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The Devil in David Berkowitz


In the meantime, and perhaps for the rest of his life, God’s special servant experiences little beyond prison life, which David lets me know is depressing. Jesus may have improved David’s character, but a stable mood is still a struggle. He’s not on medication or in therapy, he says. Yet bouts of sadness, crying spells, and hopelessness sometimes beset him. “Prison is crushing, oppressive. There’s anger and disappointment, broken lives,” he tells me. “Every day is a challenge. To get up in the morning and see the bars … Sometimes I can’t get out of bed.”

It’s striking, after a few hours, to hear David speak this way. Christian talk usually conforms to set themes: pitched battles, God’s warming love, triumphal futures. Despair is preamble. Then comes Christ, and worlds, and moods, are remade. Yet sitting here, his hot dog gone, David sounds sad. I ask about his daily satisfactions.

David thinks a moment. “I love nature,” he offers.

It seems a strange thing to say. I look around. It’s the view from inside a concrete mixer. “I am an avid birdwatcher,” he persists in a quiet tone. From his cell window, David says, he watches sparrows and crows splashing in puddles in the prison yard. Sometimes, geese fly overhead. He likes that. “I saw a deer,” he says.

Nature may break the monotony, but for David, happiness, earthly happiness, is a thing of the past. The very thought of it takes him back. As a prison guard looks on, David’s mind drifts into the past, to racing with the neighborhood kids to a Yankees game. “My mom packed a bag lunch,” he tells me. He had a three-speed English Racer on which he sometimes spent entire days. “I miss my dad,” David says abruptly. “I’d love to be leading a normal life.”

David is lonely, though not as lonely as he was. With Jesus, everything is possible, a new future, a different past, even the admiration of others. Once he’d prayed, “Please give me a reason for living.” The Lord came through. “Without Jesus,” he tells me, “I wouldn’t have survived. Because of Jesus, my life is not a waste.”

Our time is up. Visiting hours are over. David spots a guard approaching and, ever attentive to the rules, rises preemptively. He offers me a brotherly hug. MaryAnn and I turn to go. An indulgent guard allows David to linger a moment longer.

“Where do you go now?” I call.

“To hell,” David says, and smiles. That smile.

Additional reporting by Ariel Brewster, Meghann Farnsworth, Matt Stevenson, and Merry Zide.


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