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Onyx reviews: Violent Mind: The 1976 Psychological Assessment of Ted Bundy by Al Carlisle

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 10/29/2017

The recent Netflix series Mindhunter, based on the book Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, examines the development of behavioral analysis in criminal investigations. As part of their work, Douglas and colleagues interviewed numerous incarcerated serial killers to try to identify common threads that could be used either to prevent similar crimes or to solve them.

Douglas had the benefit of knowing in advance he was meeting with heinous murderers. When Dr. Al Carlisle was brought in as part of a team performing a 90-day psychological assessment, Ted Bundy had been convicted of the aggravated kidnapping of a young woman and nothing more. The question he and his colleagues were attempting to answer was whether Bundy's character revealed a predilection for violence or whether the crime for which he had been convicted was an aberration. Bundy's sentence relied in large part on the outcome of this evaluation: he could get hard time in prison or he could be released on probation.

Carlisle has written about his experiences with Bundy before, but this time he wants to explain the rationale behind the conclusions he drew after extensive meetings with Bundy and interviews with people who knew him as a child, a teenager, a university student and as a young man. Bundy wasn't yet 30 when this assessment was conducted. Although there were strong suspicions that he was responsible for a string of  murders in the Pacific northwest, there was no concrete evidence to tie him to those crimes. 

Many people from Bundy's past professed discomfort around him, but others were supportive of him and refused to believe he could have been guilty of the kidnapping. Subsequent to Carlisle's interview, after Bundy escaped from prison, he would go on a murderous rampage at a sorority in Florida that left several young women dead or injured. The true extent of Bundy's crimes remains unknown to this day: he confessed to 30 murders before his execution, but the number may be much higher.

Though Bundy is often depicted as suave and debonair, highly intelligent and amiable, Carlisle's interviews with Bundy reveal the truth of his character: he was insecure, socially inept in many situations, duplicitous, awkward with women, and prone to angry and violent outbursts. He dropped out of university several times, unable to fulfill the promise he believed himself to possess. 

In hindsight, it is easy to point at incidents from his life as warnings or indicators of his nature, but Carlisle was operating without this knowledge, so his insight is particularly intriguing. He was aware that Bundy was suspected in a murder that happened the same night as the kidnapping that had led to his conviction, but he wasn't allowed to make use of that in his evaluation. However, as he talked to people who knew him—or knew of him, for few people truly knew Ted Bundy—numerous incidents came to light that created a disturbing and worrying picture. He came to believe Bundy was dangerously violent, and he builds his case in clear and convincing detail.

Bundy professed to know nothing about the disappearance of a young girl when he was a teenager, even though it was the talk of the small town where it occurred and it's difficult to imagine anyone not hearing about it. His claims make Carlisle suspect that Bundy might have been involved in the disappearance, which remains unsolved to this day. His insecurities emerged in several ways during the evaluation, although Carlisle was aware that Bundy was smart enough to try to game the system and provide unrevealing answers. Carlisle didn't only hear about Bundy's rages from others, he witnessed them on a couple of occasions.

The book allows readers to hear Bundy's words first-hand, through interview transcriptions and letters he sent to Carlisle, which are reproduced digitally in the book. Carlisle annotates the interviews and psychological test results, and explores the Bundy that he meets and interviews at length, comparing that persona with the one he discovers by interviewing people who knew him. 

Subsequently, he explores the nature of serial killers and the concept of compartmentalization that both allows them to present a human face to society (the Jekyll and Hyde analogy) and ultimately causes their fantasy worlds and reality to collide destructively. Violent Mind is a thought-provoking and insightful look at the circumstances that can give rise to a deranged individual and the manner in which people like Bundy strive to hide their true face from society.

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