Kerri Rawson, the daughter of BTK serial killer Dennis Rader, was pained after she revealed her family trauma publicly on Sept. 25 and lashed out at writer Stephen King.
Some of the pain came from social media. Horror writers, including Horror Writers Association president Rocky Wood, called her names and denounced her for criticizing King, who wrote a short story inspired by BTK.
“What an idiot!” Wood wrote. (Wood has since apologized).
Commentors on the news story about her, after it circulated nationally, ripped into what she said and questioned whether it was true, as she said, that she and her mother never knew about her father’s murders until he was captured.
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She’s not sorry about what she said.
“This was personal,” she said, “in a way that nobody else can possibly understand. I had had enough. I had stayed quiet for all those years, after my dad’s arrest. Wondering when next somebody’s going to come knocking at my door, with a camera. And all of a sudden this famous writer is talking on television about my family. I just had enough and decided to finally say something and stick up for my mom.”
A tough week, she said. But she’s had worse.
Some time after her father confessed in 2005, she studied the timeline of his murders, comparing it to the timeline of her own life.
Real horror, she said, is realizing that her mother was three months pregnant with her, on Dec. 8, 1977, when her father stalked and murdered Nancy Fox.
Her Sept. 25 interview was the first by anyone in Rader’s family since he was identified and captured by police and the FBI in 2005.
The vile nature of her father’s crimes shocked her. He murdered two children, 10 people all together. He took trophies. All this got done up in news stories, national television broadcasts, several books, “several horrible movies,” she said.
Kerri, her brother Brian and her mother, Paula, went into hiding. Reporters came knocking. “My mother’s doctor took special steps to hide her medical records, in case people came snooping,” she said. “After we went into counseling, the counselors hid those records, too. Whenever I came home to Wichita (from her home in Michigan) I walked around, wondering – do people know who I am? If they do, what do they think of me?”
People said – and still say – that her mother must have known something, during the 31 years BTK was free and active. They said this even after Wichita detectives said they were sure Paula did not know.
“That’s where a lot of my anger came from,” she said this past week.
King is “just going to give my father a big head, and he absolutely does not need that,” she said in the September interview.
King himself responded, with a polite e-mail to the Associated Press. She needn’t worry, he wrote. The character depicting Dennis Rader in “A Good Marriage” is a banal little man; the story is really about a brave and determined woman – her mother.
But some of his friends in the Horror Writers Association called her vile names. Others gossiped openly about what she looks like in her Facebook photos.
Brian Keene, a popular and influential horror writer, took to his blog on Tumblr to denounce the venom from other writers.
“She herself is a victim,” Keene wrote of Rawson. “Her entire childhood is a victim. Her memories are victims. With that in mind, perhaps we should feel some empathy and compassion for her, even if we don’t agree with her statement.”
Wood has now apologized for calling her an idiot. In an e-mail from his home in Australia, he answered questions about Rawson and about why horror stories intrigue people.
“I regret that spur of the moment comment and apologise to Ms. Rawson for having made it,” he wrote. “I understand that she has been traumatised by the revelations of her father’s actions.”
The cruel comments hurt, Rawson said. But she also said she’s sincerely interested in much of the criticism.
Her own husband, Darian, whom she values for his wit and insight, questioned her as soon as she told him she’d surfaced publicly to criticize King.
“He said, “You talked to who? And you said what?’” she said. “And then he said, ‘Do you know Stephen King has done a lot of charity work? Before you gave a shout-out to Stephen King, maybe you should have looked up his charity work.’
“Maybe,” her husband told her, “you were really just still angry at your Dad, and at the media.”
Maybe, she said.
One good thing about the backlash, she said: Though it hurt, it also felt like freedom. Finally, after nine years of silence, “I feel like I can talk about this openly and not have to hide. Talking about it finally felt like a huge release, like finally letting the air out of the bag.”
Imagine, she said, having the FBI knock at your door, then tell you that the father you loved and revered all your life had stalked women, murdered 10 people, suffocated or strangled two children, and sexually abused dead bodies.
“We have no one to talk with about that,” she said. “There’s nobody else to talk with who’s gone through anything like that.”
She was interested in what Wood had to say about horror writing, before and after she heard that he’d called her an idiot.
“From time to time some people blame horror writers, movies, games or TV programs for the actions of individuals,” Wood wrote.
“‘Life imitates art’ is the bottom-line argument with these claims. But of course art takes inspiration from real life. With millions of people reading horror and millions of people watching crime-based TV programs and movies, when one sociopathic individual commits murder, rape or a terrorist act it’s hard to sustain an argument that the fictional presentation is the motivation, inspiration or cause of such acts.
“How is (it) that the millions don’t act? It is clear that the mental state of the criminal and their background is the reason for their crimes. Generally, apart from someone who may have abused that criminal in the past, it is clear that the actions are the sole responsibility of that individual.”
“Horror is perhaps the original genre. The first tales early man told around the campfire were probably the scary tales of what lurked in the dark and in the hostile daily environment they faced. Exploring our fears seems to be a basic requirement for most of humanity. The real world is of course disturbing and frequently violent, if not to us to people we know or people we see on the screen or read about and we can empathise with. Horror and dark fiction writers often explore these areas, although of course there is a role for quiet horror.”
The reaction to what Rawson said about King is varied, he wrote.
“Some say she is a victim of her father’s crimes and deserves empathy. Others wish she had understood King’s good works and had understood he was not exploiting the BTK story, the way some true crime and screen presentations have. Some have said both of these.
“... King’s inspiration for this story owes almost nothing to her father’s crimes. As King has said the story and movie are about secrets – the secrets a husband can keep from a wife in the long intimacy of marriage. Also, that the Kings are deeply invested in charitable works, including to protect victims of domestic violence, and that King has written about that subject in many stories, including Rose Madder. I know for a fact that novel has given the courage to many women to leave abusive relationships.”
She understands all that, Rawson said.
She doesn’t regret criticizing King. He was writing and speaking about her family, after all, and she thought her family, especially her mother, had had enough rough treatment in the media from people who have never known what a good person she is. Her father’s victims had suffered terribly; her community had suffered for decades at the hands of her father.
“I thought, when I heard King talking, “Oh, gosh, would you just please stop talking about it!” she said.
But Wood’s analysis of the horror genre interested her. “I’ve never been a fan of the slasher movies … but I like watching ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” she said. “At home we’ve been watching ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ ” Until recently, she was a fan of Stephen King.
But while Wood and King might be experts on writing about horror, she and her family are now veterans of actually living it.
And it really was horror, she said.
When she made that discovery about Nancy Fox’s murder, it warped every memory she has about how she had become the person she now is.
“What does that tell you about him, that he did that while Mom was home and pregnant with me?
“My dad was the one who taught me my morals,” she said. “He taught me right from wrong – the guy who seemed incapable of seeing the difference between right and wrong was still able to teach it.
“And here’s the really crazy thing that I’ve had to think about: If my dad had been arrested in 1974, when he should have been arrested (after his first murders) then six other people would still be alive today.
“And their families would still have them.
“But my brother and I would not be here.
“That really messes with your head.
“You think about that. And you sort of shut down.
“You are alive. There is almost a guilt there, for being alive. They died. And you got to live. And my dad got to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. He should have been in prison in 1974. He shouldn’t have gotten the right to raise us.
“Other people got their daughters taken away from them.”
A big asterisk
One of the worst horrors of her life, she said, is now tied forever to one of the great, pivotal events of her life.
The central figure in both the horror and the greatness is her father.
Kerri Rader was born six months after her father murdered Fox.
Beginning 14 years later, she lost her religious faith. Her disenchantment with religion began after two kids she went to school with got killed in a traffic accident in 1992, not far from where she lived.
A couple of years later, a cousin died in another wreck.
“I thought I was done with God,” she said. Both her mother and father took them to church. Her dad, until 2005, was her church’s congregation president.
But after those deaths, her faith seemed to have evaporated.
But in May 1997, the year when she turned 19, her father took her brother Brian, a cousin and her to hike the Grand Canyon.
It turned out to be far more dangerous than they’d thought.
“Five nights, six days, 30 miles,” she said. “We took a lesser-known trail, rocky and steep, a lot more boulders and climbing.”
They began to run low on water. It was hot. They got separated from Brian, who they didn’t see for two days.
Her father worked hard to keep them going, to keep them safe.
“And I helped him, I encouraged him,” she said. “He was getting down.”
“For me, all this was life changing, “ she said. “I started praying.
“My prayers kept being answered. And I finally promised: I am going to come back and figure out this faith thing. And everything ended up being fine.
“When I got home, I found my Bible. At school, after that, Campus Crusade came in my life.
“That trip because of what we went through was one of the great events of my life.
“And now, it all has a big asterisk beside it.
“Because of my dad.”
About King’s work
“A Good Marriage” is a movie based on a Stephen King short story. King also wrote the screenplay and has said the story is loosely based on the BTK serial murders that began in Wichita in 1974. The movie isn’t coming to Wichita yet, but is available on VOD platforms and iTunes. For more, go to www.stephenkingsagoodmarriage.com.