The Stranger Beside Her

 

Some books you read because you’re interested in them. Some books you read because your bookclub prescribes them. And some books you read because both elements happily collide.

That was the case with crime writer Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the multimillion-copy-selling book about serial killer Ted Bundy.

Truth be told, my knowledge of Bundy was limited—I wasn’t even certain on which continent he committed his crimes—so I embarked on The Stranger Beside Me with a relatively blank and open mind.

The Stranger Beside Me has an eerily unique perspective: author Rule, a cop turned crime writer, used to volunteer alongside Bundy at a suicide prevention line. Despite nearly two decades’ age difference, the two were firm friends—and friends long before Bundy became infamous. Rule had actually obtained a book contract to write about the mysterious serial killer plaguing her hometown who was, then unbeknownst to her, her friend Bundy.

The book sees Rule grapple with her dual roles as objective writer and subjective friend as she tries to determine if the person she knows could be capable of such heinous crimes. Crimes that involved—it was later determined—using guises of broken limbs to lure unsuspecting women into his car so he could rape, strangle, and brutally bash them. Crimes that often involved the victims’ bodies not being found for a very long time—if at all.

Charismatic and apparently caring, Bundy would walk Rule to her car at the end of her helpline shift and urge her to be careful as she headed home. In contrast, her detective friends would joke that they’d call 911 if she got mugged on her way out of the police station she’d visited for a story in the middle of the night.

And so goes Rule’s and Bundy’s relationship and Rule’s book: a nuanced insight into Bundy’s capacity to be both personable and a psychopath, and a reminder that all of us are capable of both great good and great evil.

The crimes detailed in The Stranger Beside Me are shocking and continue to stay with me—including one incident I won’t spoil but that suffice to say makes me afraid to go to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night.

And so they should be—Bundy’s crimes shouldn’t be sensationalised or excused.

But Rule also includes a solid amount of levity to give readers brief reprieves from the terrifying crimes. One year, for instance, Rule sent Bundy two birthday cards because, as she notes, Hallmark doesn’t issue cards that say both ‘happy birthday’ and ‘happy arraignment’.

And after Bundy escaped from incarceration just after one of his lawyers finished making arguments for why the death penalty should be off the table for Bundy, that lawyer wryly commented: ‘That’s the poorest show of faith in this argument that I’ve seen yet.’

Still, Rule is sensitive to Bundy’s victims and their families—is conscious that the flip side to his sensational, fascinating crimes are people and families whose lives have been irreparably shattered.

As she writes: ‘Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness too. It is too easy, and too expedient, to present them as a list of names … All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, “Bundy victims”. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.’

Bundy at one stage refers to himself as having a ‘disposition made of duck feathers’—indeed, the thing that’s striking about Bundy is his Teflon-like characteristics. If this book showed me anything, it’s that it’s astonishing just how little evidence police truly had on him and how few charges actually stuck.

Likewise, that Bundy had an astonishingly misplaced confidence in his own legal knowledge. He had just two years of law school under his belt, but often tried self-representing and, as a minimum, instructing lawyers on what and how they should argue his case. He fired so many lawyers during the various legal proceedings I found it difficult to keep up with who was who.

But when he expressed his frustration at his ‘inept’ representation, the judge commented mildly that all the lawyers had passed law school and the bar exam and that submitting to his instructions might be akin to submitting to surgery at the hands of someone who had just a year and a half of medical school study to their name.

Fortunately, some (however small) good came from Bundy’s crimes, not least the establishment of Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VI-CAP), a centralised database that ensures law enforcement professionals share information and serial killers like Bundy (and the Golden State Killer I’ve written about previously) aren’t so easily able to operate in anonymity through isolation.

The book’s blurb states that Rule is the world’s number one crime writer, however such a thing is determined. While I can’t confess to have read any of her other books, of which there appear to be many, and while I think her unique relationship to Bundy is what sets this book apart from similar biographies or crime books, I will attest to its veracity: If there’s one Bundy book worth reading, it’s Rule’s.