Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Where September 11 changed my world, JFK's assassination changed the world of my parents. Shootings -- whether they're assassinations of political figures or the all-too-prevalent school shootings that continue to punctuate the news -- bring about questions. Why? What was the shooter thinking? Did the shooter's parents have any inkling their kid would grow up to be a murderer?
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I had the opportunity recently to talk to the award-winning author and journalist, Steven Beschloss, about his latest book, The Gunman and His Mother: Lee Harvey Oswald, Marguerite Oswald, and the Making of an Assassin.
BlogHer: I read this in your marketing materials: "He was a quiet boy who loved to stare at the stars. She was a bossy woman who always felt broke. He loved to ride the subways, skip school, go to the zoo. She was desperate and itinerant, forced to put her three kids into a New Orleans orphanage. He was a heavy reader, a homebody; she an oppressive and volatile figure. Both felt the world owed them better, and both carried a grudge that never softened. He was Lee Harvey Oswald and she, his mother, Marguerite." Do you think Oswald inherited his mother's personality or her personality shaped him into what he became? In other words, nature/nurture?
Steven: As I note in the book, Lee Harvey Oswald, like every child, was born innocent. He was also intelligent, serious and tried to make sense of things. There’s no indication that he suffered schizophrenia or other genetic disorders to explain how his life ended up. This was a boy sorely in need of guidance and a family setting where he could form a healthy, independent identity. That didn’t happen. Lacking the ability to recognize his needs, she was quick to excuse his anger and his isolating ways. In short, he was set up for failure and, as we all know in the end, failure of catastrophic scale.
BlogHer: Oswald and his mother were from another era when mother-blaming was pretty common in mental-health cases. Did you have any qualms about viewing her from today's light versus the light of her era?
Steven: Oswald’s father died two months before he was born and there was no other father figure, so his mother was the central defining influence in his life. She moved him frequently, six times by age three, more than 20 times by age 17. This transience made it hard for him to form healthy relationships, and it made him more dependent on his mother. Plenty of kids have done fine with similar circumstances, if there’s love and support. But, as 13-year-old Lee told psychiatrists and social workers after he was taken into custody for truancy, he felt his mother “never gave a damn” about him. In fact, she frequently let him and his brothers know that she considered them “a burden.” She encouraged him to avoid contact with others so he’d be easier for her to manage. When he acted out violently, she just brushed it off like it was no big deal. She fed his delusions that he could be a great man, even though he dropped out of school at 16 and lacked any special skills. There are many other ways she undermined his chances to build a stable, normal life.
The doctors’ assessment of Lee at 13 offers a pretty vivid picture of the challenges he faced. The chief psychiatrist at a juvenile home observed that he was suffering “emotional isolation and deprivation, lack of affection, absence of family life, and rejection by a self-involved and conflicted mother.” But it wasn’t just mental health professionals who came to that conclusion. Based on my reading of the direct opinions of family members, friends, neighbors and others who came into contact with Lee and Marguerite, that is an accurate summary. So whether we are looking at his story in the 1950s or today, it’s hard to avoid the negative influence that his mother had on him.
BlogHer: I didn't know Oswald tried to immigrate to the Soviet Union before he shot JFK. Did he hate America and kill JFK because the president physically embodied it?
Steven: Oswald left the US and defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, in part to escape his family, while also imagining that life in the Communist state could be better. He had plenty of harsh things to say about his home country, including criticizing the problems of racism and poverty and rejecting capitalism. Less than a year after he got there, though, he realized that life was not better in the Soviet State, and he wanted to come back to America. (It took him until 1962 to get back.) Once he returned, he remained hostile to many aspects of American life, especially as he failed to keep a job or support his family. He became increasingly violent and desperate. That said, he had told his Russian wife Marina that he liked President Kennedy. But fortune had placed this most powerful person in his path—it didn’t matter whether he liked him or not—and he took that chance to become an important person, no matter how much pain it would cost.
BlogHer: Both Oswald and his mother seem to think they have it worse than everyone else around them. Were they merely negative, or do you think they had delusions of grandeur? Did one feed the other?
Steven: Marguerite would say that Lee was so smart that he didn’t really need schooling—that he seemed to already know the answers. He picked up that attitude, which made it hard for anyone to tell him anything. When anyone disagreed with them or doubted them, it intensified their hostility toward others and to the outside world in general. They both carried an enormous grudge, both were quick to feel slighted. It didn’t help that Marguerite encouraged extreme expectations. Lee wouldn’t just be a soldier in the Marines, he should be a general ... not just a student in the class, but the class president.
Lee spent so much time by himself, fantasizing about the big life he was going to have someday--and even though he dropped out of high school at 16, struggled to hold a job, always kept to himself and rarely made friends, he still imagined he could do something great. In the last year after he got back from the Soviet Union, he even said that within 20 years he was going to be a prime minister. This overheated sense of himself was surely fed by Marguerite in the early years—and he ran with it, to a most terrible degree.
BlogHer: What motivated you to write the book?
Steven: Twenty years ago, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I lived in Helsinki and traveled quite a bit to Moscow to write stories. I was asked then to develop a film script focusing on the time that Lee Harvey Oswald spent in the Soviet Union, arriving there by train after getting a Russian visa in Helsinki. So I knew some of the hotels he stayed in and places he went, and I got interested in his story. Imagine: Here’s a 19-year-old boy who leaves the US to go to the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, stays for nearly three years, then returns just 17 months before he ends up in the Texas School Book Depository and kills the president. That’s pretty intriguing stuff, and it made me awfully curious to know more. The film was never made, but over the years since then I’ve remained interested in—and continued to research--the family story, the psychological story, about Oswald, particularly his relationship with his mother. Who really was he? What can we learn from his background? It struck me that this was getting missed in the midst of all the conspiracy stories. When it was getting closer to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, I realized I had to write this book.
BlogHer: Did researching and writing this book change your parenting style at all? Because it would make me completely paranoid.
Steven: Well, it surely made me appreciate my thoughtful and loving wife even more. I also stepped back and noticed that—even though we have two teenaged daughters and it can get pretty dramatic at times—there’s a lot of laughter and love in our house.
I think I understood the value of that before, but studying the story of Lee Harvey and Marguerite Oswald reminded me about what’s most essential: Create a loving, supportive and stable home for your kids. If that doesn’t happen, they are at a higher risk for trouble later.
Do you remember where you were when JFK died?
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