Murder in Chicago

On May 21, 1991, Ioan Culianu, a young (forty-one) and brilliant professor of the history of religion at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, stepped into the stall of the restroom of his department. Someone in the adjoining stall climbed onto the toilet seat, aimed a Beretta .25 at the professor’s head, and killed him. As the Cook County medical examiner Robert Stein remarked, “To kill with one shot from a .25 at that distance, that’s not easy.” Which immediately suggested a professional killer.

The police had no leads. First, they considered the explanations any investigator would think of: disgruntled student, homosexual involvement, robbery attempt, cherchez la femme. But Culianu had not been robbed; he was known to be happily engaged to Hillary Wiesner, a brilliant and charming young scholar; and he was immensely popular with his students. It emerged, however, that he was a Romanian exile openly opposed to the former Ceausescu regime and to its successors. Culianu could have been killed by a member of some fanatical sect with which he was in contact, or by surviving agents of Romania’s notorious secret service, the Securitate. In any event, the Chicago police still have not found the guilty party.

Last year in Bucharest, after I gave a lecture on a quite different subject, one of the first questions asked by the audience was: “Is it true that you were acquainted with Ioan Culianu? How do you explain his death?” I replied that I had exchanged a few letters with him, that I admired his work very much and he had demonstrated a flattering interest in mine; and so a cordial friendship had developed, though I had actually laid eyes on him only two or three times, always on public occasions. The last time had been when my novel Foucault’s Pendulum was being published in New York. At a roundtable discussion of the novel, Culianu was in the audience with Hillary Wiesner and was invited to take part. After that I didn’t see Culianu again. When I learned of his death, I took another look at the inscription in the author’s copy of his Out of This World,1 which I had received a short time before. The date was April 4, 1991. And this was all I could say in Bucharest. About his death I knew only what everyone else knew, namely that nothing was known.

I sensed the audience’s disappointment. They wanted me to talk about Culianu, to reveal something further to them; and I realized that, especially for the younger generation of Romanians, Culianu had become a myth. Or perhaps a political symbol. I realized that, beyond his academic work, very little was known about him. Now, having read Ted Anton’s book, I know more. Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu is a detailed reconstruction of a much-publicized crime, but the solution that the author suggests certainly has political significance. At the same time this is also a book about a myth,…

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