Half of Kerri Rawson’s memoir reads like a loving testimonial to her father. He takes her on a hiking trip through the Grand Canyon, rushes her to the hospital when she breaks her elbow, gets emotional when she leaves for college. The biggest source of tension between the two, it would seem, is that he doesn’t immediately warm to her fiancé.
But then there’s the other half of the book: the half that starts on February 25, 2005—the day he was apprehended by police.
Unbeknownst to Rawson, her father, Dennis Rader, had lived a double life. He was the BTK Strangler—a serial killer who murdered at least 10 people with incomprehensible sadism: Binding, Torturing, and Killing his victims inside their homes.
Rawson spoke with A&E Real Crime about her book, A Serial Killer’s Daughter, and her struggle to reconcile the man who raised her with the one who, for years, terrorized her hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
Let’s start by talking about the relationship between your mom and dad. In your book, you describe how after an FBI agent told you about your father’s arrest for murder, you immediately asked about your mother’s well-being. Growing up, did it seem like your parents had a difficult relationship?
No. I would say they were happily married… When I asked about my mom, I was asking because I was being told that my dad was a murderer. The first thing that crosses your mind is: he must’ve committed a murder right then. I knew she was with him in the home.
You don’t realize they’re telling you he committed murder 30 years ago.
They’d go to movies, out to dinner. They were sort of opposites. My dad would drive on vacations, my mom would navigate. There was the occasional argument like anybody would have, like I would have with my spouse.
You paint a picture of your father as a sensitive man. For example, you say he cried on September 11. But forensic psychologists have described him as a sexually sadistic psychopath, incapable of empathy. Are those psychologists wrong? Or was he wearing a mask with you?
I think he was genuinely upset [about September 11th]. It was the same way he looked when my cousin died, when he lost his father in 1996. He looks the same when he grieves. He’s said in later interviews… he calls it compartmentalizing. If he’s with you, he’s dad or Dennis. And if he’s BTK, he’s BTK. I understand that if someone only becomes aware of my father after his arrest that you can’t wrap your head around it. But you’ve got to understand, I can’t wrap my head around him being BTK.
My argument is: maybe we need to reopen the book on what a psychopath is. I wanted to show that man who was caring and compassionate. He didn’t just spend time with you—he taught you. He was patient. He was emotional. We’re so narrow-minded—we think a psychopath can’t have empathy. But I know legitimately what my dad did, so why aren’t we expanding [on] that explanation?
Have you had any relationship with any of the victims’ families?
Would you be willing to?
I think it’d be one of the hardest things I could ever do. And I think it’d be very hard on them, too. Unless it would mean it would help heal somebody… the amount of pain it would put me through, I don’t know if it would be worth it unless something good came out of it.
There’s a passage in your book where you talk about a hypothetical situation, in which you find out your father is a serial killer before his arrest. You wonder if he would’ve harmed you in order to protect himself. But what about you? What do you think you would’ve done, had you known?
I hope I would’ve had the presence of mind to go straight to the police. My father’s a really fast-talker and a pathological liar. He could talk his way out of anything. If we had come across something, I think he could’ve talked his way out of that also.
Do you think that would’ve been hard for you, turning in your own father?
We’re playing the ‘what if’ game. I’ve lived here and wrestled with this and shuffled through all of this in my head… but at some point, you have to ground yourself in the facts, and the truth of what you knew and when you knew it.
How has your father’s behavior affected your relationship with your mother and older brother?
The three of us have tried to stay close. But in some ways, I feel like my father imploded my family. We’re not the same, and we’ll never be the same. We’re all trauma victims and… there’s this massive elephant in the room. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve healed or how well you’re doing—it’s always just there.
You also have two children. You dedicated your book to them, writing ‘When you’re old enough, I will hand you this story.’ How old is that?
I don’t know. Emilie’s 10; Ian, he’s 7. Right now, what they know is grandpa is in prison. They know he’s not getting out. They know he’s harmed people. We don’t want them to become older and just find [out everything my father did]. So we’re trying to walk them up into it. You try to manage your own trauma issues and let your kids be normal.
What if they asked to meet him?
We’d tried to facilitate it as best we could. If my kids said, ‘Hey, we want to meet grandpa,’ I would make it happen for them.
But I can honestly never imagine them asking. My son was recently afraid he’d get out. I had to reassure him: ‘There’s no way he’ll ever get out.’