Of these names, only one is likely familiar to you. Ted Bundy is arguably one of the most infamous serial killers of the 20th century. The others—Caryn, Lisa, Kimberly—are just three of the young women on his list of victims.
After using one of Bundy’s quotes as an epigraph in my latest thriller, Daddy Darkest, I decided to dive in headfirst and read Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, an autobiographical and biographical true crime novel about the life and death (by electric chair) of Ted Bundy, whom Rule knew personally before and arrest his arrest for a series of murders of young women. Bundy often relied upon charm and manipulation to con his victims, luring them with a variety of ruses including a security badge, crutches, and a cast, and bludgeoning them to death.
Rule has updated the book several times since its original publication in 1980, and in her prologue (The Final Chapter, Part One) she discusses the fascination, the borderline obsession surrounding Bundy, who one periodical dubbed “the glamour boy of homicide.” Not surprisingly, that obsession reached a peak after Bundy was portrayed by the handsome, Mark Harmon, in a 1986 television movie, The Deliberate Stranger. Rule talks of the thousands of letters she has received over the years, and continues to receive, from young girls and women infatuated with Ted…many of whom are the exact ages of his victims.
Crazy? Maybe. But, I doubt it. These murderous men (and less frequently, women) are the human equivalent of a horrific car accident. It’s impossible not to look. And look we do. In fact, we can’t get enough. As a society, we are far more fascinated by, far more interested in, the perpetrators of crime than the victims. Consider the show line-up on Investigation Discovery: Homicide Hunter; A Crime to Remember; Deadly Women; Fear They Neighbor; Unusual Suspects; I (Almost) Got Away with It; Swamp Murders; Evil Kin; and the list goes on. Of the fifty plus shows on the true crime channel, only one appears to focus mostly on the victim’s experience.
Rule writes poignantly about Bundy’s victims, acknowledging that a significant portion of her fame as a true crime writer came about due to her association with the notorious killer and, thus, owing to the deaths of at least eighteen women (Ted’s confessed killings, though some estimates suggest he killed as many as one hundred victims). She writes, “But I’m not grateful. I would rather I’d never had a book of my own…and that Ted’s victims had lived.”
It’s an important but sobering perspective for a forensic psychologist as well. In my day job—evaluating violence risk for life term inmates, most of whom have committed murder—my livelihood too is borne of the sorrow, devastation, and loss of others. Twenty plus years removed from the crime itself, it can be all too easy to overlook the victims. I always include the victim’s name in my description of the crime, but sometimes, I am forced to hunt for it amid layers of documents. Some reports I’ve read simply refer to him or her as “the victim,” as if the years have stripped away the person’s identity, leaving only a nameless, faceless, androgynous word. You may be surprised to know that a few of the murderers I evaluate do not know, have forgotten, or never bothered to learn the name(s) of their victims. In fact, I encountered one such inmate** recently. He had committed more than five sexual assaults, two of which ended in murder, and he admitted he had never learned any of his victims’ names. To me, any expressions of remorse are rendered completely invalid if a perpetrator cannot identify the person who they have harmed, the most basic level of accountability and regret.
There were many disturbing aspects of Rule’s book, both expected and unexpected. For me, one of the most unexpected was her focus on the victims: their lives, their families, their appearance…down to the details of what they wore when seen last. None of Bundy’s victims did anything wrong. In fact, for many, their fatal error was doing the right thing—being kind, helping someone in need…a man on crutches fumbling with his books. And then, there are Rule’s other letters. Those from Bundy’s victims who got away. One woman, who lived less than a block from his rooming house in Seattle, reportedly fended off his attack on her roommate with a guttural scream “that [she has] never been able to duplicate since.” Another was allegedly saved by a car full of high school boys who just happened along. They were that close to being one of the names on Ted Bundy’s list.
For many of us, myself included, it’s much easier to set our sights on the perpetrator. To judge him (or her). To be fascinated by him. Even to identify with him. To see ourselves as the victim is far less alluring. It leaves us vulnerable to an indifferent, often malevolent world over which we control very little. To see just how close we are to the razor’s edge of our own mortality. Killers like Ted Bundy are easily labelled as the other. Victims, though, they hold up a mirror. They are us.
**Details have been changed to protect confidentiality.