Behind the Mask

I found a book had been recently written on Bill Coday, who was the murderer of Lisa Hullinger, a friend of mine from college. It’s here on Google Books: Behind the Mask: A True Story of Obsession and a Savage Genius by Stella Sands.

There are quite a few chapters not available in the Google books, but  I went out and bought the book after I started it, because there was a lot more that I wanted to read. In addition to my personal contact with the subject of the book and one of his victims, I was an alternate on a jury for a murder trial where the death penalty was requested several years ago, so I had some idea how that would work itself out in the book.

I met Bill when he came to visit Lisa in the fall of 1977. He turns out to have been GT (Gifted and Talented – high IQ with multiple talents); I remember him as being nice and intelligent for the brief time that I talked with him, and surprisingly tall compared to the way he appeared when he was sitting down. He murdered Lisa in Germany in 1978, and went on to murder again in Florida in 1997. I will leave out any speculation as to why he murdered, but I found out a lot more about his background, and it seems that he faced a number of issues that I think that GT men face during their adolescence and adulthood — without becoming murderers and perhaps without even raising their voices. Moreover, I discovered that he was only about six months older than me, and that he also was into literature and languages at the time. I’ve never met a murderer with whom I’ve had so much in common, though of course I absolutely deplore his deeds.

First, he faced problems with developing personal and vocational goals for his life and overeducation and overqualification (he earned a law degree though he could not practice law, and then earned a Master’s in Library Science), and found it difficult to find work outside academia and the library system. It looks to me like he was to some extent the perpetual student who was probably financially dependent on his father well into his thirties. It looks like it took a long time for him to develop any kind of financial or vocational stability, and that was a long time after he had committed his first homicide.

Second, he seems to have had some difficulties with making male friends. His father seems to have been a distant workaholic who was unsympathetic over the problems his son had with his asthma and elsewhere in his life and treated him with the ‘Suck it up’ ethic. I think that this could be called, ‘developmental neglect.’ It’s rather bizarre that he seemed not to have any close male friends until he found himself on death row in Florida.

Third, he seems to have been a great conversationalist, full of information and very considerate and helpful, but the help, socializing and consideration seems to have been one way many times.

 Fourth, he was a voracious reader, and his reading fed a very active imagination and fantasy life. This seems to have led to an idolization and idealization of women, and I think that infatuation deepened this to a dissociation from the reality of what was actually happening in his relationships with women. I think that one of the tendencies of a GT enhanced imagination and fantasy life can be that infatuations grow into obsessions, and that these can be quite difficult to shake.

Fifth, he seemed not to have developed resilience to rejection from others and from women in particular. From what I could tell, rejection sent him into a downward spiral of depression and extended self isolation. I think that he had trouble connecting with others when he went to Depaul University in Chicago, and that this contributed to the growing ‘strangeness’ that seemed to drive Lisa to distance herself from him in the fall of 1977 and break up with him in February 1978. Lisa immediately began dating a closefriend of mine that same month. It does not look like there were any male, or for that matter, female, friends that he had who were close enough to him to help him to put things into perspective after this breakup. This led to stalking behaviors and his assertion that he continued to have these great relationships when the women he had broken up with kept on saying that they were ‘just friends.’ It looks like no one helped him to back off, correct his misunderstandings and fantasies, learn from the experience and move on. His dad could have given him this kind of guidance earlier, but it doesn’t look like they were ever close enough to do that.

Though six mental health professionals diagnosed him as being depressed with psychotic episodes and as having borderline personality disorder, during an appeal of his death penalty he wrote a long confession asserting that he knew the symptoms for these conditions and faked them during the sessions that he had.

The book also left me unsatisfied in that it blamed Bill for having a lack of social skills and focused on his relationship with his parents to the exclusion of his relationships with his teachers, football and baseball coaches, and high school and college peers. I wondered the extent that he had experienced social ostracism or bullying during those years. He was big enough that he might have experienced less physical bullying, but that’s not necessarily much of a defense; 7 foot 4 (223 cm) Karem Abdul Jabbar has written about how he himself experienced bullying when growing up.

Bill was also the type of person that I think would have shied away from a party culture at college, so my personal conjecture is that might have contributed to the deterioration that Lisa witnessed from the fall of 1976 to 1977. When I met him, my memory is that he seemed to be neglecting his personal hygiene and was kind of pudgy, so it was a surprise to me that he had participated in football and baseball during his high school years. My conjecture is that, socially, he suffered from a kind of benign neglect during the more ‘normal’ times and social distancing — where many saw that there was some kind of emotional deterioration happening but no one would or could do anything — during the more difficult times, which contributed to his self-isolation.


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