ANN RULE’S THE STRANGER BESIDE ME is a staple on the true crime shelves of any bookstore. At least one copy is usually on hand given its numerous reprintings and mass popularity since its initial publication in 1980. Each subsequent edition features an update from Rule and a new cover. My copy’s cover features a stormy horizon with Ted Bundy’s eyes superimposed on the sky. Almost all the covers feature Bundy’s eyes, though some newer editions feature an image of a shadowy figure standing by what seems to be a lake.
The Stranger Beside Me is often hailed as a kind of classic of the true crime genre, not because it’s particularly good, but because of its uncanny setup. In the 1970s, Rule worked with Bundy at a crisis hotline in Seattle. She was going through a divorce and trying to get her career started as a crime writer; he was an aspiring law student who would go on to kill at least 30 women from 1974 to 1978. When Rule died of heart and respiratory failure on July 26, 2015, the headlines of her obituaries and their ledes all referenced Bundy, her relationship with him: “Ann Rule, 83, Dies: Wrote About Ted Bundy (a Friend) and Other Killers”; “Ann Rule, doyenne of true-crime writers and profiler of Ted Bundy, dies at 83.” There was never any question of what Rule, the author of dozens of books, would be remembered for, but how we came to know her as such — as Bundy’s confidante — is a more complicated story.
“I doubt that Ted will understand the depth of my feeling for him,” Rule writes in The Stranger Beside Me.
The knowledge that he is undoubtedly guilty of the grotesque crimes attributed to him is as painful to me as if he were my son, the brother I lost, a man as close to me in many ways as anyone I have ever known. There will never be a time in my life when I will not think of him.
At best, Bundy was an acquaintance of Rule’s, but in her book, it becomes a friendship of monumental proportions. After Bundy’s arrest, Rule frequently visits him in jail. She gives him money, runs small errands for him, and keeps up a correspondence with his ex-girlfriend at his request. She never portrays her meetings with him as a journalist visiting a source, but rather as a friend visiting a friend. Their conversations were invariably dull: “I laughed at his standard lament about the omnipresence of Jello-O — warm Jell-O — in his life.” Several hundred pages later, this friendship becomes less believable, and her insisting on it grows tiresome; it’s clear that she’s biding her time, waiting for a confession, though she never admits as much.
When Bundy escapes from jail and is later recaptured in Florida — after having murdered two women and brutalized several others at a Chi Omega sorority house — Rule gets a call from him at 3:15 a.m. It seems like this is her chance. “‘Ted,’ I began. ‘It’s been a long time, and I think maybe now it’s time to get it all out. I think maybe you should tell someone about it … all of it … someone who understands you, someone who’s been your friend. Do you want to do that?’” She flies out the next morning to see him, to get that confession, but to no avail. Only days before his execution in 1989 did Bundy outright confess to his crimes, and by then Rule was out of his life. He had been in prison for 11 years — some of those on death row — and had every opportunity and incentive to confess, but he didn’t, partly because he held hope of a reprieve until the very end.
Rule didn’t get the confession she wanted, and because of that, she had to write a different kind of book, one that didn’t meet the Capote standard of obtaining that first-person, in-depth play-by-play of an individual’s brutal crimes. Instead, we get a somewhat contrived story of a woman haunted by (or psychically connected to) her friend’s horrific crimes (“Why did I dream that the baby I tried to save bit me? That dream where I saw the bite mark on my hand was two years before the bite mark on one of Ted’s Chi Omega victims became the prime piece of physical evidence in the Miami trial”); a story that situated Rule as someone who was intrinsically bound to Bundy. By inserting herself more deeply in Bundy’s story, by insisting that she was a friend who knew him “as well as anyone has ever known him,” she created a name for herself and also glossed over that moral dilemma that any crime writer faces: why am I writing this?
Emmanuel Carrère grappled with this question when he wrote The Adversary, which tells the story of Jean-Claude Romand, a French man who posed as a doctor for 18 years and killed his wife and kids when his story began to unravel. Carrère was ashamed that he had chosen to write about this particular topic. He had no ties to the murders, and he was not sure how he could justify his lurking. He told the Paris Review:
How can you not say to yourself, What right do I have to write this? If you’re a lawyer or a judge or a court psychiatrist, you have a legitimate reason. Society is asking you to do it. But if you are the one giving yourself permission, by virtue of your curiosity or some cord it strikes in you, it becomes much more problematic.
After The Stranger Beside Me came out, Rule became one of the primary gatekeepers of Bundy’s narrative for the next three decades, long after Bundy himself died. There was no longer any “Why me,” it just was. And in the process, Rule became more than the teller of Bundy’s story: she was the conduit for the fears of the women who read her books. Women would write to her and describe how they believed they had survived an encounter with Bundy. She would pick through the stories and select those she deemed authentic, then she would retell them to her readers. In a 2008 update to The Stranger Beside Me, she writes that she hopes the book will “save women’s lives,” and that we will read the stories of Bundy’s victims — and those who got away — as a kind of manual on how to survive similar situations.
“As I write these recollections of women who survived, I hope my readers are taking careful note of why they did,” she writes. “They screamed. They fought. They slammed doors in a stranger’s face. They ran. They doubted glib stories. They spotted flaws in those stories. They were lucky enough to have someone step up and protect them.” Yet, for every story of survival, Rule presents a dozen more stories of those who were killed. One after the next, Rule chronicles in detail how Bundy first raped women with rods, strangled them, and then further mutilated their bodies. Less a manual for survival, Rule gave us a manual on the numerous ways we can die.
It’s odd, then, that Rule is partly responsible for the enduring popular image of Bundy as charming and intelligent. (“Women had always liked Ted Bundy,” she writes. He was “young, idealistic, clean, sure, and empathetic.”) She contends that she believed in his innocence for so long because he manipulated her, offering the following as an explanation in an update to The Stranger Beside Me:
Dr. Benjamin Spock, who worked in a veterans’ hospital dealing with emotional illnesses during World War II, commented at the time that there was a pronounced cross-sex problem in dealing with psychopathic personalities. The male psychopaths had no difficulty in bewitching female staff members, while the male staff picked up on them rapidly. The female psychopaths could fool the male staff but not the women.
Reporters Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, in their 1983 book on Bundy, The Only Living Witness, took Rule’s reasoning at face value and used it to shape their own narrative. The pair present themselves as authorities on Bundy: undaunted men who are capable of handling the intense subject matter at hand and who are not afraid to face down a monster. They take numerous jabs at Rule. “The content of the book, as far as we were concerned, would be determined by what we learned about Ted and not just what he wanted us to learn,” they write.
Yet, even as they begin to puncture the image of Bundy as gentleman law student by describing him as a bratty child, a nose-picker, and a nail-biter, Michaud admits that he was “enveloped in the charisma of [Bundy’s] madness.” After all, it was to this “monomaniacal 12-year-old” that the pair came day after day to hear what it was like to kill a woman. More often than not, they did not get the detail they sought. “Occasionally, Bundy would entertain a question, but for the most part I was there to pay for lunch, light his cigarettes, and change the tapes,” writes Michaud. Still, they were able to get quasi-confessions. “Why, I asked him, couldn’t he speculate on the nature of a person capable of doing what he had been accused (and convicted) of doing?”
Bundy’s alter-ego killer was a drunkard who raped women and strangled them with pantyhose, transporting their lifeless bodies from one place to the next in his car. Bundy doesn’t describe the actual act of murder so much as the scenarios before and after killing. “Murder, for instance, was apt to be called ‘inappropriate acting out,’ and rape ‘satisfying that part of himself,’” they write. But Bundy’s “confessions” are no less terrifying. Here are his words:
Let’s say that as he travels further and further away from a populated area, she probably is becoming uncomfortable. But she still wants to believe in the face validity of the situation her would-be abductor had created for her. And, of course, by the time he pulled up and stopped, there would be virtually nothing she could do about it. […] And recognizing the disadvantage of the [situation], she would submit to whatever instructions he gave her, out of fear, and out of whatever.
Michaud and Aynesworth got as close to a confession as they could. Unlike Rule’s, their story was not likely to turn into one about a burgeoning friendship with a killer; they were the detached experts to Rule’s “haunted” soul. They found an interview format that would give the readers what they wanted — a play-by-play of the murders — and allow Bundy to feel that he was in control of his story. Perhaps that approach also allowed the authors to absolve themselves of any guilt for spending so much time with a serial killer. Their take-no-prisoners attitude and emotional distance from Bundy precluded any such qualms; as antagonists to Bundy, they were virtual heroes.
When Bundy wouldn’t confess to Rule, she created a complex drama between the two. And when that story no longer seemed like enough, she began to tell new ones: she was a champion of women’s survival or, alternately, an eager chronicler of their deaths. As Janet Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer, “The writer ultimately tires of the subject’s self-serving story and substitutes a story of his own.” Other than being Ted Bundy, Bundy didn’t give Rule much of a story to work with; he maintained his innocence and wouldn’t even entertain the idea that he was something besides a normal guy. Rule died Bundy’s “friend” because she never really came clean in The Stranger Beside Me about what she actually was: a writer who aggressively pursued a story about a man who killed women, a writer who would go on to gain notoriety and profit from her connection to Bundy. Maybe the latter was a connection she never cared to fully own. If so, she wouldn’t be alone.
Capote “erased himself” from In Cold Blood, says Carrère,
And he did so for a simple reason, which was that what he had to say was completely unsayable — he had developed a friendship with the two men. He spent his time telling them that he was going to get them the best lawyers, that he was working to get them a stay of execution, when in fact he was lighting candles in the church in the hopes that they would be hanged because he knew that was the only satisfactory ending to his book. It’s a level of moral discomfort almost without equal in literature, and I don’t think it is too psychologically farfetched to say that the reason he never really wrote much else is related to the monstrous and justified guilt that his masterpiece inspired in him.
Rule went on to write over 30 true crime books, though she didn’t leave any narrative space open for “friendship” in these subsequent works. She issued immediate and harsh judgments of killers. “He was a monster” is the opening line of Lust Killer, about Jerome Brudos, a necrophiliac who killed four women. (She wrote that book — and several others — under a male pseudonym.) Her books are easy, uncomplicated reads that all seem to fade into the other, like a kind of paperback true-crime folklore, where author and narrative melt away and only stories of the crimes remain. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Rule committed herself to seeking out Bundy replicas to write about for the rest of her life: “I’m looking for an ‘antihero’ whose eventual arrest shocks those who knew him (or her): attractive, brilliant, charming, popular, wealthy, talented, and much admired in their communities — but really hiding behind masks.” It was a story that she had a lot of practice telling.