Chapter 2: What Lies Beneath.
“I don’t think anybody doubts whether I’ve done some bad things. The question is; what, of course, and how, and maybe even most importantly, why?”
- Ted Bundy
It was 1946 when Eleanor “Louise” Cowell was forced to break the troubling and rather scandalous news to her parents, that she was pregnant out of wedlock. The era being as it was this was news which would bring extreme embarrassment to the family and could very well have them ostracised in polite society and so, at 22 and unmarried, there were few acceptable choices which the young mother to be could have made. This was not an age of free love or women’s liberation – the female of the species still had a few decades to wait for the shackles of the patriarchy to be loosened. Even in the 21st century, we are still awaiting complete autonomy where our reproductive rights are concerned.
As a wedding was not forthcoming (the father had allegedly disappeared on the next navy vessel), and a termination out of the question (abortion was not yet legal in the United States), all that remained for Louise, as with many other young mothers, was to go and stay at the Elizabeth Lund’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Burlington, Vermont. This would give the family a chance to decide how they wished to proceed, while the family’s reason for shame would be hidden away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues of their community. Out of State, out of mind.
And so it came to pass that Theodore Robert Cowell was brought into the world on November 24th, branded for posterity on his birth certificate as fatherless and illegitimate; a piece of information that the infant Ted Bundy would not become privy to until he was in his teens and something that would continue to haunt him for many years to come.
I wish that I could be the one to tell you that Louise loved her child upon first sight or that he was doted upon from his first breath. This unfortunately cannot be that particular type of story and the narrative is much sadder in the case of the young Ted Bundy. After giving birth to her son she did not immediately bond with him and so made a choice to abandon him and return to her family. There may have been a multitude of reasons for this to have happened and it has never been made clear as to why Louise did not form that instantaneous connection. One summation that I have formed is that, with the possibility of Ted being adopted out to a family, it would not have been fair to either Louise or her son to do so; I do not feel it is as simple as Ted being unwanted or unloved by his mother. My theory (and it is only that, a theory) is supported by the decision, a few months later, for Louise to return with her mother, Eleanor, and her father, Samuel, to Elizabeth Lund’s to bring Ted home with them to Philadelphia. From that day on Samuel and Eleanor assumed the role of Ted’s adoptive parents, with Louise taking on the position of his older sister.
In childhood pictures, Theodore looked to be just like any other happy child and with his golden hair and wide smile, it is almost unimaginable that anything horrendous could be lurking in the background. A snapshot, taken in an unexpected moment, does not tell the whole story though. If Ted were to develop signs of mental illness in later life then there would need to be some context or background to the escalation that occurred from smiling toddler to one of America’s most prolific serial murderers and rapists. It is with this in mind that we need to look at what stock Ted came from to get a clearer picture of possible causation.
It is fair to say, whether he was truly the son of a passing sailor, as Louise stated, or as a product of incest to her abusive father, as is speculated by other family members, Ted did not have the most loving or stable beginning in life. Samuel Cowell was known in the family and neighbouring community to be a racist misogynist with a violent temper. He was not afraid to use his fists in anger, spoke aloud to unseen presences (Nelson, 1994, p.154), and was reported to have inflicted cruelty upon animals, in particular stray cats and dogs. One of Ted’s cousins reported that Samuel kept a collection of violent BDSM pornography in his greenhouse and that, as a child, Ted would sneak in there to look at the magazines, reading them for hours on end. He would not have known or understood fully what was contained within them but his intrigue was piqued and the die was cast for future fascinations, fantasies, and sexual urges. In later years, in his final interview prior to his execution, Bundy would speak with Dr. James Dobson about the dangers of pornography and states the following:
“As a young boy of 12 or 13, I encountered, outside the home, in the local grocery and drugstores, softcore pornography. Young boys explore the sideways and byways of their neighbourhoods, and in our neighborhood, people would dump the… garbage. From time to time, we would come across the books of a harder nature – more graphic. This also included detective magazines, etc. and I want to emphasise this. The most damaging kind of pornography – and I’m talking from hard, real, personal experience – is that that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces – as I know only too well – brings about behaviour that is too terrible to describe… In the beginning, it fuels this kind of thought process. Then at a certain this it is instrumental in crystalising it, making it into something that is almost a separate entity inside… Like an addiction, you keep craving something that is harder… until you reach the point where pornography only goes so far.”
Bundy’s grandmother was not without her problems either. She was considered to be what we would nowadays term Schizoid affective. Prone to fits of depression, possibly stemming from alleged beatings sustained at the hands of her husband (Nelson, 1994 p.158), along with suffering from agoraphobia, was frequently hospitalised and treated with convulsive shock therapy. With all of this in mind, it would be feasible to reach the conclusion that Ted in a way would be genetically predisposed to mental illness and, given his grandmother’s clinical history, would lend credence to Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis’s assertion that Ted Bundy had developed and was showing signs of Bi-Polar disorder (something that we will look at in more depth in a later chapter of this book).
Circling back to an earlier broached topic, while, as mentioned earlier, there is no concrete proof that any abuse went on within the Cowell residence, it is interesting to note that both Ted and his mother Louise both shared an innate knack for being able to compartmentalise and deflect; defense mechanisms which are often borne from surviving an emotionally or physically abusive relationship and used to combat severe stress or PTSD. It may also be of interest to readers to note that after his 1989 execution it was reported that Bundy was found to have a scar on his head. Whether this was caused in relation to a ski accident or possibly due to abuse or violence at the hands of his grandfather is left to our speculation and imaginations.
During his interviews with Dr. Al Carlisle, during his 1976 psychological assessment, as outlined in the book Violent Mind (Genius publishing, 2017), Bundy spoke of his childhood, painting it as a rather idyllic time and speaking fondly about his grandfather. Although Ted mentions the house being large enough to house all of them and speaks about his aunts fussing over him, to the point of spoiling him, he also mentions that both Samuel and Louise were “strong-minded people” (Carlisle, 2017, p.30) which would allude to not everything being as rosy as Ted liked to make out.
Prior to the uprooting and moving of young Ted by Louise in Tacoma in 1951 there were already signs that something was amiss with the youngster's psyche. One such event was an evening where Ted's aunt reports that she awoke to find that her nephew had been placing kitchen knives in her bed whilst she slept. She awoke to find the blades pointing towards her and Ted standing beside her bedside smiling at her. While this could just be seen to be a childish prank, albeit a fairly unpleasant and disturbing one, it could certainly point to a more sinister turning point in the young boy's mental state. Was this the first sign of things to come? And was this behaviour, with the seeming disregard for other’s feelings and a lack of empathy, borne from observations of his grandfather’s behaviour? Was this a case of nurture over nature?
Rachel Neave is a 30 something true crime and retro scene writer, based in the UK and powered by Yorkshire Tea. If asked she will admit quite happily to being a self professed Bundyphile, and a fan of the geeky, vintage, and often darkly absurd. Rachel divides her time up between studying for a degree in Forensic Psychology, trying to get through her to be read pile, napping (something she is especially talented at), and working on her forthcoming Bundy Book, entitled "In Sheep's Clothing". For examples of her personal scribblings, and to get in contact, you can find out more at https://rachelneave.wixsite.com/rockabillygirl1980 and https://bundytrail.home.blog/ or locate her on Instagram @Rockabillygirl1980