“Here pity only lives when it is dead": a moment in the Chicago neighborhood of John Wayne Gacy

The quote in the title of this article is from Dante Alighieri's immortal poetic depiction of hell, The Inferno. The Inferno is a perfect moniker for where I wound up yesterday on a beautiful Monday in Chicago.

Throughout my childhood I heard the name John Wayne Gacy passed around like a boogeyman, a hush falling over a crowd when his spirit was present. "Just hearing that name gives me goosebumps," my neighbor said just a few days ago. In this way, or at least at first glance, Gacy has achieved the exact opposite of the immortality that we mortals yearn for. He is remembered as a monster, a spectre of hatred, and a blight on the city of Chicago.

The basics of Gacy's crimes, according to CrimeFeed.com, are that he was "convicted of murdering 33 teenage boys and young men, as well as the sexual assault of a child" from January 3rd, 1972 to December 11th, 1978. Gacy embraced his celebrity-like status in jail, setting up a twisted art dealership for his paintings of clowns and other macabre entities. His reward for these crimes was, again from CrimeFeed.com, "lethal injection [on May 10, 1994]. The whole process ended up taking almost 20 minutes because of a problem with the chemicals used. Afterward, William Kunkle, a prosecutor at Gacy’s trial, remarked, 'He got a much easier death than any of his victims' " Gacy's legacy has earned him the nickname, "The Killer Clown."

Yesterday, on the way back from a bookstore in Niles to the suburb of Addison where I live, my mother, sister, and I decided to make a small detour to 8213 West Summerdale Avenue and the spot where Gacy's "House of Horrors" once stood. The number has been retired, as a result of its last infamous resident, so the house with that number no longer stands on this mortal plane. We did this, not out of some sick tribute, but because I was curious what kind of atmosphere permeates the area.

On the way to the house, we passed the Des Plaines River, the site where Gacy dumped the body that would get him caught.

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Even passing the river chilled us to the bone. Bodies of water, like people, don't hold a bias until they are infected. This river now must hold the unfortunate title of being Gacy's own private River Styx.

As we approached the neighborhood, we were struck by how normal the surrounding areas were. There were families out and about, sprinklers going, children kicking balls and causing trouble - all the signs of a healthy, thriving little berg.

As we turned onto Summerdale, the revelry ceased. The sprinklers were gone, the children were nowhere to be seen, and the people non-existent. Tragedy hung in the air like cloths of asbestos, choking the life out of all that dare approach. I thought to myself that this must be what it's like to walk the paths of Auschwitz and sense the dread history of a specific area. The cloying taste of death lingered on the palate.

And then, the moment of truth, we approach the spot where Gacy's house once stood.

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The grass was as green as a fresh lime, almost mocking us with its purity and beauty. This is the spot where, so many years ago, bodies were piled like plywood in a crawlspace, their souls yearning for vengeance. Gacy not only took these men's lives, but he took away some of their childhoods. Men, who may one day have had children to play on such grass, were not given that luxury we all have of choosing to live. He raped them of their innocence, purity, and eventually their lives.

What started earlier in the day as a passing fancy turned into a cold reality once we set our eyes on this spot. The feeling that this was Ground Zero, and that this man stood on this lawn with the lives of young men at stake, causes the heart to ache. At that moment I had a thought: there are people who actually idolize serial killers and see them as heroes of men. They put these scum on pedestals and worship them, spewing the crimes as if they were causalities of a great warrior's conquest.

Gacy, and all murderers, should be universally reviled. I'm fascinated by the psychology of a murderer, especially one as depraved as Gacy, but I would in no way condone hero worship when it comes to them. These crimes can and should be learned from, as a precaution, but they should not be held as holy doctrine.

The neighborhood has the feeling of eerie stagnation. There's a mix of houses that were built before and during the time Gacy was there, but there are giant McMansions as well. The neighborhood is trying to pull up the roots from under this place, but we hold them down, forcing the past to merge with the present. It isn't a happy marriage.

As we departed the neighborhood, at the end of the lane, I saw a fence, collapsed in a state of wanton disrepair:

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I thought of Gacy when I saw this sight. Gacy started out like all of us, innocent to the evil of the world. But, somewhere along the way, the fiber of his being cracked, collapsed, and erupted into violence. He repressed his homosexual urges and was ridiculed at the hands of an abusive, homophobic father. Gacy's mind split under that pressure, spiraling him into his future crimes. Gacy was this fence.

I do not mourn, or even pity, John Wayne Gacy. Man has the ability to make choices, and the ones he made were sick, twisted, and destructive. But, at the end of my journey, I thought how easy it is for good to becomes evil. How one tiny fracture in one's consciousness can alter the lives of thousands. I will most likely never return to that cursed neighborhood, lest the brick in my gut ever return.

Dante's quote is a fitting epitaph for this cemetery of the human spirit: "Here pity only lives when it is dead."

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