John Warnock Hinckley Jr. was born in 1955 into a very wealthy family. He grew up playing everything from football to baseball, learned the piano, and was elected class president twice. After graduating from Vanderbilt University he was made vice president of his father’s oil business. Everything was going very well for Hinckley. Then, on March 30th 1981 at 2:27pm, Hinckley fired a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver six times at President Ronald Reagan as he left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Reagan was hit once in the chest by a ricocheting bullet, press secretary James Brady was hit in the head, and two other stray bullets hit police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy. By some miracle they all survived.
What could have driven Hinckley to commit such a vicious act of violence? He had no obvious motivations; no political ties or reasons to hate Reagan. As unbelievable as it sounds, Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate the president was driven by an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster, a woman he had never met. He had been stalking Foster for 7 months and had become convinced that killing the president would give her reason to show interest in him. To the dismay of the American public, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was instead placed in institutional psychiatric care.
Hinckley’s behaviour is thought to be explained by the delusional disorder erotomania. People suffering from erotomania believe that a stranger, often a celebrity, is secretly in love with them but unable to show their feelings to the rest of the world. Sufferers will interpret “clues” of this love in their recipient’s actions, often analyzing subtle body signals or claiming telepathy. Even when dismissed, the patient will remain convinced that their object is unable to reciprocate love due to some forbidden reason.
Aside from the Hinckley case there have been a number of other notable examples. One woman called Margaret Mary Ray stalked both TV entertainer David Letterman and former astronaut Story Musgrave over a course of years; she broke into Letterman’s house many times and once even stole his car. In another case a homeless American man set himself up on a secluded island within sight of Buckingham Palace, sending hundreds of strange and offensive parcels to Queen Elizabeth II over the course of 15 years.
Erotomania is a strange, strange disorder. It’s hard for us to relate to people with such obsessive thoughts, but we must resist dismissing them as purposefully malicious or incurably “crazy”. Erotomania is often found in the context of schizophrenia and can sometimes be treated with anti-psychotics. These patients can ground their minds and can return to reality. Indeed, as of September 2016 Hinckley has returned to society and lives a quiet life at his mother’s home in Virginia.
All images produced by the author unless otherwise specified.
- Kelly, B. D. (2005). Erotomania: epidemiology and management. CNS Drugs, 19(8), 657+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=otago&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA199914894&asid=6b5813d53ee9427a0f77b4571a95b527