Kerri Rawson On Stepping Out Of The Shadow Of Her Serial Killer Father
Kerri Rawson talks with Editor Kat Johnson about the enormous emotional toll of writing her memoir, "A Serial Killer's Daughter," and her appreciation for how it's been brought to life in audio.By Kat JohnsonFeb 21, 2019 3:44 PM
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It took more than a decade for Kerri Rawson to come to terms with a life-altering truth enough to be able to share it with the world. In 2005, she learned that the same father she'd adored throughout her childhood -- the devoted husband and the church president -- was also the serial killer known as BTK. With her extraordinary memoir, A Serial Killer's Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, Rawson digs deep through what she thought she knew about her seemingly normal Midwestern father and what she's since learned about the man who killed 10 people, including two children, and gives us a compelling and haunting account of a family devastated by a horrific secret.
Listen in as Rawson talks with Kat Johnson about the journey she went on to be able to share her devastating and irreconcilable memories of life before and after finding out her father's secret, and what it meant to have someone one else narrate her life story.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Kat Johnson: My name is Kat Johnson. I'm an editor here at Audible and I'm so pleased to have here with me in the studio, Kerri Rawson, the author of the new memoir, A Serial Killer's Daughter: My Story Of Faith, Love, and Overcoming. As she details in her book, Kerri's life was turned upside down in 2005 when her seemingly average father, Dennis Rader, was arrested as the BTK Killer, a notorious serial killer who murdered 10 people in their home state of Kansas, whose nickname is an acronym for "bind, torture, kill."
Her book describes in soul-searching detail her childhood growing up with her father, who was a scout leader and a church president, the trauma she and her family experienced upon learning about his secret life, and the decades she's spent processing the truth and struggling to forgive him. The audiobook is performed by the narrator Devon O'Day and I'm so excited to talk to Kerri about her memoir. Welcome, Kerri.
Kerri Rawson: Thank you for having me.
KJ: Thank you so much for being here. It's a phenomenal book. I have listened to a lot of true crime and I haven't heard anything quite like this. A Serial Killer's Daughter falls into the true crime category and I think it'll naturally draw that audience, but rather than gruesome crime details, your story is about something much deeper: the loss of innocence, your faith, and finding forgiveness. What do you hope listeners get out of this book and what would you say is your ultimate message?
KR: I hope that readers get that message of hope and overcoming. I've been saying that I basically went through hell after my father's arrest, for many years, and I still have those moments of just utter despair. And I want people to realize, no matter what you're going through, you can get through it. My situation is rare, being the daughter of a serial killer. But there are so many of us out there that have been through trauma, been through crime, been through abuse--war veterans with PTSD and just everyday life. I want people to know that I made it through and just get your feet on the floor and keep going or go get help. Go get into therapy. I'm trying to remove that stigma from mental illness, mental health. Remove the stigma from families like mine and trying to say in the midst of this utter darkness, there is light to hold on to and there's hope.
When I heard Devon O'Day, I just fell in love with her voice, because she's so warm. She's so considerate when she's speaking your story and your words. She just took very good care of my story.
KJ: I think from the outside looking in, a lot of people think true crime is very grisly and extreme and hard to understand, but as your book shows, many people are interested in true crime because it helps them understand the depths of the human experience and it has something universal to teach us. As someone who literally lived through it, what do you think about the popularity of true crime these days?
KR: I think crime affects everybody in this society. I mean in the whole world, especially in America. Right now, there's just so much violence going on and so much breaking news around these tragedies that are happening that's affecting everybody. I mean, I'm not just talking about somebody committing murder, like my father, like a serial killer. I'm talking about, like a school shooter committing murder or other kinds of workplace violence and then everyday type of crime.
We're living in a violent society right now, so I think the growth in true crime is staying as a response to what's going on, just to try to cover it and give it a human face. Saying this happened to me and this was my life. This is the story. I think people are really connecting with that, plus people are just trying to wrap their heads around these events. These major stories that are happening, but there also the smaller ones. They're just trying to understand.
Also, there's a massive podcast community now in crime and a lot of that is cold cases, which I think is a really good place to focus on to get the word out for these families that no one is really covering. Or it's that news cycle, you see it for 24 hours or a week and then these families are left without any coverage of their missing family members or finding the person that caused these horrific crimes.
I know there is some pushback against true crime. There's some pushback against my book but I'm trying to humanize my family. I'm trying to humanize what happened to me. And every family deserves the right to tell their story or to not tell their story. And every family deserves the right to have their case solved for their family members.
KJ: Yeah, I understand that. And I think anyone who reads or hears your book, will come away with that human factor. I think you've definitely achieved that for sure.
This is your first book and I know you've said that every step of this publishing process was new to you so I assume this was the case with choosing a narrator? I'm curious how involved you were in the process and ultimately how you ended on Devon O'Day.
KR: Actually my publisher, [Thomas] Nelson books, under HarperCollins, they reached out this fall and said that they wanted to create an audiobook and they said they were going to choose the narrator. So I know sometimes they do let their authors read. In my experience, when I inquired about that, they said usually the ones that are doing the narration have a lot of speaking practice or are known to be speakers. So in nonfiction, there's that genre of people that are speakers or known for something else and then write. And then there's those of us who write that can speak, but we prefer to be tied to our laptop for years alone writing.
So, I would have preferred to have done my own narration, but really, I also understand from a professional standpoint, that they need a professional speaker. They need it done quick. I mean you're talking almost 10 hours of recorded audio. Does anybody want to listen to me for 10 hours? I don't necessarily want to listen to myself for 10 hours. I don't have that training, so from that perspective of model, as an author, you really would like to share it and you would like people to hear it in your own words and inflection, but on the other hand, that was something new to me. To just learn, okay sometimes we just get professionals to come in.
So they chose Devon. I didn't have any say in any of that, but they wanted a woman and they wanted someone close to my age, maybe had a Midwest-Southern sound, so they were really thoughtful about who they wanted and they wanted someone who had some faith. So then, when I heard Devon on the samples after they recorded, I just fell in love with her voice, because she's so warm. She's so considerate when she's speaking your story and your words. She just took very good care of my story. And so, I'm really glad that she was my narrator and then she personally even reached out and told me, she was personally touched as she was reading my story, even to the point where she was getting emotional reading and they had to stop.
Also, I think they knew it would be very hard on me to read it even though I had written it, because I've had to read a few passages in the media and I get choked up every time I read certain passages or I read my dad's words. And I think, honestly, my amazing team just didn't even want to put me through how hard it would have really been for me to read out loud something that I've never read aloud. I've wrote it. I transcribed my dad's words, but I've never said them out loud in places.
KJ: Your dad's words. That's a great point.
I kept telling my editor, "You've got to let me go back and let me tell my normal life. People need to see my dad. They need to see my husband. They need to see my family. They need to know we're normal people, or at least what we thought about my dad was normal."
KR: Right. So my dad's letters are included in this book, from the first years especially, and in 2017, when I was in the process of writing the book, I was up at like three a.m. transcribing my dad's words from 05. I had them blown up on my computer, because his handwriting is very small. Like BTK is known for that, my dad's acronym, and I was sobbing, just sobbing, into my laptop, trying to transcribe these words. It was a very rough experience. I've got music blasting in my ears just to kind of get me through it and here I am. I've done all of this and now I'm still crying as I'm reading his words.
KJ: Side note: How surreal was it? Did you have to ask him for his permission?
KR: I did! Everything is so new to me. I feel like there needs to be a How to for Dummies ... How to be a Serial Killer's Daughter ... or How to Write a Book or Manage the Media.
So after I started working on this project and my proposal was bought by my publisher, there was that whole process where you write a proposal for nonfiction, then you get picked up. So now you go write the book.
KR: So I am working on that and I said I would like to include the letters from my dad. They said we need to get legal permission from you dad. So they sent me a legal form and I mailed it to my father with a note and he signed it right away for me. I knew, the dad I knew, would do anything for me and did. So I knew he still would. So, yes, because it's interesting. Even though I'm in possession of the letters, he still owns the words in them. Whoever wrote the letter, owns the letter for their life. It's like a photograph. It's whoever took the photograph.
For the rest of my dad's story, everything is so public. It's in court records. It's in arrest records. It's a matter of public record and the news. In that case, I could pretty much write anything that was true and I still tried to make sure I sourced it back to the Wichita Eagle book that came out in 2008 about my dad because I knew that one had been done very well and I knew that was sort of my standard. If I was factchecking something or researching, making sure I got everything right because I didn't want to mess up, especially about something as important as my father's crimes for the families. I always went back to that to factcheck.
KJ: Right, because that had been through newspaper factchecking?
KR: Right, and that was written by four journalists that lived the story and they had sourced all of the original material. They had sourced the arrest records and court records, so I knew they were working off original material or their own newspapers, so then I was able to go to them and then if I needed to dive deeper, I could. So, I relied on that book very heavily.
KJ: Right. Back to the narration. One of the unexpected pleasures of the book, I found, is that you have a real sense of humor through everything that happened to you and a really distinctive voice. Like even in the worst times for you, the worst words you would say would be, "heck," or "dang." And you had a very memorable word for a pothole. Do you remember?
KR: It's a chughole. [Laughter]
KJ: A chughole.
KR: It's C-H-U-G. I've had to factcheck that. That was the first time I really connected with my husband now, Darian. I had known him for a year and a half and we were driving home. He needed a ride for Thanksgiving. He already was majorly in love with me. I didn't know. He was younger than me. He was just like this guy that hung around. So he needed a ride home at Thanksgiving and he looped himself into getting a ride with me because I had a car. So now I'm stuck taking this underclassman home and we're driving on Kansas roads and I pointed out, it's icy, the weather's bad, we hit a chughole. I'm like, "We hit a chughole." He's like, "What?"
KJ: What is that? Please explain. [Laughter]
KR: He's like it's a pothole. It's a hole in the road and I was like, "I don't even know what a pothole is." I think of a man cover for a pothole. So now we are back and forth and all of sudden I saw this amazing person sitting across from me that I had never taken the time to talk to one-on-one. We'd always been in groups. So now he realizes that I am very Kansan, very Midwestern with my words and so now we pass this antenna and then he's like, "What do you call that?" And he points to it. I said, "An antenna." And he's laughing and right then I think I like this guy, and we were dating six weeks later and married three years after. But everybody just wanted the story after 2005.
They wanted the story of what happened after 2005 and I kept telling my editor, "You've got to let me go back and let me tell my normal life. People need to see my dad. They need to see my husband. They need to see my family. They need to know we're normal people, or at least what we thought about my dad was normal." You need to connect to us emotionally, almost fiction. You need to connect to those characters. It's memoir, it's nonfiction, but I'm a big fiction reader, so I'm like, "You need to connect to me emotionally as a character. So I'm going to tell you their eye color. I'm going to tell you what they wear. I'm going to put dialogue in there, which sometimes you don't see in nonfiction because that's how I connect as a reader. I'm going to write like I connect.
I want you to know these people because I'm about ready to drop the earth out on you as a reader and you need to know them before I do that. And that's why you see 2005 they had the arrest, you go back almost seven years and you have to walk up with me. And some people just wanted to get back up to that. I was like, "No, you need to stay with me and I'll get you back up there."
KJ: Well, I think you do that so well, contrasting this almost wholesome quality that your childhood had with the horrible things that your dad did and one of the stories that really did that for me really well was when you moved into your first apartment and your dad was showing you how to keep your sliding glass door secure at night. And then you say that you had a longtime fear of sliding glass doors because one of your neighbors was murdered when someone threw a brick into her door and went in and killed her and then later you found out that was your dad. That sequence of events was gutting.
KR: As a new writer, I kept having to ask my editor, Jenny Baumgartner, "Where do we put this, Jenny? Where do we put the crimes? Do we put them in the the '70s when they happened when I wasn't alive? Do we put them when they happened in the 80s? Do we wait until 2005?" And because they were so difficult for me to learn about, and read about, and deal with. I didn't even want to have to go write. Writing is very personal and intimate because it's all in your head. It's in your head and it comes out in your hands.
So those were some of the last things we wrote. I didn't write in the order necessarily you see it and so even when we got into edits, we actually imploded part one. They left that first chapter, with the knock and the FBI, but we imploded the rest of one. We compressed the family and we moved crimes. I basically wrote seven new chapters where now you see the crimes more than they took place next to my family. I wouldn't have been able to emotionally handle that 'till I had written the rest of the book and sort of survived and been hopeful. It wasn't until edits, less than a year ago, that we finally put the crimes where they belong, which is where, in time, my dad was a family man and he would commit these murders and then he would come home and have dinner with us. It took a very long time for me to even be willing to write that.
I had to learn that God was with me and never had left me. And that was something I didn't see until I wrote. I saw Him all through my whole life with me, next to me, and that He was a kind, loving, benevolent Father when my father wasn't--and I didn't even see that until I wrote it.
KJ: So, I'm sure that most of the people who listen to your book will think, like I did, there's absolutely no way I could survive what she went through. So how did you survive and what was the role of faith in your healing process?
KR: I grew up Lutheran, in a small church, so I had sort of that traditional foundation of Midwestern small community church that you went to every week. It didn't really mean a lot to me personally when I was little but at least it was something that I did as a tradition and later I appreciated the tradition of having that church.
I fell away from faith in high school and then I came back to it in college. I had a stronger personal foundation in my faith with God and Christ. I had sort of sealed that into me for at least eight years, so when my dad was arrested, that was what was left. I was falling apart that first day of his arrest. By that night, I had looked at his crimes online. I had looked at crime scene photos even, and I even read about crimes that weren't actually committed by BTK, committed by my dad. I didn't know how I was going to survive that first night and that's when you don't even have the strength to pick up a Bible. You know it matters to you and that's when you sort of cry out to God. "If you're here, help me. I'm not going to get through the night."
That's when He gave me Psalm 23. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Your rod and staff are beside me." Little snippets of that verse ran through my head all night. I'm terrible at memorizing scripture but these things that I had learned in my childhood, things that I had learned in college, they kept me alive. And I learned to just try to walk. I didn't know how I was going to get up the next morning, but I woke up the next morning and I've woken up every morning since. There've been many nights you don't think you're going to survive this. I've wrestled a lot with suicide ideation.
In your deepest, darkest times, you just have to try to hold on until a glimmer of something pulls you out just a little bit. For me, that's been faith and it's been my husband and therapy. And some of why I'm sharing this journey is so that people know that there is help out there. There are hotlines to call. There are therapists to go see. There are medicines. There's nothing to be ashamed of to ask for help and receive help. I'm someone who's going to need help for the rest of my life. There's such a stigma on mental health. There's such a stigma on trauma victims. There's a lot of victim shaming out there in abuse victims. I'm just trying to raise my hand, say "This is me, and this is my life. I see you too."
KJ: I'm sure many other victims appreciate that.
KR: We're trying. A year ago when the #MeToo Movement just erupted, we were over there trying to hashtag each other, on Twitter especially, and support each other and share each other's stories. People aren't seeing that personal side where we're connecting; a lot of us survivors are connecting. Here's my cell. Message me anytime. We're just trying to publicly support each other and unite survivors together. And you're seeing that. I saw a lot of it a year and a half ago and it seems to be continuing to grow. One in four women have dealt with sexual assault; one in six men. So if you look in a room, why are we not talking about this as a community and why are we not covering this? Why aren't we supporting people?
KJ: I just want to quickly read your Twitter bio because I love it so much. "Writer, survivor, fighter, advocate, BTK's daughter if you must." So clearly, you're very purposeful about forging your own identity and taking control of your narrative with this book. How hard is it to find a way forward for yourself when everyone wants to talk about your dad and his crimes?
KR: I mean if you go Google me now, you can find me under Kerri Rawson, but if you go look at the headlines it's all BTK's daughter, blah, blah, blah. Still, Kerri Rawson wrote a book. On the bottom of my book, it says, daughter of the BTK killer, even though we have killer up at the top. So there's five photos of my dad because, you know...
KJ: It sells books.
KR: It sells books and the reality is people don't know me, yet. It was hard. For 10 years after his arrest, I prayed for a quiet, private life and I clung to that. Clung to my faith. Clung to my community. Clung to my church. Clung to my husband. Became a mom. That was my identity. Wife, mom, women's ministry, and then I started advocating at church. I started sharing my story quietly at church before the media and I actually was getting people to help, like abuse shelters and helping people. I realized that there was power in my story. There was something that people were connecting to positively. So when I had just finally had enough and started talking in the media, I had more people coming and saying, "Something you're doing is positively impacting my life."
Right now in the book, I'm being told, "You're helping us with my trauma. You're helping me find some help. You're helping me with whatever I dealt with my family or in my own life." So I had to reach a point. It was very hard when I started media and everything was BTK's daughter. These things are running international and the journalist is getting accolades and I'm like, "Wait. Why is it BTK's daughter? Why doesn't it say Kerri Rawson?" At some point, me putting it in my Twitter bio and my other social media, is sort of me thumbing my nose, like, "If you're going to call me BTK's daughter, it's going to be last on the bio and if you must. If you must call me BTK's daughter, do it. If it means I get to help somebody, let's do it."
I think the bio used to say, "Mom, wife, believer." At some point, I put resistance in there, in really big caps because I was really huge. I just love that word: resistance. And I talk about resilience. Resistance and resilience and never giving up, and the massive resistance movement right now in the bigger culture of America. I tried to calm that down a little as I've become published, but that's me resisting. That fighter, advocate.
KR: Survivor, that's me. Survivor not victim. I even get reminded. Someone on Twitter will call, "We're survivors, not victims." That whole mentality, that's such a positive word, survivor. So that's me just saying this is me and take it or leave it.
KJ: I really love that. Do you feel like now that your story, as BTK's daughter is definitively told or do you feel like you might have more to say about it?
KR: I ended the book on forgiveness because I wanted to end it in a hopeful place. Also, I was way overdue in my writing, is the reality and it was already very long. There's a whole other story after that. The story of dealing with media and I went back into therapy for six months after, because I had pulled up so much with my hometown newspaper and the big piece that ran, I was sort of a disaster falling apart. And the people that knew me best said, "You need to go back." So there's this whole process before I even wrote of being in therapy and I took the Eagle book and it's dogeared and we went line by line through my dad's crimes because I had never really processed them and put them in place. In my brain, they were sort of just floating around, killing me.
So I did all of that before I wrote. I mean I don't think a book about writing a book is very interesting. There's just these long periods of loneliness and no one is going to be interested in your cat sitting next to you. But I think there's a story there waiting to be told about continuing to survive and not ever giving up because writing that book, what I went through and my dad, is the hardest thing or the worst thing. What I went through with my dad is the worst thing I've ever been through. Writing the book was the hardest thing I've ever done.
KJ: Because that took a real effort on your part.
KR: Immense. I've compared it to Lord of the Rings, Mordor. You have to go. They had to go through Mordor to get to where they needed to get. So it's like fighting off your own personal ox with your sword and stuff.
KR: It was massively, personally difficult and a year ago I didn't even know I would get it done. I had people waiting on me, patiently and lovingly. "Come on. One more paragraph. One more chapter today. Send it to me." Just patiently, gently nudging me along. "We'll give you more time. You got it. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going." Hundreds of messages and emails from my editor and my team at Nelson just loving me and saying, "You got it. Keep going."
It makes me emotional. My publisher called yesterday and said we hit the best seller's list, The New York Times.
KR: I never imagined that. And to know a year ago I was suffering so bad trying to get this thing done because it's so personally difficult and I didn't think I would be able to do it, 'till I did it. And so that's sort of the bigger message to people. You don't think you're going to get through this? You don't think you can do it? You can. You've just got to figure out something to hold on to and put your feet on the ground and keep going.
KJ: And what was that for you? What did you hold on to?
KR: My faith and just God with me. I tried to show that in the book. I don't understand suffering. I don't understand pain. I don't understand death. I don't understand why we live in this world that we live in, but I know that God's with me, in it. He doesn't want it but He's with me. I have no bigger answers for why things happen. I had to learn, while writing, I had to learn that God was with me and never had left me. And that was something I didn't see until I wrote. I saw Him all through my whole life with me, next to me, and that He was a kind, loving, benevolent Father when my father wasn't--and I didn't even see that until I wrote it.
KR: And then my husband. I had a 4-year-old when I started so I was a stay-at-home mom trying to write around my kids and he would come home and let me work on the weekends and nights, send me to Panera.
KJ: He's amazing.
KR: And take the kids on the weekends. He's got snow days. He's had four snow days this week and he's texting me, "Where's the math worksheet?" He's the best.
KJ: He is the best.
KR: Those are what got me through.
KJ: Talking about books in general, beyond the Bible, were there any books that you turned to as you were going through this?
KR: Yes, I didn't know how to write, so I had to Google, "How do you write a proposal?" And then I would get stuck so I would contact a writer, especially journalists that I had contact with and they would send me a list. So Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird, literally I was a year in, we're still on the proposal, and I was going to delete everything I had off my laptop, like completely trash. My husband said, "Do not do that. Give me the laptop right now. Do not trash it." He said, "Go read one of your books," and it was Anne that got me through just that moment. It was Anne. Because she talks about writing in such a natural, human way. Basically it sucks--go do it anyway. She talks about the updraft, the downdraft, the dental draft. She just walks you through the whole process in the book in such a human way, you feel like you know Anne. So Anne is one of those giants I relied on.
KR: I was six months in. I was stuck in notes. I was depressed, lying in bed. Didn't want to get up. Didn't want to work. It was one of those that was on my TBD pile and I grabbed it and it was just so human because he talks about his struggles with writing and trying to publish, and then half the book is a how-to. He shows you where he edits and he walks you through that process and then he has a whole list of books, like writing books and memoirs and things in there.
It was just something that Stephen said about the process and everybody goes through this. I think that was a huge thing. People like Anne and Stephen to say, "Everybody goes through this, even the giants." That made me feel better and every time I would talk to a writer or get on Twitter, there's the #amwriting hashtag, #amediting, #writerslife. You tag those things and you see all the writers suffer some sort of writing disease and everybody would say, "Congratulations and condolences. You're a writer." But you don't want to claim you're a writer.
Somebody asked me last night in an interview, "What do you do?" I'm like, "I guess I'm a writer. I'm an author. I'm published." But you don't even want to claim it for yourself.
KJ: Absolutely. You're now a best-selling writer.
KR: Right. Then there's Jack Hart's, Storycraft. He's a journalist. And then William Zinsser's [On Writing Well] on nonfiction or on writing about your life. Sorry, I'm throwing titles.
KJ: No, those are good. I don't know those.
KR: William Zinsser is a major guy. He just passed away I think a few years ago, but his were great.
KJ: And what about any spirituality books or any books in general that helped you get through tough times? Not necessarily writing.
KR: So, John Eldredge. I've followed him for about 19 years and his Sacred Romance basically sealed the deal for me for faith. He's got Sacred Romance, Journey of Desire. More recently, he's got one on the life of Christ. So he's pretty big to me and then Beth Moore. She's basically saved my life.
KJ: What does she write?
KR: She writes a lot of Bible studies for women and so she has James: Mercy Triumphs. She's just got a lot of Bible studies that you go dig in, in a group every week, in women's groups. That leads to community. She's an abuse survivor too. So to have her talk about that and see her continue on in life and she was helped. She has helped me a lot.
KJ: Right. What is next for you? What are you doing to be working on next?
KR: I don't know. We are sort of trying to figure that out. I would love to keep writing. I mean, I'm a mom and I'm a wife, so that's priority one. But I really fell in love with writing, as awful as it can be. I love it. So I don't think it's ever going to leave me now. I think, unfortunately, I am a writer so I would love to keep writing. I just don't know what that's going to look like. And then I would like to just keep being, speaking and using my voice hopefully, in a positive manner, and advocating and sharing other people's stories and help. I would like to move beyond Dad. You were wonderful today that you let me move beyond, Dad. That's just that weighted word. So we'll see where we land. It's all a journey, right? So, you just hold on and go for it and see what tomorrow holds.