I think it’s only fitting that I read this book right after The Empathy Exams. While I hadn’t thought about it, reading a book about one of America’s most prolific killers would test my new knowledge of empathy.
The Stranger Beside Me is Ann Rule’s account of her encounters with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The two met while working at a crisis hotline and Ann inadvertently found herself with a front row seat to the front of his investigation, due to previous work with the local police department.
Ann puts herself in the background of the story, letting Ted be the primary focus. Ann comes into the story as necessary, when telling about her time with Ted at the Crisis Clinic and her horror at his charges. It’s through Ann that the reader learns to empathize with Ted. Ann starts be presenting us with a few of his murders, then going back in to time to his birth. She shows us the Ted that she knew, the Ted that was kind and charismatic and cared about helping people. Readers come to terms with Ted’s real nature alongside Ann.
Ann doesn’t initially condemn Ted. She can’t believe the accusations at first. She sends him money for cigarettes and stamps when he is jail and writes to him regularly. It’s not until Ted is at trial in Tallahassee that Ann realizes his guilt. This means that the reader doesn’t condemn Ted right away either. As outsiders with time on our side, we know that Bundy is guilty. Ann tells us in vivid detail about the Chi O murders and several others. But we see the softer side of Ted, too. We see Ted as someone who was scared, incredibly smart, and who desperately wanted to stay alive.
Jamison often wrestles with how we give empathy to those that might not “deserve it,”those who are incarcerated, who have killed, who have caused pain towards others. Are were supposed to feel for them too? Ann and Jamison and I wrestle with feeling empathy for both the killer and those killed. I don’t know what made Ted do what he did and I don’t think anyone does. But I feel the loss Ann writes about when Ted faced execution—”I will cry for that long-lost Ted Bundy who might have been, for the bright, warm young man I thought I knew so many years ago.” I don’t want to give empathy to someone like Ted. I don’t want to open myself up the way empathy asks me to.
I don’t know if I’m okay with this kind of empathy or not. Perhaps this is simply a natural response to loss—the loss of so many lives and the loss of something inside a man that could have made him so much more than what he was. Maybe extending empathy is extending humanity. To remind myself that the girls now dead are human and so was Ted. That none of them should have their humanity stripped away.
I think I leave this book agreeing with Ann’s sentiments—”When I grieve for Ted, and I do, I give for all the others who bear no guilt at all.”