By its nature, murder is difficult to comprehend in any rational context. This is especially true of gruesome serial killings. Encountering one charged with that level of violence sitting neat and clean in a well-lighted room makes it even more difficult to envision him committing the brutal and bizarre acts alleged in the indictment.
I thought about how difficult last week as news coverage surrounding the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy reached a crescendo, sending my mind reeling back more than a decade to a county jail cell in Tallahassee, Fla., where I spent an hour with Bundy. At the time, I was a free-lance writer based in North Carolina, writing about sensational murder cases in the South.
This kind of life carried with it many occupational hazards, in addition to journalism's nearly inescapable one of profiting from the misfortune of others. If, as a reporter, you acknowledge the horror you see, you run the risk of becoming emotionally paralyzed and unable to do your job. On the other hand, if you shield yourself from the horror, you do a disservice to the reader by making the events seem routine.
My meeting with Bundy in his cell--a journalistic coup that infuriated the sheriff and jailers--was one of the most disconcerting experiences of my life. Until then, all the murderers or accused murderers I had met were in some way different from me: a different race, a different class, a different sex. Because of this, I could do what psychologists call dissociate: make the killing abstract and unreal, even when the person I was interviewing admitted the killing.
There was none of that with Bundy. As I entered his cell, he was listening to jazz on a college radio station, volunteering that he listened to "All Things Considered," a National Public Radio news program, "every night--without fail." He was white, middle class, educated, well-spoken, well-read, politically sophisticated--albeit a bit conservative for my taste--and my age. Dressed in a dull green jumpsuit, he sported a fresh haircut and a red rubber band on his right wrist. He had woven a serviceable jump rope from shredded sheets, which he used to exercise regularly in his cell.
Bundy said he was innocent, as did most of the people I interviewed in jail in those days, but I had done enough research to feel he was guilty, and was frankly more interested in the way he talked about his home life, his time in college and on the road. He was, by turns, relaxed, earnest, reflective and even humorous about himself and his predicament.
"People have a picture of me which is not accurate," he complained. He said he felt "pegged to the wall like a butterfly." As for the criminal justice system, he said, "I was one of those naive Americans . . . who never gave it a second thought. Criminals? They got what they deserved." He said he did not hate women and was "as capable of feeling love as anyone else."
He said his childhood was "not idyllic" but "very ordinary," with "parents who never fought, didn't smoke." There was "no harsh discipline" or abuse, he recalled, and "I didn't need to get into trouble to get attention."
He had a definite sense about his situation at the time. "The intensity of the people here in Florida indicates to me that it's going to be very difficult to get a fair trial," he said. "It's not as though I don't think I'll ever be free again. It's not a hope that I cling to. . . . It's not that I don't have any remorse. I don't have any responsibility."
After a time, he convinced me, sort of. I got the eerie feeling that he did not kill all those people. At the same time, I felt a strong sense of menace--that the cunning person who did commit the murders was tucked in the folds of Bundy's cortex.
More troubling was the thought that, if someone like him is capable of murder, then perhaps someone like me is capable of murder as well.
One night during Bundy's subsequent trial in Miami, I was having dinner with a television reporter, also covering the trial. Without warning, the weight of what I had seen and heard that day in court crashed down on me and I started to weep. After that, I resolved to get off the murder beat.
The night before Ted Bundy was executed, I rummaged through my papers to find my interview notes. I found the legal pad and turned to the last page of writing. To verify that, despite the jail's restrictions, the meeting had taken place in his cell, I asked Bundy to sign the pad when the hour was over. He wrote: "Dear Mark, Thank you for allowing me this interview. Theodore Robert Bundy."