Authors: Tim Cahill
Back at home, John passed out again. “I found him laying on the floor, in the bedroom,” Marion Gacy said, “and when the doctor came he was going to give him a shot to bring him to. He said that John had like an epileptic fit. And John began fighting and kicked him. Fighting and kicking just like a madman. My husband came in and held him down, and
the doctor gave John a shot. Then they put him—we had to get him to a hospital and put him in a straitjacket.”
At Norwegian American Hospital, extensive tests were administered. The Old Man would visit once in a while, just sit in the bedside chair, silent, suspicious. After a month in the hospital, a doctor took Marion Gacy aside and suggested that her son be sent to Cook County Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
The Old Man loved that. It was a kind of proof to him that John was never sick at all, that it was all in his head. And John begged his mother, “Don’t send me to the psychiatrist ward, I’ll be good.” Like you can promise not to pass out.
Those were a few of the bigger battles in what amounted to a six-year war. As John got older, the issues at stake expanded. Years later, John would say that the Old Man had a way of looking at him, a cold, dark glare beyond disappointment or even disgust, a way of staring at his son as if the boy was beneath contempt. As if he could see into John’s soul and there were crawling, slimy things in there; as if he knew something about his son that John himself didn’t know.
John had another seizure, a kind of epileptic fit in a bowling alley called the Fireside Lanes. He kicked one of his friends in the neck and broke the boy’s glasses. The paramedics had to strap John down to a stretcher.
But it was a physical problem, not his fault.
The Old Man continued to drink, and the tumor Ma said was there throbbed inside his skull, pressed into his brain, pushed him to violence. “I thought one time he was going to kill me,” John remembered years later. “He was swinging on my mother and I yelled something at him. He told me to mind my own business or he’d take care of me, too. I hollered right back and he came for me, swung on me right there. But he was drunk and he hit the refrigerator. He turned and came at me again. I pinned his arms to his sides and pressed him up against the wall. I couldn’t hit him. I just couldn’t hit him. But if I let him go, he’d swing on me again. So we struggled like that. And I must have held him with his arms pinned for ten minutes.”
Father and son stood face to face in a sort of rough embrace. John said, “I can still picture that: my dad’s face looking right at me. The glare in his eyes. Through his eyes I thought he was going to kill me. And I was crying and upset
. . . you know, thinking, he can’t kill you, he loves you. It was such a mixed-up feeling. . . .”
John remembers the Old Man’s breath coming ragged in his throat, recalls smelling the alcohol there. He was looking into those spinning eyes and seeing a rage like murder, seeing the Old Man’s special knowledge burning like fire. John was sobbing, pressing his father’s back into the wall, hugging him in a confusion of love and murder.
Something else. John felt it in his groin. Just a faint stirring down there.
FIVE FEET EIGHT AND
already bloating up toward two hundred pounds. An eighteen-year-old should be hard, muscular. He shouldn’t have a body like a sack of flour. And just look in the mirror: a face like Mr. Potato Head, that toy for kids, a bunch of goddamn plastic mouths and eyes and shit that you could stick into a lumpy old spud and make it just as fucking ugly and funny-looking as John Wayne Gacy, Jr., himself.
No wonder he didn’t care that much for dating; no wonder he didn’t “have much of a sex drive.”
Instead, he worked. John was a worker as long as he could remember. He had a paper route, some lawn-mowing jobs; then, at fourteen, he nailed down his first real job: delivering groceries for the local IGA store. He also helped Ma around the house, moving furniture, painting rooms.
And there was the stuff he did free, volunteer stuff, like yardwork for an elderly neighbor. Once, when John was twelve, a big storm knocked down some power lines over a neighbor’s garage. John took it on himself to warn the woman
who lived there that stepping in a puddle out behind the house could kill her. “I didn’t know that,” this neighbor said years later. “I might have gone out there to look. He might have saved my life. And John stood by the garage all day, waving traffic away, making sure no one got hurt.”
When John transferred from the public grammar school—where he was skipping classes and failing—to the vocational school, he got so far out ahead of his class in science that the teacher said he didn’t need to attend that class; he could work in the office. John ran errands for the teachers—"call me a teacher’s pet, I enjoyed it, I got along with all the administrators"—and worked as an assistant to the truant officer. It was a big switch from being a truant to becoming a truant officer. “I wasn’t any snitch,” John said. “I just had to call parents and see if kids were really sick at home.”
In high school, John was a Civil Defense captain. A boyhood friend remembers, “He pretty much organized the whole thing. Like for fire drills, where each fire marshal had to stand to make sure everyone got out.” Civil Defense captains got a portable flashing blue light they could put on the dashboard of their cars to use on official business.
Years later, Ray Kasper, who eventually married John’s elder sister, JoAnne, said that Gacy, as a teenager, had “a hang-up” about uniforms. In later years, John always referred to Ray as “my asshole brother-in-law.” John thought Ray “could find something wrong with anything I ever did.” Still, even John’s sisters, Karen and JoAnne, said he got a little excessive, playing cop, speeding off to any fire or accident with blue light flashing.
At eighteen, John began to get involved in Chicago politics. He worked as an assistant precinct captain on behalf of the Democratic candidate for alderman in the Forty-fifth Ward. “My dad,” John recalled, “said I was a fool. He said, ‘all those politicians are crooks and phonies.’ But, son-of-a-bitch, I worked my ass off on that campaign. Because a politician doesn’t always have to be a phony; sometimes a politician can help the little people; sometimes he can show compassion and do good.”
When John looked back on it, he could see some other reasons why he got into politics. “Maybe it was a way to antagonize my dad. In part. And maybe it was a way to get acceptance. I was always looking for acceptance because my dad made me feel that I was never good enough.”
John sought acceptance in volunteer work, in politics, in just helping people because it made him feel good. The Old Man thought John was “stupid,” “softhearted,” “an asshole.” Why would you go out of your way to do something for someone else when you know that person will turn around and fuck over you the first chance he gets? Because it’s dog eat dog, and everyone’s looking to outsmart the other guy. Only an “asshole” is gullible enough to do something for nothing.
Even at his best, even when John was giving of himself, giving out of the fullness of his heart, the Old Man could find a way to make him feel “dumb and stupid.”
Maybe if he was just a little better-looking. John knew he was “an ugly duckling.” And there were strange thoughts, little compulsions that shamed him. He was “different,” “the odd man out.” The things he saw in lazy daydreams, all those unwanted desires, they were “feelings.” Having feelings made him “weak.” And the Old Man: nothing was ever said, but John felt the Old Man knew. He had that way of looking at you.
“Consequently,” John remembered, “from about the age of sixteen, I was thinking of death.” Not suicide. John was a devout Catholic, and suicide was a mortal sin. No, death, like the shameful daydreams, should arrive unbidden, a faceless figure that emerged out of the dark, a shadow blacker than the night itself. Death had to come from outside of himself, like a favor from God Himself. Death was the Lord’s ultimate blessing.
With all the odd pressure—the lack of acceptance, the fear of his father, the strange compulsions—John Gacy thought for a time about becoming a priest. Make a life for himself helping others.
The priesthood, John imagined, would provide the kind of clean, caring life that would fill him with clean, caring thoughts, that would keep him holy, eliminate the bad daydreams, and finally earn him a measure of respect: how could anyone have certain suspicions about a priest? Priests exert a sort of unassailable moral authority—you could think of them as God’s cops—that puts them above suspicion.
John began thinking this way while he was “rolling” with St. John Berchmans’ parish Holy Name Society bowling team. John wasn’t a half-bad bowler, and that was good because at
least he could get some small amount of respect—some reduction of suspicion—from such important team members as Ray Kasper and his father. His mother bowled with them, but John knew he had her trust, even if she was “naïve.”
Bowling led to work within the parish organization and some involvement in its politics. John became a member of the Holy Name Society. Immediately, at eighteen, he could see the parish wasn’t properly serving people in his age group. Few of the young men he knew were active in the Church. John felt older teenagers were under so much outside pressure—sex, new jobs, social responsibilities—that they just fell away from the Church. It was like a syndrome, and it lasted about four years. Between the age of eighteen, when people graduated from high school, until the time they married, at about age twenty-two, there was little in the Church for them to do.
St. John Berchmans’ had a problem, and John Wayne Gacy had a solution. He organized a young adults club, the Chi Ro Club, that would stop the drift away from the Church he had seen in eighteen- through twenty-two-year-olds. One of his coorganizers—John remembers to this day—was an alderman’s daughter. It was an important concept and an important club supported by important people.
When the young adults club held their formal winter dance, the “Snowtillion,” John organized the event in military style. It was all white crepe paper, demure romance, and no goddamn sloppy pageantry, not with John in charge.
The club was a minor success, a step toward solving one of the Catholic Church’s perennial problems. Still, it was something conceptual, and even as an eighteen-year-old, John understood that success and improvement are seen in practical things, pragmatic improvements a guy could point to with pride. He helped build booths for the carnival, helped with the organization of that event, and he was also on the parish building committee. When the church needed repainting, John figured they could save the cost of professional painters if they did it themselves. All they needed was a man with the knowledge of a professional painter to head the job. And young John had learned well from his father about painting. John volunteered to “work his ass off’ and get the church painted properly, perfectly. The church looked great when John and his crew finished with it.
He spent so much time at the church, so much energy
doing good works, that it could sometimes be embarrassing. You’d go into the confessional, and it would already be a little weird, because how many eighteen-year-old males do you see there, anyway? Most guys saved up their sins and came in to make their yearly Easter duty—the one confession a year—and that was it. But John confessed regularly: he liked the clean feeling, the knowledge that he was, at that moment, beloved of God. It was a warm sensation that started in your chest and made you feel good from the inside out.
Each time John went to confession, the other people scattered sparsely about the church were very devout older women. They always wore wraps around their necks: some ratty animal with little beady eyes biting its own tail.
John would wait his turn and then go into the dark confessional with its odor of leather and wood, only the opaque screen between him and eternal salvation. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” John confessed to the few little lies he might have told that week—a series of the most venial sins—and the priest would give him about three Hail Marys as a penance. But sometimes, just as he was ready to leave, the priest, who knew him like a son and recognized his voice, would say, “Uh, John, as long as I got you here, you know anything about weather stripping? I only ask because the wind just whips through the sacristy door in the morning.”
And John’d end up talking about weather stripping in the confessional. Spend twenty minutes discussing the cost of materials, the amount of labor and time necessary to do the job, the best day of the week to do it. By the time he got out of the box, some of those older women would give him a strange look and glance at their watches. John imagined they were thinking, Half an hour with Father, oh, my, what could he possibly have done? What a dirty, dirty sinner that boy must be.
It pleased John to start the Hail Marys on the way back to the pew, kneel for about fifteen seconds, and then be gone, lickety-split, just like that: a man of mystery as far as sin was concerned, and a wonder to the devout elderly of St. John Berchmans’.
Sunday nights, John usually was at the rectory, playing cards with the parish priests. And both of them—perfect Chicago Irish priests—would talk to the teenager about a possible vocation. “John,” one or the other of them would argue, “you’re around the church six, seven days a week as it
is. Maybe God is speaking to you in a very special way.” John’d play a card and really consider it. Doing things for people made him happy, helping poor people made him feel warm inside. The respect sanctity brought scoured a soul like steel wool cleans a soiled pot.
There wouldn’t be any problem with the chastity thing: “Oh, sure,” John explained later, “I was dating broads and getting laid, but there wasn’t anything serious. And why would you wanna get married? Why take on the burden of having some stupid broad around you day and night?” Being a priest was a natural, John felt, because he was different from the other boys. “I was sickly, and I certainly wasn’t no physically built individual, and I didn’t have no sex drive, so being a priest seemed perfect, a natural thing to do for a kid like me.”