The meeting unfolded in front of the camera one day in 1989. On one side of the table sat James Dobson, author of the bestselling book Dare to Discipline, founder of the ministry Focus on the Family, a symbol of family values: chubby, large glasses, wholesome.
On the other side sat a handsome and charismatic man in his mid-forties with chiseled, sharp features and a gentle and charming demeanor. His name was Ted Bundy.
Bundy had committed the most unspeakable, horrifying crimes. After he was arrested in 1978, he eventually confessed to thirty murders from Washington to Florida. Bundy was also a necrophile who would often hide the bodies of his victims so that he could return later to engage in sexual acts with the corpses. And he viciously mutilated the bodies in unspeakable ways. For example, he decapitated more than ten victims, keeping the heads in his house as a sort of unspeakably macabre trophy collection.
To put it simply, Bundy was the very epitome of the psychopath, as cold and vicious as they come.
Needless to say, the entire exchange between this family values guru and this cold-hearted monster was truly surreal. What was Dobson doing speaking with this monster?
Appeal to Pity
If we are going to understand the power of Ted Bundy in this interview, we should begin with the appeal to pity. Psychologist Martha Stout observes that while psychopaths often manipulate others through flattery or fear, the most common and powerful means of manipulation is through “the pity play.” As she explains, “The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
One illustration that comes to mind is Puss in Boots, the feline character in the Shrek films. Puss is a master swordsman, but right before he goes on the attack he always assumes the posture of a vulnerable little kitty with big, liquid eyes. At that moment those around him lower their defenses right before he goes on the attack.
This may be a trope from a humorous cartoon, but it tells us something revealing about human nature, namely how powerful the appeal to pity can be. Stout recounts her conversation with one psychopath who stated that the most valuable thing to him was to attain the pity of others: “What I like better than anything else is when people feel sorry for me.”
Stout goes on to explain why pity is such a powerful tool for the psychopath. Pity leaves an individual defenseless, uniquely susceptible to the wiles of the predator. Think, for example, of the doe-eyed oohs and ahhs from unsuspecting folks right before Puss in Boots draws his sword and demonstrates his feline ferocity. Or think of the man approaching children at a playground tearfully asking them if they’ll help him find his beloved lost puppy.
Or imagine Ted Bundy feigning an injury (one of his favorite strategies) and appealing to the goodwill of a passerby to help him right before he strikes. Stout makes the point by recalling the familiar story of the psychopathic husband who follows up the beating of his wife with repentant tears about what a horrible person he is.
It is incredible how brazen appeals to pity can be as when you have this abuser drawing in the sympathy of others just after he beat his wife. As Stout observes, “In long retrospect, sociopathic appeals for pity are preposterous and chilling.” So how much more preposterous it is to think that Ted Bundy would appeal to the pity of his audience in his final interview with Dobson? And yet, this is precisely what he does.
Bundy came into the interview knowing his prey very well. He is well apprised of Dobson’s views on the corrosive social impact of pornography (a view I certainly share). He then exploits Dobson’s views as a way to diminish his own culpability of his crimes, appealing to the pity of his audience, and even recasting himself as a moral crusader against pornography. When you think about it in those terms, Bundy’s rebranding efforts certainly do appear to be preposterous. And yet his winsome personality coupled with his newly found faith in Christ won over James Dobson and many other Christians as well.
Playing the Blame Game
The appeal to pity moves seamlessly into the refusal to take ownership of one’s own actions. This is what Bundy does with his comments about pornography. He claims that he grew up a perfectly normal young boy who was raised in a loving Christian home. It was only when he was first exposed to discarded pornographic magazines at the age of 12 or 13 that he began to fetishize violence against women. On Bundy’s retelling, it is the pornography which is the culprit behind his transformation:
“Those of us who have been so influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and husbands. We grew up in regular families. Pornography can reach in and snatch a kid out of any house today.”
It is a striking image, this suggestion that Bundy was a perfectly normal little boy who was snatched out of the innocence of childhood by the personification of “pornography” as a malevolent predator who victimized him. This certainly is an extraordinary reversal when one realizes that on this telling it is pornography, rather than Bundy himself, who becomes the predator bearing ultimate responsibility for his litany of crimes.
At this point in the interview, Dobson asks Bundy whether he experiences any remorse for the unspeakable horror to which he subjected his victims. Bundy readily agrees that he is remorseful but he does not dwell on the horror he inflicted on his victims. Instead, he quickly shifts to reflecting on how the love of God helps him as he wrestles with the way he has been ostracized by the wider society and the fact that he must now face the death penalty for his crimes. Once again, Bundy brushes his victims out of the way and puts the spotlight right where he wants it: on him.
From there, Bundy quickly pivots to the threat that violence in the media poses to other young children who could be victimized the way he was. Bundy laments the fact that some other young boy could be drawn in by pornography the way he was while not realizing until it is too late that they too are “a Ted Bundy who has that vulnerability, that predisposition to be influenced by that kind of behavior, by that kind of movie, by that kind of violence.”
Apparently, Bundy is now committed to protecting the innocence of childhood. His reference to “vulnerability” is especially jarring as it is once again implied that far from being the culpable aggressor, he was the victim in his own story, a harmless child whose innocence was stolen by the predatory wiles of violent and pornographic media images
Dobson then takes the conversation in a new direction by asking Bundy about his recent professed conversion to Christianity:
“You have accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and are a follower and believer in him. Do you draw strength from that as you approach these final hours?”
Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of question a psychopath like Bundy relishes, namely one that centers on him whilst providing an ideal ground to cultivate more pity from the audience. Bundy’s reply is simply extraordinary in its brazen audacity:
“I do. I can’t say that being in the Valley of the Shadow of Death is something that I’ve become all that accustomed to and that I, and that I’m strong and nothing’s bothering me. Listen, it’s no fun. It gets kind of lonely, and yet I have to remind myself that every one of us will go through this one day, in one way or another.”
At this moment we should pause to remind ourselves that this is a psychopathic serial killer and necrophile who raped, mutilated and killed dozens of women while keeping their body parts stacked up as trophies in his house. And yet he now appeals to the sympathy of the audience as he shares his own struggle with loneliness and his journey through the dark night of the soul. Unfortunately, a mere transcript coupled with commentary of the interview cannot communicate adequately Bundy’s exceedingly powerful use of body language, his coy glances upwards, his sad, puppy-dog eyes that project regret, vulnerability and warmth.
This appeal to pity is nothing short of obscene. And yet it is the terrifying power of the psychopath that we can find ourselves drawn in just like James Dobson was. At times like this, we need to be reminded of the crimes of the person. In her biography of Bundy, Ann Rule observes that shortly after he was arrested, Detective Don Parchen implored Bundy to reveal the location of one of his victims. Bundy replied with a proud sneer: “I’m the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.” Rule observes, “If all the off-the-record and off-the-tape remarks made by Ted Bundy are to be given weight, there is, indeed, a side to the man never revealed to anyone but his alleged victims—and they cannot talk.” These victims provide silent testimony to Bundy’s true identity, and we overlook that testimony at our peril.
Stout is also correct that this kind of appeal to pity is chilling. Listening to Bundy and watching the way Dobson is drawn into his tale of woe you realize you are observing a master predator at work. As I watched the interview I thought of the angler fish that dangles a phosphorescent protuberance in the darkness of the ocean deep, as a means to draw in curious fish with its hypnotic dance … until the unsuspecting jaws appear out of the gloom to clamp down on the prey. It may sound dramatic, but that is a fitting description of the experience of listening to an interview with Ted Bundy. It is equal parts chilling and nauseating, as one contemplates the many victims that Bundy drew in with those same coy glances and shameless appeals to pity.
Grace and Trust: Why Christians are Soft Targets
Unfortunately, all of this was lost on James Dobson who left that interview persuaded that Bundy has a genuine change of heart and spent his final days as a reborn social crusader who has taken up the cause against pornography. Reflecting on the interview, Dobson later wrote that Bundy “argued passionately, there in the last hours of his life, for additional limits on the sale and distribution of obscene materials.”
Dobson is far from the only church leader who was persuaded by Bundy’s display of contrition. In his book Whatever Happened to Grace Tom Gulbronson observes, “Dr. Dobson interviewed Bundy in his jail cell prior to his death, and he confirmed that Bundy had received the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and was a follower and believer in our Lord.” Gulbronson then recounts how, when he shared with his church that Bundy was in heaven, one woman protested. Gulbronson then opines: “She just did not understand the magnanimous grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Regardless of what we have done, God’s grace extends mercy and forgiveness if we trust Him and place our faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross.”
Gulbronson’s response illustrates precisely why Christians are soft targets for psychopathic exploitation. They are often trusting and they are especially vulnerable to dramatic tales of grace and forgiveness. However, I shudder when the question of psychopathy is put in terms of the extent of grace, as it so often is. Once this is done, any skepticism about a predator’s conversion based on a long history of psychopathic manipulation can be dismissed as a cynical failure to grasp the power of grace.
Contrary to Gulbronson’s naive declarations, the real issue here is not that the congregant failed to understand grace but rather that Gulbronson (and Dobson) failed to understand the manipulative ways of the psychopath.
Psychopaths produce damage wherever they go. And that includes the damage from Bundy’s final interview. Consider, for example, the impact that the interview had on young Jeremy White. When he was fifteen, White’s mother discovered that he had been viewing pornography. In reply, she set him down in his room and told him to listen to a cassette tape recording of Dobson’s interview with Bundy.
The young White sat in his room listening in shock as Bundy described how he had been a perfectly normal young man who had been transformed into a monster after being exposed to pornography. As one can imagine, the interview left White terrified that he too might become a psychopathic serial killer: “The moment I heard that testimony was the moment that shame went from merely pushing me around to sinking its teeth deep into my young soul.” Indeed, he was so traumatized by the thought of being transformed into someone like Bundy that he even contemplated suicide, persuaded for a time that he would be better off dead than to become a killer like Bundy.
No doubt Bundy would take great pleasure to hear that his appalling final interview, a masterclass act of shameless manipulation and lies, would still be victimizing people years after his ultimate demise. After all, the love of Jesus notwithstanding, he was indeed the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.
 Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 107.
 Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 107.
 Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 109.
 Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me. Ted Bundy: The Classic Case of Serial Murder, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 289.
 James Dobson, Dr. Dobson’s Handbook of Family Advice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1998), 236.
 Whatever Happened to Grace? (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2012), 83-4.
 Whatever Happened to Grace? 84.
 White, The Gospel (un)Cut: Learning to Rest in the Grace of God (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2012), 131.