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.


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


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.



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?

Why You Have More In Common With Drug Addicts Than You Think

Certain people are very easy to judge. Bad reputations remain unchallenged. Opinion becomes truth.

It’s easy to judge a drug addict, for example. We’ve all heard and perhaps repeated common beliefs about such people: they’re weak, selfish, self-destructive, they’ll do anything for a hit, they don’t care about the people who love them.

I disagree with all of these descriptions, mostly because they’re far too simplistic. In my short life, I’ve known many people who’ve abused substances and I’ve listened to their stories. What I’ve learned is that nothing is ever simple as a list of adjectives.

And I’ve always ended up wondering why. (As a writer, I’m programmed to do this. I can’t help it) Why does a person become addicted to drugs? What were the choices and circumstances that led down that path? What personal struggles contributed? Was it some inherent quality or something that happened to them?

It takes a little effort to try to understand another person. All you have to do is look inside yourself, to some point of similarity. Because it’s there.

Have you ever wanted to forget a difficult memory? Wished your mind would stop chattering? Felt you couldn’t overcome something because it was too hard? Hated yourself with every fiber of your being?

If you can answer those questions honestly, that’s a start.

A Life Without Love

The compulsion to use drugs was explained to me once like this: “no one cares about me, so I’ll do what I want. If I had a woman, or a kid, that would be different. But I don’t.”

Beneath that statement is a very sad truth–a lack of self-worth.

All of us look outward for reassurance, for confirmation that we are valuable as human beings. We instinctively expect certain people to shower us with love–our parents, siblings, extended family.

But if, rather than reassurance, those people instead berate and abuse us, we are left believing to our very core that we are worthless.

Very few people are strong enough to look inward and believe that they’re good enough, with no outward confirmation. If the outside world says we’re ugly or stupid, etc, we believe that rather than love ourselves.

Return to that quote again: “If I had a woman, or a kid, that would be different. But I don’t.” Most people live for others, not themselves. While we may act selfishly and do things for ourselves on occasion, our true motivation is the happiness of the people we love.

Imagine you already believe yourself to be worthless, because that’s what the world has told you. Imagine also that you are alone, with no one care for. It’s just you, hating yourself, with no motivation to be better.

If drugs erased these feelings and replaced them with a euphoria you can’t experience otherwise, do you think you could resist them?

Leaving Your Problems Behind

This one is pretty obvious: people use drugs to run away from their problems. The fellow reporter I worked with at a newspaper years ago drank himself into oblivion to forget about the day his daughter was run over by a snow plow.

Drug addicts are weak, right? The rest of us deal with our problems, you may say. But do you, really? Think about it. Avoidance takes many forms.

We all escape. To clear our minds of the day’s stresses, we play video games, watch TV, read a book. Go for a run, hike, go “out” with friends to dance or drink.

Healthy escapes, yes, but this is the point if similarity.

Do you avoid confrontation by refusing to have an opinion in an argument? Or do you use passive aggressive tactics to get your way? Are you well aware that your cholesterol is too high, yet you put off changing your diet because it’s too hard? Or maybe you know your spouse is cheating on you, but bury yourself in distraction–work, hobbies, you name it–so you don’t have to think about it.

We all close our awareness to problems we can plainly see, stupidly hoping the problem will go away. It doesn’t. It never does–not until you deal with it. But dealing with it is too hard. As you read this, you’re probably thinking of that thing in your life you want to avoid.

Now imagine that thing is bigger. The death of a child. A rape. A failed marriage. Being in a car accident. A combat tour overseas. You already avoid the small problems, the things you probably could deal with if you tried. Do you really think you could handle something worse without turning to an unhealthy escape?

I doubt I could.

The Power of Chemicals

Think about the people in your life. I bet, like me, a handful of them are addicted to pain killers.

I know three people who are. The opioid crisis in my county is so bad that the foster care system can’t handle all the children taken away from addicted parents.

Anyone could end up in this place. You. Me. Your brother. Your grandmother. The path is easy, because it often begins with a doctor.

You get hurt, you have a condition, and you need pain relief. The doctor gives you a pill. And you think–“it came from the doctor, it must be okay!” Before you even know what’s happening, your body can’t live without that little pill.

I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here. The point I’m trying to get across is that the path to drug addiction can start innocently, the point of entry guarded by someone in a position of trust. It doesn’t have to be illicit, the drugs purchased in secret and illegally, injected with dirty needles. The drugs can be in a prescription bottle you pick up at Walgreens.

In my experience people underestimate the overpowering and insidious effect of chemicals on the human body and mind. I did.

My own point of similarity is birth control. It was prescribed to me at sixteen, by a doctor who listened to my problems for five minutes and took the easiest route to fix them. For eighteen years, my body grew accustomed to that chemical support and didn’t know how to function without it. Over the years, the pill gave me numerous health problems, among them irritable bowel syndrome and chronic anxiety.

My point is that we are not our true selves on chemicals. Our bodies and minds aren’t functioning naturally while under their influence. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Some of these influences are necessary to improve our health, of course. But others can have drastic consequences. And though it may be a far cry from more illicit drugs, the use of legal ones proves at least one point: that we are at their whim.

Photo Courtesy Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels.

Your Turn

Has drug addiction effected your life? What do you do to escape?