How I Went From Researching Children of Serial Killers to Murderabilia

by John Vonderau

The protagonist of my thriller, Murderabilia, is the son of a serial killer. That premise led me to research the actual children of serial killers. What I found was that these poor kids’ lives were irreparably shattered when their fathers—and in some cases mothers— were arrested. Imagine being told, out of the blue, that the father you loved is a serial killer.

Carl.Suit & VinesMelissa Moore was only fifteen years old when her mother sat her down and revealed what she had just learned: Melissa’s father was the Happy Face Killer. Kari Rawson’s father, Dennis Rader, had walked her down the aisle at her wedding. An FBI agent knocked on her door to deliver the news that he was actually BTK. Michael Brunner was only fourteen months old when his father, Charlie Manson, was arrested. But even a toddler is traumatized when he’s yanked from his parents to live with his grandparents.

There are many others. But almost all of them, when their parent was arrested, felt as if their prior lives were lies. Suddenly many people they knew in their communities saw them as pariahs. How could they, even as children, not have known? They themselves felt guilty that they hadn’t suspected something. The inconsequential oddities of a parent they loved now took on deadly significance. Like the duct tape in the cab of Keith Jesperson’s truck. Or when Fred and Rose West locked their kids in the basement and the kids heard strange noises coming through the ceiling. Or when Dennis Rader lunged at his son and choked him. It only happened once. Every parent loses it one time, right? And worst of all, they questioned what was wrong with themselves. How could they love people who did such monstrous things? As these kids grew up and had children, they had to shield their own kids from their secret family history. These are some of the issues I learned about and explored in Murderabilia.

In my thriller, the protagonist’s father took “artistic” black and white photos of hisMurderabilia Cover with quote victims. Those photos, shot in the Eighties, were now all over the internet. That led to more research and a shocking discovery. There is all kinds of art work produced by actual killers. A whole market exists for this stuff. It’s called “murderabilia.” It is not only artwork but any kind of memorabilia associated with murders and murderers. Dealers sell it both privately and all over the internet. The variety is endless: paintings, letters, poetry, signatures, photos, hair, fingernails, and even ashes. Paintings and writings seem to bring the highest prices. And if that painting is produced by someone notorious? The prices are sickeningly high. John Wayne Gacy’s clown pictures go for thousands of dollars. Even his driver’s license is for sale. But his highest priced work is an oil painting of his house showing the crawl spaces where he buried his victims. That one recently listed for $175,000. Ted Bundy’s glasses were for sale for $70,000. One of Hitler’s paintings was recently sold in Germany for about a half million dollars. Even the U.S. government is getting in the act. To benefit his victims, the government sold Whitey Bulger’s personal items like jewelry and even his sneakers. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets. In my book, my protagonist’s father started the whole murderabilia market with his photos. And thus the name of the book—Murderabilia. Imagine having to deal with that history.

Hear more from John Vanderau when he visits BookPeople on September 9th at 7PM for a panel discussion alongside Edwin Hill and Puja Guha.

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