitar but has no radio or cassette player. For Christmas they gave him a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, a shirt and some stationery. John, they say guardedly, is making progress, which they attribute to both antipsychotic drugs and daily therapy in private, group and occupational sessions. They refuse to speculate about when, if ever, he will be released. But, Jack says, “We are no longer ashamed that John is ill any more than if he had caught the flu.”

Still, the Hinckleys’ conversation often circles back to the early years of John’s mental instability, which his father has characterized as schizophrenia. “If John were an only child, I would have been more willing to accept that we were responsible,” says Jack today, “but we raised all three children the same way, so it couldn’t have been environmental or behavioral.” They blame themselves for not recognizing the severity of John’s symptoms in his early 20s, while he was drifting in and out of college and home, dreaming of becoming a rock star. He complained of vertigo, dizziness, weakness in his legs, anxiety attacks. When he was 24, his weight suddenly ballooned from 164 to 220 pounds. A psychiatrist prescribed Valium. JoAnn, concerned about drug dependency, pressured her son to stop taking it. “We were concerned about the wrong things,” says Jack now. “We saw something wrong and the only thing we could put a finger on was Valium.”

When John Jr. returned home in late 1980 after a visit to New Haven, Conn. (the Hinckleys were unaware of their son’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster, then a Yale freshman there), another psychiatrist told them the youth should be cut loose to grow up. “Maybe I accepted what he said because it was what I wanted to hear,” says Jack. “It was simple. I could understand it.” The Hinckleys’ joint decision to kick John out March 31, 1981 was difficult. “Jack and I did have a difference of feeling,” remembers JoAnn, who couldn’t bring herself to go to the airport for the fateful meeting. “It was very hard for me to go along with the idea of not letting John stay at home. You’ve got to give more love, more attention. Don’t push him out.”

That’s one of the Hinckleys’ messages these days in their lectures. They now less frequently use an alias when traveling and will return to Evergreen in May. Their neighbors and “fellow Christians” gave them strong support after the shooting when, JoAnn says, they were “paralyzed, just absolutely immobilized.” Billy Graham, whom they didn’t know, was one of the first to call. They now are members of Denver’s nondenominational Calvary Temple. At the time of the shooting, ironically, Jack worked at a “little skid-row mission” helping “people who couldn’t cope.”

Their other children support their new mission. “I think they did everything possible to help John, and they shouldn’t feel guilty,” says businessman Scott. “It’s a lot tougher to do what they’re doing than to sit on the sidelines.” Their daughter, Diane Sims, 31, a housewife and the mother of two, says, “If in some small way our experience can help others, then that’s the way it should be.” Her parents say that what’s important is their new commitment. “JoAnn and I feel that we want to make something good happen out of John’s illness and tragedy,” says Jack. “We want to project an image of hope.”