(originally published on November 20, 2017)
Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were faced in a life or death situation? Do you ever watch movies based on true stories about murderers and find yourself thinking, “How could he/she be so stupid to be in that situation in the first place?” I’m about to share with you an interview I did with a very brave and courageous woman who, after being repeatedly raped, was able to escape the horrifying situation before it turned deadly. This survivor’s name is Rhonda Stapley, and she was able to escape the hands of the serial killer Ted Bundy before it was too late.
I ask you to read Rhonda’s words with an open heart and mind. It’s so easy for us to judge others when it comes to various situations and think what we would have done differently, but the truth is, not one of us will ever know for sure what we would actually do in a situation like that unless it were to actually happen.
The heartbreaking thing is, not only was Rhonda caught in that ordeal herself, but she had to quietly suffer in secret for years. In this interview, you’ll learn about that horrifying night in which she almost lost her life, her years suffering from PTSD in silence, and her courage to write her book; plus many more facts that are important to know about Rhonda and her story.
One of the many things I hope you take away from this interview is to never just assume that the victim is lying. Victim shaming has been part of our culture for far too long. In order for them to heal properly, never, ever, assume they’re trying to get attention. I cannot tell you how damaging that is.
I’m not asking you to feel sorry for Rhonda, but to look at this interview as both a cautionary tale and how this wonderful woman is a true survivor. I believe that by her speaking out and by writing her book about her experience, she will no doubt save many lives. In fact, she most likely already has.
So, enough from me. Here is my interview with Rhonda Stapley:
1. First of all, I want to thank you for doing this interview. I would like to start by asking you about the moment he pulled up in his bug and offered you a ride by to campus. You said that the bus you were waiting for was late and you accepted a ride from Bundy because he seemed nice-and I understand why your point entirely. After your horrific experience with Bundy, was it hard to accept rides from anyone unless you 100% knew them due to your PTSD?
I had never experienced any type of criminal behavior up to that point. I had complete trust in everyone and never had reason fo have suspicion, much less fear. My world changed forever on that day. After my encounter with the devil, I initially withdrew from everyone. I stopped going to social events, church, even many classes. I became very self-reliant. I learned to drive my own car in city traffic. I learned ways to get where I needed to be without anyone’s help or I just simply didn’t go. Years later, when the flashback part of PTSD was happening, I nearly stopped riding in cars all together, unless I had to. It didn’t matter who was driving. I think the reason for my fear of cars so long after the event has to do with the car being the FIRST place I actually felt fear and panic. My mind decided “all cars are darn scary and they will all crash and burn” instead of “the monster that drove that one car years ago was dangerous.”
Of course, I over educated my children about accepting rides with strangers. Today I am cautious, but truth is that I have arranged my life so there is hardly ever a situation where I would need to have a ride from other people.
2. After you were sadly raped by Bundy, was it hard to trust another man afterwards-your husband included?
Absolutely! I still have trust issues. There were times after the assault where I would not go out with any guy because, well… you just never know! Then there were times when I would go out with really low life guys because my self-image had been shattered and it seemed like nothing mattered anyway. Those two extremes pretty much summed up my life for a few years and I am sure many of my dates were confused by my sudden changes of heart. My husband was, somehow, different. He seemed honest and sincere and kind right from the get go. He had a huge dog that didn’t like me that I was more afraid of than I was of Barry.
3. When you got back to your dorm room, were you able to sleep that night? Were you able to process any of what had happened?
On the long walk back my room I made up my mind that I would never tell anyone what had happened and just put it out of my mind and never think of it again. First I bathed over and over. Then I slept….. really deeply asleep…. possibly because I was exhausted and possibly because sleep was a way to avoid thinking about what had happened. Then I started doing exactly what I had promised myself to do. I pretended all was fine and dandy. I never attempted to process any of those emotions and just forced my mind not to go there.
4. After that horrible night, you said that you wanted to move on with your life because you felt ashamed and were worried about how people would treat you. How hard was it over the years to see countless documentaries on him? Did any of the media attention help you come to terms with the experience, or were you just hoping to leave it behind?
On the outside I tried leaving it all behind. Not many knew that I purchased every book and read every article about Ted Bundy. Inside, I had a need to learn all I could about him. The more I learned, the worse my opinion of him became. There was no way to get my head around the fact that someone who seemed so “normal” could do such horrible things. Making sense of what happened felt important to me but, of course, there was no way to explain his murderous mind.
As far as shame and worrying about what others might think of me, in the beginning I felt certain that the assault on me was an isolated incident. I was dealing only with my personal loss of confidence and self-worth. Weeks later, when more women were missing and bodies were being found in canyons, the shame grew because I feared everyone would blame me for not telling sooner. Then after Bundy was arrested and safely in jail, I still could not tell because then I feared people would not believe me. “I was attacked by that guy who killed those women.” Sure you were! Lying attention seeker!
5. Tough subject, do you have any thoughts on Bundy’s final interview? Did his execution provide you any relief?
I was hugely disappointed in his last interview. I really wanted him to fess up and let the families of the missing victims find the remains. I felt angry that he accepted no blame and said pornography caused his behavior. While I feel that porn in not healthy for anyone, if it directly created serial killers there would be tons and tons of them. Not everyone who watches evil things becomes evil. There had to be something else wrong in his upbringing or his brain to allow him to be so cold and uncaring.
I looked forward to his execution. I don’t know what I expected to feel when he was finally gone, but what I felt was just a very heavy sadness. The fact that one human being could intentionally cause so much pain for so many people and not show remorse or try in any way at all to make things even the tiniest bit better was unbelievable. So much pain and so much suffering made me wonder why God would allow one young man to continue as long as Bundy did. At least he was gone! I no longer needed to worry that he would escape again.
6. You said that you dealt with a bully of a boss in 2011 who reminded you of Bundy, and that’s what convinced you to seek therapy. How hard was it to revisit those memories? What was your overall experience with therapy? How did your family react when you told them what happened?
When my boss raged at me with the same level of anger and the same tone and vocal inflections and even many of the exact words that Bundy had used against me all those years ago as I lie on the ground in the canyon crying and begging for my life, all of those emotions that I had never faced came vividly alive for me. I had nightmares and flashbacks and panic attacks. I had insomnia, chills, physical pain. I knew that whatever was happening had to be due to that long ago experience. I thought I was going crazy. I knew about PTSD and was pretty sure that was what I was dealing with. I studied up on it as much as I could and everything I read said that you need to talk about the experience in order to heal the emotional injuries. My family still had no clue about my history and I didn’t know how to tell them, that was why I decided to find a therapist who is legally and ethically bound to keep my secrets.
Revisiting those memories was horrible. I could not have done it without a therapist guiding me. The story came out in short gushes over many sessions. I wanted to tell it quickly and get my life fixed as I believed from my research that was the best way to do it. I would start out telling it quickly and try to rush through it, but then I would skip over much of it. The result was I had to tell it and retell it and retell it many times before I finally got all the pieces out. I found that each time I told it is was an itsy bitsy bit easier.
The therapist encouraged me to share at least part of my story with my family. My husband surprised me by not really “getting” what was going on. He said, “That was a long long time ago. Just get over it!” My daughters were more supportive. I kept it secret from my mother and siblings until the book deal was complete and I had airline tickets to the Dr. Phil Show. I thought it best to tell them before I went on television. They have been supportive. Most of my fears of what would happen if and when I told my family were totally unfounded and I am glad they know. Although, I still believe I made the right choice not to tell them years ago.
7. In addition to therapy, you had a secret online pen pal that you were able to talk to who had also had a brief encounter with Bundy. Did she go through similar feelings such as yours? (PTSD, shame, guilt?) Do you still talk to her?
My Secret Pal probably saved my life. I started talking with her months before I started therapy, when I was positive that I could deal with PTSD by myself because I had dealt with all the Bundy crap by myself all these years. She pointed out that I hadn’t actually dealt with any of it and that I really neaded to start healing with someone who understands PTSD. Her experience with Ted Bundy was not nearly as intense as mine, but she told me she still shudders whenever she thinks about it. I have never met her in real life, just as an email and Facebook friend. We exchange Christmas gifts. I would love to meet her someday.
8. You had been quietly suffering from PTSD for many years before you saw a therapist. I’m deeply sorry to hear that you went through that. How have you been able to handle your PTSD since entering therapy and what advice do you have to others that have it as well? Does it still affect you today?
I am sure that I had PTSD most of the time since my Bundy encounter, but other than a few bumpy years immediately following the attack, I managed to ignore all those symptoms. I never forgot what happened, I just refused to let my mind go to the place where those memories were stored. In therapy, I gained the courage to take a look and revisit those memories and re-experience the fear and the pain. I also learned coping skills and tricks to pull my brain back into the present during those times when flashbacks or panic attacks tried to force me into the past. I learned to trust myself again (still working on that) and have eliminated the self-loathing feelings I carried for years. Today I am healthy and happy. My life is going well. My family is close and I have received an enormous amount of support and positive strokes from people who have read my book or seen my interviews. I am so happy that I finally let go of this long kept secret and I want others with PTSD to feel empowered to find a way to share their personal stories. Everyone doesn’t need to write a book, but I really think everyone needs to find someone they can open up and release their bottled up emotional pain.
9. Ann Rule’s publisher put your book out. How did it feel when Ann Rule herself do the forward to it?
Having Ann Rule write the forward for my book has been an amazing blessing for me. She has always been my secret hero and her true crime books led the way in telling the stories of the victims and not just the criminals. She wrote The Stranger Beside Me about Ted Bundy. She knew him personally and having her authenticate my story is truly a gift.
10. I am so glad that you wrote your book. I am confident that it will save lives for years to come. (I also don’t doubt for a minute that it has already.) What advice would you give to anyone who has survived being attacked?
First I would want to tell them that a sexual assault is NEVER the victims fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, how late at night you were out, if you had been partying, drinking, walking alone. It is not your fault.
Next I would encourage them to report it. Telling could help prevent it from happening to someone else. (Trust me… the guilt from not telling is horrendous if something does happen to someone else!). In addition, telling is the single best way to make sure you don’t set yourself up for PTSD at some future point in your life. It is well known and documented now that holding emotional pain inside and never dealing with those injuries is one of the main risk factors for developing PTSD. This is why police and fire fighters are required to receive professional counselling after they help with a traumatic call. This is why team of psychologists are sent to sites of school shootings and natural disasters. They hope to be able to talk to as many survivors and witnesses as possible in order to prevent future PTSD cases from happening.
I am so pleased to see the recent news accounts of women finally coming forward and reporting abuse that happened to them. Women have been silent for far too long. We will never be able to eliminate it all together, but one way to make abuse and assault start to become less frequent is by victims making a lot of noise and letting would be perpetrators know we are not going to silently let this continue.
Thank you so much Rhonda for allowing me to interview you. This has been one of the biggest highlights of my career as a writer and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to speak with you.
I also want to encourage you all to read the interview she did with Cracked.com. It’s a well done interview and I honestly believe that you will find it to be a great article as well.
Thank you again, Rhonda. You are not only an inspiration to many, many people, but to me as well.