Because I have written so often about sociopaths -- charming ones, murderous ones -- I sometimes wonder if I am too quick the see characteristics that make the sociopath: the say-anything-to-get-her-way; the gregariousness that turns to ice in an instant; the disequilibrium that dealing with one can bring, something's gone awry, but how?
I have learned things about dealing with sociopaths: give them zero personal information. Anything you tell them instantly becomes a weapon-in-waiting. Have them, after they've given some long convoluted excuse, tell the story again, but backwards, something these nimble liars evidently have trouble with. Listen for the words "honestly" and "believe me." Such sentiments are self-evident to people telling the truth. Safeguard your ethics, your pocketbook, your allegiance, your security. The sociopath will appeal for all of them, but wants them only as a form of nourishment, the terrible truth of the sociopath being that he experiences no emotions other than resentment, risk and getting one over on you.
Watching the RNC and DNC conventions, those mixing the Kool-Aid and those drinking it was clear. This made me think of the first sociopath I as a writer was obliged to try to make sense of. Here, a clip from Destination Gacy, the story of when I drove cross-country with Rick Gaez, a pen pal of John Wayne Gacy, to visit the serial killer shortly before his execution:
As the visit stretches more than five hours, I start to space out. But Gacy does not weary; on the contrary, he’s gaining momentum, pushing harder. The party guy, the three-time Jaycee Man of the Year is on the podium, and he’s not going to squander it, not at this juncture. He is ravenous to communicate, to verbally get his nut.
“Ask anything you want. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done.”
He is goading us to ask questions that have been asked a thousand times before, wanting to reiterate the patent alibis (“My employees had keys to my house. Like I told the cops, these people could’ve put those bodies there!”). I can see that Rick, initially curious about Gacy’s crimes but eventually adopting him as a friend, is a little freaked, a little exhausted. He will not take a dip in the bloodbath.
“OK, John, if you got out tomorrow, where would you go?”
Humor from the clown, but it’s rehearsed; I can hear it.
“How do you feel about the May 10 deadline?” Rick asks.
Gacy is silent. He bites into the Ho-Ho we’ve brought him.
“Well, there’s no point in being negative, right? You know the ‘Serenity’ quote? Well, I say [it] a little different: ‘God grant me the strength to change the things I can, to accept the things I cannot—and fuck the rest.’”
He chuckles but his eyes are losing focus, his conversation growing rhetorical.
“You know, they accuse me of killing all these boys, young guys from, what, 25 to 15 or 14? Now why would I do that? I had all the sex I needed; I didn’t need to kill nobody for it.”
With his cuffed hands, Gacy sketches an image on a matchbook.
“You know, I used to give these big dinners for the Elks, hundreds of people. I love people. I love kids. I remember when I was working at a hospital as Pogo the Clown. I walked into this room, and this boy was in traction. He’d been hit by a car, and he was just lying there, his mom at his side. So I come in and start joking with him, pretending I’m gonna fool with his apparatus, and the kid smiles. I look over, and his mom’s crying. I apologize, thinking maybe I offended her or something. But she says, ‘No, it’s just that’s the first time he’s smiled in ten days.’ I tell you, I went down the hall with tears in my eyes; I just felt so good.”
He slides over the matchbook. “Here, Rick, for you.”
It’s a doodle of Hitler in profile.
I look at Gacy, trying to stitch the man with the monster, the social creature with the sociopath. This gregarious contractor from Illinois has directly destroyed thousands of lives, indirectly touched perhaps millions more. And he is still reaching out. And we are reaching back: Rick toys with a silver saint’s medal hanging from a chain around his neck.
“John? Can I give you this?” he asks.
Gacy leans in close.
“Well, I’ll tell ya, they’ve got a video camera trained on us, and they won’t allow it. Maybe you can sneak it to me in the hall. Hey, let’s get some pictures.”
A guard snaps off six Polaroids, Gacy smiling like a conventioneer. He pulls out some photos of himself as a clown, signing them to Rick and me, and one for my four-year-old daughter, inscribed, “As you go through life...‘Smile,’ from Patches the Clown, a.k.a. John Wayne Gacy.”
“Two o’clock—let’s go!” a guard yells from the hall.
I see Rick intent on slipping Gacy the medal, but as we say what will surely be our final good-bye, Gacy’s eyes are down the hall. He has tossed the mask, the one that says he cares about you, really. It feels though a steel door has slid between us, or more exactly, that Gacy is the steel door.
“I got an appeal coming up this week,” he says. “I’m keeping a positive attitude.”
We cannot make eye contact.
Rick keeps his medal.