Ted Bundy: The Only Living Witness – Book Review
Author: Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen G. Michaud
Genre: True crime
My rating: ★★★★☆
Release Date: Published 18th August, 2019 by Mirror Books
Format: Kindle, 300 pages
I’ve posted a shorter version on Goodreads here.
“Ted Bundy’s wearying saga of waste, failure, and death had one villain and no heroes.”
Many consider Ted Bundy as a “quintessential” serial killer in all his pathological, skin crawling, predatory infamy. I think this book gives as thorough a picture as any could of the man behind the shameful crimes, and it does so by linking evidence, information from people who knew Bundy, and material given by Bundy himself in taped interviews with the journalists, Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen G. Michaud. Interestingly, the authors used a version of good cop, bad cop through the conversations they had while Bundy was on death row in Florida in the 80s.
This is not the first time Michaud and Aynesworth have written books on Ted Bundy and I was unsure whether there was anything new in this version. I read one review that felt this was a rehash of their old book, though I can’t confirm that. If it is, the authors and publisher should be clear about that. Having said that, I haven’t read the other books but I can say I found this one detailed, worthwhile and well-written (hardly a given with true crime books). I learned a lot of things about Bundy’s life, death, and about the lives he destroyed through this book.
The book makes for harsh and frightening reading at many points. If I were Michaud or Aynesworth I’d probably need to make money from the books to pay for therapy because I think it’s one thing to sit safely at home reading, but another thing entirely to hear it straight from the killer. I know it’s the job of a journalist but I felt sorry for what the authors went through. I think it was Aynesworth who described feeling sickened by Bundy’s diatribes but having to cover it up in order not to deter him from continuing. He later vomited and drank in his room until he fell asleep. It would unnerve and chill the soul.
When thinking of Ted Bundy many think a serial murderer who had the benefits of charm, politeness, being well-dressed and intelligent. Well, Bundy could be those things, or appear to, but with intelligence things weren’t black and white. Overall Bundy was not achieving the success in life that he believed he should be. He had a deep immaturity that he knew of and tried to cover up to blend and achieve his goals. Having trouble with social and emotional knowledge is no crime but it might make a person who was angry and already had—or was developing—murderous compulsions, more dangerous. It also made some of later court antics both laughable, exasperating and detrimental to his defence.
Bundy was studying law. That was true. But he seemed to have trouble following through in his study (hardly Robinson Crusoe there). I’m guessing he had the intelligence to complete his courses but became so focused on making his violent sexual fantasies a reality that he didn’t do hard work necessary to be successful.
You could say that Bundy’s ruses,feigning injury for example, were brilliant tricks. I would give him that. But the book also describes times when poorly executed ruses (e.g. he looked shabby, smelt like alcohol or rushed things). I think the drive Bundy had to commit crimes against women pushed him to take chances. He could be confidently brazen, but it also sounds as though he acted desperately and perhaps even lazily sometimes.
Another thing I’ll give Bundy: he was a changeling. He was, by many reports, gifted with a face and a look that could appear starkly different through relatively small changes such as the side his part was on, a haircut, facial hair, wearing glasses or changing clothing. This was problematic for witnesses trying to identify him.
So, how did Ted Bundy kill for as long as he did? Based on what I learned in this book, a combination of:
• lack of information sharing between police departments in the seventies
• police incompetence
• competition between various police departments
• the difficulty in identifying Bundy
• that Bundy could put on a successful cover at times
• the low reporting rates of rape (and the low chance that anything would be done about it) in the seventies
• that Bundy spread his crimes over various locations
• dumb luck (great for Bundy, bad for the community).
Yes, Bundy had some competence in his crimes, but I think he’s been mythologised as the ‘intelligent psychopath’ and that seems like an overshot. Bundy wasn’t ‘that’ crafty. He made tons of mistakes, he was messy and he got caught. Once in custody, much of his behaviour—driven by his deep need to be smarter than everyone else and to be the centre of attention—helped undo him. He wasn’t able to use the intelligence to any useful end. Incidentally, the authors raised ideas regarding mental illnesses that Bundy may have had, but we’ll never know for sure (no fault of the book).
Bundy’s ideas was given obliquely with him telling the interviewers what he thought a third person might do, or might have done. He flatly refused to incriminate himself until the last week before his execution when he finally made some flat statements of guilt. You have to remind yourself he’s a manipulative liar. Still, there seems to me to be a lot to learn from the exchange of information between Bundy, Michaud and Aynesworth.
Bundy drank a lot and suggested a link between his drinking and the crimes. Alcohol can be a crutch for some people when they lack self-esteem, confidence and are vulnerable. After reading the book, I felt Bundy was like that, however, that doesn’t excuse his crimes. There is no crime in drinking or not completing your college degree, in lacking social skills or in having low self-esteem. But Bundy was a serial murderer whose desire was to take possession of young college women in the most disgusting ways. Full stop.
There were moments that didn’t sit well with me regarding the writers. First, the title refers to Carol DaRonch who escaped Bundy’s car in Utah in 1975 but having that in the title suggests that the book is focused more on DaRonch and it’s not the case. Next, the authors paid for the gold wedding rings that Bundy and Carol Boone used to get hitched while he was in prison. I get that if you’re working with a serial killer, there will be grey areas, but they knew he was guilty, so…grr. Another time I cringed when the authors wrote “In the deluge of tips and hysterical outpourings from frightened women…” Really? Hysterical is such a loaded word. Finally, moving on from the writing and on to the legal system itself: Bundy was able to examine his own victims in court because he was representing himself. It just seems OUTRAGEOUS. No wonder they call the law an ass.
I don’t believe Bundy was the ultimate intelligent killer based on the detail given in this book. Under the surface, I think he was a sad man addicted to violence against women leading him to take brazen chances which, when they paid off for him, helped secure his mythology. It was a fascinating book though, and I’m glad to have a more realistic picture of Ted Bundy.
Thanks to publisher, Mirror Books, the authors, and NetGalley for my copy of the book in return for honest review.
P.S. I have to say this: I will never understand the Bundy groupies. I have tried, for interests’ sake, to put myself in their shoes. To imagine finding a serial killer attractive – not necessarily Bundy. I have failed.