This is the hauntingly true story of the infamous Wichita Kansas Serial Killer, BTK. Katherine Ramsland, PH.D. has in depth work into the minds of one of the most notorious extreme offenders in modern history.
*PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL PROCEEDS OF THIS BOOK WILL GO TO THE VICTIMS FAMILIES*
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Available now on Amazon: CONFESSION
Katherine Ramsland began her career as a writer with Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice. She had a bestseller with The Vampire Companion. Since then, she has published 59 books and over 1,000 articles, reviews and short stories. From ghosts to vampires to serial killers, she has taken on a variety of dark subjects.
She holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, criminal justice, and philosophy. Currently, she teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University. Her books include The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers.
She speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder, and has appeared on numerous documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, 48 Hours, NPR, Coast to Coast, Montel Williams, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood. She spent 5 years assisting “BTK” Killer Dennis Rader write his autobiography, and has started a supernatural fiction series with The Ripper Letter.
*In your recent book, The Mind of a Murderer, and now Confession, both take the offender’s point of view. Can you tell us the significance of this as opposed to other approaches?
Actually, The Mind of a Murderer places each POV of an extreme offender in the frame of the theorist or clinician who interviewed him or her. It describes a dozen cases from the past century of mental health experts who devoted time to an extended case analysis through interview. This gave me an appreciation of the benefits of this approach, which can yield items that arise only with a deepening sense of the subject. Because it’s clinical and not salacious, the trained listener can structure the questions for maximum advantage to the discipline of criminology. You get a good sense of the layers of behavior – especially the manipulative behavior – as well as being able to ask a lot of questions that might occur to you along the way, so you can develop a more complex portrait. Within that, you might find motives that fail to fit stereotypes. An important aspect is to identify outliers, so that we can recognize the limits of our current theories and improve them. With Rader in Confession, at first, there was distance, as he did not know me well but he respected my credentials. As he found that it was easy to talk about ordinary things, he revealed more. There came an element of trust and familiarity that one can achieve only with numerous contacts. In addition, if you catch someone in an inconsistency or deception, you have their statements on tape or in writing. More important, though, is the ability to stay focused on a subject, pressing for clarity and detail. This is what we call qualitative research, which provides an open-ended richness to an interview that standardized tests or superficial questioning just cannot achieve. It’s not about having offenders just talk about whatever they want. Because the experts have background in research and/or trained expertise, they will structure the interviews to draw out helpful insights. There’s a bit of a research filter, but not much.
I appreciate this approach very much as it applies to the the discipline of criminology. Hopefully this will give us an inside view of the criminal mind and expose the limits of our understanding of serial killers. I’ve read another book entitled, Inside the Mind of BTK by former legendary FBI profiler John Douglas, who writes from a completely different approach. But the approach taken in Confession provides a certain mindset drawing out rich details.
*How do you immerse yourself in the mind of an extreme offender such as Dennis Rader?
I’m not sure if you’re asking about my method or my ability to endure it. My method was to read everything available, including five years of correspondence from a previous person who had contacted him. Then I spent five years corresponding with him and talking with him on the phone. Prison visits, I discovered, were of little value, aside from socializing. The real work came from his writing and drawings. How I was able to get deeply into this project relies on the ability to keep my goals in mind and adopt a clinical perspective. I have studied extreme offenders for many years and have written quite a few other books on them, so I had the ability to 1) listen to Rader describe his murders without reacting emotionally, and 2) place what he was saying in the context of my prior research. Many writers will tell you that immersion is truly the best way to experience and express yourself on any subject. Quite a few of my projects have been immersive. In this way, you shed your personal frame and evolve toward other perspectives. You learn to think like someone else. My first experience of this was jarring, but eventually I fully embraced it.
Wow. This was truly an immersive project. Having to read 5 years of previous correspondence, spend another 5 corresponding, and then conclude with a professional analysis is nothing short of amazing.
*What did you learn about the perception of this particular serial killer?
Dennis Rader has written hundreds of pages and drawn explicit pictures from his fantasy life. He provided a rare opportunity to get inside the mind of an organized, predatory serial killer who designed his killing career on specific role models, real and fictional. Because he offered specific details, I could add some experience. For example, when he described how he had selected stamps to use on his cat-and-mouse letters, I considered this when I looked at a wall of stamps. It helped me to briefly think like a predator. In turn, this helps me to stay safe and teach others to do so. I expected that working so closely with someone like Rader would have an impact on my thinking and theorizing. I have deepened my description of certain aspects of the criminal mind. Rader and I discussed things like living compartmentalized, but watching the act of it up close is quite an experience. There were walls that kept him sealed inside specific narratives, and nothing I asked or said made him more self-reflective about them. However, this behavior interested me, too. Cops have said I didn’t confront him enough to get to the “truth,” but there are many types of truths. I wasn’t interrogating him.
People like Rader think differently. As Rader puts it, “Hunting and prowling became a habit, much like drugs. You learn to cover up, hide those times in your normal life and develop a different set of life frames.” We need to accept that reality has layers and we don’t all share the same perception of it.
Yes, I read about his development from his childhood, and it definitely sounds like he had some abnormalities that may have affected his brain development. Especially his hidden erotic fantasies. It seems that they secretly grew within him until he actively sought out to reproduce what he saw in his own head.
*How is Rader unique in the realm of other serial killers?
It’s difficult to answer this question succinctly, since I spent an entire book exploring it. But I can say this: Many people have assumptions about serial killers and they expected Rader to fit the mold. In some ways he did, but in other ways he didn’t. Not many serial killers start out trying to copy role models. Not many compartmentalize successfully for three decades, especially when addiction is part of the compulsion. Few carry on a successful social life, with family responsibilities and a job, while also planning murder. Those who are conversant with their paraphilias won’t necessarily offer up details for analysis the way Rader did. Many have abusive backgrounds, but he did not. He kept an extraordinary amount of “hidey-holes” for all of his fantasy paraphernalia. And he had contrived a way to be Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler all rolled into one – although he didn’t quite pull off his ultimate plan.
He definitely breaks the mold of assumption. This was definitely an eyeopener!
*In a separate interview, you made this statement: “I am most fascinated with Rader’s description of “cubing” (his word for the more clumsy academic phrase, compartmentalization). He talks about how he developed “life frames,” but more interesting for me was bumping up against these boundaries whenever I asked difficult questions.” Is this “cubing” or compartmentalization unique to Rader, or do others exhibit this trait?
Living with several psychological compartments is common to anyone who attempts to have separate and contradictory centers of morality or meaning. It’s difficult to kill and also dictate that extreme violence on TV is wrong (as Rader does) unless you can move comfortably between these diverse points of view. It’s not multiple personality disorder. It’s more like being an actor, taking on different personas. With these people, the various roles are part of their lives. With psychopathic tendencies, the reduced sense of empathy and the lack of remorse assist the process. But compartmentalizing isn’t limited to serial killers, or even to criminals. It’s not difficult to spot it in many public figures, from sports stars to CEOs to politicians.
On one hand this is completely mind boggling, but on the other it’s very fascinating. A lot of people are intrigued by crime because they don’t understand the “why” or the motivations behind it. Although we may never understand the reasons or varied obscurities of crime, we should analyze its expression. In this book, you let Rader express himself according to a structured clinical perspective. He also kept copious amounts of written material about his fantasies, crimes and drawings which gave us an intrinsic view of his mindset.
*Do you think this “cubing” mindset contributed to his criminal behavior? Or why in his own mind would he separate his lifestyles in the way that he did?
Cubing is a pretty common activity, and it evolves gradually. It’s not a calculated adoption of a lifestyle. It’s part of the development of a fantasy life, because it’s about enjoying oneself in secrecy. The more deviant one’s fantasies are, the more likely one will develop a cube for it. In this way, the brain develops neural pathways to support it, so that it’s easier to go in and out, as well as easier to keep separate. You develop a persona that is acceptable to the people around you, but you go into your fantasy world when you want to fully indulge. I would say any novelist knows this experience, and probably other creative types. The more they accommodate the secret life, the more natural it feels, and if it’s more rewarding than ordinary life, it will become their ultimate retreat. Then, when they act out and actually commit a murder to accommodate their fantasy, they decide if it’s all it was cracked up to be. If so, and they get away with it, they will do it again. Rader describes how he kept believing there was a line he wouldn’t cross, but then he did. It was like being on a boat that was floating away. He kept thinking he wouldn’t float so far that he couldn’t get back to shore, but then he did. And he accommodated it, thereby evolving toward a new sense of himself. What he believed did not match his reality. His victims paid the price for that. Then his life changed and kept changing, but he had no moral base against which to measure himself. He just kept doing what felt good to him. He recreated himself.
I’m very curious about how his brain would’ve developed abnormally according to his dark fantasies. He probaby was hard wired completely for his intense fantasy world. Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, has great potential for change throughout life according to normal life experiences. As a child develops over time their brain is shaped according to what they learn and practice producing neural pathways typical of any human being. But in this case, sounds like his brain developed atypically for something dark and abnormal. From what I’ve read, even way before he acted out his killings on others, he practiced binding on animals and even on himself.
One other confusing thing is that he had no moral base against which to measure himself. He was the president of his church and an active member so he must’ve possessed some morals. Second, he was a strict city compliance officer who would go out and measure people’s lawns with a ruler. Third, he served in the U.S. military for some length of time. Fourth, he was a cub scout leader. Fifth, he was a wannabe cop who was addicted to reading detective magazines. The guy definitely had morals, well, at least in that “cube” of his life. But when it came to his “fantasy cubed life” he used a twisted sense of morality to carry out his crimes. Actually, his sense morality in this part of his life was entirely based on fictional and real serial killers. He would berate and measure himself if he didn’t’ conduct his crimes correctly or lose control.
*Was he incapable of distinguishing between his “normal” life from his own criminal fantasies?
No, he was capable of understanding the difference, but the reward of his darker life had more weight than his “social obligations.” It felt more alive and exciting; it held the possibility of fame. His ordinary life did not. Some offenders are much more focused on immediate reward than on moral duty and prosocial behavior. This does not mean they are mentally impaired. For Rader, it became an addiction, but he didn’t lose sight of the fact that murder was wrong and illegal. After all, he went regularly to church!
This is fascinating. That he was completely capable of understanding the difference between the two, yet the reward of the darker life dominated all sense of social obligation, or moral duty of law. Now I’m theorizing how this goes back to his lifelong practice of paraphilia would’ve affected his brain development and neural pathways. Any drug addiction is a neurochemical nightmare on any human body. According to WebMD, “drug addiction is a brain disease because the abuse of drugs leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain”. Unfortunately his drug of choice was a complex binding and torturing fantasy of human beings.
*Why do killers seem to inspire one another? Is it fame, power, recognition?
Only some killers are inspired by others, and for a diversity of reasons. Healthcare serial killers, for example, want to learn how to use medications they hadn’t thought of. Among copycat mass murderers, some get ideas or methods that they hadn’t considered, while others find courage or confidence from seeing another carry out what they fantasize about doing. For some, the act of another is a trigger. Something similar can be said for serial killers who view others as role models or who think that this is the best road to fame. Rader got ideas, was inspired, fed his fantasies, acquired an identity, and felt compelled to become one of the elite. He had several reasons to copy others, but primarily it was for the erotic rush. But I’ve seen some killers who merely seek fame. There isn’t a way to generalize, because each has his or her own trajectory toward violence.
I think I understand some parts of his life, but seeking to become one of the “elite” is beyond me. We talked about cubing or compartmentalization. It seems that all his “cubes” were just a stage for the most dominant one, his fantasy. The addiction of the erotic rush was there, but so was ambition to become one of the greatest. To me, this is just an extension of his fantasy.
*Why would he, or anyone, seek to be famous for serial murder?
For some people, fame is highly intoxicating. Some people seek it through legitimate means, others through crime. Those who seek it through crime either believe it’s the only way they can be famous or they decide that crime is the most exciting avenue to fame. They see it in news coverage and they want to be described like that, too. Some even identify an actor to play them in a movie about their crimes.
Fame can be intoxicating. We can see that in the corruption of politics, sports, business and even our own lives. But how someone would seek it through crime is unfathomable. Then to decide that it’s the most exciting avenue to fame is startling. Fame can be a drug or an addiction.
*How will the findings of this book affect criminal or forensic psychology?
It won’t affect these disciplines as a whole, but hopefully, I have added some information to a subfield of knowledge about extreme offenders. I would like to believe that I have elicited greater appreciation for the extended, in-person case study, but I know that few people have the time to devote to something like this. I also hope I have made a case for keeping our notions about serial violence open-ended. People who study human beings in terms of probabilities or trends tend to focus on categories – what I call a cookie-cutter approach. This encourages a “we know all we need to know” mentality. I prefer to ponder individuals, to see how the particular details of their lives braided together toward violence. I think we need to stay open to the element of surprise and uniqueness.
I believe your last statement wholeheartedly. I would prefer to ponder the individual as well, then apply it contextually.
*What did you experience in writing this?
Across the course of five years, I had many experiences, although I never had second thoughts about pursuing it. At first, it felt somewhat daunting, although I had already written two biographies and other books. Also, I knew that some serial killers can be vulgar, crude, and demanding, but Rader never was. Over time, we got to know each other and the project took shape. When I saw that he was really trying, this became a more significant project for my research. As I was wrapping up, it seemed like this could be the most intense and psychologically deep book that I’ve ever written. I didn’t know if it would actually turn out well, but during the final six months, I was pretty sure it would cap so much of what I had done before it. The final result feels dense and comprehensive, but I don’t think what I did is complete, so there’s an experience of anticipating something more.
I really appreicate the time, effort and dedication you’ve committed to this project. You’re a consummate professional. Thumbs up.
*How has this book affected your understanding of a serial killer?
I have deepened my understanding of certain aspects, such as the academic notion of compartmentalizing. But also, I have experienced pressure to force Rader into a “type,” to make him fit cultural and academic notions about serial killers. Colleagues had certain expectations, such as that he had to have been abused as a child, which made me think about the fact that we sometimes act as if we already have all the answers. This is a terrible attitude for researchers. It means we’ve closed off possibility and there’s no reason to keep exploring. When we’re dealing with humans, we can’t be so certain. Each person brings something from his own life story, and rather than try to force Rader into a pre-established mold to suit colleagues, I let his story be the way he saw it. Maybe it’s not all true and maybe some things remain hidden, but the behavior that went into the telling of it had its own revelations. Having once taught existentialism at Rutgers University and having studied phenomenology at Duquesne University, it was nice to be reminded to bracket my personal bias and let the raw material be what it was.
This is much appreciated! You’re highly regarded for expertise and experience. You’re honesty is also notable. Thank you so much for all your hard work.
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