“Sometimes you wonder, I mean really wonder. I know we make our own reality, and we always have a choice, but how much is preordained? Is there always a fork in the road, and are there two preordained paths that are equally preordained? There could be hundreds of paths where one could go this way or that way — there’s a choice, and it’s very strange sometimes.” ~John Lennon: The Last Interview, RollingStone
December 8, 1980.
That was the end of the Fall semester of my junior year of college. We were striking the set for the last production of the season for the Theater Department — The Shadow Box — for which I’d been the Properties Designer. Anything one did for any production at my university required undivided attention, generally to the exclusion of all other academic responsibilities. All that is to say that, like most of my classmates, finals were rolling up on us, we were way behind on classwork and wildly unprepared for cumulative tests, and none of us were sleeping much.
Late that morning, I was sitting on a bench in the Ruth Taylor Fine Arts Building between classes and I was so tired I could hardly breathe. My classmate and close friend, Sue Taylor — a very tall goddess of a gal with a long blonde braid — walked across the empty lobby and sat down next to me. She whispered.
“Someone shot John Lennon in New York City. He’s dead.”
Then we just sat there in suspended fog of unreality for what seemed like a very long time. Too tired to function and having just spent months working on a play that was nothing if not a meditation on death, it seemed possible to my young mind at the time that this was a dream. A shitty one perhaps, but in the end, not real.
I had only pretty recently been truly introduced to The Beatles by my scholarly Rock-n-Roll friends. I’d been raised in rural East Texas so I have to admit that the gravity of the murder of John Lennon didn’t have the immediate impact on me that it might have if it had been Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn. What I did feel when it finally sank in that the guy who wrote Imagine was dead — not just dead, murdered — was that I’d missed something. That his absence in the world meant that there were things, really important things, that would never happen because he was gone.
New York City seemed very far away. I’d never been there and had not formed the concept that, three years later, I’d be living there. That I would pass The Dakota apartment building next to Central Park, the site of his shooting, routinely. I had no idea that I would feel drawn to sit alone in my New York apartment, wearing the grooves out of Beatles’ albums nursing my deepening sense of devastation and loss in my own life, finally transferring that personal experience to the loss of John Lennon. I had my own emotional work to do to fully get how deeply personal the loss of this artist was to so very many people. I really had missed something that would have mattered in the world because John David Chapman killed John Lennon.
I was not the only New Yorker who stopped repeatedly to stand across the street from the Dakota to weep. It must have been very hard for his widow and their son to deal with such truly personal pain, along with the darkness of all the people who must have approached them wanting to be “taken care of” over the loss of a man they didn’t actually know. That’s the blessing and the curse of New York City.
Sometime in the eighties I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time purely because John David Chapman was sitting on the sidewalk reading it when the police arrived at the crime scene. I could not have begun to grasp it as a teenager because it is such a specific East Coast, New York City, milieu. The whole book is so unequivocally the musings of an affluent, dissociated — deeply troubled —and very sad WASP. I didn’t even know what WASP meant until I had been in New York City for years. The first time I heard it in relation to rich, white, often tragically vapid people was when Robert Chambers — the “Preppy Murderer” — was arrested for strangling teenage party girl Jennifer Levin in Central Park in 1986.
But The Catcher in the Rye is a brilliantly constructed work of literature and J.D. Salinger was enigmatic. It was easy to, at least, begin to grasp how that particular brand of unstable mind could attach all manner of hyper-analytical and unintended “meaning” and “secret messages” to Holden Caulfield’s profoundly broken adolescent logic. What I did identify deeply with was the character’s sense of profound loneliness and abandonment, owing in large part to absentee parents who simply couldn’t be bothered with the boy’s spastic terror and psychic disenfranchisement. That desperation exist in all parts of the country, it’s just dressed differently: in rural East Texas it speaks with a “twang.”
And it should be noted that when John Hinckley — also a Texan — attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, he referenced John Lennon’s death.
“My life is screwed up. The world is even more screwed up. I don’t know why people want to live. John Lennon is dead. I still think about Jodie all the time. That’s all I think about really, that and John Lennon’s death.”
His “love” for actress Jodie Foster was his “reason” for taking such extreme measures to get her attention. The Catcher in the Rye was lying on the bed when police raided his hotel room.
And in 1989 when Robert John Bardo knocked on sit-com actress Rebecca Schaeffer’s door in Los Angeles to shoot her in the face, he was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. He’d gotten her address from the DMV. She was twenty-two years old. It was that easy.
“My wish is for all of you to someday read The Catcher In The Rye. All of my efforts will now be devoted toward this goal, for this extraordinary book holds many answers. My true hope is that in wanting to find these answers you will read The Catcher In The Rye. Thank you.” ~Mark David Chapman
Nearly forty years later — most of it spent in the grooves of his life in New York City — contemplating John Lennon’s murder feels not so much different than it did in 1980. The man who took a great man’s life way too early did it to draw attention to a book he liked: he was just a madman.
Can’t really hold J.D. Salinger responsible for being an extraordinary writer, anymore than Jodie Foster can be blamed for being a compelling actress. This bizarre fixation on Holden Caulfield that triggered the murderous impulse in some guy’s mind must have been horrifying. It made no sense, there was nothing based in reality that they could respond to to mitigate the threat. They must have been scared to death after John Lennon died.
But after years of processing and deepening humility and compassion and the reflexive default to forgiveness in my own life, I speculate that if John Lennon were here to tell the tale he would probably be resigned to compassion for a very sad sick man who did a horrible thing.
I’ve seen a lot of sad, sick men do horrible things, and there’s really not much to do but forgive, if only to free one’s own mind and save one’s own soul. I have to say, though, sitting here ruminating on the first time I heard the news, it still feels like a dream that might not be true if I can get some sleep and pretend I never heard Sue say the words.
About the Author:
Gayle Leslie is a writer, political consultant, published author, actor, and policy wonk publishing extensively on Medium and other platforms. She is a native Texan, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC. She wrote her serialized memoir, Dwelling in the Vast Divine Vol. 1 & Vol 2. You can follow on Twitter at @gayleleslie7
“I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye.”