Writer's note: Before I begin, I know what I'm about to say pales in comparison to the experiences of the loved ones of all the victims of John Wayne Gacy. They must continue to endure his hideous legacy.
There's not much difference phonetically between John Casey and John Gacy. My grade school friends picked up on that right away when the horror of serial killer John Wayne Gacy became front-page news in the papers and the lead story on broadcast news in the late 1970s.
They did not call me "John Gacy" because they thought I was gay (little did they know), but just to razz me and get under my skin which they did in ways that were brutally crushing. I was struggling with the secret that I might be gay, and it was an alarming and dangerous concept.
Up to the point of the "Gacy" moniker, I had already been groomed by a priest who then hit on me. I twisted the experience to mean that he must have discovered that dark secret, that I may be gay. And that was terrifying.
Then what seemed to immediately follow was all the news about Gacy and the shocking discovery of all those young gay men buried beneath his home. It was the first exposure I had to gay men.
As a young boy, I always watched the evening news, and I still do to this day. Back then it was Walter Cronkite. And when the Gacy crimes were repeated over and over each night on our TV, and "John Gacy" was being repeatedly hurled at me in the classroom, I was petrified beyond belief.
This all predated the AIDS crisis, so during the late '70s, I was already overcome with a gripping fear about being gay. It was evil. An evil priest. An evil killer. To be gay was also to be a victim of a heinous act.
While watching the Netflix series Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, I was overcome by flashbacks of dread and how that coverage of Gacy's criminality so adversely affected me. I had sleepless nights with sweats and stomach pains. My mother would sit up with me each night, and we went to a doctor, who brushed it all off. I was so confused.
I know now that it was because I was consumed with what Gacy had done and who he had done it to and watched it on Cronkite night after night after night. And each time someone called me "Gacy" I was reminded of everything depraved about being gay. It was all intolerable. They were the worst years of my life.
That pain was painfully real, and watching the Netflix series just reminded me of all that torment. Then I got to thinking that I can't be the only one who feels this way.
I reached out to the director of the series, Joe Berlinger, who also directed series on other serial killers, including Ted Bundy and Sam Little. Rather than ask the perfunctory questions about how the series came about, etc. (it's all explained in the program), I wanted to know more about what kind of reaction Berlinger is getting about the series. Were there other men who were grappling with the same issues I was?
"Yes, I've been hearing a lot of stuff about how a lot of people feel exactly the way you feel," Berlinger told me. "As the series points out and what people are remembering is just how badly marginalized the gay community was during that time. Some of the people I have heard from are having flashbacks, like you, to how terrible that whole situation made them feel since it was on television every night because each day a new body or bodies were found in the crawl space beneath Gacy's home [in the Chicago area]. Then the trial started and became front-page news again."
Berlinger said that most serial killers go after marginalized people. "[Jeffrey] Dahmer and Gacy went after gay people, and if you were a female sex worker and were killed, cops would report that there was no human involved," the director explained. "It's just so hard to comprehend that and accept that that happened. Little's killing spree went on for 40 years, and he targeted women of color sex workers. Police back then as well as society couldn't have cared less about them."
"To be clear, I'm not criticizing the police in the series, because once they realized what was happening, they acted heroically," Berlinger added. "Police at that time were just reflecting the societal attitudes towards the gay community at that time. We talk about it in the series. Back in the '70s people were still debating whether homosexuality was a sickness, and it created a culture where people were afraid to come out."
As the series explains, coming out or fear of coming out led a lot of teenagers and young men to run away from their homes and flee to big cities, like Chicago. These men were congregating in a certain way, out of the eye of society, and not always in the safest part of town. "Gacy took advantage of these kids, and he knew that it was likely no one would report them missing after they were gone," Berlinger lamented.
Berlinger then contrasted the attitudes toward Gacy's gay victims to the attitudes about the victims of Ted Bundy. "When white, mostly college-age women began to disappear, society, the media and the police reacted swiftly. Manhunts were started and the media reacted with horror, and it was because they were white."
And there's a similar thread to why Gacy finally came under suspicion. "Robert Piest was a white, straight 15-year-old and was Gacy's last victim," Berlinger said. "Because he was heterosexual, police paid attention, and that eventually led them to Gacy. Serial killers tend to get sloppy towards the end of their assaults. That's what happened to Dahmer and Gacy, who just got arrogant at the end."
I asked Berlinger if Gacy had not killed the straight white Piest and kept targeting marginalized gay men, would his reign of terror continued far beyond his 33 victims? "That's correct. This was not the norm for Gacy, and that's what makes this so frightening because he would have kept killing. Who knows how it would have ended."
Piest's life and case is chronicled the most in the series. I wondered if it was because the loved ones of the gay men who were killed just didn't want to talk, perhaps because they didn't want to accept the fact that the young men they knew were gay. "Well, unfortunately, I can't speak to the reason they wouldn't talk," Berlinger said. "But obviously, there's so much pain around everything Gacy had done, and the loved ones of his victims still suffer. Most of the parents of the victims are no longer with us, and we tried to get families of some of the victims, but very few wanted to participate. They were fine, though, with us telling the story."
Why tell that story now? I asked Berlinger.
"There's a new generation who aren't familiar with what happened, and we wanted to talk about the fact that serial killers aren't who we think they are. Gacy ran a construction company and was active in his community. There's still that mentality that serial killers are evil 24/7, which makes most people feel secure since they think these people would be easily identifiable. Sometimes they are the people you'd least expect."
I did not expect that John Wayne Gacy would continue to haunt me. I had forgotten about him. Forgot about being called John Gacy and for most of my life concentrated on what that abusive priest did to me. I did not consider or recall the fact that Gacy and his victims were the very first gay men I ever heard about.
The series is well done, but it might be very painful to watch. It dredged up a lot of ghastly recollections that almost did in such a brittle and broken boy.