Should Have Known Better

Last night, I finished watching the Netflix series The Ted Bundy Tapes. This is a documentary, obviously about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, which draws much of its content from the 100+ hours of audio recordings collected via interview by two journalists who wrote a book about him. The series also includes a vast amount of file footage from newscasts, showing Bundy's actual courtroom appearances, interviews from jail, interviews outside the courtroom, and so on.

Because this is a documentary series, and because its subject matter is already well-known and widely discussed, I don't mind including information here that might be considered "spoilers" in other contexts. The documentary provides no new insight into Bundy or the murders he committed, it's just a comprehensive collection of archival audio and video footage, combined with some new interviews (mostly of journalists covering the story), in a retelling of a very well-documented story.

So, here comes the spoiler. The series ends with an excerpt from one of Bundy's audio recordings; I think it was supposed to be "creepy," or perhaps "prescient" or insightful in some other way. Bundy muses that anyone looking for answers or explanations for the murders is bound to be disappointed, because such murders could be committed by "anyone." Bundy's supposed last, great insight was that you never know who's going to go on a serial killing spree; after all, look at him, he's a perfectly normal guy, and he did it.

The program closes on that note.

There's just one problem with that.

Ted Bundy was not a perfectly normal guy. Having watched the series and reacquainted myself with the case and with Bundy's statements and behaviors, I was struck by the profound impression that, not only was Ted Bundy an criminally insane narcissist, but he was transparently so. Thus, the shocking thing to me is not that "a normal guy did terrible things," but exactly the opposite: That an obviously sick and disturbed individual could do what he did, and that people in general would consider him witty, charming, intelligent, and "normal." I found it profoundly disappointing that the people who knew Ted Bundy for the most part failed to recognize his illness while he wore it on his sleeve.

The fact that people can encounter extremely unhealthy behavior and come away believing that it's praiseworthy is, for me, one of the great unexplained mysteries of my life. Ted's constant self-promotion and self-absorption should have been off-putting to the people he met. He talked too much, and too much about himself, he smiled too much, his eyes darted around too much, there were too many uncomfortable pauses in conversations, followed by too many left-turn segues on Bundy's part. He talked a lot, but not in a gregarious way, only in a way meant to evade detection or promote belief in his mask. That's not wit or charisma, it's manipulation. And yet people heard it and were charmed.

While watching the program, I thought back to the time I read How to Win Friends and Influence People, that great old handbook on manipulation. In it, Carnegie says that people want to feel important, so if you want to influence them, just make them feel important, then they'll do whatever you want. I've never encountered a more thoroughly sociopathic thesis statement in all my life, and yet anyone else who reads this book considers it to be wonderful, insightful, life-changing. This, too, is another example of someone presenting an idea that should raise cold hackles on one's spine, but when people hear it, they are instead charmed.

There are two possibilities here. One is that the majority of human beings possess a certain understanding of what it means to be charming and charismatic, that they respond favorably when they see it, that manipulative individuals know how to present themselves accordingly in order to take advantage of other people, and that my broken brain is somehow incapable of processing the meta-information. My deficiency thus makes me immune to psychopathic manipulation, but also makes me incredulous about genuinely charming behavior. The other possibility is that there is a tendency among human beings in general to see behavior that they should consider to be disturbing, but to make excuses for it, to redefine it as charisma in an effort to maintain a positive impression of someone who they don't want to believe is bad, and that my broken brain is somehow unwilling to extend that kindness to people even when they deserve it.

I'll let the reader decide for himself which is the more likely possibility. As for me, I find it so surprising and sad that people can encounter so much transparent sickness and come away believing it to be health.

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