19 April, 2014

Retrospect — The Stranger Beside Me

[Reviews from HexWhyZed are not in any way timely or culturally pertinent, just the impressions from a dimly-lit island in the distance and the flotsam jettisoned along its shores. They may also contain spoilersyou have been warned.]

I meant to start recording my thoughts of the various media from which I imbibe quite some time ago, and yet...and yet....

The first sacrifice is an appropriate one, however: The Stranger Beside Me by true crime author Ann Rule. Stranger recounts the career of serial killer Ted Bundy, but is more about the unique and shocking circumstances Rule found herself in writing it--old friends with Bundy,  hired to write a book on the Washington murders before he was ever named a suspect, her emotional ambivalence regarding his guilt or innocence.

It is these murky waters that make Rule's book so discomfiting, so richly compelling. I first read Stranger years ago whilst doing research for a story of my own, a tale with many elements in common to the situation in which Rule found herself. It is a testament to human nature that in a book so filled with the grisly details of the abduction, rape, and murder of so many women across the continental United States, the highlights are moments of panicked reflection, the author looking back upon her relationship with the affable Ted Bundy, the gallant college student who would unfailingly see her safely to her car at night.

It is this lens of personal intimacy that honors the victims of this story with greater gravitas and compassion than the usual true-crime fare. Rule's personal commitment to help victims of violent crime surely lends to this, as well as her talent as a writer, but narrative is the window through which we feel safe to peer into others' lives. The first-person perspective throughout much of the book draws us closer to its contentsas Rule says "I" on the page, our minds echo: "I, I, I...."

Rule's emotional honesty also allows us to empathize with Bundy, something I'm sure angered numerous people when it was published. Many in society have an intrinsic need to place all people and things into their neatly filed categories: good, bad, hero, villain, angel, demon, savior, troublemaker, madonna, whore, etc., as though thinking in shades of grey permits antisocial behavior.

It helps them make sense of the world, to maintain a sense of control. This is also one of the most compelling reasons sociopaths like Bundy indulge their baser naturesfulfillment of fantasy, power, control.

But what is it in the rest of us that makes such stories so enticing? As a true crime addict myself, I can offer a few reasons of which I'm aware. For one, shows like The First 48 and books like The Stranger Beside Me are fascinating character studies. The actions and reactions of both victims and suspects, of their families, of witnesses, of everything involved in these actions beyond guilt or innocence. These stories are also puzzles; mysteries, yes--but also human puzzles, cause and context and effect, manipulation and persuasion, accident, circumstance, fate.

As a self-reflective species, we are infinitely entertained by our own reflection. Narrative storytelling is one of the key processes that helps to define who we are--we project ourselves into the story. We draw macro- and micro-conclusions from the ground of our perspective--what is humanity? Who is this "I" of mine?

Some people find true crime too dark, too depressing. Others dismiss it as vulgar and exploitative, but these are the stories about usyou, me, neighbor, mother, lover--losing control; of falling prey; of enduring what most of us hope never to experience. The Stranger Beside Me blends the horror and humanity, the tragedy our species has the tendency to perpetrate on one another with the desperate need to recognize ourselves in those around us, even when those prove unrecognizable.

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