In David Nelson’s 2021 book Boys Enter the House: The Victims of John Wayne Gacy and the Lives they Left Behind (Chicago Review Press) the text begins with an illuminating author’s note, one wherein Nelson explains the terms he uses throughout the book, the way the interviews were conducted and complied, and most importantly, what his intentions were going into the writing of this book. He explains that “[t]hroughout this book, I have striven to keep focus on victims as much as possible, not just the immediate victims of John Wayne Gacy (or other abusers and villains depicted within) but also the collateral victims who continue to hurt. Ultimately, Boys Enter the House is a coming-of-age story” (xi). Conceiving of a true crime text—especially one that deals with one of the most notorious serial killers in recent history—as a “coming-of-age story” is a framework that immediately captured my interest, especially because it has been easy to forget that most of the victims of Gacy were children. Nelson delivers on the ambitious intentions set forth in his author’s note in this transformative true crime story.
At the end of his introduction, Nelson suggests that
You know the story of John Wayne Gacy. But you do not know the story of these boys, the brothers, boyfriend, signs, friends, students, habit these pages, who came of age in the 1960s and flourished in the 70s in a wild world full of music and change, judgments and love, light and dark (4).
As a reader, Nelson had my buy-in early, because as a voracious reader of true crime, I am hungry for texts that situate themselves not only with the victims/survivors but paint a vivid picture of the context in which the crimes took place. Nelson explores the lives that each victim led in the north side Chicago neighbourhood, Uptown, and his explanation is almost anthropological in its scope. He explains how the boys’ families came to this neighbourhood and just what the area looked, smelled, and felt like in the early 1970s. He explains the way most of the boys were living in poverty and were dealing with abuses and situations beyond their control. However, Nelson also crucially taps into the landscape of each victims’ boyhood and all the dramas, hopes, pains, and dreams that that entails. The non-chorological aspect of the book helped me to see how all these lives were connected—many of the boys knew each other and their lives intersected in significant and insignificant ways. Going through the parts of the book where Nelson relays the lives of Uptown, you can almost forget you are in a true crime text, for the focus is on life. This is a beautiful and important achievement.
Boys Enter the House also very delicately and straightforwardly deals with the LGTBQ+ history in Chicago and discusses the way that some of the boys became involved with sex work to make ends meet. The text importantly resists the misconceptions about these boys and explains just how the sex work was conducted, who was involved, and what connection, if any, these activates had with Gacy. As in the sketches of Uptown, the text resists assigning each boy to one general experience; many of the victims of Gacy were not involved in sex work, and of the boys that were, they were not all involved in sex work in the same way. This was extremely gratifying for me as a reader because it freed these boys from what they have been associated with and presented them as fully-fledged human beings.
Eventually, the text does get to Gacy and the murders, as well as the investigation. But the focus on the boys, who they were, and who they were to other people, is never abandoned. Nelson suggests that “[a]fter their disappearances, after their murders, they walked, like living people, through the landscape of others’ dreams,” and in some ways, this mirrors what it feels like to read the portion of the text that deals with the murders (307). The horror and brutality of what happened to these boys does not overshadow Nelson’s sketches of them as people. Their experiences live in your mind and “they walk, like living people” through the pages that do not mention them. When Nelson discusses the infamous crawl space, or the trial, or what the detectives saw when they first entered Gacy’s house, the living boys are still with you, in Uptown, trying to get through a complex boyhood. Gacy himself is not central, or mysterious, or even interesting—he is simply a man who did horrible things to boys you have come to know. For a narrative in the true crime genre to do all this is as difficult as it is rare, and it is for this reason that I consider Boys Enter the House one of the most important true crime books in the history of the genre.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.