Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Masochistic Serial Killers?

Top: Rader/BTK "becomes the victim"
Middle: BTK's "symbol" (note sexual symbology)
Bottom: Dennis Rader (aka: BTK)

Readers: For a full discussion of this unusual phenomenon, see published paper:
Knoll J, Hazelwood R: Becoming the Victim: Beyond Sadism in Serial Sexual Murder. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2009; 14: 106-114.

The behavior and characteristics of sexually sadistic serial murderers have been described primarily in relation to their paraphilic arousal to the control and torture of their victims. Sadistic sexual murderers who demonstrate both sadism and masochism have been described, but less is known about this type of offender.
Dennis Rader (aka “BTK”)

Dennis L. Rader, who gave himself the title “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) was born March 9, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Kansas. He was one of 4 sons, and a college graduate with a degree in the Administration of Justice. He received an honorable discharge from the Air Force. He was married to the same woman for 27 years and had two children. His employment history included installing security systems, being a supervisor with the U.S. Census Bureau and a compliance officer for Park City, Kansas. By all accounts, Dennis Rader was a good father to his son and daughter. His family lived in the same home for 25 years. He had no arrest history, was a Boy Scout leader and president of his local church assembly. On the surface, Rader appeared to be a stable, reliable and respected member of his community. Nevertheless, he held that same community in fear from 1974 (when he killed a family of four), until his arrest approximately 31 years later.

Dennis Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005. Rader eventually confessed to murdering 10 victims. Although 59 years of age at the time, he had completed his selection process for an eleventh victim, and was simply awaiting an opportune time to kill again. Regarding his murderous desires, he stated, “It started in grade school. I used to make sketches even back then. Annette Funicello was my favorite fantasy hit target…I had these imaginary stories of how I was going to get her, kidnap her and do sexual things to her…” (Smith, 2006) During the period of time that he was carrying out his offenses, Rader appeared to enjoy communicating with the media, writing anonymous letters to a Kansas TV station. One letter stated that “no one in Kansas is safe because I am omnipresent.” After his arrest, a large volume of materials were seized which documented his sexual fantasies, interests, and crimes. Among those materials were postmortem photographs he had taken of two of his victims along with items of clothing belonging to each of them. Also recovered were photographs of Rader in bondage and cross-dressed in his victim’s clothing. Analysis of the photos of Rader and his victims revealed striking similarities.

Rader Victim A

On April 27, 1985, Rader murdered victim A, a middle aged woman who lived only 6 doors away from him. He told police that he would occasionally see her in her yard. Her body was found, some 9 days after she had been missing, in a ditch seven miles from her home. Authorities later learned that after manually strangling the victim in her home, Rader took her body to his church where he “…played God: controlled her…posed her bound body in lewd positions, and took photographs...” (Wenzl, Potter, Kelly and Hurst, 2007)

In one of the photographs, the victim is lying nude on her back with her ankles and wrists bound. In two other photos, she is in a semi-sitting position with her back against a wall partition. Rader had placed a bra on her and she was bound at the ankles, calves, and above the knees. Her wrists were positioned behind her back, suggesting that they were bound. A black cloth was wrapped around the lower part of her face. Law enforcement recovered a photo Rader had taken of himself almost 4 and ½ years later (Rader had dated the photo himself). The photo showed Rader in his mother’s basement wearing lingerie. He was standing up with his back against a wall, bound at the ankles, calves, and above the knees. His wrists were behind his back, suggesting that they were bound. He was wearing a black cloth over the lower part of his face.

In another Rader photograph, victim A was lying on her right side with her head resting on a pillow and a black cloth covering the lower portion of her face. Her wrists were behind her back, and her knees were drawn up in a fetal-like position with a black cloth tied above her knees. Approximately 5 ½ years later, Rader photographed himself lying on his right side, wearing a bra and a decorative mask with a cloth item covering the lower portion of his face. His head was resting on a white pillow. His wrists were behind his back, and his knees were drawn up in a fetal-like position with a white cloth item tied above his knees.

Rader Victim B

On January 19, 1991, Rader murdered victim B, a 62-year-old widow who lived in a single family residence. Like victim A, victim B was strangled and transported away from her home after her death. Her body was found 13 days later beneath a bridge several miles from her home. A decorative mask with painted black eyebrows, eye lashes and red painted lips was found near the body. Rader took several photographs of victim B after he had murdered her. One photo is of victim B lying on her back with her arms bound behind her back. Her face was covered by the decorative wall mask.

After murdering victim B, Rader photographed himself lying on his back in a grave that he later told authorities he had dug for her, but did not use. The photo shows Rader with his hands behind his back, and fresh dirt covering the lower half of his body. Having left his favorite mask for authorities to find with victim B, the photo shows Rader wearing a different decorative mask with black tape covering the mouth. Photographs of Rader wearing the first mask prior to the murder of victim B were later found police. Upon questioning, Rader told police that he missed the first mask, and had regretted leaving it behind. Another Rader photo shows him at his parent’s basement when they were not at home. In the photo, Rader was wearing victim B’s clothing (Wentzel, Potter, Kelly, and Hurst, 2007).

Discussion of Rader Case

The available photographic evidence shows that Rader placed his victims in specific positions while they were bound and had either a cloth or mask over their faces. Several years after his offenses, Rader made special efforts to photograph himself while carefully imitating the positions, clothing and bindings of victims he had previously photographed. Assuming that Radar, like most SSSMs, was operating from a fantasy script, he would be motivated to re-experience his offenses by memorializing them (ie., photos), as well as by re-living the fantasies as best he could when no victim was available. The latter behavior may suggest that he was using himself as a “stand-in” when no actual victim was available. If one were to stop here, it might be hypothesized that Rader’s behavior corresponds most closely to the substitute victim hypothesis. However, there are still several other key pieces of behavioral evidence to consider, specifically Rader’s use of facial coverings, as well as placing himself in his victim’s intended grave.

Rader’s regret over parting with his mask suggests that he had developed a significant attachment to it. From a psychiatric perspective, this may raise the possibility of a fetish. Fetishism is defined as having “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) Fetishistic objects are more commonly women's undergarments, shoes, and leather apparel. A specific “mask” fetishism does exist (http://www.maskme.com/ Accessed on: 9/8/08), although it is not well studied. It has been observed that adult fetishism may develop out of the early childhood developmental phase called the transitional period (Greenacre, 1969). Prior to the transitional period, the infant sees himself and the mother as “one” being. The mother gratifies the infant’s needs without delay, resulting in the illusion of omnipotence. At this stage, the mother-child relationship is entirely symbiotic – the baby feels “merged” with the mother, as well as all powerful.

This “subjective omnipotence” inevitably collides with objective reality. By means of fantasy, the child may find temporary comfort. It is at this point that a so-called “transitional object” (eg., blanket, stuffed animal) may be used to symbolically represent the mother when she is absent (Winnicott, 1971). In this manner, the child clings to the transitional object while he finds a balance between his fantasy and objective reality. Given Rader’s proclivity for his mask and facial coverings, one might speculate about whether his female mask and/or black cloth served as a form of transitional object allowing him to bridge the gap between his fantasy and reality (ie., between torturer and victim). His regret over losing his mask may have been due to the fact that it served as a transitional portal into his world of grandiose, omnipotent control. Additionally, using the mask for auto-erotic activities would allow him to re-create a fusion of torturer and victim at his leisure, thereby prolonging his omnipotent control of his victim. Finally, Rader’s photo of himself in victim B’s grave also shows his desire to fuse himself with her. In doing so, he exerts control over her beyond her death, and in a sense, mocks the limits of death itself. Having become the victim, he achieves God-like power over her, and “proves” that death cannot limit his omnipotence. His wearing of the mask while in the grave underscores its importance to him, and furthers his efforts to re-create a torturer-victim fusion.

Summary Points

§ Clinical forensic case examples suggest that control is the “worm” at the core of sadism.
§ Sadistic sexual murderers who demonstrate both sadism and masochism have been described, but little is known about this type of offender.
§ There are a number of potentially overlapping hypotheses that might explain why some serial sexual murderers would enact the roles of both victim and torturer. These include: 1) trauma related theories, 2) cognitive distortion – implicit theories, 3) the substitute victim hypothesis, 4) the vicarious enhancement hypothesis, 5) the addictive tolerance model, and 6) the grandiose sadism hypothesis.
§ The grandiose sadism hypothesis suggests that some rare offenders assume the identity of the victim to extend their control over the victim beyond life and death.
§ This type of grandiose control provides the offender with a God-like sense of power, as a result of an omnipotent fusion of torturer and victim. The offender is able to control and experience gratification from both sides of the power differential, permitted by his fluid boundaries between self and other.