The Missing Meaning of Andrew Cunanan
Turning a killer into a symbol
For someone obsessed with appearance, Andrew Cunanan seemed especially self-loathing in the manner of his death. The shot from the .40-caliber pistol all but obliterated his once handsome face. Eight days after his dramatic apparent assassination of designer Gianni Versace, a hunted Cunanan had fired on the caretaker of an empty Miami Beach houseboat where he had taken refuge. Hours later, when police entered the boat behind a fog of tear gas, they found Cunanan dead by his own hand.
As the search for Cunanan ended, the frenzy to invest his story with larger meaning had just begun. Some tried to portray Cunanan as representing a narcissistic, predatory gay culture. The New York Post's reference to Cunanan as the "bloodthirsty gay serial killer" typified commentary that conflated homosexuality with grim themes of AIDS and murder. "This is not to say that just because someone is homosexual that he is crazy," said Dr. I. Townsend Dann of the Florida Psychoanalytic Institute. "When I see patients who are homosexual . . . the pathology is much more serious." Indeed, Dann said, in " art, entertainment, and areas such as fashion design there is going to be a reasonably high percentage of disturbed people."
Dann admits that his views may be "politically incorrect," but even some members of the vibrant South Beach gay mecca say that excessive behaviors are all too common. "The South Beach culture is based on escapism and narcissism," said Richard Siegler, director of the South Beach AIDS Project. "If you ask people why they come here, they'll tell you: drugs, sex, and parties." No wonder Cunanan would be attracted to it: A roommate in California said he was into S&M and bondage, and another said that in his waning days as a gigolo he had taken to selling drugs.
Daddy's boys. Another quickly propagated theory, featured in the Washington Post, linked Cunanan to the "sugar daddy" side of gay culture, where handsome young things gain the affection and financial support of older men. This interpretation cast Cunanan in a Cinderella-like role, charming prosperous and powerful older princes with a falsely glamorous version of himself before returning to the drear of his normal existence.
But in slightly different circumstances, Cunanan's violent life and death might have given rise to dramatically different interpretations. Rather than glamour and excess, most of his life represented corner-cutting and making do. Though Cunanan had briefly impressed his friends in San Diego with fine cars and lavish meals, he was in the end reduced to living in an inexpensive hotel a few miles away--but a world apart--from South Beach.
According to the FBI, Cunanan's other alleged killings had different rationales. The first was in peaceful Minneapolis, the victim a friend and lover whose rejection of Cunanan apparently provoked a narcissistic personality to rage. "He lost the older man who took care of him financially, he lost his looks, he was rejected by a best friend and another ex-lover," said Larry Harmon, head of the Dade County Psychological Association. "All of those losses can trigger a break causing someone to murder," especially if already stressed. These traumas apparently caused him to spin out of control, killing another friend in Minnesota, a businessman in Chicago, and a cemetery worker in New Jersey before coming to kill Versace.
And there may be a simpler explanation. Perhaps there are times, as Freud might have put it, when a sociopath is just a sociopath.
This story appears in the August 4, 1997 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.