The curiosity of brains in a jar - Daniel Silliman

John Wayne Gacy's brain is in a Chicago basement.

The serial killer, who sometimes dressed as a clown, who raped and/or murdered 33 young men, burying many of them beneath his house, was put to death by the state and had his brain cut out, put in a jar, in a basement, in Illinois.

I'm not really interested in Gacy. Serial killers are a cliché - an overdone genre which, I think, emphasizes and exaggerates the lie that evil is something foreign to us normal people - and I don't have a fear of clowns, so Gacy doesn't interest me.

But I'd really like to see his brain. There's something ethically disturbing about the preservation and display of a brain and something psychologically satisfying about it, too.

Albert Einstein's brain was stolen.

A doctor in the hospital where the great physicist died took it, without permission, and has it, dissected into a couple of pieces, in his house. Sometimes he travels around the country with it, leaving the jar of floating gray matter in the passenger seat, or setting it on the bureau of a motel room, and the brain that once thought about energy, matter and the speed of light goes on tour.

On the one hand, the overwhelming thought is, "Why?" On the other, it makes perfect sense. It's the fetish for celebrities taken to the final phase. It's our fascination with historic characters in it's truest, most ghoulish form.

Someone owns James Dean's jacket. Someone owns Pamela Anderson's breast implants. Someone owns the Killer Clown's brain. Someone owns a coin, found in the wreck of a Spanish galleon. Someone owns an inn where George Washington once slept. Someone owns Einstein's brain.

We all want to touch something older than us, more important than us, greater than us. We want that connection to "cool," "beautiful," "genius," "evil," or something.

A friend of mine has her grandmother's cremated remains on the mantel, which strikes me as weird, but which I understand, at least a little. I wonder what it's like though, to be rummaging through the basement, looking for last year's Christmas decorations, and seeing a jar of brains just sitting there.

Maybe having a brain in a jar in the basement would give you Hamlet-like moments of revelation of mortality and frailty. Or maybe it'd be like that knickknack gift you don't care about, don't notice, but have to dust all the time.

We didn't always think that "thinking" happened in the brain. In the ancient Western cultures, people thought they thought with the liver, or other organs. In medieval Christian cultures, people thought that thought was spiritual, believed they thought with a non-material "mind" that communicated to the body through the brain, but which wasn't the weird looking stuff between their ears.

We're brain centered and we like to talk about it like it's a machine, complete with wheels that turn. We think we think with our brains, so that the essence of somebody is thought to be extractable, somehow, if you crack open their skull and remove the insides. There's something cannibalistic about it. But there's something religious about it, too.

John the Baptist's head is in the basement of a Vatican city cathedral, or at least it's rumored to be his head. They couldn't preserve brains, back then, but a skull lasts and sometimes scholars kept skulls on their desks and sometimes churches kept them in their crypts. John was beheaded, you'll remember, while dissing the authorities and proclaiming the coming of Jesus Christ.

The Egyptian Church says it found John the Baptist's skull and they had the relic in their church during the crusades. The Roman Church said it wasn't safe there, so close to the Muslim's, and so they stole it and now they have it under St. Peter's.

The Egyptian Church says the Romans never got it, though, because they switched John's head with someone else's head, and the real one is still in Egypt. So there are two skulls, in church basements, both claiming to be John the Baptist's.

I'd like to see both of them.