Every once in a while I’m struck by the fact that Ted Bundy was executed only two years before I was born. As my friend Katie pointed out a few nights ago, we never had to breathe the same air as he did. At the same time, though, it feels like something that should’ve happened so much further from my own life than it actually did. The thought struck me hardest as I read my way through Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me over the past week or so, and I still can’t stop thinking about it–about him–about them, the girls, the victims.
But let’s take a step back a moment.
I’ve been fascinated in true crime since the earliest I can remember–I think it came with my love for horror, which also developed early. I’ve spent countless hours of my life immersing myself in stories of true crime, from watching far too many episodes of Snapped with my dad to adding myriad true crime podcasts to my Stitcher favorites. (I mean, who isn’t a fan of My Favorite Murder at this point?) Like I’m sure it is for a lot of us, now that it seems a little safer to admit, true crime is a fascination for me that can’t be sated even after two decades.
As a result, I’ve known for years about The Stranger Beside Me, a true crime book with a level of insight not often seen in the genre. Author Ann Rule was already a crime writer at the time of the “Ted” murders and disappearances were occurring but no one had an explanation. Little did she know that the man she had worked with in a crisis clinic, fielding calls from suicidal callers, alcoholic callers, and abuse victims, would provide so many answers to the horror that had occurred and was still to come.
Like I said, I’ve heard my share of true crime tales; I even knew the basics of Ted Bundy’s story before reading this book–the Volkswagen, the fake injuries, the standard victim profile–but nothing has hit me quite as hard as this book did. I would find myself reading this in bed, as you do when you’re a glutton for terror, and I would actually get out of bed just to go downstairs and check the locks before letting myself fall asleep. As someone who’s fallen asleep to many an episode of My Favorite Murder, this was not an experience I’d had before, and I can only assume that the combination of details and Rule’s storytelling combined to make the reading experience a horrifying, but educational, one.
Rule writes with an insightful perception of both Teds–the downtrodden, confused, and compassionate one whom she befriended in the crisis clinic, the one who would take calls and talk through issues with people on the other line with a heartfelt ear; and the one who could transform before a woman’s eyes into the last, most terrifying thing she would see, the one who ravaged scores of women beyond recognition. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that, even knowing everything he did, the way she writes about him makes him appear not sympathetic but as if he’s two people entirely, and I find myself sympathizing with the false side of him, wishing that if only that could have been his whole personality, he could have done some great things. Instead, the monster inside was too strong, and Ann Rule’s writing on that part of him is just as compelling, ultimately making him an unsympathetic and appalling character.
This is not a book I would recommend going into lightly, in case you hadn’t already realized that. It’s fascinating and educational, but it also leaves you wondering about that man walking by on the sidewalk, that car going a little slower than usual past your home, and the creaking sounds of your house as you fall asleep at night. The book is thick and thorough, at over 600 pages in the copy I read. It’s rife with detail ranging from Ted’s scandalous birth and its effect on his development until his final few moments before that last electric jolt ripped through his limbs.