Yesterday police announced that they had "solved" the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh. I was moved to tears as I watched the news conference with his parents, John ("America's Most Wanted") and Reve. They waited 27 long years to know, really know who killed their son. This provides some kind of closure for their family even though it can never bring their son back. Adam would be 33 today.
I was moved further by the photographs accompanying the article on MSNBC. Look at this sweet photo of Adam.
That could be my Zach.
But then I looked at the face of Adam's killer, Ottis Toole.
I'll admit, he looks like a monster. But could it be that he was someone's precious 6-year-old at one time? So I looked him up on Wikipedia... What a hellish life this man lived. He was abused and neglected. He was sexually confused from a very early age. How tragic that he wasn't someone's precious 6-year-old. This world is seriously screwed up. How does a little boy grow up to be a monster? Did Hitler's mother hold her precious baby and sing him to sleep at night? Are some people destined to be more evil than others? Can they help it?
How about the horrible trio of teenagers who did this? Who could do that to a sweet old lady? Were they born evil?
I keep thinking of other examples. Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked (on which the Broadway musical was based) explores this question in depth. Are some people born wicked? Was Elphaba really the "wicked" witch or did fate just push her in that direction. Could she help being born with green skin?
Another serial killer springs to mind. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Sufjan Stevens's song "John Wayne Gacy Jr." wrestles with some of these ideas of evil and good. And it helps us relate, I think, to a madman. Here's a live recording from KCRW. Read these words and listen to this chilling performance. You can download Stevens's brilliant Illinois album here.
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Are you one of them?
He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
I love this song because it reminds me that in so many ways, I really am just like him. You don't know what evil lurks in my heart. The challenge is to be open with our brokenness and find the healing that God wants to bring into our lives. I wish that Ottis and John had found the same grace and freedom that I have found.