by Renee Asher Pickup
The Stranger Beside Me was a groundbreaking, heart-stopping work. Ann Rule’s first book deal, assigned to her months before she ever knew her own friend and colleague was the murderer she wrote about, would become the definitive true crime book, the definitive book on Ted Bundy, and the work that launched Rule’s career. One thing it may not be recognized for, though, is its importance in the discussion of feminism and women’s safety.
In the 2008 re-release of her seminal work, Rule repeatedly states that her goal, her hope, is to save women. Within the text she recounts near misses, and those inspired hundreds of women to contact her decades later to recount their own encounters with Bundy. Rule carefully corroborates their stories, and states: “As I write these recollections of women who survived, I hope my readers are taking careful note of why they did: They screamed. They fought. They slammed doors in a stranger’s face. They ran. They doubted glib stories. The spotted flaws in those stories. They were lucky enough to have someone step up and protect them.”
The first five items on Rule’s list are especially important. Reading The Stranger Beside Me can be a depressing, terrifying experience for a woman. Ted Bundy really was the bogeyman we’ve been warned about our entire lives. He was the man who offered women rides in rainstorms, only to attempt, and often succeed, at killing them. He was the man who could snatch a young woman away in the second she was not in a clearly lit pathway – just between streetlights. He was the reason not to go to the public restroom alone – even in broad daylight.
Many of the women who survived encounters with Bundy recall knowing something was wrong, but not wanting to be rude, continued to help him to his car. Afraid to be rude to a man on crutches, afraid to cause a scene, afraid they were being silly to fear someone who was so well dressed and kind – they ignored the alarm bells ringing until they just couldn’t stand it anymore and RAN.
The problem with this survival instinct, is that society does everything it can to strip it from girls and women. If you do an internet search for, “qualities of a lady” or “how should a woman behave,” the qualities you will see listed again and again refer to emotional restraint, composure, kindness to strangers, generosity with her time, and effort to help others. The lists focus on women who do not cause scenes in public, who know how to “control” their emotions. Ted Bundy knew this – and he used it to his advantage.
A lady would never think to say “no” to a man on crutches asking for help. If she felt uncomfortable, she certainly wouldn’t stop halfway to his car and tell him to get away from her. She wouldn’t run from him, causing public embarrassment to both of them. If he grabbed her arm, but was still smiling politely – would she scream? Plenty of women didn’t. They’re dead now. Some of them were never found.
In Victims of Sexual Assault and Abuse: Incidence and psychological dimensions, authors Michele Antoinette Paludi and Florence Denmark point out that, “Women are socialized to not call attention to themselves, to be easily embarrassed in public, and to ignore street harassment.” They go on to note that studies have proven that women who fight attackers are less likely to be victims of sexual assault, but often they don’t start fighting until it is too late – we wouldn’t want to cause a scene, would we? We know that Bundy sexually abused his victims, we know that he often stalked them for days or even months before attacking them.
Did these women know his charming smile was really bared teeth? We can’t ever know for certain, but we know the number of women who reported their encounters only after seeing him on the news because “no real crime had happened.” In one case, women sharing an apartment found tuna cans in their basement and human feces near a window, where they had already seen a man peeping into their windows – it went unreported.
I know if I were to tell any man in my life that I had seen a peeping tom, the response would be to call the police -I know this without a doubt. However, the repeated lessons women receive in society are hard to shake, maybe especially for women in the age group Bundy targeted – young women fresh out of high school, some still in high school. In addition to being told to be nice, to be polite, to keep our emotions in check, women are also told that when we are not nice, when our emotions take over, that we are crazy. When men sense something wrong about a situation it is often called a “gut feeling” or a “hunch,” but even when it is being lauded as a lifesaving skill, in women it is called “women’s intuition” as though it is mystical, and by default, less trustworthy than something tangible like a “gut feeling.”
When it is not being lauded, however, the story is much different. As Adrienne Rich famously said, “Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us.” A glance through news headlines shows us quickly and easily that men don’t trust us, our doctors don’t trust us – even to the detriment of our health, and when we report rape the authorities don’t trust us. Is it any surprise women do not trust ourselves? Is it any surprise that after a lifetime of being told to ignore our emotions and that they probably aren’t valid anyway, women walk straight into their death despite everything inside them telling them they are in danger?
Could a well-dressed young man with a friendly smile be dangerous? Of course he could, but this one was on crutches. Not only does a man with a broken leg seem less threatening than an able-bodied man, but Bundy’s M.O. was asking young women for help. He did it in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. The women he snatched didn’t put up a fight until it was much too late – we know this because witness accounts describe seeing the young woman talking to a man on crutches next to a VW Bug one moment, then seeing no trace of her the next.
On more than one occasion, a young woman felt threatened by Bundy but was unable to move herself to run or fight and was only saved when a man saw what was happening and trusted his gut to intervene. If a woman had run up to a young man and woman chatting while she helped him with his books, would we consider that heroic behavior, or “crazy?”
Reading Rule’s book, the thought that repeated for me, over and over again was, “How many of these women would be alive if they had trusted themselves?” Officially, Bundy has 35-36 victims but confessed to killing over 100 women. He is believed to have begun killing girls as a child. How many?
Bundy’s success is a terrifying commentary on the world we live in – a world that hasn’t changed much since the late 1970s and 1980s when he was travelling the United States, kidnapping and killing young women. It is believed that he targeted women who reminded him of a woman who rejected and humiliated him – a refrain heard so often from men accused of serial and mass murder.
In the case of street harassment, some women are hesitant to say anything for fear of being attacked, but more surprisingly, some women are afraid that if they respond to a man that makes them feel uncomfortable they will cause a scene and somehow be blamed. This isn’t an unfounded fear considering how often emotional responses are categorized negatively and the way authorities treat complaints from women in general.
What then, do we say to women who don’t tell men to “fuck off” the second they feel something is wrong about the man approaching them? Can we tell them to trust their gut and run while also acknowledging that might get them killed anyway?
Have we spent so long policing women’s behavior that we have run out of right answers?
Earlier, I wrote that Ted Bundy was a bogeyman, but that’s not accurate. The bogeyman never raped and killed young women, because he isn’t real. Ted Bundy is real, and he is the icon we can associate with every warning a woman has ever heard regarding her safety, and ironically, every scold a woman has received for being rude, unhelpful, or emotional.
He is hardly the only man who has benefitted from society’s long-term gas lighting of women and dismissal of their instincts. Domestic abusers rely on the ability to talk a woman out of her concerns. In business, “good girls” are spoken of like they are valued but pushed out of the boardroom because they are “too emotional” or simply not confident enough to fight for their rightful place at the table. Men who rape their friends and acquaintances also count on the women they target not realizing what is happening until it is too late.
The hard truth is, if Ted Bundy’s success as a serial killer and rapist wasn’t enough to get society on the side of women’s instincts, we might be screwed. Gavin DeBecker’s book, The Gift of Fearworks to the same end – to get people to acknowledge their fear responses as valuable. It has been a perennial best-seller and is often spoken of in conversations about women’s safety. Still, an astute reader may notice that many of the stories where the person “succeeded” were told by men, who trusted their instincts without knowing why until later, and the ones who were hurt despite knowing something was wrong were women.
We have no way of knowing how many women were victims of crime despite fear instincts telling them to run before it got bad. We have no way of knowing exactly how many women have died or been seriously injured as a result of society’s continued pressure to be polite and not cause a scene. We don’t even know for sure how many women Ted Bundy killed.
But how many is enough?
Whatever the number is – I’m sure we’ve hit it.