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The Devil in David Berkowitz

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I set down my pencil. I’m not sure what to make of the return of demons and talking dogs. David, always attuned to his interlocutor, is sensitive to my secular doubts. “If people don’t have a clue about spiritual things, they’ll say, ‘Well, this guy is nuts,’ ” is how David explains it.

David fixes me with blue eyes, close-set in a big oval head. “The Devil can manifest psychologically,” he says serenely. “Looking at someone controlled by an evil spirit, you’d think that person’s crazy … It’s all hard to explain.” There’s a shrug to his tone, as if to say, make of it what you will.

“The demons are real. I saw them, felt their presence, and I heard them. You get into a state that is so far gone your own personality is dissolved,” he’d once earnestly explained, “and you take on these demonic entities … It was like another person was in me … doing a lot of directing. I struggled, but things became overwhelming. I lost my sense of myself. I was taken over by something else, another personality.”

To David’s Christian circle, this is not incredible; it’s heartening. David’s dark past ushers them into the thick of a miracle, God’s mercy. To them, it’s as if he’s a figure out of the Bible, a familiar to its intense moral struggles, its miracles, its direct, communicative God. And right here in the Catskills, a short drive away.

In turn, his Christian friends celebrate David, elevate him. MaryAnn tells me that he is a modern-day Paul, the murderer who became an apostle. “That’s David,” says MaryAnn. “He lives by the Scripture,” says one Christian former law-enforcement officer. “He’s Jesus-like,” says another Christian friend, a former Jew, referring to David’s pared-down lifestyle. “He has an advantage,” I was told. “He’s away from all the distractions.” Incarceration, in this view, is a symbol: It stands for Christian suffering. “The walk of a Christian is to the cross,” MaryAnn tells me. “That’s the spirit of David.”

David has a long scar on his neck where an inmate at Attica slit his throat. MaryAnn reaches a hand to lift his collar. She wants to show me the scar, evidence of his trials. David flinches. He doesn’t want to draw attention to his past. Instead, he returns to the leather-covered Bible—MaryAnn covers her Bibles, the only books in her house, with old motorcycle jackets. He pages through, arriving at Acts 9. It is about the conversion of Saul—who, like David, was a Jew—to Paul the Christian. Saul was the persecutor of Christians; Paul the apostle of Christ. Next to this passage, I notice that MaryAnn has written, “DB’s testimony.”

“Paul … had to forget those past things and press on to the glorious future with God,” David believes, “and I have to do the same.”

In the visitors’ room, MaryAnn begins to quietly sing a hymn. She’s a musician with a beautiful voice and writes her own Christian songs. (She wrote one about David, rhyming “Son of Sam” with “the Great I Am.”) David sings along for a minute, then stops, perhaps embarrassed in front of me. He blushes. There’s a silence, and then MaryAnn says to David, “There are men that God raises up, and you’re one of them.” To me, she says, “God will build a church on David’s back.”

David rapidly blinks his eyes. “Okay … okay,” he says. It’s difficult to know what he’s thinking. Then he raises his palms, flapping them as if shooing away the subject.

“I’m a servant,” he says, which, MaryAnn assures me, is what an apostle would say.

People think I’m a figurehead,” says Berkowitz, “like Manson or something. He’s supposed to have groupies. I would hate that.”

“David is not going to tell you that he has the high calling of an apostle,” she says.

“I see myself as a humble servant, not as a big shot,” he reiterates. “People think I’m a figurehead … like Manson or something. He’s supposed to have groupies. I would hate that. I wouldn’t want that. I’m not the fanatic people have in mind.”

“I really believe,” MaryAnn tells me. “It’s not even a belief. I know, even though David’s in prison, he was sent to us. We waited on him.”

In letters to me, David wants to make sure I don’t misunderstand. In contrast to his mild presence, his letters are self-­assured, assertive, formal. He’s no longer in the confession business. “There are many things I no longer wish to discuss,” he writes. “I kept telling MaryAnn no, that I wasn’t ready [to be interviewed], but she was throwing a tantrum, stomping her feet and even shedding tears. I just moved into a different cell the day before and I was so tired that I capitulated to her request.” He wants me to know that MaryAnn has him wrong. “I am not in agreement with MaryAnn’s assessment that I am some kind of ‘apostle,’ ” he writes in a bureaucratic tone. “I wish to be a servant to others, to help whosoever I can and give people encouragement and hope.”


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