The Mental Illness Behind the 'Foxcatcher' Murder
<em>Foxcatcher</em> is the new Bennett Miller movie that tells the backstory of a brutal, mysterious, and headline-grabbing 1996 murder. However, the murderer and his motives are richer and much more complex than what is even on screen.
John E. du Pont, 28, scion of one of the world's largest fortunes and aspiring US Olympic pentathlete, practicing the pistol-shooting part of the sport on his farm. Photo by Paul Schutzer/the LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Foxcatcher, the new movie from Capote and Moneyball director Bennett Miller, tells the backstory of a brutal, mysterious, and headline-grabbing 1996 murder. The film opens with the recruitment of Olympic gold-medal wrestler and impressionable hulk Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) by John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) in 1984. The reclusive and narcissistic trust-fund kid wants Schultz to lead his vanity project, a private wrestling club hosted on and named after his Foxcatcher Farm estate. The relationship evolves from patronage to manipulation, drawing in Mark's brother, the tactically brilliant Olympic wrestler Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Over the course of the film, du Pont's peculiar and malevolent behavior stretches everyone involved into states of emotional tension, culminating in an eight-year flash-forward to the infamous moment when du Pont fatally shoots Dave Schultz. A gripping and character-driven narrative, the film's a showcase for the established skills of Bennet and Ruffalo. It's also a defining moment for the careers of Carell and Tatum.
But there is even more to the story of John E. du Pont and the fateful murder, as well as the mental illness that metastasized in him during the 1990s.
Born in 1938, John Eleuth ère du Pont was (as his character makes so painfully clear in the film) an heir of the du Pont family. Minor French Huguenot nobility, the du Ponts immigrated to America circa 1800 and went on to establish a gunpowder business that evolved into a chemicals company with a cutting-edge research and development department—they created nylon, teflon, lucite, and other synthetic polymers. At one point, they essentially ruled the state of Delaware, employing as much as 10 percent of the population.
As one of America's wealthiest families, conspiracy theorists often claim the du Ponts are in the Illuminati. They're also the subject of tales of corruption and nepotistic wheeling and dealing. Most recently, one member of the family, Robert H. Richards, escaped a prison sentence after admitting to sexually abusing his own children, leading to accusations that the family essentially bought his way to freedom. And his was only a recent case. Enough du Ponts have been implicated in crimes and walked away with light sentences that the New York Daily News, during coverage of the Schultz murder, ran the headline: "There's been lots of nuts in this family tree. Generations of inbreeding, scandals, cults, and vicious feuds." It points to a longstanding belief that the wealth of the du Pont's led to grotesque narcissism—a big part of the narrative undergirding the film.
But John E. du Pont wasn't some direct heir sitting alongside a cabal of wealthy, tight-knit, and protective relatives. He was one of more than 3,000 descendants (just over 200 of whom carry the du Pont surname) with a claim on a $12 billion fortune. Most of these relatives don't even know one another, save as some faceless entity eating a slice of the family pie. By all accounts, John E. du Pont didn't have many ties to the rest of the family. He wasn't even that close to his older siblings, most of whom left home while he was still young. "Some members of the family did come to his rescue during the trial," recounts du Pont's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom. "There was one sister who was fairly sympathetic." But that solidarity fell apart pretty quickly. "It all just denigrated into a civil case over custody of money," namely John E.'s $200 million slice of the family pie, says Bergstrom.
Much more of du Pont's social instability seems to have stemmed from a childhood of mollycoddling and isolation that the film captures in the few pitiable memories Carell's du Pont leaks out from time to time. After his father, William du Pont III, left in a nasty 1941 divorce, young John E. lived isolated with his haughty mother, Jean Liseter Austin (Vanessa Redgrave). Tom Huddleston writes in his somewhat schlocky Wresting with Madness: John E. DuPont and the Foxcatcher Farm Murder that his mother left him in the care of an estate worker named Mr. Cherry, but "[she] had also made sure he was fully aware of his place on the food chain, and that place was at the very top. Mr. Cherry was one of their servants, and John could never truly respect him." He was warned never to let in outsiders, but learned that "with servants, there was nothing to fear—their allegiance and loyalty was bought and paid for." His mother also instilled in him her belief in excellence, in proving one's worth beyond inheriting a name by proving one's skill at something proper.
While the film focusses on du Pont buying his way into exciting worlds and manufacturing his own symbols of success to impress his dismissive mother, previously John E. had apparently tried his damnedest to be good at something. His old high school and college coaches talk about his discipline and ambition to become a world-class swimmer or pentathlon athlete, but say that the boy just lacked talent. And as a doctoral student, he managed to discover two species of birds, detailed in reports he co-authored on expeditions to the Philippines and South Pacific in the early 1970s. (Some claim he just bought his way onto these teams and expeditions, but there's just not much evidence of this, save perhaps the fact that he won both the "Most Likely to Succeed" and "Laziest" superlatives in high school.) But for whatever reason, academia didn't stick. In the 1980s, he turned back to sports, hoping to excel as a patron and coach instead, opening his Foxcatcher Farms wrestling team with the ambition of filling out the US Olympic rosters and pouring funds into USA Wrestling and Villanova University's wrestling programs.
The fact that Villanova and USA Wrestling eventually distanced themselves from du Pont are used as examples of his shady, narcissistic dealings—trying to claim more power than a patron ought to. But at the same time, he was also making an honest name as a collector of silverware, tin toys, Staffordshire china, seashells, and stamps. He owned the word's rarest stamp, and his bird collection was so immense he had to open a museum to house it all. His collections went on tour anonymously. He would attend their exhibitions in secret, apparently just content to see people appreciating what he'd built.
All the raised eyebrows surrounding his sports-patron career may have as much to do with his poor social skills, intense sense of isolation, and deteriorating mental state than as with the impulse to buy importance. In 1991, du Pont told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he'd paid for 100 students to go to college and that he'd received Father's Day cards from them—the whole effort seemed like more of a bid for human connection than for control.
Around the same time, du Point was already exhibiting signs of mental illness. In 1983, du Pont married a young woman, but the marriage broke up in a $5 million divorce case when he allegedly tried to stab and strangle her, throw her out of a moving car, and toss her into a fireplace in what in retrospect may have been fits of paranoia. During the Team Foxcatcher years, Jack Cuvo, a wrestler on the estate, recalls that he started talking to walls, believing he could see animals emerging from them. He'd have the wrestlers go into the walls to chase them out.
"John was putting razor wire in the walls of his house," adds Bergstrom. "He had armed guards all over the place." He rode around the estate on a tank, dynamited fox dens, shot geese he believed were casting spells on him, removed all treadmills and bikes because he thought they were sending him back in time, and drove multiple Lincoln Continentals into a pond to block hidden passageways he believed were down there. By 1995, a year before the murder, he'd developed a phobia of the color black, believing it was a sign of his impending death. He kicked three African American wrestlers off the farm in 1996 for that reason. That year, he also pointed a gun at wrestler Dan Chaid and cursed him off the property.
Bergstrom believes that security consultant "Pat Goodale was feeding his paranoia. Goodale agreed to put up barbed wire and dig tunnels and stock firearms" in accordance with du Pont's paranoia. But there's evidence that alcohol and maybe cocaine abuse was involved as well. Either way, by the time of the murder in 1996, when Bergstrom met du Pont, he says, "for lack of better words, he was completely nuts."
The film paints the murder as a reflection of du Pont's anger with Schultz, whose charisma and strength of character challenged du Pont's authority. Many articles share this opinion, that the culminating murder was the result of a soured friendship—retribution for Schultz's impudent and ungrateful decision to leave Foxcatcher for a coaching job at Stanford. The narrative is supported by Schultz's old high school wrestling coach, who claims the relationship with du Pont was straining months before the murder and by the fact that, after firing the first of three shots at Schultz, du Pont screamed, "You got a problem with me?" Some believe there was a sexual component at play as well—wrestler Andre Metzger filed a suit against du Point, alleging he was kicked off the team for rejecting Coach du Pont's advances. Many other wrestling coaches share this belief.
Bergstrom, however, saw Dave as du Pont's defender, the last wrestler standing, who tried to help him through his emotional troubles and mediate between him and the world. To the end, du Pont seemed to be begging Schultz to stay, sending him a Christmas bonus after learning that he'd leave even when Schultz didn't expect one to arrive. "He didn't kill Schultz because he didn't like him or because he was going to leave him," explains Bergstrom. "He thought he was a Russian agent for God's sake." That is to say, the psychosis developing in du Pont led him to the paranoid delusion that Schultz was a sleeper agent bent on killing him and that the murder was an act of self-defense, a position du Pont maintained well into the future.
Du Pont's madness pops up all throughout the trial records, asserted by both the prosecution and defense. Relatives said that he'd started to claim he was the modern American Dalai Lama and would only answer to that title. Security personnel said he acted with an uncharacteristic spontaneity, making the murder seem like an unplanned, paranoid climax.
At his first hearing, he was deemed unfit to stand for trial and had to wait for months to get his head straightened out. He rarely spoke to Bergstrom and never testified himself. In the end, he was charged with third-degree murder, a ruling mitigated by the conviction that something was seriously wrong with du Pont. We'll never really know the full extent of what was wrong, though, because du Pont died in 2010, quietly living out life as a clerk in the prison chapel, dreaming of a return to Foxcatcher. But tellingly, he was buried in a red wrestling singlet with his awards. He left 20 percent of his estate to his own Eurasian Pacific Wildlife Foundation and 80 percent to a Bulgarian wrestler and his family. This enraged du Pont heirs who had a claim on the cash.
Viewed from 1984 to 1988, du Pont looks like he does in the film: A deeply disturbed man bent on control as a means of massaging his own ego, who fails to comprehend humanity and real social interaction. However, in the context of du Pont's whole life, who he was and his motives for murder may have been even richer and much more complex than what is seen on screen. Yes, his story is about failed bids for control, mommy issues, and the corrosive power of wealth. But beyond that, the real man's story involves that vast gulf between the desire and ability to connect with people that bedevils some people suffering from mental illness. "Everybody knew [that something was wrong]," says Bergstrom. "And nobody did anything about it. Nobody tried to get him help."
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