Unlike other relationships that have a purpose beyond themselves and are clearly delineated as such (dentist-patient, lawyer-client, teacher-student), the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over.from The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
I originally read The Stranger Beside Me last year for Nonfiction November, but I didn’t manage to get my review written on time for that challenge. I was prompted to look at it again after watching The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix over the holidays.
There is no doubt that the true crime genre allows readers to explore the darker side of human nature in a safe way and from a safe distance. However, The Stranger Beside Me is more unnerving than most true crime books thanks to Ann Rule’s proximity to her subject.
In the late 1960s , Rule was a correspondent for True Detective magazine, writing lurid tabloid accounts of crime stories in North America. In 1971, while still writing for the magazine, she volunteered to man a suicide hotline, and found herself working alongside a personable twenty-four-year-old college student named Ted Bundy.
Rule worked long night shifts with Bundy and came to consider him a friend, or a kind of mother-figure, listening to his issues and advising him on his love-life. He met her family, they shared meals and drinks, so by 1974 when Rule had been commissioned to write a book about a series of unsolved murders of young women in the Washington area, a series of murders that Ted became one of the prime suspects for, it was clear that this was going to be no ordinary true crime book.
The Stranger Beside Me is in some ways, two stories in one. The first is a standard, if uninspiring exploration into the crimes and Bundy’s subsequent arrest and trial. In this respect, the book is fine – it covers the necessary ground, doesn’t become lurid and is functionally written. The other story is Rule’s friendship with Bundy and how their relationship informs the choices that Rule makes in both researching and writing her book.
It is a somewhat queasy juxtaposition. Rule was clearly fond of Bundy and therefore is keen to highlight his positive traits – his charm, his good looks – as a way of justifying that friendship. Yet, some of the choices she makes throughout the book are questionable and lead the reader to wonder how much she knew and at what point she knew it. By the time Bundy is charged in 1975, it is clear that Rule now has lucrative access to her subject, and any statements she makes on her relationship become clouded, creating a kind of shadow narrative which can both enlighten and jar with the main thrust of the book.
Rule’s continued faith in Bundy, in the face of mounting evidence, is at times hard to take. She is highly sympathetic to what he sees as the hardships he faces in prison. She sends him money, has dinner with him while he is released on bail, suggests allowing him to write some chapters in her book and acts as go-between for him with his ex-wife.
I ended that letter, “There is nothing in this life that is a complete tragedy – nothing – try to remember that.” Looking back, I wonder at my naiveté. Some things in life ARE complete tragedies. Ted Bundy’s story may well be one of them.
Was this being done for the sake of an old friendship? Or was the value of the access she had to Bundy for her book at the back of her mind? Rule never makes that clear but the ultimate commercial success of The Stanger Beside Me can undoubtedly be attributed to the chance proximity she had to her subject.
It is understandable that someone who was a longtime friend of a serial killer would want to justify how easily they were duped, whether by his intelligence or his charisma, but in some ways, Rule’s justifications have added to the mythologising of Ted Bundy.
Ultimately this is what made The Stranger Beside Me an uncomfortable read, and not for the reasons I was originally expecting.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!