Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2005  



BTK And The Double Life


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - March 28, 2005)   The case of BTK (a.k.a. Dennis Lynn Rader), recently identified as the perpetrator of at least ten murders in Kansas over a period of some seventeen years, provides a useful case study both for sociopaths and certain generic American character-types.

Rader, you will recall, was a Park City compliance officer whose tasks included the proper maintenance of lawns and the proper supervision of neighborhood dogs. He majored in Criminal Justice at Wichita State and, even as an eighth-grader, was already a proud member of the School Patrol carrying a big red stop sign which regulated the movements of classmates and cars at his local school.

He exhibited great pride in the authority bestowed by his various uniforms, particularly the ADT Security Company outfit with the name "Dennis" stitched above the breast pocket. He was also a Scout Master and, in all his various employments, a strict and demanding taskmaster. As dogcatcher, for instance, he never let neighbors get away with even minor violations. Sometimes he lay in wait hours for lawbreakers, and when an infraction occurred he pounced on the malefactor. "He looked for absolutely everything and he must have enforced every rule there ever was -- just cause he could I guess" said Barbara Walters, a retired auditor for the Internal Revenue Service who disputed Rader's charge that her dog had been running wild in the neighborhood. "According to Mrs. Walter's lawyer," The New York Times reported, "Rader arrived for court more prepared than some lawyers are for murder trials, bearing a lengthy file on the errant dog, a videotape of the dog and a complicated system of notebook-tabs linking the accusations to his evidence." Utterly scrupulous in his vindictiveness, he, of course, won the case.

His love of regimentation drew him into the United States Air Force where he learned to repair wires and antennae systems, fastidiously perfecting a variety of sophisticated rope knots that put him in good stead when he employed those skills on the women he would eventually strangle. The motto became BTK: "Bind them, Torture them, Kill them;" it was the credo and the acronym by which he lived the more shadowy of his two lives.

Fastidious, conscientious, compulsively law-abiding, Rader was a staunch churchgoer for over thirty years, and in January of 2005 was elected president of the church council at Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita. Clearly, he had no difficulty in reconciling his aberrant behavior with the biblical principles he zealously upheld. Upright and self-righteous, his fellow workers breathed a sigh of relief when he left them in the local bar to perform his duties. Once out of his earshot, they could trade off-color jokes and engage in racy gossip which would have been unthinkable in his presence. His ordinariness was like that of any other stolid, hard-working, God-fearing, upright, mid-western family-man.

The pattern of behavior fits neatly into Wilhelm Reich's description of "The Compulsive Character." "The neurotic orderliness compulsion," writes Reich, "may be absent but a pedantic concern for orderliness is a typical trait of the compulsive character.... His whole life, in all its major and minor aspects, runs according to a preconceived, inviolable program. Any change in the program is experienced unpleasurably, in more pronounced cases it even arouses anxiety." Reich goes on to point out that all of these social habits are camouflage for a deeply-embedded sadism. "Compulsive characters," he writes, "always have strong reactions of sympathy and guilt feelings. This does not contradict the fact that their other traits are by no means pleasant for other people; more than that, in the exaggerated orderliness, pedantry, etc, hostile and aggressive impulses are often directly gratified."

Apart from the first murder in January 1991 in which the victims included a father, his wife and two young children, all the other murders were of women. Although the females had not been sexually assaulted, semen was discovered at the scene of that first crime, as it would be at some of the later crime scenes. The police theory was that the killer was a sexual deviant who "got off" on slowly torturing his victims to death. The investigation is still ongoing so the sexual diagnosis has not been conclusively proven. But all the victims after 1991 were women whose ages ranged from 21 to 62. The gender factor alone suggests that part of the compulsion was delusionally sexual -- even if only masturbatory. Having worked as an installer of home security systems, Rader had plenty of opportunity, and inside information, to map out effective locations for his crimes. Interestingly, his appointed 8th victim eluded him by not returning home on the night Rader had secretly entered her house lying in wait for her. The poem he wrote on that occasion (later included in his dossier) was titled "Oh, Anna Why Didn't You Appear" and went on to say: "Alone again, I trod in pass memory of mirrors, and ponder why fornumber eight was not." The misspelled and ungrammatical verse sounds like the lament of a frustrated lover which, in a sense, it is. In Rader's mind, the satisfaction he derived from the murder of those women represented great "highs" in his fantasy life and being "stood up" by "Anna" felt like a painful betrayal. If the compulsion had a sexual component (which seems likely), "[A]ny change" in the (compulsive's) program, as Reich remarks, would be "experienced unpleasurably..."

Over time, the murders become the most significant psychic achievement in his life, and so in January of 2005, when the local papers mark the 30th anniversary of the first killings and suggest BTK may have died or moved away, Rader deluges the authorities with letters and mementos of his past crimes to reaffirm his existence both to the world and to himself. It is only through his crimes that Rader transcends the grueling ordinariness which, paradoxically, renders him both invisible and gives him any real distinction.

In the mask of many serial killers such as Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, one always finds a high degree of containment, social composure, even geniality. The psychopathology is almost never visible to the naked eye, the internal savagery being cloaked in an intense sense of order, social suavity and inordinate efficiency -- the kinds of traits we find in a vast number of public officials, corporate officers, and at the highest levels of government. They are discernible in some of the members of the Armed Services who were involved in the Abu Ghraib torture revelations. But you also find them in "just plain folk" -- the ostensibly easygoing, churchgoing, sticklers for rules-and-regulations who view social deviations and moral lapses as "sins" which deserve severe punishment. It is often these camouflaged compulsives, suppressing tsunamis of personal guilt and irrational hatreds, who turn out to be the murderers that invariably horrify their neighbors and are afterwards described as "quiet, ordinary people who never gave one any trouble," who were always "kind and considerate" and impeccably "law-abiding."

Rader was the epitome of the controlling personality; he was obsessive about following the rules; things had always to be "in their place." Not only "things" but emotions as well -- which is why there was never any outward hint of anti-social or aggressive behavior. At base, he suffered from a kind of emotional totalitarianism -- one that could not abide deviation from morally-driven, psychological absolutes which were never consciously articulated. Even in his murders, there was a strict, methodical regimen; an observance of ritual. He chose the name BTK because it exemplified his belief-system. B: first you bind them, (cut the telephone-lines, render them powerless, remove all forms of resistance); T: then you torture them, (release all the pent-up, maniacal aggression, give full vent to the sadistic impulses which have smoldered beneath that calm, unruffled façade, work-day after work-day); K: then you kill them, (destroy the hated object which affronts your belief system and, by so doing, reinforce the principles of Orderliness and Compliance which strengthen and aggrandize your super-ego.)

What is frightening about Rader is that he could not only be anyone's next-door neighbor, but that he is everyone's next-door neighbor. A genial, conscientious, hardworking, law-abiding, churchgoing psychotic who is silently outraged by those who veer away from the straight-and-narrow path and violate his warped sense of "order."

I can identify too many public figures in business and politics, in religion and the military, in the media and settled suburban existences who think the way Rader does, although they may never yield to the internal compulsions that push them over the edge. All good, solid citizens whose deepest instincts and twisted world view mirror those of this serial murderer. Is this a peculiarly American product, I wonder; an inevitable offshoot of our aberrant lifestyles? Have we become a frightening, compulsive species bred on repressive social conditioning and bitter ego frustrations, denatured by incessant pharmacology and extended exposure to mass-media atrocities which instill the need to mask one's nature and suppress one's deepest feelings of rage?

We know from the recent scandals in our churches that it is hard to reconcile the abusive evil that priests have committed with the high-principled rhetoric that sustains their vocation. Just as we also know that crime not only pays, but pays handsomely when you have ingenious accountants who have a real flair for cooking the books, or top-flight lawyers who can cleverly blur questions of right and wrong so as to rescue guilty defendants from their due punishment. Criminality is at the very root of the American character and all of us, those who cheat on income tax returns and who casually swell our expense accounts, and those who harbor murderous impulses which frequently erupt into homicides and appalling acts of carnage, are all cut from the same red-white-and-blue American cloth.

Metaphorically, we were all once Boy Scouts or members of the School Patrol. Psychologically, we all lead "double lives."

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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful' on Swans

Patterns wich Connect on Swans


About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Published March 28, 2005