Despite aggressively unappealing covers, I was motivated to read this after watching the recent Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer. The authors behind the book serving as the docuseries’ basis wrote this, too. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book centered only around the interviews, but more about the entire narrative. This seemed like it would do that, plus the library had it.
Whatever you think of serial killers as biography material, Bundy’s story is undeniably fascinating. Just when it seemed it couldn’t get worse or more bizarre, it did, again and again. It’s a perfect storm of sociopathy and circumstances that I still can’t believe happened. I feel worth mentioning that as much as I love true crime, I’m not drawn to stories about the big, infamous serial killers, (“heavy hitters” as Last Podcast on the Left dubs them). These are usually too brutally graphic and depraved. Reading or hearing about them gives me a stomachache.
I also tend to avoid older true crime because it often has a different tone, more lurid and sensational than the literary style that has emerged recently. I gave this a try despite those misgivings and was surprised, as it’s much more of a psychological and behavioral study alongside a thorough investigation of Bundy’s crimes, his third-person storytelling of what happened, and some attempt at sorting out the various whys.
It’s much better than I thought it would be, perhaps judging unfairly by the terrible cover, and the doubts I mentioned. I liked it infinitely more than The Stranger Beside Me, which is, as pointed out here, a tad imaginative. (They have beef with Ann Rule, and take multiple opportunities to indirectly call out her behavior and involvement in Bundy’s case.)
Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth interviewed Bundy during his imprisonment after the trial for his last murder, that of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, and before his execution in Florida for the same. They were private investigators “attached to his prospective appeals attorneys,” with Bundy maintaining innocence. They were quickly disabused of any such possibility, as they reinvestigated the crimes while interviewing him.
They stumbled on the workaround of allowing Bundy to discuss his crimes hypothetically, in the third person. This ended up being a valuable technique, and the resulting interviews contributed to an understanding of both thought and criminal processes. I still think anything a disturbed murderer tells you has to be taken with a boulder of salt, and the authors do due diligence in sharing interview tapes with professionals for feedback, including a clinical psychologist specializing in sex offenders. In a foreword, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood, who focused on sexual predators, said that Bundy’s speculations helped underscore the findings that colleagues in the Behavioral Science Unit were reaching on serial murder.
Dealing with Bundy was an exercise in patience and psychological maneuvering. He was a constant schemer, lied about things they had solid evidence on, and demurred from discussing murders that crossed lines even for him. Until the end he cared about maintaining his smooth image. Getting insight into his mental workings wasn’t painless for the authors, who note that “Such distilled horror, once seen, never leaves you.” But they also call him a “faintly wormy psychopath” who had managed to deceive, not only his victims, but the public in the guise of a “handsome young courtroom dazzler who defended himself on television.”
The Netflix series has attracted its fair share of controversy, with some claiming it glorifies Bundy and paints him positively at the expense of his victims (more on that later) and the hideousness of what he did. And that it shows what white privilege afforded him throughout imprisonment and trials. Both are true.
The appearance he cultivated, which as mentioned in the Refinery29 article is apparently similar today as it was then, helped him get away with what he did for so long. That still happens, not only in the comparatively rare murdering psychopath but with suave con artists or people who see what they want to see in someone despite more red flags than Soviet Russia. I think it’s worth trying to understand something about his psychopathy and how monsters don’t aggressively appear so. This book contributes a lot there. “As Bob Dekle, one of Bundy’s prosecutors, put it, “People think a criminal is a hunchbacked, cross-eyed little monster, slithering through the dark, leaving a trail of slime. They’re human beings.”
Michaud and Aynesworth do better work than the series in showing that Bundy’s persona was a facade, even a not-necessarily good one. It didn’t always translate, but the book is stronger and more objective in this regard.
The press stories about Ted stressed his apparent normalcy, his intellect, his attractiveness, his Republicanism. They didn’t report he was a compulsive nail biter and nose picker, that he was no genius (IQ: 124) that he was at best a fair student in college and a failure in law school, that he was poorly read, that he frequently mispronounced words and that he stuttered when nervous and had acquired only a surface sophistication.
They point out this was the first trial to be nationally televised, so much of the media sensationalism stemmed from the courtroom antics, and Bundy finding his element of putting on a show, creating a juxtaposition between what he was accused of doing and his demeanor.
Seeing his manipulation up close, including his different response to each author, was intense. He wasn’t pleased with their handling of the project, as he had a different kind of book in mind. He didn’t like that they were fact-checking his stories against evidence and outside information (imagine that).
He envisioned an exciting, gossipy book with naughty details, just like the bestselling books about Hollywood celebrities. He did not want to discuss guilt — except to deny it — and he actively tried to dissuade Hugh from investigating the cases against him, ostensibly his main reason for working with us in the first place.
It’s a valid claim that a lot of true crime does little to respect victims, and that’s a terrible shame. I do feel a shift in the genre here though, with more books being written like one of my favorites, Lost Girls, and the excellent upcoming The Five, focusing entirely on filling in biographies that have boiled down to one word (“prostitute”) or else in Bundy’s case, been subsumed in his shadow.
This book is a product of its times, in that it doesn’t explore victims’ lives in-depth. Although, in addition to focusing on survivor Carol DaRonch, it had a few surprising insights: I loved a detail about how Lynda Healy used to ride her bike through the early-morning dark to her job as a radio weather announcer. It sounded so exhilarating and confident. So it’s not all bad. (But here’s someone’s opportunity to write the book on these women!)
Its strength, in addition to breaking down Bundy’s mental issues, is more in covering the investigation, including aspects that were botched. Here’s a mind-blowing one, from the detectives working the bold daylight double abduction from Lake Sammamish:
One of Bob Keppel’s more inventive moves was to feed the 3,000 names into the massive King County payroll computer, one of the very earliest uses of computer in a criminal investigation. Then he added all Washington State Volkswagen owners, the names of all the friends of the victims, names from their address books, class lists of students from each of the missing girls’ schools, all mental patients in the state for the previous ten years, known sex offenders, motel lists from the Issaquah area — even the names of the people who had ridden at a horse ranch near Issaquah over the past year.
From this master list, the computer was programmed to print out everyone whose name appeared twice. Hundreds of names came out. When the number of coincidences was raised to four, there were still almost four hundred names — among them, Ted Bundy’s. At five coincidences, only twenty-five names appeared, including Bundy’s. The other twenty-four all had alibis and were cleared.
Comprehensive and page-turning (the kind of book you can’t even put down while brushing your teeth), it also ends up being insightful on more fronts than expected. (The title’s a misnomer though, that applies more to DaRonch.)
The Only Living Witness:
The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy
by Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth, published 1983
Amazon / Book Depository