After Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, he calmly opened up Catcher in the Rye and proceeded to read it — before being apprehended. John Hinckley, the man who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, also was in possession of the book. It is also alleged Lee Harvey Oswald was quite fond of the book, though this is disputed.
Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies. Of the millions who have enjoyed the book, perhaps three have become well-known assassins. Still, we should ask: is there any merit to the book being an assassination trigger?
How did famous assassins perceive Catcher in the Rye?
Of the three assassins, Mark David Chapman was the only one obsessed with it. Being a Christian, Chapman took offense to Lennon’s atheism. He saw John Lennon as a phony, because he saw God as real. By killing Lennon, Chapman hoped to save children from emulating Lennon’s godless ways. Chapman saw Catcher in the Rye as his inspiration.
John Hinckley was not obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. It just so happens that when police entered Hinkley’s residence, Catcher in the Rye was sitting on his coffee table. Hinckley, while mentally unbalanced, had an altogether different obsession: Taxi Driver. Hinkley saw himself as Travis Bickle. By killing Ronald Reagan, he sought to impress Jody Foster.
As for Lee Harvey Oswald, Catcher in the Rye was just several other books he owned. He also had in his possession Animal Farm, Das Kapital, and Mein Kampf. He was also a big fan of spy novels and science fiction.
Catcher in the Rye depicts Holden Caufield, a 17-year-old boy who narrates from a mental hospital. The book recounts events over a two day period that happened a month earlier.
To those who do not cope with a mental illness, the plot of Catcher in the Rye seems depressing, and it is. But by the book’s end, it is apparent that events being described are actually the happiest moments in Caufield’s recent memory. What he describes is something that he remembers fondly as joyous and happy.
He chooses not to mention present day, saying simply that he feels “sick”. Seeing, his current life as inconsequential, he feels he needs to “start applying” himself. Inside the mental hospital, he find he misses everyone: his former classmates, Stradlater and Ackley, and even Maurice, the elevator operator/pimp.
What’s striking about Catcher in the Rye isn’t how weird Caufield is, but how normal he is. Rather than being unhinged and unpredictable, Caufield is simply a boy very much like other boys. In this sense, it is easy for someone dealing with depression to identify with him.
The Grain of Truth in the Conspiracy Theory
While Catcher in the Rye may not have been designed to turn children into cold-blooded killers, it is true that the CIA conducted mind control experiments — some of them seemingly designed to trigger individuals into asssssination mode. The most well-known of these experiments was Project MKULTRA. This project lasted nearly 20 years, and is a catalogue of unethical activity:
The published evidence indicates that Project MKULTRA involved the use of many methodologies to manipulate individual mental states and alter brain functions, including the surreptitious administration of drugs and other chemicals, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, as well as various forms of torture.
The most infamous example of Project MKULTRA’s activities is the case of Frank Olson. A United State Army biochemist, Olson was given LSD without his consent. Soon after, he fell 13 stories to his death. Officially, it was ruled a suicide, but as Olson’s family points out, Olson planned to blow the whistle on moral issues he had with his research.
When Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994, cranial injuries indicated that Olson had been knocked unconscious before he exited the window. The medical examiner termed Olson’s death a “homicide”.
Why was Olson murdered? Olson’s concerns were the development of assassination materials used by the CIA, collaboration with former Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip, LSD mind-control research, and the use of psychoactive drugs during “terminal” interrogations under a program code-named Project ARTICHOKE.
Clearly, though Catcher in the Rye probably was not the assassination trigger, it is quite probable that the CIA often does use other means for assassination triggers.