Stalking the Wild Sociopath
The Stranger Beside Me By Ann Rule Norton, $14.95
EVEN AMONG mass murderers, the case of Theodore Robert Bundy stands out, the most grimly fascinating of them all. While all psycho-killers lock us in a morbid, white-knuckled attention, Bundy's story seemed especially intolerable and seductive.
The appearance of two new books to document Ted Bundy's gruesome career reminds us again that murderers are celebrities to be merchandised to satisfy our rapacious demand for the bizarre. One, Seattle Times reporter Richard Larson's The Deliberate Stranger, smacks of naked opportunism, while the other, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rules, is mesmerized by how a man variously described as "compassionate," "charismatic," "Kennedyesque," and a "wonderful human being" could do the things Ted Bundy did.
Somehow, as mass murderers go, Ted Bundy seemed a killer easy to identify with. Bundy, the brutal murderer of as many as 36 young women in four states--Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Florida--was a homicidal sociopath for upwardly mobile suburbia. He killed nice girls, girls next door, and did it in the suburbs and sleepy college hollows of the country. He had such style--he held down two careers.
With a stultifyingly middle class background and warped by the usual subtle psychological complications, Bundy appeared to be the dream-model for many good American families' plans for their sons. He was good-looking and charming, a stylish Boy Scout grown to adulthood. He was a promising psychology and law student, a bright light in the future of the Washington state Republican Party, and a sensitive psychiatric social worker. Yet he was also possessed by what he called his "little problem," which rode him even as his career in politics began to accelerate. Occasionally it would drive him to cruise neat suburban neighborhoods or college districts in his tan VW looking for young women to rape, strangle, sodomize, or smash with crowbars.
But most of the time he had complete control over his devil--he kept his problem separate from business. This obsessed Americans as they watched the Today show reports of Bundy conducting his own defense in his Florida murder trial before the game shows came on, or as they read of Bundy's escape from jail in Colorado while they sipped martinis before dinner. Thousands of housewives followed the story on a day-to-day basis, talking about it at the super market while waiting in line in front of the magazine rack.
FOR BUNDY also obsessed the media. He made good copy. No brooding loner like many of our great criminals, he was flamboyantly glib before the microphones and looked dashing on camera. He knew how to attract attention and how to be a celebrity. There was always a story; two jailbreaks, his articulate mocking of the proceedings against him, the dramatic, tempestuous trials, his being his own lawyer, his continual gaming in the spotlights, his marriage while examining his girlfriend on the witness stand. He coveted the segments on the news and the front page stories, always encouraging America's cultish fixation on him by playing to the crowds and the journalists, flirting with admissions of guilt, retreating to witty disclaimers, creating spectacles.
Richard W. Larson's Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger simply rehearses all that coverage again. It is less a book than a 303 page True Detective article--with none of the cheap thrills. Larson seems a dogged but uninspired or talentless young reporter responding to a hard-boiled chief detective's "Gimme all you've got"; he has lots of facts and is obviously a tireless reporter, but it all just sits there. The Deliberate Stranger isn't a book; it's the murder file on Bundy, a shapeless compilation of everything Larson knows about Bundy, which isn't that much more than has already been printed in the papers many times. The mechanical narrative lacks all bite, which is both exasperating and immoral given the dramatic possibilities and the horror of the case. Larson has no human response to the killings or any intention of trying to figure out what went wrong with Ted Bundy and his society. It sounds like he just wanted to get a book on Bundy out before we forget the whole thing.
Larson's inability to summon any emotion for Bundy's victimes is especially outrageous. The bodies just pile up. The first is no more tragic than the 20th because Larson gives no thought to the women--he just cranks out a banal notation of these girls' eye color, hair length, and extra-curricular activities. The reader can only conclude that Larson really didn't care that much. Women slain in Seattle blur with women bludgeoned, stripped, and abandoned in Salt Lake City, Aspen, and Tallahassee. As the stock descriptions accumulate we get only a sense of the growth of the pile. Death here is only a general, unspecific horror, of numbers and names; unbelievably, the story never knots up into a communication of the individual, intolerable tragedies.
Larson has nothing to say beyond his clumsy rerecording of the facts, which, by now, are the least important thing in our concern or nonconcern about Ted Bundy. Larson's fearfulness to speculate at all about what constructed Bundy's grim mechanism, his complete unwillingness to risk saying anything amounts not just to mediocrity but immorality--a failure of nerve typical of the quiet neutrality of American society's herd spectatorship.
IN THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, Ann Rule encounters the same jam of corpses and cops. She also fails to make any of the victims memorable. But Rule does have an extraordinary angle that makes her book dramatic, full of human emotion, and occasionally as chilling as a bedroom window shattering at midnight. She counted Ted Bundy among her friends.
An ex-policewoman, a full time free-lance writer for TrueDetective and other crime slicks, Rule first met Bundy when the two worked the late-night shift together at Seatlle's Crisis Clinic, spending four hours a night answering telephone calls from people on the precipice of madness, violence, and suicide. "I can picture him today as clearly as if it were only yeaterday," she writes, "see him hunched over the phone, talking steadily, reassuringly," Bundy was considered one of the most skilled counselors, adroit at helping desperate people with their midnight psychodramas. "If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives," says Rule, "he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it."
During the late nights at the Crisis Clinic Bundy and Rule talked, often intimately, about their lives, their romances, their pasts. They became friends, they sent each other Christmas cards. Years later, when Ted surfaced as the prime suspect in the unsolved murders of young women in Washington and Utah, she faced a terrible personal realization: her ex-confidante might well be a murderer, might well have murdered, in fact, when she knew him.
The power of the book she finally wrote is the disbelief that slowly, reluctantly changes into a "niggling feeling that he might be guilty," and finally grows into a foursquare conviction that Bundy is indeed guilty of all he is accused and suspected of. Throughout we feel the anguish of her realization that she had been manipulated, just like all the victims, into trusting this man. And finally, her crystallized feeling of Bundy's guilt seems not to come from her careful crime-reporter's examination of the evidence but rather from somewhere within herself: a dream; the stray threads of what she knew about Bundy's life; and her sudden, violent reaction to the photos from the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University where Bundy had ravaged five sleeping students in a maniacal, club-swinging frenzy.
Though Rule is no great stylist--her good intentions and horror at the story cause severe purpling of the writing at crucial times--her book is at least a sensitive, steady account of the facts, given a moving dimension through her relationship with the murderer. Though Rule, like Larson, is unable to get past a snapshot description of the victims to make them stand out as individual sacrifices to the sociopath, one feels it is not because of a deadness of her moral sense. Unlike Larson's rote transcription of the case, The Stranger Beside Me grapples with Ted Bundy on human terms.