Task: Read a book of true crime.
My second job post-college was a part time circulation clerk position in the library where I’m now a fancypants real live librarian. That was where I first encountered Ann Rule’s books–lurid titles and book jackets that caused a hopeless mess over in 364.1 as patrons constantly picked through them trying to figure out which ones they’d already read.
I didn’t think much of them. They looked tacky.
But after my fourth challenge read this year, I realized I had accidentally read four male authors in a row. I wanted to restore some balance. Ann Rule isn’t the only female true crime writer out there, but she was the first name that came to mind, followed by a deep sigh of resignation. Fine. I’d read her. It would indeed be pushing my own boundaries and “reading harder.”
But I’d never heard of The Stranger Beside Me. I did not know that Ann Rule had worked a suicide hotline next to Ted Bundy. I didn’t know that they’d maintained a friendship even as Rule landed a book contract for several of his unsolved murders before Bundy had surfaced on anyone’s radar as a suspect. I didn’t know that she had sent him money for his commissary almost up to the day of his execution. This book was fascinating.
I was also surprised to find that it didn’t linger unnecessarily on gruesome descriptions of young women’s murdered bodies. I mean, there is some upsetting material in here, because you can’t really write much about Ted Bundy or his trial and conviction, which hinged on bite mark analysis, without it. That said, Rule devoted considerably more ink to describing the victims as living women than as murder victims (the Wikipedia article on Bundy is actually quite a bit more grisly than this book).
The Stranger Beside Me had quite a bit more journalistic integrity than I expected it to, and I feel like I may need to apologize to the rest of Ann Rule’s work after reading it. She had worked as a police officer and later moonlit as a police educator and was briefly the preeminent expert on serial killers, when it was still a fairly new concept in the public consciousness. One of the weirdest coincidences in a book full of upsetting coincidences involved her being called in to consult and produce a lengthy dossier on Kathy Devine’s case (for a long time it was assumed that Bundy killed her, but her real murderer was arrested in 2002).
In other words, she knows her stuff.
Bundy’s crimes were horrific, and the effectiveness of his public persona in covering up his psychopathy is frightening. But Rule’s involvement in his case adds a more unexpected, more complicated layer that’s disturbing too. She did suspect him, early on, and notified Seattle police. She never told Bundy, but she followed up at least once.
And yet she still met him at a restaurant while he was out on bail on kidnapping charges. She kept up their correspondence. It’s very, very unclear as to when Rule figured out the truth. She writes about a moment toward the end of his first murder trial where she saw pictures of his victims and literally vomited under the weight of the realization of his guilt, but it’s hard to believe it came as that much of a shock.
It seems clear that Bundy was manipulating her, having known before she did that she’d ultimately be his biographer, since she told him about her book contract for the case before anyone had connected him to it. But there’s a really unsettling and unanswered question as to whether or not Rule was manipulating him too.
There’s more stranger-than-fiction material here than the collision course between Rule and Bundy’s “careers” (for lack of a better word, in Bundy’s case). Bundy’s successful jailbreak in Colorado, which involved starving himself to a size at which he could fit through the hole he’d carved in a ceiling tile is so audacious that only the schlockiest of campy prison dramas would allow it. While acting as his own attorney, he managed to declare marriage before officers of the court (an odd quirk of Florida law), thus managing to legally marry Carole Ann Boone in the middle of her testimony.
I did appreciate that Rule managed to write compassionately about Bundy without disrespecting his victims or their families. She was walking an unimaginably difficult line, and while I felt a little uncomfortable during her lengthy psych evaluation of Bundy near the end, nothing about this felt as cheap or exploitative as I thought it was going to. It just felt incredibly sad.
In all human endeavors that deal with what is unthinkable, too terrible to be dealt with squarely, we turn to what is familiar and regimented: funerals, wakes, and even wars. Now, in this trial, we had gone beyond our empathy with the pain of the victims, our niggling realization that the defendant was a fragmented personality. He knew the rules, he even know a great deal about the law, but he did not seem to be cognizant of what was about to happen to him. He seemed to consider himself irrefrangible. And what was about to happen to him was vital for the good of society. I could not refute that. It had to be, but it seemed hollow that none of us understood that his ego, our egos, our rituals of the courtroom itself, the jokes and the nervous laughter were veiling the gut reactions that we should all be facing (341).
Finally and on a personal note, reading the case history of each abduction enraged me. First and foremost I was upset on the grounds of the senseless loss of life and the overwhelming misogyny in play, of course. On a secondary level, these murders are part of a toxic script that gets drilled into women’s heads.
It’s hard for me to think of anything as societally unhealthy as attempting to depriving half of the population of the right to enjoy being alone without being afraid. I am a very classical introvert, and I need to spend time by myself – a quiet spot in the woods, a dog walk through my dark neighborhood before bed, a deserted two lane highway, or even an anonymously busy sidewalk are restorative for me, even though all are likely candidates for an abduction scene in a slasher movie. I deeply, deeply resent the narrative (which Bundy helped lay down the template for, albeit with centuries’ worth of accomplices) that poisons female solitude.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this. It just makes me angry and sad.