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The Bundy Effect

A tool for assessing human chameleons could be quite useful.

 FL DOC mug shot
Source: FL DOC mug shot

Having been immersed in the minds of serial killers lately, I ponder things we can learn. I once wrote an article about the many different impressions people had of the infamous Ted Bundy, to demonstrate how chameleonic he was. I included more than two-dozen people who’d had close or extended contact with him, from family to friends to investigators and psychologists. I offer a selection below.

The ability to fluidly present many sides is an intriguing form of flexible intelligence, but it crumbles under scrutiny. Still, it's a skill worth studying.

Reporter Barbara Grossman nicely sums up what I call the Bundy Effect: “Sometimes I come away from an interview with Ted thinking I’ve got great stuff. But then the more you listen to what he says, the more you wonder what he’s saying.”

The late Ann Rule, who wrote The Stranger beside Me about her experience with Bundy, recalled that he was a compassionate counselor at the Seattle Crisis Clinic. “I can picture him today…see him hunched over the phone, talking steadily, reassuringly – see him look up at me, shrug, and grin… He was never brusque, never hurried.”

Yet another clinic coworker said Bundy had coldly lectured desperate callers about getting control over their emotions. He’d lacked rather than exuded compassion and sometimes abruptly hung up.

Then there's his mother:

“Ted Bundy does not go around killing women and little children!” Louise Bundy told the News Tribune after her son was convicted. “Our never-ending faith in Ted – our faith that he is innocent – has never wavered. And it never will.” She said that Ted had been “the best son in the world” ­– thoughtful, responsible, and fond of his siblings."

A campaign co-worker thought of him as “Kennedy-like,” while a Mormon missionary who baptized him in 1975 said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to line him up with my sister.”

Liz Kendall (her pseudonym) wrote The Phantom Prince to describe her extended relationship with him. “I knew when I first looked at him…that he was a cut above the rest of the crowd. The way he moved projected confidence. He seemed to be in control of his world.”

Bundy asked Stephen Michaud to write a book (with his "help") that would prove his innocence. Michaud found Bundy to be complex and elusive, not to mention an outright liar. “He turned the interviews into a game of chutes and ladders, with disingenuous pleas of faulty memory and long silences preventing me from pinning him down.”

It was difficult to distinguish Bundy’s seemingly honest quest for self-knowledge from his need to manage impressions. “He is his own abstraction,” Michaud wrote, “a lethal absurdity masquerading as a man. Nevertheless, there were times at the prison when I was enveloped in the charisma of his madness.”

Detective Robert Keppel investigated Bundy’s homicides in the Pacific Northwest. When Bundy offered Keppel assistance with the Green River Killer investigation, Keppel traveled with Sheriff Dave Reichert to Florida to meet with him. As Bundy was led in, in chains, Keppel extended his hand and experienced Bundy’s palm wet with anxiety. “He was almost feral in our presence, like an animal just out of his cave.”

Bundy sought to prove his worth as a “scientific specimen” to Supervisory Special Agent William Hagmaier, from the FBI’s budding Behavioral Science Unit. Yet he played mind games, leading Hagmaier to observe that “Bundy had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize.”

Attorney Mike Minerva had the task of defending Bundy for the Chi Omega homicides. To his frustration, Bundy would constantly say one thing but do another. Minerva noted in his file, “Mr. Bundy was not capable of making decisions… I believe he has a basic defect in his reasoning process.”

Dr. Emil Spillman, a medical hypnotist helping with jury selection, said, “This guy is so self destructive it’s unbelievable.”

Defense attorney Polly Nelson recalled that when Bundy first called her, he sounded insecure. She felt immediately protective. Mentally, she assigned him a role that came with expectations of gratitude and humility, so he startled her with his many demands.

When she finally met him, Nelson searched for a sign that she, a smart woman, would have spotted Bundy, the killer. “But I saw nothing… This dangerous man was not detectable by sight or sound. But... it was not because Ted exuded charm – he was too obviously disingenuous to be truly charming. It was not because Ted was such a ‘diabolical genius’ that he could fool you – believe me, he was not that smart. The real reason you could look at Ted Bundy straight in the face – even with full knowledge of what he had done – and not see a single sign of his guilt, was that he truly believed he was not guilty.”

Forensic psychiatrist Art Norman noticed Bundy’s elasticity. “I have never encountered an individual who could move from one relationship to the next so easily,” he told Ann Rule, “being seemingly deeply involved with someone, and then dropping them completely and moving on.”

Criminal expert Dr. Emanuel Tanay evaluated Bundy for competency to stand trial. “Throughout the interview,” he wrote, “Bundy related to me as if it was a social visit. [He] disregarded whatever contributions I could make to save his life.”

The prosecution’s expert, Dr. Hervey Cleckley, said that Bundy was just a clever psychopath.

Dorothy O. Lewis, a psychiatrist from the New York University Medical Center, diagnosed Bundy as bipolar, then considered him a possible case of multiple personality. (He resisted this.)

The guards who led Bundy to the death chamber watched the arrogant killer grow feeble. "He was weak-kneed, if not wobbly," said a witness. "He looked old, tired and gaunt." They had to drag him the final steps.

Ann Rule stated that “Ted was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him… A virtual nonentity before he was suspected of a series of horrific crimes, he somehow became all of those things as the media embraced him. I don’t think even Ted knew what he was really like.”

Bundy became whatever he thought he needed to be. He convinced many smart people. He's not the only one like this. As we see how Bundy shifted for various contexts, it’s evident that a sophisticated evaluation of chameleonic flexibility would be a useful tool for dealing with predatory psychopaths, in any context.