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Imagining Ted Bundy

A psychologist ponders the infamous serial killer.

Public domain mugshot
Source: Public domain mugshot

Ted Bundy once aspired to become the governor of Washington State. People who thought they knew him believed he could do it. However, his secret life as a serial killer knocked him off course. He called his fatal urge his “entity.”

Bundy was one of the country’s most notorious serial killers. Just before his execution in 1989, he confessed to killing at least 30 young women. Educated and charming, he used every trick he could think of to persuade law enforcement to save him from Florida’s electric chair. None worked.

Dr. Al Carlisle evaluated Bundy after his first arrest in 1975, before anyone realized the enormity of his criminal career. A psychologist at the Utah State Prison, Carlisle was asked to do an evaluation for the court. “I spent about twenty hours with Bundy on the psychological assessment,” he told me for a chapter in my book The Mind of a Murderer. He came away with valuable material.

The infamous serial killer could be charming and friendly while steaming inside. Having taken psychology courses, Bundy knew what Carlisle’s questions meant and disliked being on the receiving end. But Carlisle had done his homework, collecting impressions from a wide variety of people who knew Bundy. “He was described as intelligent, high-achievement oriented, had the acumen necessary for a political career, and he was loyal to a cause.”

The psychological tests were “clean.” Carlisle saw nothing in them that was typical of a killer, yet he was convinced from other sources that Bundy could be dangerous. Thus, instead of probation, he went into a medium-security unit. When it grew clear that Bundy was planning an escape, he went into maximum security. Carlisle continued to meet with him, gathering information about him personally, but also forming ideas that would later inform a theory about serial killers in general.

Now Carlisle has published a two-part book, I’m Not Guilty: The Development of the Violent Mind: The Case of Ted Bundy. The first part is a fictional account of what he believes Bundy would have said had Carlisle interviewed him prior to his execution. Bundy did give several interviews, including a detailed one to Detective Robert Keppel. However, Carlisle’s perspective is that of a clinical psychologist, so he penetrates deeper into the “why.”

The second part of the book offers a chronological psychological analysis. Carlisle believes that there are many factors that influenced Bundy’s development. Although Bundy blamed an addiction to pornography, Carlisle views this as simplistic.

His interest lies in showing how Bundy crossed the line from sexual fantasy to murder and necrophilia. He makes a few assumptions that some Bundy experts will resist, but he relies on a considerable amount of research. Carlisle is also one of the few mental health experts to have spent time with Bundy in different types of situations.

He proposes that the ability to repeatedly kill and also function as a seemingly normal person (who aspired to become governor, for example) develops through the gradual evolution of three primary processes:

1) Fantasy – the person imagines scenarios for entertainment or self-comfort

2) Dissociation – the person avoids uncomfortable feelings and memories

3) Compartmentalization – the person relegates different ideas and images to specific mental frames and keeps boundaries between them

Carlisle states that serial killers can present a public persona that appears to be “good” and also nurture a dark side that allows murderous fantasies free reign. Because they have painful memories from abuse, disappointment, humiliation, frustration, or being bullied, they have turned to fantasies to comfort themselves. They might even develop an alternate identity that feels more powerful or provides greater status. Bundy had detailed hero fantasies which eventually turned into sexual possession.

As Carlisle puts it, fantasies accommodate the expression of unacceptable impulses, desires and aspirations. As normal life grows boring, frustrating or disappointing, the fantasy life can become more attractive. Eventually, the brutal dimension might gain more substance through mental rehearsal or opportunity, and the unrestricted fantasy can develop into an unquenchable addiction. That’s how he believes Bundy would have described it.

Killers like Bundy learn to deflect others from discovering their secrets: They devise different sets of values for different life frames. They can then carry on a high level of functioning even while they seek victims and engage in perversity.

“Compartmentalization is a process that all of us can engage in to one degree or another,” Carlisle told me. “It’s a complex state of mind on a continuum that can vary from a healthy level, such as with an actor who rehearses a script so intently that when portraying that role on stage or in a film he has a deep sense of being that person. At the other end of the continuum, compartmentalization, as used by Ted Bundy and others, is a very destructive process that can result in violence.”

Gradually, fantasy melds with reality.

“Since it’s very difficult – some would say, almost impossible – to have good and evil co-exist within the same mind,” Carlisle stated, “Bundy had to find a way to minimize the polarity between the two parts. His criteria for determining right from wrong gradually changed over time. What was wrong for him as a child may have become acceptable as an early teen and then desirable when he was in his late teens.”

In actual interviews, Bundy often spoke in a disjointed way, while trying to be articulate, and Carlisle corrects for this quirk. He lays out their imagined interview in a coherent manner, which makes for fascinating reading. At times, one wonders how much of this material came from Bundy's actual admissions, but the overall intent seems to be less about painting a perfect portrait than to use significant aspects of Bundy's dvelopment to educate.

Carlisle thinks that a thorough study of Bundy’s life helps to shed light on how this seemingly ordinary middle class boy became a skilled, predatory killer. “I believe that Ted Bundy is the author of his own creation,” Carlisle writes, “and my primary purpose for this book is an attempt to explain how he did it.”