Interviewing and Analyzing Bundy

Book review: The Only Living Witness, by Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth (Amazon / Book Depository)

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 Fivefocusing 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

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23 thoughts on “Interviewing and Analyzing Bundy

  1. Wonderful insight into this book, into Ann Rule’s– which I knew of– and the Netflix series! My son, who is an attorney, and currently staying with us for a few weeks, is fascinated by nonfiction books and anything to do with the Innocence Project or people possibly unfairly imprisoned: The Making of a Killer series, the blood-splatter debacle, etc. So he asked me, a rather squeamish person, to watch the Bundy series with him. We did, and I’m glad I got the opportunity!

    I enjoy some nonfiction now and again, and memoirs of lesser-known people. It was fascinating to see how Bundy was able to make a whole other persona for the public eye (done of course by many serial killers, but in this instance done quite well). The escaping through the window segment really blew me away, how he was able to hoodwink the guards into leaving him alone and with no leg shackles. And just when I thought it was done, he started helping the FBI profilers, which was a great idea all around! I’m a liberal, against the death penalty & for the Innocence Project,and I was put off by the circus atmosphere outside the facility after his death was announced. Of course what he did was horrible, it stole lives from innocent folks and their families, and I felt a small voice saying, he deserves this, but are any deaths– whether victims or their perpetrators– justified?? This is a topic that can be debated from now to eternity and never be satisfactorily decided on both sides of the fence.

    Thanks for this great review. It made me think again about the series and whether I would want to read more about the case. At this point I think maybe my son would be interested, and can feed me tidbits from it.

    p.s. I’m originally from Queens with ties to Long Island, so I’m going to look for The Lost Girls book based on your past review. And The Five is already on my wishlist and I mentioned it in a post about possible books for me to look for this year.

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    1. Thanks so much, Rita! You should definitely make sure your son knows of this one, I think he’d find it interesting…especially since we shared so many books the last time you gave me a list of what you and he enjoyed reading! It’s funny that he talked you into watching the Netflix show, my husband watched it with me too although he’s very selective in what true crime he’s willing to watch! This story is just too compelling, and there are so many interesting sociological and psychological elements, not to mention the flat-out bizarre details of things like his escapes. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of anything ‘glorifying’ Bundy as that show has been criticized of doing, but the story just leaves me wide-eyed.

      I found the people celebrating his death so disturbing. I get that the case was high-profile and the level of national animosity high (I think especially heightened with his last victim being a child), but it was upsetting to see. We lose something of our own humanity if we also celebrate someone’s death, I think, regardless of what they’ve done. And I wonder if they would’ve gotten more from him if he’d lived, he was clearly stretching out his time by revealing things and was trying hard for stays of execution at the end but wasn’t revealing anything…but it does seem like there are some yet-unresolved cases connected to him as well as remains still not found.

      This isn’t especially graphic or as disturbing in crime details as I’d feared, so I think it’s readable even if you’re squeamish, but it also wouldn’t be bad to just hear the outline from your son or let him try it first, at least.

      I can’t believe you’re a fellow Queens girl!! My dad’s family originally immigrated there, then moved down into Pennsylvania and Maryland. I lived for many years in Astoria. I’m currently abroad in my husband’s country but I hope to land back in Queens eventually! Lost Girls is fantastic, a different approach that gives biographies to the victims on Long Island and lays out the sociological/economic conditions that led to their choosing sex work. It’s well written and empathetic and gives them back their dignity. The Five does the same, and seemed so remarkable to me that after more than 100 years we’d gotten so much wrong about these women and never bothered to attempt some historical understanding of them beyond their deaths. I hope you like them, looking forward to hearing what you think if you read them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, I enjoyed reading them so much!

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  2. Oh, thank you for this review! When you told me earlier that you weren’t impressed by Ann Rule’s book, it caught me off guard. Then I realized that was my first true crime book (putting aside In Cold Blood, which is in a category by itself) and I read it many, many years ago. I’m interested in the critique of her book.

    You’ve intrigued me to take a look at this one, especially as my own experience with the genre has matured. Ted Bundy scared me because he didn’t look like the bogeyman and had successfully escaped incarceration. Before him, I was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. I must confess to being relieved he was no longer a threat. That unsettled me for a long time.

    I’m starting the Netflix series today and hope I can get my hands on this book. Great analysis!!

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    1. You’re so welcome, I’m glad you liked it!! And you’re right, In Cold Blood is in its own category 🙂 I think if I would’ve read the Rule book earlier, I would’ve had a different take. Having read a lot of true crime before I got to it, it was so-so for me. They don’t critique her book TOO deeply here, but enough to make it clear that she made some missteps. Personally I didn’t like the writing of it, it felt weak to me, and I was bothered sometimes by her speculation. The authors here call it “imaginative” and I realized that was exactly how it felt to me in parts.

      Also I didn’t mean to critique the Netflix series too heavily because I did like it a lot (in an “I’m terrified” kind of way!) despite its drawbacks, like not addressing his inherent privilege or letting him come off in a better light. They make that very clear in this book, that as charming as he could come across, he was not someone to be admired and not even an intelligent talent gone to waste. He was mediocre in academics, lazy, unmoored, etc. Plus it gives an excellent platform to living badass Carol DaRonch. I’m excited to hear what you think of it.

      And I hope you’ll read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts! I agree, it’s a very scary story but I think important to know…the point they make repeatedly is that evil doesn’t look like Halloween nightmare creatures, it looks like him.

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      1. He did come across as smarmy. Just so arrogant. No wonder considering what he’d gotten away with that far. In the interviews in the book he mentions that a few times, that it felt like it was his night, he just knew this was going to go his way, etc. It’s that sociopathic confidence, so disturbing.

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  3. I was just thinking about what you discuss in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. And I think it relates to other nonfiction as well. The bigger the story, at times, the more it can be sensationalized. It seems when an author is the first to the story or the one to take a deep dive, the book comes out a little better. A lot of generalizing in this comment. But it has been my experience in many of the ones I’ve read.

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    1. That’s very true. Authors have that choice when it’s a big, sensational story with how they approach the presentation of it. I much prefer a deep dive that explores underlying and related factors instead of just reporting all the lurid details for shock value.

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    1. Thank you!! I agree, it looks like the Zac Efron film has a lot of potential to be problematic because of that focus. The trailer gives him almost like a 70s rockstar vibe! It was disturbing…

      I noticed it a bit in the docuseries, but didn’t find the glorification of him THAT egregious myself. It’s just more thoroughly handled in the book. And from reading articles, it seemed a lot of people were bothered by it, so I thought it was worth mentioning. The privilege is another issue entirely, he so clearly skated through everything on that. I couldn’t even believe it, like a judge telling him it was such a shame he wouldn’t practice in his courtroom. He just was always given the benefit of the doubt, when as the authors point out here he was just a wormy little psychopath.

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      1. I agree that the movie makes Bundy look like a rock star. I wasn’t impressed.

        ‘..like a judge telling him it was such a shame he wouldn’t practice in his courtroom..; When I saw that scene from the trial I was in shock. That just proves that – yes, he was privileged but also very charming and manipulative. Also the whole Bundy trial was something else… Very problematic.

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    1. I liked the Netflix show but the book is better! I don’t think I had one minute of boredom reading it and I’m easily distracted, unfortunately. I’m sure you’d be interested in the courtroom drama of it, it was a total mess!

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  4. I have the movie saved on my Netflix list. My husband doesn’t want to watch it so I am waiting until he is in bed some night. I like to watch the movie first because the book is always so much better. Thanks for a great review!

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    1. My husband was willing to watch this one, I couldn’t believe it…he usually doesn’t even want to be in the room if I’m watching true crime! I watched the series first, but as usual, the book is much better. Such a crazy story!

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  5. I’ve also read the articles critiquing the Netflix show, so I’m glad to hear that the book does less letting Bundy have the last word on how he is perceived. The detail you shared from the investigation is fascinating and definitely makes me want to pick this up! Like you, I’d love more books that focus on the lives of victims and after having seen The Five on your list, I’m looking forward to that as well.

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    1. That’s a good way to put it, they don’t allow him the last word wherever possible. I think the other, more fictionalized movie coming out is going to be worse in terms of the perception issue, it has this weird, uncomfortable rockstar vibe from the trailer…but the book is fascinating. It feels thorough and weaves in a lot of analysis and detail, I was surprised how much I liked it. And I love this seeming trend of writing about the victims, I hope it’ll catch on more. The Five is excellent, was such a fascinating social history. I kind of can’t believe it wasn’t written sooner.

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  6. Ooh, great review! This sounds like a really interesting Bundy book and definitely one I’m going to add to my list. After a morbid “obsession” with serial killers for years and years, Bundy is the one I know least about. There’s so much “hype” around him at the moment, I feel like I need to catch up.

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