The Stranger Beside Me was difficult to get through. Not because it was boring or bad. On the contrary: it was so jam-packed with enthralling information. Much of it was unsettling, horrifying, confusing. It asks the question: how do you reconcile that someone you thought you knew so well, someone you considered a dear friend, could harbor such a terrible dark side? A dark side that brutalized and murdered likely more than 100 women across the United States.
It’s no secret that I have a fascination with true crime and this was recommended to me many times by true crime fans, so I dove in headfirst. The Stranger Beside Me tells the story of not only Ted Bundy, famed serial killer, but of his friend, Anne Rule. She is the author of the book, as well as a prolific crime writer who knows the world of serial killers better than anyone. After all, she was friends with one. She was assigned to write this book when the murders in Washington began about a “Ted” that seemed to be the perpetrator. Little did she know, she was detailing the horrific crimes of her friend, Ted Bundy, who she spent many hours manning phone lines with at a crisis call center. Ironic that a serial killer was helping citizens get through rough times and convincing them not to kill themselves, isn’t it?
The thing I found so fascinating (and personally confusing) about this book is that obviously we know the truth now. We know that Ted Bundy most definitely murdered 36 girls and women (that he confessed to), but many believe that number is in the triple digits. Especially after his offhand comment to “add another digit to that.” So, what? 37? 136? 360? It’s terrifying to think about. But as a reader, you’re experiencing the unraveling of it along with Anne. And there are strange times where you think, ‘Well, hmm, maybe he didn’t…’ And then you’re reminded by more grisly details of even more murders that, No, he is a horrible murdering manipulative lying monster. But Anne is so earnest in her wish that her friend be innocent that you start hoping right along with her.
One of the things that terrifies me about this story is that Ted Bundy, for all intents and purposes, seemed like a chill, normal guy. He was (begrudgingly, admittedly) kind of attractive, which is how he was able to lure girls away. He would wear a sling on his arm, walk with crutches, lie about car troubles, asking nice, polite girls for help before knocking them unconscious with a crowbar and… well, you know the rest. (As Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff of My Favorite Murder have taught me from this story: Fuck politeness!)
Another unsettling factor for me (on a weirdly personal level) is that his first relationship was with a woman named Stephanie, who ultimately broke his heart. (If there was any real heart to break at all.) So, Anne recognizes that these murders were partly the result of him trying to punish her since he never got to kill her himself, as all the women looked eerily like her with long hair, parted in the middle. It’s just hard to read a line that says, “He had to keep killing Stephanie over and over again,” and not have trouble sleeping. Yeesh.
The unsettling details are the reason it took me so long to get through this book. When he was just on the run, detailing his TWO escapes from prison, or dealing with court proceedings, it was flying by. But when Anne details the disappearances of the Washington, Colorado, and Utah women and then the slayings/beatings of the girls in the Chi-Omega sorority house in Florida, as well as another girl who escaped… Guh. Side note to myself: stop reading this shit before you go to bed.
All in all, if you want to know every detail of Ted Bundy’s life, the murders he committed, and his dealings with the court and prison, I would highly recommend this 600+ page book. It’s hard to say I enjoy something about it since much of it was an awful subject matter, but I really enjoyed following Anne as she wrestled with her friendship with Ted, trying to determine if she could believe he was truly guilty and wishing so badly he wasn’t. It was heartbreaking.
It is also interesting to note that I finish this book on the anniversary of his execution on January 24, 1989. That was just a weird coincidence I wanted to point out since that was the part I read this morning. Creepy. I think I will take a pause from true crime after that and read something a little more fun — and fictional. But my true crime stack of books is ready and waiting.
Photo: Lake Sammamish State Park in Issaquah, Washington. It felt too creepy to use a photo of him or the book cover with his eyes.