For many people, the most important questions about the Kennedy assassination are “Who killed Kennedy?” and, if Lee Harvey Oswald did, “Was Oswald part...

For many people, the most important questions about the Kennedy assassination are “Who killed Kennedy?” and, if Lee Harvey Oswald did, “Was Oswald part of a conspiracy?” This is strange, because we know the answers to both questions: Oswald killed Kennedy and he did so alone. These facts won’t keep people from speculating–everyone loves a mystery–but they might allow us to focus on more pertinent questions about what happened on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

One such question is this: “Why did Oswald do it?” Obviously, the answer will not be straightforward. Assassinating the President of the United States is, well, not really something a rational person would attempt, so we should not expect a completely rational explanation. Oswald was not crazy, but he was doubtless mentally ill. He had “reasons” for killing the president; it’s just that his “reasons” are not going to make much sense to us. To comprehend why he did what he did, then, we must comprehend how his “reasons” made sense to him.

In his insightful, well-researched book The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union (Basic Books, 2013), Peter Savodnik helps us do just this by investigating Oswald’s decision to defect to, live in, and ultimately abandon the Soviet Union. He convincingly argues that Oswald’s Soviet Period was part of a larger pattern, one that dominated his entire life: that of taking on and abandoning identities, always unsuccessfully. Even as a child (and, as Peter points out, Oswald had a horrific childhood), “Lee” never really “fit.” He could never find a group of people he could rely on, a social context in which he could thrive, a community that would respect him. As he matured, he began to search for an identity–in politics, in the Marines, and in the Soviet Union. Yet he was always, as Peter says, an “interloper”: he never lasted long in the skin of any given “Lee.”

To this reader, the fact that Oswald was essentially an interloper goes a long way in explaining why he murdered Kennedy. It was his last attempt to fit in, to establish who he really was, to find an identity.

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