Damned Souls and How to Write About Them
Four hundred years ago, a pastor confronted a serial killer. “Your Grace should not have so acted because it offends the Lord,” said the pastor. “Let us dig up the bodies, and then we will see what you have done.”
The killer was the Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory, a stunning fortysomething woman with a face like white silk. She was fiery, weird, and maddeningly well-connected. The pastor knew she was up to something horrible in her Gothic castle because she kept asking him to bless coffin after coffin, claiming her servant girls were dying of cholera. But he’d heard rumors that the oversized coffins contained more than one body, all mutilated by the mad countess herself. And so his conscience would no longer allow him to remain silent. He knew that he was facing true evil, and he had to speak.
I like this anecdote because it reminds me of my dad, who is also a pastor. I don’t think he’s ever faced down a serial killer, but I see him so clearly in this Hungarian minister’s single-minded and slightly nuts bravery. (“Let us dig up the bodies!”) My father is also someone who literally cannot not speak if his conscience demands it. A man almost helpless in the face of his own moral convictions. A man whose conscience keeps him up at night. I hear him move through the house, wracked and insomniac, double-checking the lights. Someone once compared him to Jesus, which I’m sure made him wildly uncomfortable, but I get it; there have been times when I accidentally saw my father’s face when I was trying to picture God.
And then there’s me, the pastor’s daughter. We grown-up pastor’s children stretch across the globe like a secret network, all of us a little bit scarred from years in the public eye, all of us shudderingly imperfect. I used to be obsessed with what was moral; now I write about female serial killers like Báthory for a living, which I might file under “well-intentioned but questionably salacious.” It’s certainly hard to justify my work in the face of Bible verses like “Whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
So, yeah, I’ve got some cognitive dissonance going on. I wake up and clack away on the keyboard, describing the time when a Russian noblewoman beat a pregnant girl to death, and a paycheck follows for services rendered. But later that night, I very well might be crying in front of strangers again, whispering, “I don’t think my parents like my book.” I’ve regressed to a kid, full of moral angst, tightness in my chest, a feeling of dread as my publication date approaches, terrified of my parents’ disapproval. They don’t like that I like the darkness.
To be clear, I like the darkness — I don’t side with the darkness. In fact, one of the reasons I love a good pastor cameo in a serial killer story is because I find it so inspiring to root for the pastor. Talk about the clash between good and evil. Take Pastor Michael G. Clark of Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas — the church where friendly suburban dad Dennis Rader took Polaroids of his dead neighbor in bondage positions. Rader, the BTK Killer, masqueraded for years as the Jesus-loving president of the church board, and Pastor Clark nearly lost it when the FBI told him that this was the same man who’d masturbated with glee as he watched an 11-year-old girl hang in her own basement. Still, Clark visited his sick congregant in prison, prayed with him, and sat in the courtroom during Rader’s trial reading Psalm 51, an anguished plea for forgiveness. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
I do wonder, though, if the pastors who deal with serial killers aren’t subtly getting off on their own goodness. Sometimes it feels as though they’re playing God, choosing who to forgive and who to condemn. At the Columbia Correctional Institute in Portage, Wisconsin, Pastor Roy Ratcliff dared to baptize Jeffrey Dahmer in a whirlpool usually reserved for inmates with injuries — Dahmer, who kept the heads of innocent boys in his refrigerator — and this sign of salvation infuriated the community. People told Ratcliff that they wanted nothing to do with a heaven that would let Dahmer in. Or what of Edmé Pirot, a Jesuit priest from 1670s Paris who knelt by the serial killer Marie de Brinvilliers and whispered a prayer into her ear seconds before she was beheaded. After the fact, Pirot wrote a long and rambling book about the murderess in which he strives to portray her in a humane light, but he also kind of depicts himself as her savior. It’s an act that falls somewhere between redemptive and capitalist, and I’m not quite sure how to read it. Of course, I’m doing the same thing.
I was a terrified kid. My parents tried to keep my three siblings and me far away from pop culture, but the result was that we were overexposed to the far more horrifying stuff of history. One night, we piled into their bed to watch a documentary about ancient kings. The idea was to have a cozy evening in, perhaps underscored by a bit of smug intellectual superiority. There may have been popcorn. But our peace was shattered when the camera panned along a line of severed heads and we all screamed and my dad scrambled for the remote. I still remember those gray, slack faces — which were probably latex, sure, but I didn’t know that at the time. I felt like I’d just come face to face with death itself.
Of course, the flood of pop culture cannot be stopped; inevitably, it trickled into our lives, and when it did, it was basically exposure therapy. At a friend’s house one afternoon, she put on The Ring, promising to show me “only the not-scary parts,” but everything my friend showed me turned into bottomless fear. The blue-green hues, the crablike crawling. I had no vocabulary to process things like “horror genre” and “special effects,” and so the story seeped into my consciousness and stayed there for months, like still water. I couldn’t sleep with a television in the room. I hated girls with long hair.
Given all that, it’s strange that I’m here today. That after three glasses of champagne, I recently asked someone if they would, hypothetically, accept Ted Bundy’s skull as a gift. I suppose fear can turn into obsession, but with me, it was more that humor came along to rid me of some of my terror. I learned to love the lunatics of history, the really bad ones who did what they pleased without really thinking it through. By high school, I was obsessed with the Roman emperor Nero, whose behavior I found hilarious. (Crushing skulls because you’re bored? Nero, that’s no way to make friends!) When I started writing about female serial killers, it was because, in a twisted way, they made me laugh. There’s something absurd about a woman who poisons her boyfriend because he won’t propose. I’m not saying that’s an appropriate reaction, but I will argue that any young woman who grew up with boundaries and a million reasons to feel self-conscious can see the appeal in behavior that is stupid, reckless, shortsighted, illegal, and totally id-driven. The bizarre freedom there.
My parents, who scraped together pennies on my dad’s small-town pastor’s salary to give four kids a good life filled with “whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” — my sweet parents, who spent hours reading to me from old books by Herodotus and Thucydides in an attempt to instill some Greek in me — don’t seem particularly thrilled by the fact that I’m now mucking around in the sensationalistic goop of true crime. I try to spin my work as “history” (sometimes “fun history!” or “weird history!”), but they know that corpses litter my book, along with at least one heaving bosom and a number of graphic descriptions of what arsenic does to human insides. When my mother read the first piece I ever wrote about serial killers — starring Countess Báthory, alleged killer of 600 virgins — she told me that she had to stop reading at multiple points because she was so disturbed. Disturbed by the blood, the broken bodies, the descriptions of torture, yes, but more disturbed by the fact that I had written it at all. My mother didn’t understand why I wanted to think about such things. “Did they make you write that?” she asked. The old pastor’s-kid guilt reared its trembling head. I had been proud of my piece—it was the most ambitious thing I’d ever written—but suddenly I wanted nothing to do with it. I would have given anything, in that moment, to reclaim whatever innocence I’d just lost in her eyes.
This wasn’t the first time my writing weirded out my mother. In college, I wrote a story about a magical necklace that made the nightmares of its owner come true. The story was a vessel into which I poured all my most gruesome fears. Someone was buried alive; a woman got split in half during sex. My parents were understandably confused and horrified. They felt as though the story was the key to the mysteries of my late-adolescent personality, when really it was just the product of an excitable teenager who felt like a badass for “going there.” I remember my mom said something like, “Why would you make a character like that?” It was the strange language of creation. She acknowledged that, in the world I’d made, I had all the power. She just wanted to know why I didn’t build an Eden.
M. William Phelps writes about murder for a living. He goes on shows like Snapped and Deadly Women to explain the psychology of psychopaths and is currently corresponding with seven different (jailed) serial killers. Phelps says I can call him at home. When we talk, I feel a strange relief wash over me. It’s like when you haven’t been touched for ages, and a stranger casually places a hand on your back while moving past you at a bar, and you’re flooded with warmth. I didn’t realize how lonely I was, writing about death while carrying the guilt of a pastor’s kid. Most of my friends were raised in secular homes — they don’t understand how it feels to be, as Flannery O’Connor says, Christ-haunted. But this guy does.
For 10 years, Phelps coped with the stress of writing about serial killers by going to Mass at least four times a week. When he wasn’t researching cold cases, he was reading books on Catholicism, trying to absorb every shred of salvation that he could. Phelps called it “fighting darkness with light.” But the darkness grew and grew. He began corresponding intensely with one serial killer in particular, a man who’d butchered eight women. The killer sent Phelps seven thousand pages of letters over five years and called him every single day, sometimes multiple times per day. Their strange intimacy flourished.
One day, in church, Phelps found himself thinking about this man. It occurred to him that he had never asked God to save this serial killer — he’d never thought, as Pastor Roy Ratcliff thought of Jeffrey Dahmer, that maybe salvation was possible for the worst of the worst of the worst. “All this time I’d been coming to Mass, I’d never gotten on my knees and prayed for the soul of this man who’s so evil,” says Phelps. “Why hadn’t I done that? And I had a moment, like: None of this is real. That’s why.”
Phelps is a tough guy, a leather-jacket wearer. Confronting evil is his job. Sometimes good comes out of it. His conversations with the serial killer led to the identification of a Jane Doe — the name given to an unidentified female murder victim — who’d been killed by this very man. But Phelps doesn’t recommend any of it. “I don’t think there’s any benefit in in doing what I did,” he says. “I think people should just stay away from evil as much as possible. Most people aren’t strong enough to fight it.” Phelps says this killer got inside his head and lingered there like a malevolent spirit. He experienced physical ailments and depression during their correspondence — not to mention the crushing, identity-altering experience of losing his faith. “It was sort of like a possession,” says Phelps. And later: “One day, I was driving to Mass and pulled in the parking lot, and then I pulled right back out. I haven’t been back since.”
I was trained to feel — through gestures and rituals and subtle reactions — that evil was not just bad, but also that it had agency. This is a pretty common experience among the network of pastor’s children, I’ve discovered. “I used to think of evil as being like a demonic stalker that, if you let your guard down, would consume you by possession,” says my friend Abigail. “Like an evil, creeping green fog swallowing you whole — then bam, you’re a vessel for the devil.”
In general, it seems that our parents fear evil more than we do — maybe because they have kids who could theoretically be snatched away by the devil at any moment. Their terror flares up in strange ways. My friend Bethany, daughter of two pastors, tells me of a time when her mom insisted she stay away from a handwriting expert who’d spoken at her school. This might register as deranged to the average atheist, but I know exactly the reaction that she’s describing; I’ve seen it in my parents when things like astrology come up in conversation. It’s like there’s a door between this world and the next that no human should try to crack open.
On a forum called Catholic Answers, a freelance writer named Michael is struggling with that invisible door. His boss wants him to write a PR blurb for a psychic’s website, but Michael believes that psychics are morally wrong. “Can I accept this job, or would that be too close of a participation in evil, and therefore sinful?” he asks. People tell him not to do it, that it’s too dangerous. Michael turns down the gig.
Across the aisle of faith, an astrologist named Elsa is also stressing out. “Last week, I was exposed to evil,” she writes in a post from 2014. “I was more deeply impacted than I even want to admit…The more distance I put between myself and the source, the more aware I am of just how creepy it is. I believe it’s growing in power.” The photo accompanying the post is a screenshot of a woman interviewing serial killer Ted Bundy, who was famous for his charm. Once you’d cracked open the door to Bundy, he would seduce you into opening it the whole way. Proximity to evil in this case — proximity to Bundy — literally meant the difference between life and death.
Michael and Elsa believe in different powers, but both are getting at the same thing: that evil doesn’t just sit there. It has an endgame. It wants you. It is reaching.
It was a year of writing the book and another year of revisions and copyedits. I was 27 when I sold it; suddenly I’m 29, having sacrificed a not-insignificant part of my twenties on the altar of evil women. I feel tired and plagued with doubt. I don’t know if I did a good job. Maybe I just put a little more evil out into the world, accompanied by a few tasteless jokes. Perhaps I cracked open the psychic door of my readers open a farther, inviting the devil inside.
It’s that damn Philippians 4:8 verse that haunts me the most.
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
This verse radiated from every corner of my childhood. As a matter of fact, I think this verse is often given to young women as a sort of talisman against everything terrible in the world, everything that wants to crush a girl. My parents tried very, very hard — sometimes to a deranged degree — to gift me everything in that verse. The last time I visited home, my mom had spread books of vintage botanical illustrations on the dining room table because she knows I love flowers. It was one of the sweetest gestures I’ve ever seen in my life.
And yet whatever is pure, whatever is lovely — that’s not life. Life is serial killers. Real heads appear in real freezers; a Russian noblewoman really did beat a pregnant girl to death; church board presidents kill their neighbors; mothers poison children. To ignore the darkness leads to the sort of falsely chipper whitewashed pastel-hued suburban lifestyle that inevitably shields terrible secrets inside; it’s such a cliché that some have termed it Stepford Suburbia. Maybe to take that beautiful verse to its most extreme application is to become someone twisted, lost, and dangerous — someone entirely out of touch with the structures and gearwork of human nature. “Shielding oneself from evil is a very dangerous path to walk down,” says Andrew, another pastor’s kid. “Some of the most evil people on the planet are rich, white ‘Christians.’ However, if one claims to follow the Jesus of the Bible, it’s pretty clear that confronting evil with acts of love was a primary purpose [of his].”
I’m no Son of God, but writing about murderesses was an extraordinary study in empathy for me. Looking at their awful childhoods, their wretched relationships, their untreated mental illnesses, their deep loneliness, their grinding struggle to survive — I reached a point, with each of them, where I felt like I understood why they killed. How can any of us say we wouldn’t go there if our circumstances were different? If life crushed us under its heel the way it crushed them? By the time I finished the book, I had—like a demented minor god—chosen to forgive them all.
My forgiveness has its limits, though. The thought of a damp and freshly baptized Jeffrey Dahmer is a little nauseating to me. I don’t particularly want to run into him on the streets of heaven. Like thousands of others, I take sick pleasure in the fact that he was brutally murdered in prison. And yet it was the specter of Dahmer that made me suddenly lose my faith in hell. I was eating tacos and drinking a smoky margarita in a Chicago bar. I was thinking about Dahmer, about the endless maze of his brokenness, and whether he might ever — in any reality, in any religion — deserve forgiveness not from humans, but from the divine. And it occurred to me that I can’t believe in a merciful Deity and believe in hell at the same time. Because even though Dahmer is awful almost beyond imagining, he’s not unhuman. No action can strip that away from him. We’re all trapped in our humanness, no matter how many heads we store in the freezer. I don’t know if Dahmer deserves forgiveness, but I can’t imagine a scope of evil that deserves eternal damnation.
My theology is shaky, though, because it’s been running on sheer emotional fumes for years. I used to know doctrine; I used to be able to speak intelligently about these things. Now it’s all I feel this and I doubt that. When I was 13, I cried to a camp counselor about how I didn’t feel this “peace of God” that everyone was telling me I should feel. She whipped out a tract on accepting Jesus into your life and tried to walk me through the most patronizing basics of faith. Me, the pastor’s daughter. I clamped shut like a little jewelry box then and haven’t really opened since. Christ-haunted. When I was older, I used to lie in bed and whisper-scream, furious at God. It was almost more of an exorcism, now that I think about it. “Show yourself,” I would hiss.
One of the last things tethering me to the spiritual realm is the beauty of my father’s own faith. I have scraps of his wisdom scattered around my home. On a note marked August 31, 2014, I scribbled down his definition of salvation: “It’s seeing the beauty and the attractiveness of it, and saying, Help me.” Another time, I heard him say, “Prayer is the breathing of the regenerate soul.” Who talks like that? It’s beautiful. When he composes a sermon, he uses words like “delight” and “thanksgiving” and “praise” and “joy.” While I write about child-killers and arsenic, he writes in the language of love.
“It’s all bullshit, quoting Bibles and shit like that,” says Phelps. He’s looking at the seven letters on his desk from seven serial killers. Three of them use the hyperbolic language of the born-again Christian, claiming loudly that God has forgiven them and so they can sleep at night. Phelps says they’ve just replaced one obsession with another. “They know who they are. They just can’t kill anymore, because the knife has been taken out of their hands.”
Despite appearances, Phelps isn’t actually agnostic these days. “It’s hurtful,” he says, about the way religion seemed to suddenly retreat from him. “It’s not that I don’t believe. It’s just that I don’t know.”
I feel a bit guilty when I get off the phone with him. Turns out I’ve done something I always accidentally do: tried to get free therapy out of people. It’s getting out of control, what with this book and all. I keep cornering people at bars, drunkenly wondering aloud if I should have written about something beautiful instead. I’m probably irritating at parties now. I suppose I’m using the reassurance of strangers to make up for a church that I always felt was judging me, a church that never seemed to care about the nuance and contours of my doubt.
When I pore over the evidence, I have very little to prove that my parents are actually disappointed in me. Maybe it was never about them after all. I already told you that I’ve often mistaken my father for God. The prayer whispered into the ear of the serial killer Marie de Brinvilliers moments before her beheading was “I have waited for Thee, oh Lord,” a sentiment so simultaneously hopeful and despairing that it brings tears to my eyes. I’m furious at the thought that I have been left alone. Still, I wait.
Did you know that Jeffrey Dahmer smiled when he emerged from the baptismal water? What did he see down there — the suffused light of real forgiveness, or an emptiness that confirmed everything he’d ever known?