At once frightening and powerfully insightful, “Unholy Messenger” is riveting. I resisted reading it for months. It sat on my shelf and I was a bit wary about spending so much time deep inside the head of one of the most depraved serial killers this world has ever produced. I knew the sketchy outline from what little I wanted to glean from newspaper accounts—a killer in Wichita who surfaced randomly over many decades, who had taunted police and who had been arrested as a sitting church leader. But what more did I really want to learn or understand?
In “Unholy Messenger,” Stephen Singular takes the hard road of reporting and gives us a thorough portrait of Dennis Rader from all perspectives—his upbringing, psychological makeup and religious beliefs. Singular does the same thing to Wichita—delves into its history, psychological makeup and religious foundations. In Singular’s hands, “Unholy Messenger” rises up far beyond the ordinary true crime fare. This isn’t just crime and cops, it’s a thorough look at the layers of American life and how they may have come to bear on one extremely warped individual.
Contrast is what makes the “BTK” case so incomprehensible. The idea that an ostensible family man and prominent church leader could hide in plain sight and still manage to carry out a sporadic series of horrific murders doesn’t seem possible.
There’s plenty of material in the murders and also in the years and years of fruitless investigations as “BTK” surfaced off and on for decades. (For those who don’t know, BTK stands for Bind, Torture, Kill.) Singular doesn’t skip any of this, including a gripping account of the psychological cat-and-mouse game that police played with Rader prior to his arrest in 2005.
Singular’s approach is exhaustive. As much as it’s possible, reading “Unholy Messenger” will let you live in inside Rader’s evil mind. It’s not a fun place to hang out. What one human being is capable of doing to others—complete strangers—is beyond fathoming. “Unholy Messenger” offers a vivid portrait of an individual who went to great lengths to repress his homosexuality and even greater lengths to express his “barbarically anti-female” view of the world.
Singular also details the strict and pervasive religious environment of Wichita and the religious teachings of Rader’s church. Religion isn’t just a backdrop—something mentioned in a few paragraphs in the scene-setting stuff and then forgotten. Rather, it’s interwoven into the entire tapestry of the book.
Singular includes a compelling portrait of Pastor Michael Clark, who probably knew Rader better than anyone outside his home (or maybe better than anyone at all, given what little we know about Rader’s wife, Paula). Two days after Rader’s arrest (on a Friday), Clark had the unenviable task of delivering a sermon for his congregation to help them comprehend (perhaps to help himself comprehend) how one of their own church “leaders” could also have committed such heinous acts—and kept them hidden for so long. When Singular includes the text of the sermon word-for-word, non-judgmentally, it’s compelling stuff. (Not surprisingly, the arrest of Rader is seen by Pastor Clark as an opportunity for renewal and healing: “Let us become the strong in faith, in love, and in hope.”)
Singular also includes compelling commentary from experts to help us understand Rader’s warped, complex mental makeup—one part fastidiously organized and based in doing the right things, the other uncontrollable, unacceptable and wicked beyond belief. Singular lets us hear from a variety of psychology experts and scientists for the current scientific thinking that would explain one man’s ability to manage such disparate, sharply contrasting lives. (I use the term “explain” loosely.)
“Normally, I’m a pretty nice guy,” Dennis Rader told the investigators. “I’m sorry, but I am. I’ve raised kids. I had a wife, president of the church, been in Scouts. It goes on and on and on, but I have a mean streak and it occasionally flares up.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to understand Rader before starting “Unholy Messenger.” Shortly after finishing, I read a newspaper story about a brutal sexual assault and having read “Unholy Messenger,” wondered if we are doing enough to understand intense antisocial behavior.
“Unholy Messenger” takes a close look at one of the most depraved series of crimes in modern times. The book makes us wonder if our institutions—state, church, science, health, education, and the media—are doing everything they can to prevent something like this from happening again. You hope somewhere those who were in the middle of this prolonged era of fear in Wichita called a meeting and shared their lessons learned.