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Authors: Tim Cahill

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BOOK: Buried Dreams
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There was some joke the adults had about his birthday: the boy a middle child, between JoAnne, twenty-eight months older, and Karen, twenty-eight months younger. He was born in Chicago’s Edgewater Hospital, the only son of a Polish father, himself the son of immigrants; and the boy, John Wayne Gacy, Jr., was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1942. A bright green Polack, his father’s son, anxious to please, hungry for praise, but never quite good enough for the Old Man.

Dad worked all day, coming home to fix anything in the house—the wiring, the plastering, everything—a perfectionist who made his own tools and was never satisfied, not with his work, not with the kids, especially not with his son. John Stanley Gacy was heavy on the razor strop he kept hanging on a nail, as an educational device:

“I’ll teach you to steal corn.”

JoAnne, the eldest, an idol, collecting all those garden snakes from under the front porch and bringing them in the house, the snakes slithering under the stove and the icebox, under the sofas and chairs. Dad taking the razor strop to JoAnne. “I’ll teach you to bring snakes into the house.”

Karen, the tag-along little sister, toddling after John and JoAnne. Good times. All three of the kids sharing John’s model train set: a circular track, a big model gas station in the
middle that pumped water instead of gas into the model cars, the Packards and the Buicks and the Hudsons.

A tree house built in an empty lot, and that summer the trucks and grading equipment coming in, the workers looking up at the tree house and the little boy sitting on a limb with tears in his eyes. The tree would have to come down, but the workmen saved that job for last. John coming every day to his house, sitting alone in the tree, waiting stoically for the tragedy that would destroy his entire life. The whole story funny now, but in a bittersweet sort of way.

So much interest in building: the fort in the prairie, another by the coalyard, another in the backyard, this one right over the septic tank, built with a brick foundation and everything. The Old Man finally putting his foot down: “One house on one lot is enough.” The razor strop hanging on the nail, and the Old Man ready to teach him about the symmetry of houses and lots.

“I’ll teach you . . .”

Another playhouse, this one under the front porch, hidden from the street and not such an eyesore. The Old Man allowed that one to stand. The neighbors said the Gacys had a house under a house. It was a secret place where a quiet, polite boy could be alone, a boy who had been sick, frail as long as he could remember. In the damp darkness under the porch—garden snakes and salamanders there—John could think about flowers, about landscaping and building: the things he liked. The other boys were playing baseball or football or basketball, but John never had any interest in sports. A loner, sickly and weak, uncoordinated, flabby even as a child.

All the memories swirling in a golden mist: sudden bright images, incomplete stories, everything coming together at a point where memory becomes linear and a certain kind of innocence dies: a point when the child realized he was not like other little boys. He was a “loner,” an “ugly duckling” he was “not good enough,” he was “different.”

All the docs wanted a piece of his youth. John up there under heavy guard in 3 North, the isolation wing, the criminal psychiatric section of Cermak Hospital in Chicago. A literal madhouse, with all these screaming nuts, all the guys trying to hang themselves, “swingers” around every corner, and the gospel music blasting him awake at six in the morning when he never could get to sleep until four. John was
supposed to talk with Dr. Rogers and Dr. Rappaport, with Dr. Freedman and Dr. Morrison, with Dr. Brocher and Dr. Cavanaugh, all of them trying to crack the shell and pick away at his guts with their shining, sharp-pointed questions.

Rogers was almost funny. John could see the guy was “scared,” didn’t like to be alone with him. Rogers was supposed to take “a sexual history” from John, and then—John supposed—the doc would bend all the information around, fit some pieces in here, some in there, and come up with a theory about all those bodies in the crawl space. Something to do with jagging off in the eighth grade.

John figured Rogers purposely acted dumb, always asking him to define terms, explain things, like a doc who’s been studying this shit all his life didn’t know. Rogers, the way John saw it, got a kick out of asking questions. Not because he didn’t know the answers. The guy liked hearing other people talk about their sex hang-ups. He got his rocks off that way, and that was Dr. Rogers’ sex hang-up. Pervert questions, John thought.

Still, John talked and talked and talked, elaborating on every detail, answering the questions as fully and honestly as he could, because, in a way, Rogers and all the other doctors were helping. The cross God gave John Wayne Gacy to bear was a heavy one: bad enough to be accused, but John told the docs he truly and honestly did not know if he committed the crimes. He could recall some parts leading up to just five of them, and it was as if he were a witness to what was happening, like he was another person in another body, watching. And then it all faded out and there was nothing until morning, and he found another body with a rope wrapped around its neck, some little present Jack had left for John to bury.

If he did the crime—if the docs could prove to him that he did—then John would save Illinois the expense of a trial. There were twenty ways to commit suicide, even under heavy guard in 3 North. No one has the almighty right to take another life—the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill"—and if the docs could show him, in his own mind, that he was a killer . . . well, a man like that, thirty-three bodies, he “didn’t deserve to live.”

So he gave Rogers the sexual history, casting back into the golden time. The first memory, the first thing he could recall and be sure was his and not pieces of a story told to him, was a sexual event.

1946. John was four and she took him out to the prairie where the grasses were high and they were hidden from the houses on Opal Street. A fifteen-year-old girl, some Norwegian girl, stringy blond hair and a slack expression on her face: a neighbor’s mildly retarded daughter. She took his pants down and played with him there in the prairie grass, and when he told Ma, there was some commotion in the house, Ma and the Old Man yelling and angry about something.

1949. John, a neighbor boy, and the boy’s little sister, all of them naked, John and the boy “messing” with the little girl. When the Old Man found out, he took the razor strop off its nail.

“I’ll teach you . . .”

And the same year, a contractor friend of the Old Man was always taking John, the little builder, for rides in his truck. Real friendly, always “horsing around,” tickling him, “wrestling” with the seven-year-old boy, whose head always seemed to end up between the man’s legs, pressed hard to the crotch of his rough work pants. John, aware even then that the contractor was “messing” with him, just the way he himself had “messed” with the neighbor girl. He never told the Old Man about these rides, and he was never punished for what the contractor had done to him. John remembered that he dreaded the man, his truck, the little drives. He hated being messed with.

Strange, then, that he should have become a contractor. What could Rogers make out of that one?

Then, in the sex history, there was the panty thing that Dr. Helen Morrison thought was important. A nice lady with a good mind: John found her attractive and sympathetic. Some of the victims were found with what appeared to be their own underwear—queeny silk stuff that women wear—lodged deeply in their throats. So maybe the panty thing was important.

The first time it surfaced, John was six, maybe seven: call it 1949, the year too many people were getting messed over. Ma and the Old Man were getting dressed on their way somewhere, and Ma couldn’t find any underwear in her drawer. Every piece missing. They found it, all of it, in a brown paper bag, under the front porch, in the sandbox Dad built where John played.

John never knew why he took his mother’s underwear—it couldn’t be a sex thing at that age—but he told his parents
that he liked the feel of it. The Old Man took down the razor strop and taught him what he would like and what he wouldn’t like. And the strop wasn’t enough for John Stanley Gacy: for the rest of John’s life—and maybe it started right there—he felt that the Old Man never “accepted” him.

The next time the panty thing surfaced, John was twelve or thirteen. It was almost as if he wanted to block it out of his mind, the underwear thing, because he couldn’t recall if it was then or later (the next time he was fifteen and Karen found panties while making his bed) that Ma told him she’d make him wear the underwear he seemed to like so much. For punishment. Maybe she did make him wear it, once. It was all hazy in there, and he couldn’t clearly recall exactly what had happened.

Ma didn’t tell the Old Man, though. There came a time when Ma just stopped talking about her only son’s problems. The Old Man picked on the boy, swung on him for nothing, hollered at him because he wasn’t perfect. Ma kept John’s transgressions to herself, punished him herself, and then—whatever John had done—it was over and no one had to talk about it again.

But the Old Man wasn’t dumb. Maybe he never got any further than the eighth grade, but he read a lot, and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do with tools. A jack-of-all-trades, very intelligent. The night of the second panty thing, John was up in his room, sitting out Ma’s punishment, dreading the moment when the Old Man, finally home from work, stepped in the door. Because he would know. John lay on his back in his bed. Over in one corner were the bookcases he had made out of orange crates and painted so they looked like fine furniture. The bed was made, his clothes were all folded in drawers or neatly hung. John’s bedroom: the cleanest place in the whole Gacy house. You could eat off the floor. He tried so hard.

When the Old Man got home, Ma would just say, “John’s being punished.”

“How come?”

“Just something. It’s all taken care of now.”

And the Old Man would know. The Old Man wasn’t dumb.

One of his very first memories: four-year-old John watching the Old Man fix the car. He wanted to help, hand him
something, and suddenly there was his father, terrifying in anger, hollering: Dad’s huge red face, his eyes . . .

Four years old, how was he supposed to know that when you take something apart—a carburetor, a water pump—you laid down all the parts in order, so that when you put the thing back together, everything would be right there, in its place?

A first memory: “being whipped for messing up car parts.”

“I’ll teach you . . .”

The Old Man thought punishment was teaching. So how come John Gacy, as an adult, how come John could build anything but he didn’t know anything about cars? Pay someone else to do it. John couldn’t even begin to tell you what was under the hood of a car.

Just like, after that, he went around afraid of things that had never scared him before. Fire engines scared him. The first one he remembered, he was maybe five, and he couldn’t say why it frightened him. Just a vague image of a red truck speeding by the house, and men wearing strange shiny black suits, holding on to the front and the back. You couldn’t see their faces, and there was this loud constant screaming that hurt your ears and a sense of something huge and dangerous, careening out of control. Like it was coming to get you.

Then later, he didn’t even have to see the truck. When John Gacy heard the sirens, he hid under the porch.

Even the other kids could scare him. While John was in the second grade there was some madman, a slasher, who struck out on Opal Street: some guy who waited for women on their way home from work. John guessed that what he did was to threaten them with a knife and take their paychecks. Except maybe one time he cut one of them, or killed her in an alley or something. It seemed silly to John, looking back, that he was afraid of the Slasher, who went after women only, and only for money. Back then, though, he thought the Slasher wanted little John. All the kids knew it, all of them making wet, sloshy sounds with their tongues against their teeth and telling him, “The Slaaa-aaaasher is coming” in wavery little-kid ghost voices.

They had some kind of game then, he couldn’t even remember if it was about the Slasher, just that at the end there was a part where the black hand would get you. Kids could just put a palm in his face—"Oooooooo, the black hand
is after Johnny"—and it was like all those black figures on the fire truck, something dark you couldn’t understand, coming after you. For no reason.

The docs—Rappaport and Freedman for the defense, Cavanaugh for the prosecution—were all interested in the Old Man. “I loved my dad,” John told them. “Just like I love Ma.” It was as if the docs didn’t believe him, and they kept poking away at his feelings toward the Old Man. One of the docs—later John couldn’t even remember which one—asked him if, maybe, deep down, he actually hated his father. John wouldn’t accept that—the Bible says, “Honor thy father and thy mother"—but the more he thought about it, the more he came to understand that it was possible. There was, he decided, a fine line between love and hate, and in certain situations you could love someone and hate that person at the same time.

His whole adult life, John had always been too busy to think about himself, but now his life depended on finally seeing things whole. Up to the time he was arrested in December 1978, when John thought about the Old Man, he made excuses for all the yelling, the frightening bursts of violence. “I was never good enough for him,” John knew, and he imagined that the Old Man did what he did for a reason. “To make me better. To teach me with punishment.”

The first time there was real violence John was only a baby, too young to remember. Ma never talked about it at home. She was the soul of the family, always smoothing things over, inclined to forgive and forget. But after John got into trouble and people dug the incident out of old court files, after Ma understood that John’s relationship with his father might have warped him in some incomprehensible manner, she explained what had happened.

BOOK: Buried Dreams
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