Can any parent imagine a worse nightmare than having a child slaughtered by a sexually deranged serial killer? Perhaps only one: learning that one's own son had turned into such a beast of prey. No doubt one's first impulse would be like that of the Starrett family of Augusta, Ga.: to take refuge in the hope that it was all a case of mistaken identity. ''This person they're talking about,'' Richard Daniel Starrett's sister Helen insisted to the police, ''the person who did all these awful things, that's not my brother.'' Alas, the evidence against Danny Starrett was beyond dispute. Before he was arrested in 1989, Danny, then 28, had kidnapped at least five young women between the ages of 12 and 21 and raped them at gunpoint in front of a video camera. He had also murdered a 15-year-old.
By telling A Stranger in the Family from the point of view of Starrett's family, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith paint themselves into a corner. Despite the family's all-American exterior, it becomes increasingly clear that Danny was markedly peculiar from a very young age. At 10, he was making ''drawings of underground factories where women were chopped up and processed into dog food.'' Yet such details emerge only very late in the story. For too long, readers are encouraged to sympathize with reactions like mom Gerry Starrett's ''nausea'' at the ''betrayal'' of Danny's wife's filing for divorce. ''After everything else, how would he ever get through this?'' Imagine that: He kidnaps and rapes young women and she files for divorce! B