On March 30, 1981 — after a half-dozen years of aimless wandering between Texas, Colorado, Connecticut and California; after a stint living in Hollywood, where he hoped to become famous as a songwriter; after stalking President Jimmy Carter at campaign stops in Ohio and stalking the young actress Jodie Foster at Yale — John W. Hinckley Jr. finally settled on a course of action. He awakened at the Park Central Hotel in Washington. He got breakfast from McDonald’s. He left behind a note in his hotel room, addressed to Foster. ”Jodie,” he pleaded, ”I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.” At 2:25 p.m., as President Ronald Reagan walked to his limousine after delivering a speech at the Washington Hilton, Hinckley fired six shots with a .22-caliber pistol that wounded four people and cast him, forever, as an American pariah.
“Pariah”? Isn’t that a tad to grandiose? I’d just peg him as Salinger Damage, frankly. Just another sucker to the siren call of that stalker-killer training manual The Catcher in the Rye, undone by an “Esme” whose years of collegiate “love and squalor” had rendered him the eunuch at the Sapphic seraglio.
Obviously that’s not how The New York Times Sunday Magazine sees it. They’ve got gilt-edged sob-sisterdom in mind — “Mary Sunshine” for the Beltway.
One bullet lodged inches from Reagan’s heart. Another struck his press secretary, James Brady, and ravaged his brain.
Fifteen months after the shooting, at the end of a seven-week trial, a jury in Washington rendered its verdict on John Hinckley: not guilty by reason of insanity. The first two words of that verdict — ”not guilty” — were (and remain) the most important. Their meaning is that Hinckley was held legally blameless — in the grip, on the day of the shootings, of a psychological defect that roiled his thinking and shut down his judgment.
Can we have an editorial embargo on “roiled”? It’s almost as annoying as “Orwellian.”
Hinckley was 27 years old when he entered St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington on June 22, 1982, the day after the verdict. He is 48 now. The law is clear on what should happen at the point Hinckley is judged to be sane. When he is no longer a danger to himself or to others, he is to be set free.
Oh dear. Just when the Republicans thought all they had to fear was a made-for-TV movie about Ron and Nancy, here comes something worse: The Return of the Repressed.
This week, a hearing is scheduled to begin on Hinckley’s petition for a ”limited conditional release.” If it is granted, he will be permitted a series of visits off the hospital grounds with his parents — and without hospital staff. These will be day outings, and if all goes well, overnight visits will follow.
With side trips to Bel Air?
When he entered St. Elizabeths, Hinckley was given a diagnosis of two major psychological maladies — psychosis and major depression. According to his doctors, both are now in ”full remission.” In fact, his treatment team began saying that as far back as 1985.
In his motion to the United States District Court, Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, called the conditional release ”the appropriate next step in Mr. Hinckley’s treatment.” The hospital also supported Hinckley’s conditional release, while recommending a more phased-in series of visits.
The government opposes any release, because the incremental steps lead ultimately to his full freedom. That Hinckley could live outside a prison or a locked hospital ward is, for many, a profoundly uncomfortable thought. He tried to kill the president. He had an attraction to Nazism and an affinity for Charles Manson.
Nazis and Manson? Oh boy then he’s a really bad psycho!
But there is a powerful counterargument to be made that Hinckley’s release is long overdue. In the disposition of ”insanity acquittees,” the law does not sort them by whom they shot.
For 21 years now, Hinckley has lived on a ward inside the John Howard Pavilion, a five-story structure that houses the N.G.I.’s, as those who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are called at St. Elizabeths. His room is small, about 10 feet by 15 feet. It is furnished with a bed, a nightstand, a small dresser and little else. A book or two usually sits on his nightstand. Hinckley is a reader, although he is now extremely careful about the books he chooses, because his reading material in the past has raised alarms and been used against him.
So what is he reading these days anyway? Jonathan Franzen? Dale Peck? A good reporter would have found out.
He keeps his guitar in his room and sings and composes songs, as he has done for much of his life. He does not look much different than he did two decades ago. He resists strenuous exercise and is still a little pudgy and soft-looking. He has all his blond hair.
That’s nice. A bald psychotic is just so 80’s, isn’t it?
Beyond the John Howard Pavilion is the rest of St. Elizabeths: more than 100 red-brick buildings, some built before the Civil War, set on more than 300 acres of high ground perched above the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, overlooking federal Washington. St. Elizabeths has been called the most famous mental institution in the nation, a renown that derives from its occasional celebrity residents — most notably, the poet Ezra Pound from 1946 to 1958 — as well as from its grand setting, stately architecture and sheer, imposing size.
Hey, maybe he’s reading The Cantos !
At its peak, the hospital housed 7,000 patients. The population now hovers around 500. Most of the buildings are vacant; the whole western part of the campus has been gated shut; grass and weeds grow through cracks in vast, empty parking lots.
Very Tennessee Williams
Hinckley works as an archivist in the library, which makes him both a prominent figure in and a custodian of the hospital’s history. After four hours of work on weekday mornings, he eats lunch, then has ”unaccompanied grounds privileges” for the remainder of the day. He fills many of those hours walking the campus and feeding the many stray cats who prowl the grounds. ”Mr. Hinckley has ‘adopted’ a number of cats at the hospital, which he feeds daily,” an August letter from the hospital to the District Court says.
Cue Kate and Anna McGarigle with a chorus of “Kitty Come Home” (Lance Loud’s favorite.)
Since 1999, Hinckley has participated in recreational trips off the hospital grounds, accompanied by staff members — he has gone to bowling alleys, restaurants, bookstores, movies and the beach. The Secret Service tails him on these occasions. When he visited the bookstore, agents got close enough to ascertain what books caught his interest. It also observes him on the grounds of St. Elizabeths and, though the Secret Service refused to comment on this, will presumably shadow him for life, in or out of the hospital.
Should we be relieved? After all they were shadowing Reagan when Hinckley plugged him.
Hinckley’s routine includes meeting with his hospital psychiatrist at least once a week. Additionally, he has regular contact with another doctor assigned to his ward. He participates in group therapy sessions. He still keeps mainly to himself, although his doctors have noted that he ”appears to be accepted by his peers in spite of his ‘notoriety’ status.”
Meaning what? That he doesn’t charge them for autographs?
He was off antipsychotic medicine for eight years and showed no symptoms but agreed to go back on medication, his lawyer wrote, when it was prescribed ”solely as a prophylactic measure.” Hinckley did so, reluctantly, in order to be perceived as cooperating with authority.
So did the drugs work or not? And what of his desire to be “perceived as cooperating” which clear implies that he wasn’t cooperating ?
”What people do not understand,” Levine, his lawyer, told me, ”is how painful the process of getting well is for someone like John. He was delusional. He did not understand the wrongfulness of what he did. Acquiring insight into his conduct, truly understanding what he did, was a difficult and terrifying experience. That’s when he became aware of the unspeakable horror of what he had done.”
If that’s your story, Doc, you stick to it.
Hinckley’s parents have stuck by him. Jack and Jo Ann Hinckley moved from Evergreen, Colo., to Virginia to be closer to him, and they visit and call regularly. In the period just before the assassination attempt, his parents sent him to see a psychiatrist. Hinckley did not tell the doctor he was stalking Jodie Foster. He did not reveal that he had purchased guns. The doctor diagnosed his problem, essentially, as being pampered.
The Hinckleys ultimately lost patience with their son and with the encouragement of the psychiatrist, turned him out of the house, hoping that would force him to grow up and find some direction. Later, at his trial, they wore the devastated look of people swept up in a family tragedy of unimaginable proportions, one they feared they had helped bring about. Jack Hinckley testified, ”We forced him out at a time that he just simply couldn’t cope.” Levine pressed for the earliest possible hearing on his current motion partly in the hope that the Hinckleys and their son could be together for Thanksgiving.
Well you can’t say he didn’t find some direction.
In addition to his family and his lawyer, Hinckley’s other close relationship in the last two decades has been with Leslie deVeau, a former patient at St. Elizabeths who in 1982 killed her sleeping 10-year-old daughter with a blast from a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun. She then tried to shoot herself in the heart, but succeeded only in blowing her left arm off. DeVeau and Hinckley met at a dance at St. Elizabeths and became soulmates. She was considered well enough to leave the hospital in 1985, just three years after shooting her daughter. In 1990, she was released from outpatient supervision.
Hold the phone! She shot her ten year-old daughter, blew her arm off trying to kill herself, was sent to St.Elizabeth’s and went dancing with Hinckley ?!?!!
Oh but it gets better!
For a time, they considered themselves engaged. She told The New Yorker in 1999 that they had sexual relations on the grounds at St. Elizabeths. It was, apparently, Hinckley’s first sexual experience other than with prostitutes. Their relationship is now said to be platonic, but she still comes regularly to see him. It is deVeau who provides the cat food.
The McGarrigle Sisters have just passed out. Cue Elvis Costello for a chorus of “Think I’m Psycho Don’t You Mama?” (another Lance fave.)
The insanity defense in the United States is generally said to descend from the 1843 trial in Britain of Daniel M’Naghten, a Scottish woodcutter who believed he was being persecuted by the Tory Party. M’Naghten tried to shoot Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, but ended up killing his secretary. He was judged not guilty by reason of insanity, which outraged the public. After the verdict, the House of Lords set down what came to be known as the M’Naghten test: to be found not guilty, a defendant must be ”labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”
Sounds like a plan.
The insanity defense in United States law was broadened over time to include defendants whose acts were the ”product” of mental
disease, who may have known they were committing a crime but were driven by some irresistible impulse or delusion. In the Hinckley trial, Federal District Judge Barrington Parker instructed the jury to acquit Hinckley if they found his actions were related to ”any abnormal condition of the mind, regardless of its medical label, which substantially affects mental or emotional processes and substantially impairs his behavior controls.” The instruction was straightforward; the jury’s task was anything but. Rather than making a finding of fact, the jury had to determine what was in Hinckley’s mind.
Well THAT’S easy.
That Hinckley was fairly well kempt and able to make his way around the country — to get on airplanes and check in and out of hotels, to insert exploding ”Devastator” bullets into his gun rather than the more conventional ammunition he also carried — struck many as signs of his sanity.
So psychopathology hinges on grooming and hotel check outs?
His bizarre belief that he could actually win the heart of a famous actress by shooting Ronald Reagan was powerful evidence of his insanity.
Not if you’re a Salinger fan it doesn’t.
The diagnosis that Hinckley was given after he entered St. Elizabeths — psychosis, N.O.S. (meaning ”not otherwise specified”) — was an indication that he did not present classic or stereotypical signs of schizophrenia. The designation does not mean that the diagnosis is in doubt, but rather that it does not precisely match any of the definitions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
”Psychosis usually means you are having hallucinations or delusions; you’re out of touch with reality,” says E. Fuller Torrey, a prominent psychiatrist who worked at St. Elizabeths in the early 1980’s and examined Hinckley. ”To a lay person, John Hinckley didn’t look like the raving maniac you usually think of. But to those of us in the business who looked at some of the things he was writing and saying, there was no question he was delusional.”
Appearance is All.
The hearing set to begin on Monday will not involve a jury; the decision will rest solely with Federal District Judge Paul Friedman, a former president of the District of Columbia Bar who was appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Clinton. The previous judge, June L. Green, ruled consistently for the government. (She heard cases until a month before her death, in 2001, at age 87.) This will be Friedman’s first chance to make a major ruling in the case, and both sides see it as a critical moment. Instead of looking at the reasons Hinckley acted, as the jury did in 1982, Friedman will have to make an equally difficult judgment: what is Hinckley likely, or not likely, to do in the future?
Hinckley’s I.Q. has been measured at 113, which is considered ”bright normal.” He’s not a genius, and should not be able, at least in theory, to fool his highly trained doctors and a hospital staff that has custody of him 24 hours a day. When they say, plainly, that he is not a danger to himself or others, they presumably are in a position to know.
For now we come to the Smoking Diary:
Hinckley has filed several motions since the late 1980’s for his conditional release, and all have either been denied or withdrawn before a judge could rule. He has tended to undermine himself. In 1987, hospital staff discovered a grandiose, defiant journal entry that has come back to haunt him at several legal proceedings. It said: ”I dare say that not one psychiatrist who has analyzed me knows any more about me than the average person on the street who has read about me in the newspapers. Psychiatry is a guessing game, and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me. They will never know the true John Hinckley.”
The journal entry was written during his turbulent first decade at St. Elizabeths, when he did various things that damaged his prospects for release. Fifty-seven pictures of Foster were discovered in his room in 1987. He corresponded with the serial killer Ted Bundy. He granted interviews, including one to Penthouse in 1983, in which he said he was ”surprised, shocked and flabbergasted” to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He also suggested that he was a ”political revolutionary” and that he planned to become a crusader for stricter gun-control laws. Hinckley also attempted suicide at least twice after arriving at St. Elizabeths.
My what a busy fellow! Incarcerated and yet spinning like a whirling dervish.
His interviews and craving of public attention have been used by government prosecutors as evidence that his other psychiatric malady, narcissistic personality disorder — extreme grandiosity and a sense of entitlement — still seemed to be raging. Psychiatrists do not generally say that personality disorders are in remission, but a goal of therapy would be to come to terms with such a disorder and bring it under control.
And what assurance do we have that it’s “under control”?
Hinckley no longer gives interviews. Neither do his parents. It is a strategic decision, intended to enhance his prospects for liberty.
“He didn’t have a political fantasy and think he was saving the world by shooting my father and all the other people he shot,” Ron Reagan Jr., the former president’s son, says to me. ”He was just trying to impress a girl, and I don’t think that’s changed. I think he’s still the grown baby that he was. If he doesn’t think he’s getting his due, all the attention he wants, then he could still be a danger to people.”
Ron Reagan says that his father long ago forgave Hinckley. ”He made peace with it. He forgave this crazy young man. Maybe I’m just not the forgiving type, but I don’t trust Mr. Hinckley. He wanted to be pen pals with Ted Bundy. Who the hell writes to Ted Bundy?” He adds: ”An attack on the president or other leading members of the government is an attack on the nation itself. You can’t get a free pass on that.”
He’s right, in so many different ways — but his father’s forgiveness is beside the point — save to the NYT Sob Sisters.
That last statement no doubt resonates with much of the American public. Eighty-three percent of the respondents to a 1982 ABC News poll said they disagreed with the verdict in the Hinckley case. It is safe to say that there is no public groundswell for Hinckley’s release. Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who made unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford within a month of each other in 1975, remain in prison, as do Sirhan Sirhan, who murdered Robert Kennedy, and Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer.
Are we keeping a tally of all this? Songwriter obsessed with closeted lesbian, tries to kill the POTUS to impress her, has an affair with a one-armed woman who murdered her own child and corresponded with Ted Bundy.
Parole him? Oh sure — why not?
Public opinion should not, of course, play any part in Hinckley’s fate. But the prosecutors and Hinckley’s lawyer are acutely aware of it and have been sparring about how much the public should see before the hearing. Levine has tried to keep certain documents — including the actual motion for conditional release — under seal until the hearing starts. The government has argued for the unsealing of documents, claiming that the public has a ”legitimate interest” in the case. In response, Levine wrote that prosecutors were trying to ”whip up media frenzy and public unrest.” (The judge has unsealed some documents and kept others out of the public court file.)
Unseal them all!
Hinckley’s hearing before Judge Friedman could last for more than a week. Most of it will consist of testimony by psychiatrists, including Hinckley’s treatment team, and two psychiatrists chosen by prosecutors. As there was at his 1982 trial, there is likely to be disagreement among the experts, conflicting views of what Hinckley’s mental state might hold for the future.
The government will argue that he is simply too dangerous and unpredictable to be trusted. Hinckley’s lawyers will counter that the 1981 shootings came from a particularly dire ”confluence” of psychological conditions, and that if his mental state starts to decline, there will be plenty of advance warning before he becomes dangerous. Hinckley himself is not expected to testify; taking the stand could expose him to days of cross-examination, much of it focused on what transpired when he was a young man.
Unless it is revealed that Hinckley has committed some recent misdeeds, that he has corresponded unwisely or stashed new pictures of Jodie Foster — and there is no indication such evidence is coming — the momentum is likely to continue in the direction of more freedom. How much, and how soon, will depend on the weight Judge Friedman places on Hinckley’s current diagnosis as opposed to the weight he gives to past deceptions. It also depends, of course, on Friedman’s taste for making unpopular decisions.
Unpopular for whom? The Reagans? The Bradys? The NRA?
But here’s the real question: What does Stephen Sondheim think?
Bounce got decidedly downbeat reviews. But then so did Assassins which featured this charming ballad:
“I am nothing
You are wind and water and sky,
Tell me, Jodie
How can I earn your love
I would swim oceans
I would move mountains
I would do anything for you
What do you want me to do?
I am unworthy of your love,
Let Me Prove worthy of your love.
Tell me how I can earn your love,
Set me free.
How can you turn your love
What’s the matter folks? Don’t you like musical comedy?