Recently a friend told me I looked like a serial killer but “in a good way.”

I said there is no good way to look like a serial killer.

He said, “Oh but there is. Remember that one guy who didn’t look scary at all?”

He was referring to Ted Bundy. For the record, I do not look like Ted Bundy, but it was an interesting point of coincidence, because I had just finished reading a comprehensive, totally engrossing article about him. It’s called, “The End of Evil: America’s Most Famous Serial Killer and the Myth of the Psychopath,” by Sarah Marshall. In it, Marshall writes at length about Bundy’s shocking life and deadly deeds. I would only recommend the whole thing if you really love a good crime story. Which I do. Especially on a bad day. I love losing myself in something so horrible and bizarre it makes my own life seem wonderful.

For our purposes, I’ll spare the gory details and skip straight to the implications of the piece, which are, I think, quite spiritual.

The disturbing thing about Ted Bundy was that he did look pretty normal. Unlike many killers before him, Bundy wasn’t a crusty oldie lurking in a basement or hiding out in a desert commune. He was an unassuming law student, clean-cut, clean-shaven, living among the civilized. He had a girlfriend. Many people trusted him.

For her piece, Marshall traveled to the place where Bundy was executed, hoping to find some answers about him and how his life detonated. Answers, she did not find. Some revelations about human nature, she did. Her report is tragic yet personal, about our universal need for unmitigated compassion. How we cope with the disaster that was Ted Bundy, Marshall says, ultimately comes down to how we understand people in general—our anthropology—and what we presume people are [in]capable of.

…in the area surrounding [Florida State Prison], seemingly every roadside sign advertises gas, boiled peanuts, or God. FROGS ARE COMING, reads one. THERE’S ALWAYS FREE CHEESE IN THE DEVIL’S MOUSETRAP, reads another. WHEN SATAN COMES KNOCKING AT YOUR DOOR, reads a third, SIMPLY SAY “JESUS, WOULD YOU PLEASE GET THAT FOR ME?” In the end, they all say the same thing: you could be good, if only you wanted to be.

So-called psychopaths are verified as such according to the widely-accepted Psychopathy Checklist, which “is regarded by laypeople and legal insiders alike not as a highly subjective questionnaire but as an infallible means of separating good from bad.”

You may have sniffed this one out already, but there’s some conflicting ideologies at work here. On the one hand, you can be good if you want to be. But if you fail this test, you’re helplessly bad.

Marshall suggests that ‘psychopath’, and other such designations of identity, are distancing mechanisms. We use them to keep people at arms’ length and to control things we cannot understand.

When I asked Ted Bundy’s attorneys whether they would describe him as a psychopath, their responses were not just unanimous but unambiguous. “No,” Minerva said, without hesitation. “I think he was severely, deeply mentally ill,” he said. “Psychotic. I always believed that.” […] Nelson was silent for a long time as she considered my question. “You know,” she said, “‘psychopath’ to me implies some kind of evil motivation, like an evil corporation knowingly polluting. And I don’t see that in Ted. He was much more like an addict.”

More often than not, the lawyers I spoke with found the term psychopath so poorly defined that they didn’t feel comfortable applying it to anyone. The word, Coleman said, “becomes a cop-out. Judges latch onto it to avoid having to deal with what’s actually going on. It’s presented to juries as a way for them to not struggle with understanding the defendant’s behavior, and to attribute to it this label that basically explains everything.”

“It’s a cheap word,” Nursey said. “It’s a word that is used to avoid trying to understand something in a larger context. Medicine has not developed to the point where we understand the mental illness that leads people to commit what appear to everybody to be random, cold-blooded acts of violence…These are out-of-control people, but we won’t acknowledge that they have a mental illness. We just want to say they’re pure mean.”

These interviewees knew Bundy personally and also accepted his guilt; his lack of control did not equate to his absolution. No one would minimize the atrocities he committed, but that doesn’t mean we ought to dismiss them, either, simply as the tragic effects of being in proximity to An Evil Person.

But we do this all the time. We write off the people who baffle us. The man who expresses differing political opinions: moron. In 5PM traffic, the woman who cuts into our lane: moron. The guy who killed a bunch of people: psychopath. That explains it.

Sometimes, I think, we even do this to ourselves. We label ourselves in certain moments as good or bad, righteous or evil. We let our actions dictate what we think we are. But if we step back a bit, we know there’s more to the story.

Halfway through her piece, Marshall ceases reporting and begins something more akin to a personal essay. Her initial anthropological inquiry is thought-provoking, but it’s her introspection that cuts to the bone.

When I first learned about Ted Bundy, I was sixteen and…trying to understand why the dark forces inside a man needed, so badly, to destroy me. Sometimes victimhood seemed inevitable. And sometimes it seemed like the best thing that could happen to a girl. Once you were dead, you could be loved forever. Once you were dead, no one asked if you had fought back hard enough, if you hadn’t really wanted it after all.

Listen, I said, to the shape I conjured, who usually looked like Ted, usually was Ted, though our lifespans had overlapped by just a few months. Listen, I said, when I imagined him driving me up the mountain some dark night, up a narrow logging road, the way long, the radio gone to static. Listen, I’d say. Just tell me what you need from me. Why is my body the one you have to tear apart? What do you think you’ll find?

“It’s funny how he’s still the poster boy for serial killers after all these years,” Nelson [Bundy’s post-conviction lawyer] said, near the end of our conversation. It was hard for me, I told her, to imagine knowing the real person first, and then watching the myth be built around him. I had only ever known the myth.

“Not that he’d be unhappy with that,” she said. “He would much rather go down as a brilliant, manipulative serial killer than a disturbed individual, out of control and sad. You’re going to be ruining it. That was worth a lot to him.”

Why am I trying to ruin this for you, Ted? Why am I here? It’s not just because I was a girl, and you were the worst of all the bad men I ever learned about, and I thought figuring out why you needed me to die would mean figuring out why the whole world did. It’s not just because calling you “a force of evil” isn’t good enough for me—not just because, more and more, I am coming to believe that evil refers to nothing, means nothing, attaches itself to acts of violence or cruelty, but is never, by itself, an identifiable force. And it’s not just because I learned to understand my value to society by imagining how much I would be missed if I were taken away by someone like you, and it’s not just because I studied these stories to learn how to survive (don’t take the shortcut through the alley, don’t talk to strangers…), and it’s not just because you are human and I am human. It’s because I see myself in you. [1]

As a teenager, the story I found when I looked and looked for the evil people seemed to see when they looked at Ted Bundy was always, to me, the story of a lost boy: one who couldn’t understand relationships and connections around him, and who was always on the outside, looking in. “I didn’t know what made things tick,” Bundy [said]. “I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.”

The first time I read those words—still a teenager, still meant to identify with the murdered girl and no one else—I recognized them as my own. I had to think through nearly every interaction in advance. I felt I had no basic understanding of the people around me, and this made me feel like I was completely alone in the world, and sometimes meant that when I looked at the people around me, I could feel only fear, and sometimes hostility. Something had broken—who knew what, or when, or how?—in my early life, in my ability to trust people, to reach out, to feel that I could be seen and known as I was, and loved unconditionally. Some early relationship had faltered enough, some early trauma had broken me enough, to make me feel so lost—this, at least, is what I think now: something happened. And then something else happened. Something lost hold of me; something gave. I learned, slowly, to trust other people. I reached for them. I knew them. I loved them, and I felt their love.

And why was it that I was allowed to move on, and you weren’t? I never felt the urge to hurt the people around me, but that wasn’t a choice; it was a lack of compulsion. And if I had wanted to hurt people, would I have tried to get help? Where would I have gone? Where would I go tomorrow, if the need suddenly appeared and took control of me?

The insects’ singing vibrates the grass. I am sweating so much I think I might be melting. I have come as close to looking at you as I possibly can, Ted, and like Nelson before me, I only feel pity. I thought I wasn’t allowed to feel just that: I thought I had to feel fear when I looked at you, fear of the demon core you held, because looking at it too closely would mean witnessing your evil and knowing that it burned in me too. Isn’t that what all these terrified men see when they look at you, Ted? But we can be scared this way only by beliefs we feel we could share…

I have grasped for your demon core, Ted, and I have found nothing, again and again. The good men lied. I have found only humanity, only a need to love and feel loved as well as we can, and the fact that some of us can do this easily, and some of us hardly at all, and I cannot imagine a reality where someone would choose violence over love, emptiness over love, feeling lost the way you did, lost the way I did, over love, when love is there. I don’t think love was there for you, and I don’t know why it wasn’t, and I’m tired of being told there’s no point in searching for answers that might lead to solutions, tired of living in a world where some people are just born bad, and all we can do is wait to catch and destroy them, and where catching and destroying a monster means waiting until they start killing women and girls. I am tired of living in a world where this is the only story we can tell. I am tired of this story. I want a new one.

To my mind, she’s right. This is an old story, of the good guys and the bad guys. Alas, the truth is, we’re both. Our parents are both. Our kids are both. Ted Bundy was both. Thus “we could, under different circumstances, go down the same path they did.” Now that is terrifying.

Nevertheless recent research has shown that so-called psychopaths—people who lack empathy to violent degrees—can be moved, however minimally, by love. Marshall points out that Bundy himself was moved upon the birth of his daughter. When she was taken away from him, he felt “moments of relief, flickers of love,” because “Ted seemed to recognize, Nelson said, that his wife and daughter would have a better life without him.”

In the end, I wouldn’t definitively argue that we don’t have a choice in anything. That’s a mindmelting wormhole I’m tentative to step into. It does seem, however, that we are bound significantly by forces beyond our control. Whether or not we receive love will have a massive influence on the course of our lives. The degree to which we feel valued will dramatically influence whether we lean towards life or death.

“This is a frightening conclusion to draw: that the actions and crimes and atrocities we so often call ‘inhuman’ do, in fact, belong to humanity, because they are committed by human beings.” All of us are infected with this thing, this ancient-sounding disease, “sin.” It’s our propensity to do the wrong thing, our capacity to inflict harm on the people around us. Why can’t we always do the thing we know is good?

If even psychopaths can be moved by love, the good news is, so can the rest of us. If even those of us who have done the most unspeakable things can be affected by grace, who can’t? This means, as the Proverbs say, that “love covers all wrongs.” This means, as Marshall says, “that those we call lost do not need to stay lost forever. It means that we, too, can be found.”

[1] I recently spent a terrifying weekend reading Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a true crime book about the Golden State killer. It’s super scary but strangely poignant also. Facts about the killer are peppered with personal reflections. McNamara writes, “animals in captivity would rather have to search for their food than have it given to them. Seeking is the lever that tips our dopamine gush.” She’s talking about the killer—his seeking, stalking, prowling—but also about herself, in her obsessive hunt to find his identity. Staying up late into the night, searching Google maps, skimming case files. “He was a compulsive prowler and searcher. We, who hunt him, suffer the same affliction. He peered through windows. I tap ‘return.’ Return. Return. Click Mouse click, mouse click.”