I just finished watching the recent Amazon Prime documentary on Ted Bundy, Falling for a Killer, which I took on because filmmaker Trish Wood set out to tell the story from the women’s perspectives. Its primary focus is on Elizabeth Kendall and her daughter Molly, who lived as a family unit with Bundy during the time of the murders, but it also included women who pursued Bundy, surviving victims, and female lawyers who worked on his behalf.
The documentary is interesting because it contains perspectives from people who have never spoken before, like Molly and Ted’s first known victim. Because my Ellery Hathaway series focuses on what it’s like to live your life in the shadow of an infamous serial killer, I found these narratives particularly intriguing. I appreciate that Bundy himself isn’t given the star treatment. Wood places the crimes in context with the Women’s Liberation movement at the time. Women enjoyed more freedom and thus they were more available targets for predators like Bundy. There was also a kind of free-floating rage at women’s efforts for independence that the film suggests forms a backdrop for the whole Bundy narrative. Experts have documented an explosion of male serial murderers in the 1970s into the mid-1980s, and this timing has to be considered when trying to figure out where these men came from.
The film also talks a bit about how women are socialized to be nice and cooperative, and how Bundy used this trait against his victims by luring them to “help” him with various tasks. There is some discussion on how violence against women is prevalent in USA entertainment. As one girl says, “I thought it was normal for men to want to kill women.”
You might think we’ve come so far and we’re in a much better place now. Maybe in some ways we are. Serial murder is down nationwide, mirroring other violent crimes. But the reactions to the documentary in the comments reveal how very far we still have to go. There is a lot of fury, much of it from women, about how the film “glorifies” the victims. They are “whiners” with a “leftist agenda” when really Bundy is just a sick individual and there is nothing to be gleaned from examining societal influence on or reaction to his crimes. There is literal anger that the focus of the story is not on Bundy. Everything is fine now, so ladies should “relax and enjoy life.” The women are “boring” and these viewers wanted more of Bundy himself.
I think if you’re in the comments of a documentary deliberately focused on women’s voices complaining that we didn’t hear enough from the man who tried to murder them, you are part of the problem. As Bundy himself noted, he didn’t like it when the women talked. He knocked them unconscious so they didn’t ruin his fantasy of what he wanted them to be. He didn’t want their real selves to impinge on his forceful reimagining. I liked one woman’s perspective that ultimately Bundy was a thief. He stole dozens of young women from the world, people who would have potentially accomplished great things, and you have to wonder if that was part of his plan all along.
One of my writer communities recently had a discussion on how much police procedure an author needs to know to write a convincing book. I think the answer depends on whom you wish to convince. If you want to sell your authenticity to real cops, then you’d better get every last detail right. If you want to sell your story to the average reader, then accurate legal procedure may actually get in the way.
I’m an avid consumer of true crime, and I marvel at the strange coincidences or jaw-dropping twists that you would have a hard time putting in work of fiction. For example, in one old case, Massachusetts cops visited a suspect’s apartment to ask him about a murder, only they find he wasn’t at home. They left their card in the door with instructions to get in touch, but surprisingly, the murderer instead skipped town. The cops never followed up because this guy was just one of many possible leads at the time. He was eventually apprehended in Pennsylvania after committing a few more homicides.
“We just didn’t get around to it” is not a plausible excuse for most readers, despite it being a very real problem for actual law enforcement officers who must balance competing cases.
Real-life cops must often wade through red tape and deal with budget restrictions that would bog down a novel. A sprinkle of bureaucracy can add realism, but readers don’t want to sit around with your hero or heroine while he/she waits months for a DNA result. Or maybe the result never comes at all. In Massachusetts at the moment, there is a terrible shortage of qualified medical examiners. This means that many bodies are only receiving a cursory external examination, and follow-up tests may take months or never occur at all.
Or consider the bizarre tale of Sheila Davalloo, who somehow convinced her husband Paul to move to a hotel on the weekends so that she could carry on with her lover. Later she blindfolded Paul and stabbed him several times, all the while insisting she wasn’t actually trying to kill him. And he believed her! Prosecutors had to lay a lot of groundwork for the incredulous jury to accept Paul’s version of events, especially because he was a medical researcher earning a doctorate at Columbia University at the time. If he were a fictional character, we’d expect him to be smart enough to see through his wife’s outrageous lies.
Then there was the part where Sheila acted as her own attorney at trial, leading to a strange moment where she questioned Paul on the witness stand about who really committed her attack. “You…you stabbed me,” he said. Did she really think he was still in the dark after his open-heart surgery?
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it also moves a lot more slowly. It can take years to arrest and convict a murderer, even if the cops know who the guilty party is right away. Most mystery novels, in contrast, feature a case that is solved within days or weeks. If you’re going to tell a complete story in 300 pages, you have to pick up the pace. It’s important to get right what details you can. Beyond that, kindly readers will probably forgive you for fudging some of the finer points in favor of a compelling narrative.