December 6, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

The subject about which I write, Drama People, is not a happy one. For that reason, I often try to introduce some levity into the discussion to lighten it up a just a bit. That’ll be a challenge this week because I’m going to tell you a story about Ted Bundy. Humor and Ted Bundy go together about as well as toasters and bathtubs. I could take the time to explain this shocking analogy, but that’s not important right now.

When my wife and I first married, we lived in Gainesville, Florida, where the University of Florida is located. This was during the time when Ted Bundy was a fugitive at large, having previously killed several young women in states out west. We found out later that Bundy was thought to have been spotted in Gainesville on occasion. My wife had long brown hair, at that time, and fit the profile of the young women Bundy would pick up and kill. She would sometimes exercise by jogging around our apartment complex late at night. It’s scary now to think about how she could’ve been one of Bundy’s victims.

You might remember that Bundy went into a sorority house at Florida State University in Tallahassee and attacked four young women with a piece of firewood in the middle of the night. He killed two of them.

Long story short, Bundy was eventually tried for several murders and sentenced to death. This being such a sensational story, every major news outlet competed for the last interview with Bundy before his execution. The person to whom Bundy granted that interview was a man who, at that time, was part of a national commission studying the effects of pornography on our culture.

Early in the interview, Bundy said, “Before I go any further, it’s important to me to tell you that I’m not blaming pornography; I’m not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for whatever I’ve done.” He then spent the next 30 minutes building the case that pornography made him do what he did. By the interview’s end, he was championing the cause of anti-pornography and encouraging the interviewer to continue his good work to save people from other “Ted Bundy’s” out there.

Bundy was performing an act—that of anti-pornography crusader. But for his act to work, he needed an audience willing to believe it—the interviewer who bought it hook, line, and sinker. Bundy figured out what the interviewer wanted—validation for his anti-pornography efforts—and the interviewer was a grateful recipient. We can obviously never know this for sure, but I suspect Bundy died a “happy” man, having successfully finagled one last opportunity to jack somebody around.

In a previous letter, I discussed the concept of suspension of disbelief. It’s what happens when we attend a play and ignore all the stage props in order to get into the storyline and enjoy the experience. Here’s what I said in that previous letter:

When we suspend disbelief, we lay aside what we know to be true in order to experience the emotions we’d have if it actually was true. The volume of the rational brain is turned down while the emotional brain’s volume is cranked way up. In dramas, you know what you’re watching is all pretend (rational brain), but you willingly participate in the pretense for the pleasure of the moment (emotional brain). Suspending your disbelief happens with stage productions, but it also occurs in the dramas staged by manipulators. The unspoken—but very real—obligation is to disregard that which is true and participate in the manipulator’s pretend version of reality.  

This interviewer was emotionally invested in believing Bundy’s claptrap because doing so would bolster the interviewer’s case—that pornography causes people to do really bad things. He suspended his rational understanding that Bundy was not only a serial killer but also a serial liar in order to snag an example of pornography’s detrimental effects. Bundy gave him the example he so desperately craved, and the interviewer took it. But it was all an act.

Most people in my field would agree that Bundy met the criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Such individuals are also sometimes referred to as psychopaths or sociopaths. Here’s how the drama works with a sociopath:

My role is to perform

Your role is to believe my performance

The moral of the story? Be careful about suspending your disbelief when what you’re observing strikes you as unbelievable.

“When people show you who they are,” Maya Angelou once warned us, “believe them.”

Till next week.

4 replies
  1. Michelle Douvry
    Michelle Douvry says:

    Hi Alan great writing as usual. I remember Bundy all too well! What is the difference between a sociopath and psychopath, sone say no difference?
    As always thx!

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Actually, this type of disordered individual was originally called a psychopath. But the term didn’t seem descriptive enough so the term sociopath replaced it. Eventually, the term Antisocial Personality Disorder became the term of preference because it better captures the person’s working against the norms of society–the chief characteristic being the inability to keep agreements. But most people use all three terms interchangeably.

      Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a good question and it’s a feature that predates our time period to be sure. I plan to write more on that later–about how people are easily taken in by demagogues and shysters of all stripes.

      Reply

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