Mark Chapman’s last day on public exhibition for the murder of John Lennon was a reminder of the penalties we incur from our habitual neglect of apparently negligible people. He arrived in court to be sentenced with his hair and his flesh trimmer than we had ever seen them and sat holding The Catcher in the Rye before him like a missal throughout the nearly five hours it took to argue out what was to be done with him.

It was an argument notable for the absence of any real dispute about the swarm-haunted interior he had so long struggled with and once more managed to hide within an outward semblance as blank as a milk bottle. Jonathan Marks, his counsel, called him “a very dangerous man,” and Assistant District Attorney Allen Sullivan described him as someone “interested only in himself” and incapable of sorrow or remorse.

The largest portion of the day was occupied by Dr. Daniel Schwartz, the defense’s chief psychiatric witness, whose testimony had the particular fascination that resides in the discovery that any human container can look so empty and turn out to be packed to the point of bursting.

Chapman was only nine or ten, Schwartz reported, when he began populating the walls of his room with little people, his creation as Man is God’s. Sometimes he treated them to Beatle concerts, with the performers represented by his toy soldiers with pictures of guitars pasted over their guns. Sometimes his tiny subjects angered him and he disposed of troublemakers by pressing an imaginary destruction button on his sofa.

As he grew older, the fight to control himself and his rage grew more hectic still. He tried to order it by appointing a government of checks and balances with himself as a constitutional president subject to advice by a cabinet and restraint by a parliament. One committee supervised his budget, another managed his health, and another—of defense—held him back whenever some slight goaded him toward aggression.

With time, as presidents often do, he removed himself more and more from the ordinary citizens of his fancied kingdom and confined his contacts with them to appearances of state on television. But his dependence upon the elite grew more and more intense; sometimes his Congress would meet all night before it could decide his course. He was twenty-two before he dissolved his government. Early in the summer of 1980, he reassembled some of its more trusted leaders to propose killing John Lennon.

“They didn’t want any part of it,” Chapman told Daniel Schwartz. His interior structure, in so many ways ingenious and in not a few charming, had collapsed; and Mark Chapman was without a government.

He had thought off and on of killing himself and then, Schwartz believes, his illimitable imagination carried him to the idea that his salvation could be to create a substitute self, kill it, and be reborn.

John Lennon, Schwartz guessed, was Mark Chapman’s chosen substitute suicide. He set out to make his life as much like Lennon’s as he could, marrying a woman of Asiatic origin and deciding, at the age of twenty-four, to retire from the world of work as Lennon had. When he quit his last paltry job, the name he chose to sign out was John Lennon’s.

District Attorney Sullivan insisted that Chapman had fired only to gain fame with an act that “required no more talent than is needed to shoot a man in the back.” There is no real quarrel between this concept and Schwartz’s; both argue that Chapman felt himself nothing and wanted to be everything.

Just before the sentence Chapman was asked if he had anything to say and he answered that he did. His voice was unexpectedly light, gentle, and soft. He had selected a passage from The Catcher in the Rye as “my final spoken word.” It was those lines where Holden Caulfield pictures “all the little children” playing in the field with only himself there to watch and catch them before they fall off the cliff.

“Nobody’s around. Nobody big that is, except me.”

It was the world of little people he had invented as his property when he was a child and had lost when he had tried to carry it with him as a grown-up. Judge Dennis Edwards sentenced him to the full twenty-to-life, and, when he went away, he forgot to take the book with him. But then his true worst punishment may be that he has lost his hold on that phantom world. Since his arrest, he told Schwartz, several loyal cabinet members have begged him to reform his government; but he is afraid to call them back to office because he thinks that, once he’s in prison, they will be ashamed of him and run away.


Copyright © 1981 Newsday Inc.

This Issue

October 22, 1981