Writing the Monster: On “Truck Stop Killers” and John Wayne Gacy
In “Truck Stop Killer” (originally published in GQ, later anthologized in Best American Essays 2013), Vanessa Veselka writes of the years she spent hopping into cars with strange men, primarily long-haul truckers, one of whom may or may not have been Robert Rhoades, a prodigious serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered dozens of women. Veselka was fifteen at the time and had recently parted ways with the older boyfriend for whom she had abandoned her home and hit the road. Veselka quickly learned what she was in for. “The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute.” She even labeled the various degrees of trucker misogyny:
1. You (the driver) kept your urges to yourself.
2. You asked me to have sex and offered to pay.
3. You told me I owed you sex for the ride and chicken-fried steak and threatened to drop me off somewhere dangerous.
4. You dropped me off somewhere dangerous.
5. I had to jump when you slowed down because you were going to rape me.
Because Veselka was clearly perceptive enough (even at 15) to recognize the danger in her ventures with truckers evokes the question Why? Why would she choose to put herself in danger? This is a query that has continually drawn me back to this essay. In the midst of the newly inflated discussions about domestic abuse and the media’s constant questioning/interrogating/accusing of these women’s (the victims’) roles in the matter, I often find myself tentative to articulate my stance, worried that I might simplify the reality rather than validate its complexity; I’ve seen how the men (it’s nearly always men) who try to scrape answers from isolated anecdotes tend to silence the real issue with their noise. And when my own language/perspective falls short, I find it helpful to turn to someone else’s. Here’s how Veselka avoids making blanket statements that could potentially dress the countless women who’ve hitched rides with truckers in a tidy, yet false uniform: she simply doesn’t. “People don’t leave home because things are going well; they leave because they feel like they have to, and right or wrong, that’s how I felt.” Veselka presents the reader with a naked reality and then trusts us to accept it. What she doesn’t say says everything. Her background is not atypical. Most teenage girls argue with their mothers, and plenty have fathers living in different states; yet the fact that Veselka’s problems aren’t extraordinary in the aggregate doesn’t mean they weren’t so heavy on her shoulders that they didn’t eventually crash down and crumble the remnants of her remaining adolescence and lead her to the road.
My father’s story begins with Gacy’s co-counsel, Greg Adamski, and his wife, Karen. Greg and Karen were speaking to Gacy in a holding cell just weeks before his execution. Greg told Gacy that they had reached the end of the appeals road—the execution was now inevitable.
“Don’t worry, Greg,” Gacy responded, confidently. “I’ll be speaking with you on your birthday.”
Greg made eye contact with Karen then looked back to Gacy. “No, John,” he said. “My birthday’s in six months—you won’t be at that party.”
Gacy’s eyes locked on Greg. “Don’t worry, Greg, I’ll be speaking with you on your birthday. I’m sure of it.”
Greg shook his head: “Looking forward to it.”
I am both attracted to and weary of the essay welded to trauma—accounts of dead children, abuse, bullying, absent parents, lovers lost, etc. My fear: the author will use her painful past as a vehicle for a painful reader experience. I have no interest in the cautionary tale that is simply a cautionary tale: a photo of charred, mangled lungs on a cigarette box. But I also swoon at these subjects in hopes that the experience will be reformulated, transformed. I’m willing to let an essay haunt but not spook me. The problem with the trauma story is that it can be too easy to pigeonhole characters as either inflictors or recipients of wrongdoings, which is inherently anti-essayistic; it dehydrates the essay of its juice—shifting dynamics, complexity. There is no best practice when it comes to writing the monster except this: don’t write the monster. In Michelle Brooks’ essay “The Ceiling or the Floor,” she begins, “As an undergraduate in a modern dance class, I had to watch my rapist perform a solo dance number to the sound of dolphins crying”—one of my favorite opening sentences for an essay. Ever. Brooks adapted her traumatic experience into a form that could tease out comedy and absurdity despite the weightiness of the story without ever compromising or ignoring the gravity of the subject. She created a medium that could let us laugh at her rapist. Veselka doesn’t search for the witty (at least not in the comic sense) moments; I don’t think that was ever an option. The greatest tragedies inflicted by Rhoades were onto others, not her. But the success of “Truck Stop Killers” is attributable in large part to Veselka’s opening scene with Rhoades. She recounts catching a ride with him just days after witnessing a dead girl being pulled from a dumpster at a truck stop, an alert to the dangers of hitchhiking and later a key thread of evidence in determining whether it was actually Rhoades who had picked up Veselka. During the ride, Rhoades (presumably Rhoades) had pulled the truck off the side of the road and, with a knife to Veseka’s throat, escorted her into the trailer. Veselka remembers her response: “I said I knew he didn’t want to do it. I said it was his choice . [. . .] until he looked at me and I went still. There was going to be no more talking. I knew in my body it was over. Then he said one word: Run.”
At its simplest, this scene sets the occasion for Veselka’s investigation of Robert Rhoades and the women he killed, but it also does something greater. It reveals her willingness to paint Rhoades doing something innately human: making a choice. Addressing the tendency to classify violent men as “monsters,” Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side, writes, “But that term, with its connotations of the unnatural and uncontrollable, absolves the abuser of the responsibility for being human.” It would be absurd to expect everyone subjected to violence to search for moments of humanity in the narrative of her abuser, but for the essayist it is an obligatory exploration. I’m not arguing that everyone deserves empathy, just that all characters deserve flesh and blood and guts, because flesh allows characters to be surprising and malleable: to live and breathe, to rot and spoil. Dressing a character in flesh lets him/her embody the essence of what it means to be human and subsequently what it means to shift our preconceived paradigm; it makes it possible to mold the trauma story into essay, maybe even art.
On October 14, 1994, Greg Adamski got out of bed on the wrong side of forty. He poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and pressed play on his answering machine, listening to then deleting messages from familiar voices, friends and family members wishing him a happy birthday. And then Greg heard the cold, hollow voice of the dead. “Hey Greg, it’s John Wayne Gacy—I told you I’d call on your birthday.” A chill ran through Greg’s spine as if being inhabited by a poltergeist. He stepped back from the answering machine recognizing the absurdity—he’d seen Gacy on the gurney, heard his last words—“Kiss my ass”—yet it was undeniably Gacy’s voice on the machine. He was as certain of the voice as he was of its impossibility.
And then he heard a laugh—not Gacy’s, but his wife’s. Karen was standing in the hallway behind Greg, watching her husband react to the recording she had made months ago as a premeditated practical joke. Greg took a deep breath, a broken grin spreading, because he knew he was in the middle of a story he’ll tell for the rest of his life. A story he’d tell my father. A story my father would tell me. A story I’m telling you now. A story he knew meant something, whether or not he ever figured out exactly what that was.
Near the end of “Truck Stop Killers,” Veselka concludes: “this investigation of mine wasn’t a detective novel. It was a ghost story.” A ghost story? Sure. By digging into her own story and the stories of the many others who never had the chance to tell their own, she gave a voice to the silenced. But unlike the ghost stories told around campfires, Veselka refused to say monster. She didn’t let Rhoades off the hook that easily. She made him human—and in doing so rendered an account that in its restraint was all the more disturbing.
Andrew Maynard lives in his sister's 1976 Airstream on San Juan Island, Washington. His essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, DIAGRAM, and the inboxes of several receptive family members. He's currently at work on a novel, an essay collection, and landing a job with health insurance.