“….an exploration of deadly and sensational interpersonal betrayal, experienced on a very personal level.” – The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
I’ve already written about rereading the terrific Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. I did this in conjunction with preparing to teach a course entitled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” The next classic of the genre that I tackled was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.
Since its initial publication in 1980, this seminal true crime narrative has been re-issued a number of times. In a 2008 preface to the latest edition, Rule writes, “I never expected to be writing about Theodore Robert Bundy once again.” Didn’t she? From the time of their fateful first meeting as workers at the Seattle Crisis Clinic in 1971, Ted Bundy has haunted Rule’s life, even commandeered her dreams, turning them into nightmares on frequent occasions. But at the beginning, they were friends, even confidants. Or so she thought.
Her determination to write about this experience in clear, honest prose probably saved her sanity; ironically, that same determination turned out to be the making of her as a successful author of true crime books.
There’s very little explicit violence in The Stranger Beside Me until about the book’s half way point. Until he went to Florida, Bundy’s murderous rampage was an oddly shadowed thing. His victims often seemed to disappear into thin air; some were abducted in broad daylight with other people not far distant. There was, in other words, no crime scene – or none until the body was discovered, weeks or even months or years after the commission of the crime. Some of the victims were never found. It was one of the reasons he was so difficult to identify and apprehend.
But once in Florida, the fever seems to have seized Bundy with an overmastering force. On one awful night in Tallahassee, he invaded a Florida State University sorority house and viciously attacked four young women as they slept in their beds. Two were killed; two more, severely injured. He then proceeded to an off campus residence and attacked another female student. The crime scenes were ghastly, and Rule describes them in precise detail. It was horrible, and I could not stop reading.
Professor Jean Murley descibes this phenomenon in her book The Rise of True Crime. In the introduction, she states that as a teenager, her reading of The Stranger Beside Me sparked a life long fascination with the true crime genre. But alongside that fascination came the insistent question: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
There is something uniquely dreadful about Ted Bundy. That a person who faces the world with such an easygoing, pleasant demeanor, and is nice looking to boot, could be so innately evil seems almost beyond comprehension – well, it is beyond comprehension.
In an interview with Library of America, Harold Schechter observes the following:
Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small
part from their outward appearance of normality. Their atrocities provoke in us a
powerful need to comprehend an ultimate human mystery: how people who seem
(and often are) so ordinary, so much like the rest of us, can possess the hearts and minds of monsters.
Hamlet puts it even more succinctly: “The devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”
As I read Rule’s book, I had the sense of following two parallel mysteries. The first concerned the nature of Ted Bundy himself – how such a person could even exist, could conceal his unspeakable compulsions and actions behind a veneer of affability and genuine intelligence. The second mystery resides with the author herself. Rule kept up her acquaintance, if not friendship, with Ted Bundy even when the murders came to light and he went on trial for his life. True, she was writing and publishing about him all the while. But it seemed to me that her feeling of connection with him went deeper than that. It’s as though she were compelled to continue the work of reconciling in her mind the friend she’d known with the monster he was now known to be.
The last part of the book is occupied with Bundy’s seemingly endless legal maneuvering. Sometimes, when Rule would describe Bundy’s annoyance with a lawyer or judge, I would want to scream out loud, “Who cares how you feel, you horror!!”
Jean Murley observes that “Rule’s description of Bundy as sociopath is classic, and the insights she discovered though him form the basis of contemporary understandings about killers:
On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted has gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind, or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.”
Ted Bundy was electrocuted in Florida in January of 1989. I remember the television footage of the scene outside Florida State Prison in Raiford. People were carrying placards and yelling, “It’s Fry-day, Ted!”
“One purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide
decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William
James called our ‘aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.’ The worst
specimens of the genre may not rise above that quasi-pornographic level. But
the best—like those exquisitely ornamented warclubs, broadswords, and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating:
the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty
nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even into art.”
From Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, as quoted by Harold Schechter