Ted Bundy's Father
by Ruth Graviros
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
With his tendency to tune out the distasteful, Warner Chadason couldn’t remember when he’d first heard or read about Ted Bundy. He’d had little personal experience with crime in his sixty-four years—the hit-and-run death of a classmate when he was in grammar school, a series of petty thefts on board ship when he was in the Navy, the burglary of the first house he and Jane had rented when they were married, the nonfatal shooting last summer of the manager of the store where they bought their liquor out on Route 138.
Except for several brief skirmishes in the North Atlantic in 1944, he had enjoyed an unthreatened life, growing up in an affectionate, comfortable home in the same serene town on the Rhode Island coast where he now lived. His parents and his middle brother were gone, marriage had taken both sisters to distant parts of the country, and his oldest brother, a retired violinist with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, lived in Providence.
Warner’s enthusiasms had always been simple. Beyond bringing up a family and his work as a marine biologist, he enjoyed reading, music, and fixing things. Wherever he’d lived since he was a teenager, neighbors had called on him for help with mechanical problems. Far from resenting it, he was sorry when lack of time sometimes made it impossible to see a repair through himself. He savored the hour or so with Jane over drinks before dinner every evening, neglected his health a little, and avoided television, aware that with his passive nature he could easily watch to excess. One evening when he’d discovered himself idly watching Wheel of Fortune with Jane and their visiting daughter Pat, whose husband was teaching an evening class, he jumped to his feet, said, “Let me out of here,” and headed for his study. “Too much for you, Daddy?” Pat said. Jane laughed. “Can’t take it, eh?”
So when had his awareness of Bundy begun? The question of capital punishment had always been a bone of contention between Jane and himself. Maybe it was during one of their disputes about it. He was against the death penalty, no matter how horrible the crime or the criminal. “It’s not a civilized solution, it doesn’t address the problems these people are acting out,” was his unequivocal stand. He did recall one evening early in the fall, the appetizing aroma of the lamb roast in the oven urging them toward one last drink before moving to the table, Jane spoke of Ted Bundy as if Warner naturally knew who he was. “If we lived in another part of the country,” she said, “one of the girls, or all three of them, could have been his victim. I think you’d feel differently about it then.”
Pat was thirty-five, Susan was thirty-three, and Elaine was twenty-eight. “They would have been exactly the right age and type of most of Bundy’s victims when he was on his rampage in the seventies,” Jane said.
“The right type?”
“Intelligent, attractive, kind.”
Warner frowned. “If I did go for the death penalty because any of the girls were his victim, it would be because I couldn’t be impartial.”
“You can’t keep your distance from such an important issue because it hasn’t happened to you!”
“I’m not saying the man shouldn’t be locked away for the rest of his life. I’m not even concerned about whether he lives or dies. But taking his life makes monsters of us. And it won’t bring back his victims.”
“He has been locked away, Warner, and he’s escaped twice. In Colorado he jumped out of a second-floor window in the courthouse where he was about to go on trial, and later, when he was recaptured, through the ceiling in his jail cell. And he went on to Florida and killed and hurt some more young women. The ones who lived will never be the same. And even now on Death Row, they have to keep changing his cell because of his attempts to escape. It’s all a game to him. Killing the girls was just the beginning. He’s playing games with everyone: the police, the press, the psychiatrists, the courts, the taxpayers—”
Jane was the most persuasive woman Warner had ever known. When she walked into the lab at Woods Hole back in 1949 as a summer intern from Vassar, he’d known she’d be capable of dissuading him from some long-held convictions—which she had, for the most part painlessly. It was possible, he sometimes thought, that he’d married her as much for that quality in her as for the powerful physical attraction between them.
Her insistence on planned parenthood as a requisite to their marriage was a case in point. She wouldn’t consider starting a family until they had sufficient means to give a child a healthy start in life. It was essential not only to their peace and happiness, she said, but to the peace and happiness of any children they would have—even to the peace and happiness of the community. “The unwanted child is the unwanted citizen,” she’d concluded, never afraid of sounding the zealot. It was part of her passion. For all their reserved behavior in public and with the children, they were deeply passionate in private. He was, in his marriage, a very fortunate man, he knew, and Jane had made it clear every day of their years together that she considered herself as lucky as he did.
The children’s slowness to marriage Jane attributed to the times—another judgment Warner could see to be true. His graduate students and the children of his friends and colleagues were definitely different in that respect from his generation. They seemed to fall in love just as haphazardly, but they were far more adept at protecting themselves from a chancy future. The cases of buck fever he’d witnessed back in the forties had no counterpart in the eighties.
Susan, their only child to marry young, was divorced and living in New Hampshire with her nine-year-old daughter Jess, not far from her former husband, whose lifestyle seemed able to accommodate little more than his carpentry jobs, skiing, drinking with his friends, and the occasional “quality time” with his daughter. Pat had married at thirty-two. She and Bill, who taught drama at the university, were expecting their first child in March. Elaine, heedless of herself as the family beauty, so far seemed to thrive on her life as a journalist living alone in New York City. Over Thanksgiving weekend—which also happened to be the weekend of Warner’s birthday this year—Tom, their fourth child, an associate professor in the humanities at the University of Chicago, had brought home a spirited young Dutch woman and announced their engagement at the holiday dinner. Meta was a psychologist with three years’ more seniority on the faculty. Elaine declared herself to be delighted with Tom’s catch but concerned that the weight of the family was falling so heavily toward the academic. “What’s going on here?” she demanded.
“What can I tell ya?” Tom assumed Saturday Night Live’s Dennis Miller’s sweet smirk. “Knowledge is power.”
“So think gossips and blackmailers too.” She shook her face close to him. “And spooks.”
“And journalists,” her brother said, sealing it with a kiss to her resolute jaw.
Warner spent a good part of the day after Thanksgiving helping Mark Roper, who had a glamorous house out near the beach, repair the damage after a plumbing leak that had all but ruined the Ropers’ holiday. There was a half-hour of daylight left when he drove in and saw Jane and most of the others settled in the old Adirondack chairs in the spacious fir-sheltered yard, bundled up in heavy jackets, drinking hot toddies. As he turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car, Jane poured from the thermos at her feet. “Welcome, pilgrim,” she said, winding a cloth napkin around the glass and handing it to him.
“Hello, everybody.” He took it from her to one of the empty chairs in the circle of conversation. Elaine was saying, “He murdered more women than we’ll probably ever know. He’s probably lost count.”
“Don’t you believe it,” said Meta.
“When he was captured after killing that young girl in Florida, he told detectives he’d killed in six states, not four, and that they should add a digit to the FBI estimate that he was responsible for thirty-six murders.”
“I wouldn’t object to a change of subject,” Jane said, taking the rubber ball Luther, the Labrador, had been holding in his mouth for her attention and tossing it toward the woods with a skilled arm.
“His is an amazing case of malignant narcissism.” Meta’s eyes behind her eyeglasses were bright. Did she know how pretty she was, Warner wondered, the blond braid below her handknit cap so careless and healthy and young?
“Have they any idea even now what’s genetic and what’s not?” Jane asked her.
“Ha. We like to think we know. In Mr. Bundy’s case, perhaps being born a white illegitimate child in the U.S. in nineteen forty-six when extramarital sex was still taboo, and being raised first in a household where he was led to believe his grandparents were his parents and his mother was his sister, then at the age of three being taken from the couple he thought were his parents by the sister a long distance away, where she soon presented him with a new ‘father,’ would prompt more than enough trauma to make any genetic factors irrelevant.”
“Jack Nicholson grew up with that same mother-sister fiction,” Elaine pointed out, “and he seems to have turned it into marvelous creativity.”
Tom laughed. “He knows how to play malignant narcissism, for sure.”
Elaine and Susan were pensive. “I wonder what makes the difference in how people react to desperate beginnings,” Elaine said.
“The adults are involved, I would think.” A breeze blew up and Meta looked reflectively at the swaying trees. “Even if they can’t be honest with a child regarding the facts, if they really love the child and show it in appropriate ways it should make a difference.”
They celebrated Warner’s birthday with dinner at their favorite restaurant in Newport on Saturday night. Through Sunday, the days and nights remained crisp and dry, with an ongoing fire in the living-room fireplace, impromptu conversations everywhere to be found in the house. Only one of these, to Warner’s knowledge, disturbed the tranquility of the weekend.
Sunday morning, while the others slept late, only Susan, who was an insomniac, was awake to share breakfast in the sunroom with Warner and Jane. Susan, cursed with depression most of her life, had grown increasingly moody and fractious since her exuberant arrival in her battered Volvo on Wednesday night.
“I can’t wait to get back and see Jess,” she said gloomily.
“We can’t wait to see her at Christmas,” Jane assured her. “Have another popover.”
“‘Have another popover.’ My daughter finally comes up in the conversation and you say ‘Have another popover.’”
“I’m sorry, dear. I can’t say we’ve missed her this weekend as much as you must have, but believe me we’d have loved for her to be here. You know we wish you’d move back to Rhode Island.”
“She needs her father, too.”
“Yes, of course she does. Susan, if we haven’t spoken of her as often as we might it’s not a case of out of sight out of mind, it—”
“I feel so out of it with all of you, you know?” Susan glared at each of her parents in turn and then focused her misty-eyed anger at the stack of firewood on the drive outside the window. “Last night at dinner I could have barfed at the new bonding going on across the table between Tom and his girlfriend and the old bonding going on between Pat and Bill—like they couldn’t wait to get back to their respective beds to hash about the rest of us.”
“You’ll marry again,” Jane said—as Warner wished she hadn’t even before Susan turned on her, furious.
“That’s so typical, Mother! I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about them! You think you understand more than you understand—like Tom’s smug little clairvoyant from the Netherlands. She has all the same answers!” She returned her gaze to the driveway. “My dear brother’s going to marry a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad.” Then, with the eye contact of a great actress, she told them both, “I’ll leave you to your bonding, I’ve got to pack.” She started out of her chair.
“Oh, shut up.” Jane reached for her wrist and brought her back down. “Susan, I know that when you hurt, you want to hurt. And I know your father and I have made mistakes as parents and we’re still making them—”
“What? Just by being models of contentment?” Susan said sarcastically. “Don’t be silly. How could I object to that?”
“You could object to it, dear, if your courageous choice of a husband didn’t live up to your expectations. Sam was a decent choice. He’s a good man. But he’s apparently not ready to be a husband and a father, and he may never be ready. You’ve dealt with that beautifully—”
“I’m not being condescending.”
“Oh no? Spare me that too.”
Warner pushed back his chair, brought his half-empty plate and coffee cup to the kitchen, and leashed Luther for their morning walk.
When they returned a half-hour later, Susan and Jane were still talking intensely but more quietly at the table. As Warner hung up his jacket in the mudroom, thinking of how and where and whether to escape, he heard Susan complain that she bore the brunt of Sam’s desertion in Jess’s eyes, that all mothers bear the burden of a child’s blame when a father is abusive or indifferent or absent and there wasn’t a word for the unfairness of it.
Jane worked as a volunteer two days a week at a local thrift shop, the proceeds of which fed half a dozen charities. She was an insatiable reader and donated, borrowed, and returned books every day she went in. Several weeks before Christmas, she looked up after dinner from a copy of a dogeared paperback she was reading, thought awhile, and said, “Bundy’s game was easy for him to win because he didn’t play fair. His victims weren’t aware of the game—they hadn’t been brought up to even dream they were being hunted when he came along in his well-mannered way with his casts and his crutches and asked for their help.”
“What’s this obsession everyone has with this guy?” Warner objected. “Mass murder’s a pretty morbid subject to begin with, and he’s not the only one around.”
“Well, for one thing he’s due for execution soon. I should think that would be of interest to you, morbid as it is, you’re so dead set against capital punishment.”
Warner folded his newspaper closed. “What’s the book?” He could see the author’s name, Ann Rule, on the well-cracked binding from the distance, but not the title.
“It’s called The Stranger Beside Me. The author’s written other true-crime books and just happens to have known Ted Bundy since nineteen seventy-one when they were both night volunteers at a suicide-prevention clinic in Seattle. She was an unpaid volunteer, he was a paid work-study student.”
“He was born in Seattle?”
“No, he was born in a home for unwed mothers in Burlington, Vermont, in late nineteen forty-six. His mother left him there alone for a few months, then returned to get him and bring him home to live with her parents in Philadelphia.”
“And she pretended to be his sister,” Warner remembered. “What about his real father?”
“His mother won’t say, except that he was a sailor.”
“There were a lot of us around then,” Warner smiled.
“Abortion was illegal, of course, and anyway her family’s religion forbade it. When she took him to Washington state, she started to use her middle name, Louise, instead of her first name, Eleanor.”
“When did she tell him the truth about it?”
“She didn’t. He knew something wasn’t right—of course he would, a sister taking him away from his parents? When he was twenty-two he came back East and traced his birth to Vermont. He went to Burlington, asked for his birth certificate under her name before she married John Bundy out in Washington, and there it was. It had to be some kind of shock.”
“I can imagine,” Warner said—then, as Jane returned to the book, he thought, No. No, I can’t.
As Christmas drew closer and the university suspended classes, Warner helped Jane with the usual errands. Tom was flying to Apeldoorn with Meta to spend the holidays with her family, but Elaine was coming up by train from New York, possibly with a new suitor (but probably not, she said), and Susan was driving down from North Conway with Jess.
One rainy morning, Jane’s Olds wouldn’t start and Warner drove her to the thrift shop on the Post Road. As she climbed out and reached back for the shopping bag of books she was donating and returning, he spotted the Ted Bundy book at the top. “Let me have a look at that before you return it,” he said. That something inside him leapt at the prospect startled him.
That he was interested in reading it at all surprised Jane. “Do you want to pick me up at four-thirty?” she said, transferring the book from the bag to the passenger seat. “We have that heavy food-shopping to do.”
He stopped at the lab for some papers and any mail, then drove home, made a cheese sandwich, poured a beer, and went to his study with the book.
Even reading comprehensively, Warner was a fast reader, and reading the book without skipping a detail, he was halfway through it by midafternoon. He had stopped more than once to study the eight pages of photographs of Bundy, several of his victims, the scene of one of the crimes, a police sketch made of him in 1974, mug shots of him in 1975. At his most bedraggled, his hair curly and brown, his smile open, he was more attractive than average, even appealing. Warner could see he’d be very easy to relate to and trust on first meeting.
He was 5’10”, which was surprising since his mother—of whom there was no photograph—was only a few inches over five feet. The more Warner read about his pretensions, his loving Mozart and good wines and gourmet food, the more impatient he became with the superficiality of the man. And as he read about the murders he had been convicted of and confessed to, the sicker he felt about Bundy. When the clock told him it was time to pick up Jane, he was relieved to take off his reading glasses and put the book aside.
As he went to the door, he stopped to take a brief, uncharacteristic glimpse of himself in the hall mirror—tall, his crisp salt-and-pepper hair still abundant.
If Bundy’s mother was so short, he reflected as he unlocked the car a few minutes later, his height must have come from his father. . . .
# # #
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Ted Bundy's Father by Ruth Graviros, Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author.
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