The words of Ted Koppel on Nightline shot across the living room like a rocket. “We are receiving reports that John Lennon has been assassinated in New York City.” Maybe not the exact quote, but that is how I remember it. What stood out was the word “assassinated” as opposed to Murdered. What did this mean? Was there a rifle shot from a warehouse into his motorcade?
At that point in time, that is what an assassination looked like to me. It was a word used for world leaders and eluded to a planned out ambush by more than one person, and an open window for conspiracy theories to last decades. But in the end, that’s not what it was all about. It was about one guy with a strange obsession, a demented view of the world, a gun and access to his target.
A number of things entered our national conscience that night, and as a young man about to enter into the world, I felt these were the first adult conversations I was having. Stalkers, Guns, Insanity Defense, Schizophrenia, Private Protection, it all came into my conscience on that night. These were things I never heard or thought about before.
As it turned out, there would be constant reminders of all of it throughout the rest of my life. Add to it an assassination attempt on President Reagan three months later, by someone that could have been the identical twin brother of John Lennon’s killer. We were all thinking “What the hell is happening?”
Stalking was something that was not in the national conversation before Dec. 8, 1980. We tried to identify the pathology of it while the issue became all the more apparent. Celebrities we found out had been dealing with Stalkers for a long time. They became more aware after Dec. 8, 1980, and took steps to arming themselves and their homes. They hired personal security guards. Barriers were built around them and they retreated behind the walls of their gated communities.
Other Stalking incidents began to surface and we learned that not only the famous and powerful had stalkers. Regular people had obsessed stalkers in their lives. The whole thing seemed crazy. Laws were made, protections were provided and yet the obsessive stalker is still out there and creating havoc in people’s lives.
Mental Illness was something we were introduced to that night as well. Here was a guy that killed a cultural icon because he wanted to be like him. That was confusing, and subsequent investigation went on to prove that wasn’t the whole story. There was a big disappointment in the assassin when he learned that his hero John Lennon was not all he had thought of him to be. There was also a common thread that we have gone on to see in other obsessive celebrity stalkers, and that is an obsession to be famous. They seek the fame and notoriety of their subject, even if it mean becoming forever a part of their story by taking the life of the person they are obsessed with.
For the first time we saw Schizophrenia in front of us. If you didn’t already know of a mentally ill person, you heard of Schizophrenia in the context of the homeless guy on the city corner, barking like a dog and people walking by. That’s not really what it was, but it was certainly our impression. Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, was a man that blended into the crowd, very non-descript and unnoticeable until he pulls a gun and kills his idol.
Here was also a time where the Gun Control discussion entered our national conversation. In some instances the passion was equal to what we see today from recent events. You can set your clock to a national gun debate anytime news of a shooting occurs. The conversation then was more about self-preservation and security. Celebrities openly talked about their fears and vulnerabilities. They openly weighed options for protecting themselves, most choosing better trained and better equipped security service. Private Security became a lucrative industry.
We saw the Justice System in action too. Some of us for the very first time. What did Insanity Defense mean? A person can defend themselves by claiming they didn’t know what they were doing is wrong? They can be prosecuted and convicted by something called Guilty but Insane? Aren’t we all insane at some point in our lives?
This was almost 15 years before the O.J. Simpson trial. We didn’t get to see everyday proceedings on TV. There were only three channels to choose from. There wasn’t the wall to wall news coverage we have today, there was just what we saw on the nightly news and read in the paper.
It was barely enough to understand what was happening, let alone form an opinion on it. But it was a different time. It was a time when I was introduced to the world outside of the comfort of my home, my school and my neighborhood. It was an unfortunate introduction to a world that wasn’t always going to be safe. It was time to strap it on, buckle it up and find a way to make the world a better place.
It all began for this young man on December 8, 1980.