Hinckley was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, midway between Oklahoma City and Dallas, in 1955. He was the youngest of three, with an older brother, Scott, and sister, Diane. His father, John Sr., was in the energy business. His mother, Jo Ann, ran the household.
When he was four, the family moved to Dallas. In elementary school, young John quarterbacked the football team and played basketball. The Beatles came to the United States when he was eight and he became a fan.
John Sr.’s business thrived, and the family moved to Dallas’s Highland Park suburb. The Hinckleys had a pool and a Coca-Cola machine. John Jr. managed the junior-high football team and learned to play guitar. In 1973, after he graduated from high school, the Hinckleys moved to Evergreen, Colorado, a wealthy enclave outside Denver.
Hinckley enrolled in Texas Tech in Lubbock, finished his freshman year, and moved to Dallas for the summer, first with his sister and then on his own. “I stayed by myself in my apartment and dreamed of future glory in some undefined field, perhaps music or politics,” he wrote in an autobiography composed for a psychiatrist.
When he returned to Texas Tech for his second year, he was assigned a black roommate. “My naive, race-mixed ideology was forever laid to rest,” he later wrote.
In The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr., his definitive 1984 book on Hinckley’s trial, Lincoln Caplan called Hinckley’s screed “an essay about his drift from Middle-American tolerance to a witch’s brew of hatreds.”
Hinckley moved to an off-campus apartment, dropped out of college in the spring of 1976, and flew to Los Angeles. It was the start of four years of drifting. He fancied himself a songwriter and tried to sell songs. He dropped out of contact with his family for weeks.
“Through a series of sorry circumstances, I am in trouble,” he wrote to his parents in June. “For the past 2½ weeks I have literally been without food, shelter & clothing. On May 14, someone broke into my room and stole almost all of my possessions.”
His parents sent money. Hinckley bounced from LA to Denver to Lubbock. He became interested in the American Nazis. “By the summer of 1978,” he later wrote, “at the age of 23, I was an all-out anti-Semite and white racialist.”
Hinckley moved back to Lubbock in early 1979 and started to buy guns. He moved three times from January to November, bringing the number of places he had lived since high school to 17, according to Caplan.
Hinckley had his first anxiety attack in 1980. A photo taken around that time shows him holding a gun to his head. He started to report physical ailments—hearing problems, dizziness, fatigue. A doctor prescribed an antidepressant, Surmontil, and then Valium. “My nervous system is about shot,” he wrote to his sister, Diane.
In May 1980, People magazine reported that Jodie Foster was enrolling at Yale. Hinckley started planning to court her in New Haven.
When he had first gone to LA four years earlier, he had seen Taxi Driver 15 times at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater. The movie starred Robert De Niro, playing a violent cab driver named Travis Bickle, who falls in love with a woman named Betsy, an aide to a presidential candidate. When Betsy rejects him, Bickle tries but fails to assassinate the candidate. He then tries to rescue Iris, a prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Eventually, Travis Bickle is seen as a hero for saving Iris.
Hinckley told his parents he was going to Yale to study writing and convinced them to subsidize him. In September, he traveled to New Haven, not to write but to win Foster’s heart. He left letters and poems in her mailbox and had two awkward phone conversations with her; he recorded both.
In his last phone call to Foster’s dorm, he heard laughing in the background.
“What are they laughing at?” he asked.
“They’re laughing at you.”
“Seriously,” she said, “do me a favor and don’t call back.”
Hinckley flew to Lubbock and bought two more .22-caliber handguns, bringing his arsenal to three handguns and two rifles. He stalked President Carter in Washington and Ohio but never attempted to harm him. He traveled to New Haven and left more notes for Foster. He flew to Nashville, where Carter was speaking. Security staff at the airport confiscated his handguns and arrested him but let him go.
Broke again, Hinckley returned to his parents and went into therapy, but he didn’t fully reveal to the psychiatrist his feelings about Foster. Starting in November 1980, Hinckley bounced among New York, New Haven, DC, and Denver, where he tape-recorded a monologue saying that he was on the road to “insanity” and threatening “suicide city” if Foster continued to spurn him.
In March 1981, Hinckley went to New Haven and left the last note for Foster. “Just wait,” it read, “I’ll rescue you very soon. Please cooperate.”
Then he ran out of money and tried to go home. His parents had made him agree that he’d be on his own after the last cash infusion. His father paid for his flight to Denver but told him to take a room at the YMCA. Hinckley sold some guns to raise money for a final trip to Hollywood to sell songs.
He failed and boarded a bus to Washington.
Next: "It's delusional thinking. It's pathetic, but delusional."