The Serial Killer BTK and the Concept of Cubing
Dennis Rader explains how he developed a tolerance for opposing personas.
Posted January 7, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Our fascination with a family man-turned-killer focuses on the role of conscience and the ability to be both good and bad.
- Dennis Rader explains how his fantasy life yielded “life frames” that helped him act in contradictory ways.
- His ability to switch perspectives means we might never know what he truly feels.
The question I am most often asked about the BTK serial killer Dennis Rader is whether he has shown any remorse for the murder of 10 people (including two children) between 1974 and 1991 in Wichita, Kansas. The answer to this is entangled in the answer to the #2 question: How can a father, husband, Boy Scout volunteer and church leader who seems normal, even average, also stalk and kill people? Criminal psychologists are much more interested in this mystery.
It’s difficult to understand how a person can exist – especially for decades – balancing moral polarities that undermine personality unity and a consistent set of values. It’s a skill that starts with self-deception and eventually becomes part of the person’s identification. Narcissistic predators like Rader have no emotional investment in truth or integrity. Their commitment is to getting their own needs met, so they’ll play the part of whatever works to achieve this goal.
When he fantasized about murder as a young man, Rader initially thought he had things under control. “I soon realized I was in over my head…. I quickly was into sexual fantasies beyond my control. …the lifeboat drifted away from my reach, until the deep water became my coping. I had trusted myself to steer the right course, but when I studied books about past serial killers, the more I learned, the closer I came to believe I could some day become one. I was on a powerful train and could not get off. The track was set.”
He developed what he called “cubing,” or “life frames” on a cube with multiple sides: a family man, a church leader, a burglar, a serial killer, etc. All were available on demand, and easy for him to slide into and out of. When he showed one side, the others, while still part of him, hovered beyond his awareness. They didn’t interrupt his performance. He used each as it was needed.
Prison psychologist Al Carlisle, who assessed Ted Bundy, conceived of such an approach as being like an actor who can adopt a variety of roles but let no role dominate. He thought this described Ted Bundy’s ability to seem normal, even likable, while also abducting, raping, and murdering multiple young women. Carlisle's concept of compartmentalizing, which gives the impression of separate dimensions, is like Rader’s cubing except that cubing conveys a tighter association among life frames – a fuller integration of contradictions. Becoming attuned to each life frame as a temporary tool rather than as a foundation for identity, he was able to hone his mental dexterity. No one side of the cube rooted him in place.
Rader says his ability to “cube” kept reality separate from fantasy, with no need to acknowledge the inconsistency of values. He could tolerate the polarity of good and bad because each life frame had its own moral context. So, he could derive pleasure from a memory of murder while also raising children, loving his wife, and leading his church congregation. He can even do this today while expressing remorse for that very crime.
This process started young for Rader, as part of child's play. “I would cube into a storyteller for my brother, mostly at night. I cubed into a cowboy when we played. As I got darker fantasies, I cubed into a lone wolf. I spent endless time inventing my make-believe fort. As I grew up, the mental cubing was [an] escape from a boring class or job. I found time to daydream each day. It always recharged me. It was easy to cube into [my] Dark Side as my secret. I wasn’t hurting anyone, only in my mind.”
But these were rehearsal fantasies that would set the frame for later acts. He envisioned himself doing them so often it was but a short step to prepare for them, then to see himself acting them out. He made a hit kit and began to stalk. By adulthood, his “cubing” was fluid. Then, during a particularly stressful period in 1974, after he’d lost a job and felt unmanned by his wife’s financial support, he decided to restore his sense of power with murder. He'd dominate with bondage. He fatally strangled four people. Afterward, he went home to his wife and slid back into his routines.
“Hunting and prowling became a habit,” he recalls, “much like drugs. You learn to cover up, hide those times in your normal life and develop a different set of life frames. It was easy to play on the Dark Stage and then join the theater audience and say, ‘Hey, I’m a pretty good actor.’ It’s much more fun to live in fantasy at times than in the real world.”
To pass as normal for his family, friends, and associates, Rader exploited mental shortcuts, social trust, and expectations. Like other predators, he used deflection, miscues, and deception to provide cover. (I describe such predatory skill in more detail here.)
So, when I’m asked about Rader’s remorse, I explain the cube and add, “It depends on which face he wants to show when I inquire.” We don’t really know whether someone who so easily lives a double life is actually telling the truth. Maybe he doesn't even know the truth.
Carlisle, A. C. (2000). The dark side of the serial-killer personality, in Serial Killers, ed., Louis Gerdes. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.
Ramsland, K. (2016). Confession of a serial killer: The untold story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. ForeEdge.
Childs, C, dir. (2022). BTK: Confession of a Serial Killer, A&E/ITV. https://www.aetv.com/shows/btk-confession-of-a-serial-killer