Empathy for a Killer: Why We Can’t Ignore Ted Bundy’s Grotesque Story

Serial killers fascinate me. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Jeffrey Dahmer. Robert Pickton. H.H. Holmes. Ed Gein. Ed Kemper. Ted Bundy.

I listen to the stories behind these devious, evil men because their actions open a terrifying window into human nature. They reveal what man is capable of and ask the tantalizing but impossible-to-answer question.

Why?

I’m not an expert. To answer this question for myself, to settle my own fears and confusion, I have only my writer’s habit of “putting myself in their shoes” and the gift of empathy. Like everyone who writes about people who have committed inscrutable evil, I can only speculate, and I believe whatever I say will far short of the truth.

After all, even the serial killers themselves can’t always answer that question.

“I don’t think anybody doubts whether I’ve done some bad things. The question is: what, of course, and how…and most importantly, why?” — Ted Bundy

Consumed

Ted_Bundy_HS_Yearbook
Via Wikimedia Commons, English: Associated students, Woodrow Wilson High School [Public domain]
On the outside, Ted Bundy was charming, fairly handsome, and evidently normal, as we all know. I think there’s a reason Zac Efron plays him in a new and very controversial movie about the prolific killer–to trick the audience into believing this falsehood. Because in real life, the killer tricked a lot of people.

As a big fan of “Mindhunter” on Netflix, I was jazzed when I heard about their documentary “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” I’m three episodes in to the four-episode series (side note: I was astonished to learn that was born in Burlington, Vermont, a mere two-and-a-half hours from where I live!) and I’m absolutely fascinated.

 

Of course, I’m disgusted as well. Besides his more obvious faults, Bundy was an obnoxious pathological liar, narcissistic, self-involved, disingenuous and entitled. If he hadn’t killed scores of women, he still would’ve left this word as a detested, abominable human being.

But he did kill scores of women. He committed untold horrors upon the corpses. He took the heads. When he talked about killing, his blue eyes turned black, according one expert. His own defense lawyer said Bundy was “the very definition of heartless evil,” and Bundy said the same about himself.

I’m the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.

Bundy spoke highly of his childhood and his family, but at some point learned that the man he believed was his father was not his father at all. His mother gave birth to him at a home for unwed mothers and then tried to leave her baby behind; her own father wouldn’t let her. Some have suggested that Bundy is the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and grandfather.

To any armchair psychiatrist, this seems an obvious trigger for Bundy’s murderous nature. One of the documentary’s experts suggested a link. But the killer himself refuted that, saying in the tapes that that people in general are complicated and there’s no way to truly know what combination of circumstances create a serial killer.

Besides, long before this revelation about his parentage, Bundy was an odd boy. A childhood friend saw beneath his self-congratulatory lies and said that there was always a “gap” in him. A quote from Bundy himself reveals more.

I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.

Of course, there’s no way to know if he was born with this inability to connect with other people or it developed as he grew up in a troubled home. But I think it’s the basis for everything else he did.

When Bundy was arrested after his infamous killing spree in Florida, he called his girlfriend. She then relayed their conversation to police, in which Bundy attempted to explain why he had killed so many women; he had alluded this in his tapes, revealed in an earlier episode of the series.

Bundy described some unspecified hunger that wracked him in his youth, which eventually transformed into a desire to kill women. This hunger needed to be filled, but each killing failed to satiate him, so he killed again and again, hoping each time to satisfy it.

Then, to his girlfriend, Bundy confessed that he was consumed by something he couldn’t explain. He’d spent years trying to live a normal life, but could no longer put up a front.

Whatever this force was, he said he couldn’t resist it.

The Impossible Question

There has been quite a bit of commentary about the documentary and the Efron film, much of it accusing both projects of glamorizing Bundy. The mere observation that the serial killer was charming and handsome has rankled people; such a characterization may be accurate, but it makes people uncomfortable.

In the fraught landscape of the #MeToo movement, much of this criticism seems focused around the argument that in talking about Bundy, we’re ignoring his female victims. But here’s the brutal truth about why society has placed its focus on the killer: the victims can’t answer that question we’re all asking.

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Why?

The focus on Bundy, or any other serial killer, is always an attempt to pick apart the ingredients that created him. If we can do that, perhaps we can prevent or anticipate the next incarnation. We want to know how a human being can be so evil. We’re terrified by the idea. And in the darkness of our fear, we want explanations.

Sever what Ted Bundy did as an adult from the tragic story of his youth: rumors of incest, a violent “maniac” for a grandfather, a childhood allegedly exposed to pornography, discovering a disturbing family secret. Now consider the actual facts of what he did: killing dozens of young women, committing sexual acts with their corpses, keeping severed heads in his home, feeling as though some force guided his actions. And beneath all this, an awareness of being separate from other people, irreversibly different.

This is a man warped by mental illness, whose mind works in a much different way than that of a normal person. Imagine, for moment, that your own mind fed you such desires, images, and hungers. Imagine that you don’t understand why and you feel you can’t resist.

Maybe Bundy was speaking nonsense when he spoke of this force. But maybe he wasn’t.

We’re not supposed to sympathize with men like Ted Bundy, but sympathy isn’t the same as acceptance. I can sympathize with the qualities that made Bundy who he is, while at the same time feel disgust for what he did.

There should always be room for sympathy and empathy, because both can lead to understanding. And understanding is a weapon that we can use to fight against men like Bundy. I’ll close with words from the man himself.

I don’t want to die. I’m not going to kid you. I deserve the most extreme punishment society has…I think society deserves to be protected from me and others like me.

Your Turn

What do you make of men like Ted Bundy? Do you think documentaries and books and conversations about serial killers is akin to glamorization?

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