The television camera panned across a field filled with hundreds of people, many waving ugly banners and cheering. Some guzzled beer, others gulped coffee between bites of powdered doughnuts. The unfolding scene exuded a dark, circus-like tone, the disquieting rumble of a happy yet mean crowd. I flinched as a flushed, sweaty man suddenly dominated the screen, shrieking, “Die, Bundy, die!”
From my perch on a patterned sofa, I was watching fiery rhetoric, while surrounded by preternatural calm. I couldn’t reconcile the bloodlust on the television with my current modest surroundings; oak side tables and fluted lampshades that suggested time had slowed years ago.
“If anyone deserved to die, it’s Ted Bundy!” screamed the television.
A woman’s voice broke in, polite but flat: “Would you care for some coffee or tea?”
Fellini could not have devised a stranger scene. I responded to the woman standing near me as though we were attending a garden party.
“Yes, please, I’d love some tea.”
“ROSES ARE RED, VIOLETS ARE BLUE / GOOD MORNING TED / WE’RE GOING TO KILL YOU!”
Stone-faced, she returned from the kitchen with two delicate porcelain cups, glancing at the crudely written sign on the TV set as the announcer repeated her son’s last words.
“Bundy reportedly told his lawyer and his minister, ‘I’d like you to give my love to my family and friends.’”
Never looking directly at the screen, as a clean white hearse passed across the frame, Louise Bundy poised herself on a well-worn recliner near me, blinked wearily, and took a sip from her cup.
Ted Bundy was one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, murdering so many women and girls that the final count may never be known. Law enforcement would put the number between 30 and 36, with the caveat that there might be more. Bundy stalked and tortured his way through at least seven states across the country, staging attacks in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Florida from the 1960s to the late 1970s. He left families devastated, colleges on edge, and towns on high alert. One of his own lawyers described him as “the very definition of heartless evil.” Even the national psyche took a hit, squirming in the face of someone who could commit such atrocities for so long without getting caught.
But he finally did get caught, twice, and escaped, twice. It wasn’t until the state of Florida sentenced him to death for the killings of two university co-eds and a 12-year-old girl that the death penalty would be carried out on a January morning in 1989. His demise was a relief to anyone in favor of the death penalty. Though I would never have celebrated his death, he was the one person who’d momentarily shaken my own stance against capital punishment. He was put to death at the State Prison in Starke, Fla., at 4 a.m. Seattle time. My time.
Six hours later I sat in his mother’s living room.
My visit that day was highly unusual and what I was attempting was more unusual still. In 1989, television talk shows like the one I hosted were centered primarily on broad political or social themes. Phil Donahue generally aimed more toward journalism while Oprah, at the time, was known as tabloid TV. It’s not to say they never touched personal stories then, but zeroing in on the intimate feelings of individuals was just emerging; the deeply private was rare and only lightly explored. Areas of real intimacy and private thoughts were still often considered insensitive or in poor taste. So I faced an internal dilemma the day Ted Bundy was put to death. I wanted to go beyond the norm, beyond the standard interview, to broaden and intensify what television could convey.
As a host of a daily afternoon television talk show in Seattle, I interviewed the occasional former US president or gifted author. But as management endeavored to forestall gravitas and low ratings, we gave more and more time to an eclectic smattering of movie stars gushing over their brand of hair conditioner and holders of the world record for the longest fingernails.
But our scheduled interview on the day of Ted Bundy’s execution was an exception to that trend. This would not be a sideshow. Weeks in the planning, our producers had located Vivian Rancourt, the mother of one of Bundy’s victims. In April of 1974, Vivian’s daughter, Susan, vanished from her college campus in Central Washington. For nearly a year her parents knew nothing of what had happened to her. They may never have known had her skull not been found outside of town. And though Bundy was always suspected, they could not have been sure if he hadn’t confessed to it only two days before his execution. Vivian would appear via satellite from her home in Eastern Washington to share memories of her daughter and her feelings about Ted Bundy’s death.
It was in the early morning hours of that day, as I prepared for work, that I began to think of Bundy’s mother, of what this day must be like for her. The more I thought about it, the more intense my focus became on hearing from her. Looking back, I think my consideration of Louise Bundy that day came from my own heartache. I had spent the last few months in a state of functional grief after separating from my eight-year-old son as part of a grueling divorce. On the advice of a trusted psychologist, I had sent him back to his father and extended family in the small town my son loved. I’d finally recognized that though having him was good for me, he missed his cousins and friends. It was isolating for him. Though it would fly in the face of cultural acceptance, his yearning for familiar territory trumped my overwhelming desire to keep him with me. No decision in my life had come closer to emotionally bending me such that I never truly straightened. It was through my own distress that I saw Louise Bundy that morning not as a serial killer’s parent but as a mother. I asked myself if a simple connection between her and Vivian Rancourt, as mothers, could possibly ease an ounce of the past and the pain. I had to try.
I knew Louise Bundy had lived for years near Seattle, in Tacoma, and surprisingly quickly, I found a John Bundy in the phone book and took a chance. So spontaneous was my decision, I did not take a camera crew or even a notebook (later that night, I would jot down notes about much of the experience). I glanced at the clock. It was just before 9 a.m. I told my producers I’d be back in studio before one o’clock. The show aired live at three in the afternoon and I would need time to do makeup and get acquainted with Vivian before we went on the air. I didn’t call the Bundys’ number, I just left to find Louise. It was a 45-minute drive, presuming I could find the place easily. Then there was the sticky matter of not being sure I had the right house or the right people.
The voice in my head babbled as I drove. What would I say when I got to the door? Why was I really doing this? I could hear my father’s voice admonishing me against being impulsive, responding too quickly to strong feelings. This could all go very badly. I could make a fool of myself. Still I drove, with sweaty palms, steeling myself to get through the phalanx of media trucks and reporters I was sure would be lined up when I arrived.
After finding the exit off the freeway, I continued through a modest middle-class neighborhood, eventually pulling up in front of a one-story beige home much like all the rest on the street. An eerie quiet prevailed. No media trucks. No onlookers milling around. Not a soul. I sat in the car, staring at the house, taking in how ordinary it was; a flock of burbling robins peppering a bare maple, a garbage truck lumbering away. Utterly lacking in anything sinister.
It was through my own distress that I saw Louise Bundy that morning not as a serial killer’s parent but as a mother.
Jittery and a little nauseated, I got out of the car, still not knowing what I would say but, worse still, not knowing what she would say. She might scream at me to leave. I walked to the front door, taking in the peeling trim and rang the bell. Surprisingly, the wooden door opened leaving a screen between me and the most Betty Crocker-looking woman I’d ever seen.
Louise Bundy stood just above the level of my chin, her head capped with a brunette bob. Her round face housed sharp, tight features. She wore a simple blouse and jacket. The quintessential-looking working mom, were it not for the deep creases and folds that fell around her eyes as if her own skin were trying to limit her view. Gazing at her for what seemed an age, I finally spoke, telling her my name.
“I would not bother you at a time like this but…” And to my shock and embarrassment, I convulsed in tears and began to blubber something like, “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” I told her I shouldn’t have bothered her, and I turned to go.
I heard the screen door creak at my back and her soft, kind voice implore me. “No. Come in. Please. Come in.” I’ve always wondered if she opened that door to offer me solace when it was I who thought I had come to provide some to her.
I swiveled and faced her again, divided about whether to actually go in. I stepped toward her and for an instant I thought we would hug each other, but as our eyes met both of us changed our minds. We were already setting adrift the boundaries between media and privacy.
As I entered the small, tidy living room, the dominant feature was the sound of the endless loop of mocking crowds I’d seen laughing on the TV set back at the station, heckling the death of this woman’s son. I thought Mrs. Bundy might turn it off, but she only turned it down.
“Please, have a seat,” she invited blandly.
Louise Bundy had always staunchly defended her son’s innocence and even in the face of recent confessions, even in phone calls moments before his execution, she still referred to him as her “precious son.” The father of that precious son had never been definitively identified and Louise endured rumors for years that her abusive father was also Ted Bundy’s father.
I knew that Ted Bundy had spent his earliest years with his grandparents, who told him Louise was his sister. I asked Louise what her son was like as a boy.
She reflected almost wistfully about how he liked to ride his bike and that he had a paper route he loved. The image stood in stark contrast to her son’s own account of how he’d spent hours, as a kid, scavenging his neighborhood garbage cans in search of rough pornography.
“He was popular,” she added, sitting up a little straighter. Popular. Ted Bundy had bitten a girl’s nipple off. He had dismembered many of his victims. Did she know that? Had she read it? Maybe she could never believe it. But she was also right. Her son, the former law school student with the dark, wavy hair and blue eyes, was often described as handsome, interesting, and charming. Radioactive material deeply buried. The schism was unfathomable.
I could not imagine the depth of her inner turmoil. This intelligent, articulate woman had to change her phone number over and over again to avoid threats. She’d held professional office positions of trust and loyalty, including a post at a reputable university while simultaneously becoming the object of repeated invective in grocery stores and at the post office. She had met the devil coming and going.
The monstrous aspects of Louise’s existence honed my focus. I didn’t need to drag her through these questions. Every detail of her life had been macerated for years.
The unfinished business lay elsewhere, beyond facts, beyond headlines and assumptions. What was left to say was in her heart.
“Have you ever communicated with any of the mothers?”
My question felt abrupt and premature. Perhaps, the mere notion would be abhorrent to her. I immediately worried that it was too intrusive. My heart pounded as I reached for my teacup to avoid her eyes. Or was I sparing her having to look at mine?
“No,” she responded slowly, staring at the tips of her pumps. But her tone left a tiny opening.
I asked if she would like to, if she’d ever wanted to. I assumed I must be on very thin ice. At any moment I could cross the line and she would ask me to leave. She stared straight ahead, her eyes wells of sadness. Then, Louise startled me, exhaling as though releasing a breath stored for years and stammered that, yes, she’d always wanted to tell the other moms how she felt.
Thinking back on it now, I can only imagine her struggling with each murder her son committed, each atrocity laid out in newspapers and on television across the country. Forced to take them, like blows, over and over. I’ll bet she was conflicted.
I told her that our guest that day was Vivian Rancourt. Louise’s face registered instant recognition, eyes widening, a look away, her gaze flitting into space.
“If she would like to talk with you, would you want to?”
She frowned hard and protested that she didn’t think she could. That she didn’t know what she would say. I asked her what she would like to say.
Her bowed head swayed from side to side in vague uncertainty, as if bearing the question rather than hearing it. In the softest voice, exploring her words, she whispered, “I would tell her how bad I feel.” Her eyes fixed on the floor, her voice catching in her throat, “How sorry I am for…” She trailed off.
I had to get back to the station. The show was live and our guest had no idea she might be speaking with the mother of the man who killed her child.
My resolve refined to a knife’s edge. I felt almost cheerful. A question had been answered, a vagueness crystalized. We could do this. She could share this burden, speak freely without fear, so I asked, “Why don’t we do it?” I added that if Vivian agreed, Louise could come to the station that afternoon and talk to her.
But Louise picked up an earlier part of the conversation as if she hadn’t heard me, remarking that Ted had had a girlfriend, then suddenly turned to me with an alert expression asking if I meant it.
“Yes. I do.”
She asked if I would do the interview and I said I would.
I told her I wouldn’t push, that if she wanted to talk to Vivian, all she had to do was let me know. I wanted to give her voice. I wanted this scorned and ridiculed woman to be made human, maybe to humanize all of us or maybe just that crowd outside the prison or maybe, irrationally, just me for not having my son with me.
I couldn’t bear to have that gleeful seething bunch at the prison represent all that would come of these horrors. I wanted compassion to find a seat at this shadowed bacchanal. But I would not force it and I made it clear that if she decided not to talk I would understand.
I had to get back to the station. The show was live and our guest had no idea she might be speaking with the mother of the man who killed her child. We needed her permission. She might refuse. We might lose her.
I told Louise I would call her in about an hour, aware of the careful, friendly bent to my speech, as if the wrong tone would crack her delicate resolve.
I rose from the sofa and headed for the door. She joined me and we stepped outside onto the porch. This time we didn’t change our minds. We hugged each other.
I thanked her for having me but further words failed me. She nodded, patting my forearm. Looking me straight in the eye, she offered a glimpse of her heart. She told me she understood what I was trying to do and thanked me for it. Not trusting my voice, I nodded back and headed toward my car. We’d taken a tiny step together and I wondered where it would lead. Driving back to the station, I weighed the fine line between overstepping and propriety. And, in the end, would Vivian want anything to do with Louise Bundy?
There is a space in most theaters or TV stations where guests wait before the show. It’s called a green room because most are painted green, a color considered calming and soothing to guests unaccustomed to being on television. That day I was, perhaps appropriately, alone in that room about 30 minutes before the show, on the phone with Vivian Rancourt. I told her of my visit to the Bundy house. She listened silently. I asked if she would want to talk with Louise and held my breath. I heard her clear her throat and take a deep breath, considering the question. I could only imagine her surprise and uncertainty. Finally, in a soft voice she said yes, that of course she would. I recall being moved more than surprised. I got the impression of an extraordinary person.
Going back upstairs, the producers and I tried to think through what might now be a completely different program from the one we’d planned. We couldn’t. There was no time. I quickly wrote a new introduction and jotted down a couple of questions for Louise, not really believing she would answer them. I didn’t want to dictate how it would go but I did want to start out slowly, to allow Louise to acclimate. I intended these two people to have the time to say whatever they wanted to say. We left the conference room and headed back to our desks.
Louise called a few minutes later, before we could call her, her voice filled with doubt. “I just can’t do it. I can’t go on TV.”
I had promised I wouldn’t push, and before the thought was even finished I asked if she’d prefer to be on the phone. Would that make it easier? I believed that she would regret, in the end, not taking the opportunity to unburden when she had it. Louise asked if Vivian wanted to talk to her and I said, yes, she did.
“I don’t know. I’m just not sure if I can.” I told her that we would go on and that if she wanted to join us she was most welcome, adding that I hoped she would. I said we would call her just before we started and she could decide even at the last minute. I added that she would not be alone, that I would walk her through every bit of it. When I hung up, I had no idea if she would really be there when the time came.
The realities of TV can be ugly even when the intent is honorable. I was well aware of the intrigue Louise’s participation would generate. In my introduction at the top of the show I mentioned that Louise would participate even though I knew she might not. If this exchange could happen, I wanted people to witness it and if, in the end, Louise could not bring herself to appear, I would deal with it then.
Muttering rose from the audience members, nervous shifting and quizzical looks.
“Is Ted Bundy’s mother going to be here in the studio?” asked one woman.
“No, she’ll be on the phone.”
I did not respond, only walked back down the hallway until it was time to do the interview. While we waited, Vivian and I chatted again on the phone about the weather but not about her daughter or Ted Bundy or the fact she was about to talk to the mother of the man who killed her child. She asked if I had any kids.
“Yes, one son.”
“Ah,” she said gently, “Hold him close.” I heard the tears in her voice and I had to catch my own, bidding them back down, thinking, “Good grief. Get a hold of yourself. Yours is alive.”
When the time came, we got seated and hooked up to microphones, she in her living room, I on the set. The effect was as if she was sitting across from me. And across from me was a woman as ordinary-looking in her own way as Louise was in hers. She had a sweet and solemn face of creamy skin, short ash blond hair and a generous build. She was serious, as though joy had never regenerated in her.
“You OK?” I asked her.
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine.” And Vivian indeed appeared to be.
The audience went quiet, the red light came on over the camera, and we were on the air. As I began describing how one couple in Washington had lost their daughter 14 years before while another had lost their son that morning, the voice of my director came in my earpiece, telling me that Louise had answered her phone but hadn’t said anything else after the connection was made. He wasn’t sure if she was still there or not.
I went on to mention the day’s furor over Bundy’s execution and the fact that “maybe we have lost sight of the fact that he is somebody’s son,” and in a split second I opted to just dive in.
I tested the waters by addressing Louise and thanking her for joining us on such a fateful day. I thought I heard a response but it was so faint I wasn’t sure, then I was concerned she might be there but that we couldn’t hear her. I persisted gently, making a quick inquiry to again test whether she was there. And I heard her.
I focused on the fact that Ted Bundy was allowed a phone call to his mother in the wee hours of the morning of his execution. I asked, “Can you share with us some of that call?” My, how she’d found her voice in the hours since we’d talked. Her confidence surprised me but it was her words that were dumbfounding.
“He was just full of remorse,” she said, “…I know Ted well enough to know he was sincere,” adding that he’d also told her he’d hidden much of himself from her. She was a font of painful contradiction.
In spite of our chat earlier that morning or perhaps because of it, I was incredulous at the depth of her denial as it unspooled through the studio. In response to a question asking if she ever blamed herself for his actions, she likened her situation to any other mother who scrutinizes her parenting when her “kids go wrong”; that her son’s explanation was that it was “a thing that just got away” from him. I am struck only now by the blind power of her love.
At the time, I could not reconcile Louise’s matter-of-fact tone of voice with my own incredulity. I was torn between wanting to ask her how it was possible she might still question her son’s guilt while wondering how Vivian would respond to this minimization.
I decided it was time for Vivian to speak. I asked her how she felt about Louise and the position Louise was in. She hesitated, faltered.
Inside the studio, everything is magnified, every sound, every second. Her brief pause seemed at the time to stretch forever, the entire fragile assembly at risk. When Vivian found her voice, she surprised us all.
“First of all, we send hugs to her, too,” she sighed, closing her eyes several times. “It has to be terrible for her. Our suffering is over, our answers are all there—and I think hers are probably just beginning.”
I asked Louise if she’d like to respond, if there was anything she’d like to share with Vivian. “I’m glad to be able to say it directly to one of the moms,” she began succinctly, in a controlled voice, and then, like scaffolding collapsing under a delicately crafted structure, her voice shook, then broke. She let out a rush of air from her core, raised her voice, and out it poured.
“We don’t know why this happened,” she said, choking. “We feel so—DESPERATELY—SORRY for you. We didn’t want our son to do these things. We have two beautiful daughters of our own, and we know how we would feel. I am sorry.” And her shaky voice came to a sputtering halt.
Inside the studio, I heard sniffs and sobs. A cameraman dropped his head. Mere seconds seemed to stretch forever. Vivian Rancourt choked and swallowed hard, as if buffeted by Louise’s pain.
“I know you are. And we don’t hold any hatred or resentment toward you or your family.” And she stopped. I paused for only an instant, taking in Vivian’s tormented face. I saw her gently close her lips against any more words and I couldn’t ask her for more. She was so clearly at her maximum.
Their exchange hung in the air like an exhale, the dust they’d stirred falling on us all in a light blanket of healing. A descending forgiveness, a connection between strangers, had been made in a hastily assembled moment of courage. Both women, for the moment were spent, proof of the enormity of their effort.
A woman identifying herself as a friend of one of Bundy’s victims, phoned in with a heartfelt message about her sympathy for his mother, ending with, “and I feel for her.” Muted, seemingly in disbelief, Louise acknowledged, “We’re so grateful for all these thoughts that we’re getting.”
The director’s voice came again in my earpiece telling me Louise couldn’t say any more, that she had to go.
I was disappointed she would leave so soon, as if there were more to say, but hearing her despair, I couldn’t try to convince her to stay. I now see the wisdom in the brevity. There was almost nothing else that needed to be said. “I cannot thank you enough for sharing with us and reminding us that Ted has a family and a mom who did love him very much. We wish the best for you.” And we took a break.
As we all sat in the studio, waiting for the commercials to end, Vivian spoke up.
“May I say something here?” Shaking her head in disgust, she mentioned the boisterous crowd at the prison. “No matter how anybody feels about Bundy dying, I certainly didn’t find anything to celebrate today.”
Her words were hoisted in the air of the studio. A few people coughed. There was a light smattering of applause. A couple rose and made an early exit. There were few moments in that studio that carried such galvanizing power, and none of it was on the air but I’ve never forgotten it. It was a prelude to this woman’s depth and complexity that would be further displayed only a few minutes later.
Vivian Rancourt’s ability to separate her obvious loathing of Ted Bundy from her sorrow for Bundy’s mother, Louise, was incredible to me.
When we came back from the break, Vivian looked visibly relieved. I believe now that she was glad to have talked to Louise and equally glad it was over. She felt free to talk about Ted Bundy, notably his being put to death. In a stunning contrast to her previous comments, she immediately revealed her reaction to Ted Bundy’s death. “It’s incredible that our relief should be at the expense of someone else’s life, but I really feel it was necessary in this instance,” adding that as the execution drew near, she and her family filled again with anger, tremendous anger, “but it’s over today.”
Vivian Rancourt’s ability to separate her obvious loathing of Ted Bundy from her sorrow for Bundy’s mother, Louise, was incredible to me. She demonstrated an astounding and rare ability to distinguish between the criminal and his family.
I thanked Vivian for her kindness in joining us and wished her well. Later that evening, I called her to again express my gratitude that she would dab again so publicly at this wound. “You and Louise did a remarkable thing today,” I told her.
“No, no. We were just human beings. We did what people should do.”
When I finally signed off the show that day, the credits rolled and the audience filed out. Watching them go, some blotting tears and linking arms, I knew this was why I had become a journalist. This was what I had always believed was possible. My path and Vivian’s would not cross again after that day. But her strength and serenity stay with me. She displayed a graciousness that I not only will never forget but that I have drawn upon many times since. Her grace under such pressure reminds me to never take my son’s health and happiness for granted.
Though I never saw or spoke with Louise again either, it is her courage I remember most, risking wrath and criticism by making so public, so humbling, a statement. On some levels she was so bereft, on others so present, I do not believe she would ever have let me in had I not wept on her doorstep, and that gave me the measure of the woman.
I walked directly out of the studio, opened the back door of the station building and stepped out onto the sidewalk. I took a moment to breathe, to take in the skeletal trees standing in a crescent across the street and feel the cold winter air on my face. I let the experience soak through me. Two women with the grace and courage to reach not just inside themselves but way outside themselves, willing to lay bare a bottomless private pain in the most public way for us all to share it, to dilute it. They lifted the medium from its knees to its highest and best level. With so few means to express collective humanity, they had summoned their bravery and created one.
I turned from the cold and—feeling grateful that I could—walked to my desk and called my son.