Book Review: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
By Tim Clifford
There is an old adage which states that each of us actually dies twice. The first time when we breathe our last breath and again later on the last time someone speaks our name. As a tribute to recently deceased local author Ann Rule and in an effort to keep people speaking about her work here is a new review of her first book, 1980’s “The Stranger Beside Me”.
At this point it has been around 35 years since Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me” was published and if anything the years since have only proven the staying power of this incredible account.
In the early 70’s Ann Rule, a former Seattle Police Officer, was on the cusp of a divorce and had four children to take care of on a meager freelancer’s salary with “True Detective” magazine. During this time she began volunteering at a suicide crisis hotline in Capitol Hill and befriended her co-worker, a fledgling law student at the UW, named Ted Bundy.
For years the two remained close acquaintances and co-workers with Ted walking her to her car after each shift to make sure she got in alright.
The first few chapters outline Bundy’s early childhood and teenage years, describing him as an ambitious but insecure young man from working class parents. At the time that Rule met him he had just recently learned that the woman he believed to be his sister was actually his mother and that his family had left the east coast in shame of an “illegitimate” birth. Bundy and Rule bonded over these revelations and her own impending divorce and developed a truly touching friendship.
In these pages the picture of a bright future for her young friend is painted. He is hard working, good natured and strikingly handsome. His manners and intellect win him friends in high places and the respect of other students and co-workers. He is described as a lothario with a complicated love life which only works to endear him as a sort of highly charged “rascal”.
After establishing Ted to the reader Rule begins outlining the numerous sexual assaults, murders, and disappearances of young women near Seattle area college campuses throughout 1974. Covering these crimes for “True Detective” a pattern quickly emerges and she signs a book deal to cover the investigation, not knowing how fortuitous this will prove to be.
Throughout these chapters Rule keeps Bundy as a shadowy specter, never explicitly using his name when describing these brutal crimes. This is an effective bit of craft on Rule’s part and helps to keep the reader in the author’s frame of mind as she followed the investigations.
We all know that these are Ted Bundy’s crimes we are reading about, there is no surprise to be had there, but it is a testament to Rule’s choices as a writer that even with that caveat she can still make the reader feel the same gut punch she felt at actually knowing it was him later on.
Once the book reaches the 1974 broad daylight abductions and murders of two women from Lake Sammamish State Park the narrative takes a turn. After this incident a composite sketch, vehicle description, and possible first name for a suspect come out and Rule is the first to turn in Ted Bundy’s name as a possible suspect.
It is endlessly fascinating to read about how many noticed Bundy’s striking similarities to the suspect in these crimes and laughed it off. Even Rule herself maintained her friendship with him after turning his name in and refused to believe it was actually him until years later when he was on trial. Throughout the years of his incarceration she corresponded with him and sent him money, hoping to find a way that it was all a misunderstanding.
At about the middle point of the book Rule reaches the point in Bundy’s life where is first incarcerated for crimes in Utah and Colorado and manages to break out of prison twice. The second of these daring escapes would lead to the last of Bundy’s horrific crimes in Florida, the Chi Omega Sorority murders and the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. These would also be the crimes that he was ultimately executed for.
Rule’s description of his escapes are darkly humorous and exciting in the details of his planning and on-the-run thinking. Once she dives into detailing the Chi Omega murders, the sexual assault at an apartment complex nearby on the same night and the murder of Leach the book is simply horrifying, surprisingly even more so than it had already been. Rule recounts the scenes much like a police report but peppers in little details from eye witness accounts and the lives of the victims to chilling effect.
By the end of the book and during her accounts of his capture and trials Rule has aptly demonstrated the many faces of Ted Bundy. From the friendly crisis hotline worker she first met Bundy has now page by page been revealed as the maniacal sociopath he really was. Having been a friend of his her vantage point seems intimate while at the same time comfortably distanced.
There is also something to be said about the fact that the book is coming from a feminine perspective. Rule’s gender and voice assists in helping the reader to understand how Bundy could charm his victims and fool the numerous women that stood by his side until he was executed. It also feels, in a way, a bit cathartic that it would be a woman who is revealing this monster, who targeted so many women, to the world.
In the numerous afterword updates (1986, 1989, 2000, and 2008) Rule recounts her life after Bundy. In each new afterword it seems that his shadow loomed more and more over her life and work. She never truly escaped this friendship with a serial killer and no matter what else she wrote she would always be brought back to this first book.
As she recounts in one afterword of her notoriety, while she was having an operation done a nurse leaned in after administering anesthesia and said “Ann, can I ask you something?” Thinking that she was going to be asked how she was taking the drugs Rule looked back inquiringly and was asked “what was it like to know Ted Bundy?” before slipping into unconsciousness.