“Right now, I can still see the whole thing,” she says, “I can see him.”
Kathy Kleiner, 61, is referring to her last encounter with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, a man who confessed to the murders of 30 women, but is believed to have killed even more. In the summer of 1979, a year after Bundy almost killed her, she faced him at the Miami courthouse where he would later be sentenced to death. “I sat in the witness stand and Bundy was right there, sat at the defense table, as if he was in a TV drama," Kleiner tells me. "He had his elbow on the table and his head rested in his hands. The whole time I just looked at him, and he just stared [at] me back, I had so many feelings, but scared wasn’t one of them. I wanted him to know that he did not intimidate me.”
Currently living in New Orleans, Kleiner and I began chatting after I tweeted about her story earlier this year. A short while later, we spoke on the phone. Despite the distressing reason for our initial contact, speaking to Kleiner is a delight. She’s an upbeat, positive person who radiates compassion and strength. Over the next few weeks, we spent hours talking about her incredible life and, inevitably, the attack.
Bundy’s unwelcome intrusion into Kleiner’s life began when she was a student. She’d chosen to study at Florida State University (FSU) because it was furthest away from home. “My mom, being Cuban and Spanish, was very protective,” she explains. She chose Chi Omega because it was supposed to be the best sorority house on campus. “My sisters meant the world to me,” she remembers.
In the early hours of January 15, 1978, Bundy broke into the Chi Omega dormitory. Margaret Bowman, who was only 21 years old, did not survive the attack. Neither did Lisa Levy, 20. In Kleiner’s room, which she shared with sorority sister Karen Chandler, Bundy attacked the two women with a piece of firewood. He used such force that it tore a hole in Kleiner’s cheek and shattered her shoulder. Her jaw had to be wired shut and re-broken, and she spent nine weeks unable to eat anything that she couldn’t sip through a straw. She was 20 years old at the time. “Over the years,” she says, “I had to see my face in the mirror with the scar Bundy gave me. Now it’s just a part of me.” She still suffers discomfort in her jawbone and has surgery every few years when the pain becomes unmanageable.
Later that night, as Kleiner and her friends were being rushed to hospital, 21-year-old dance major Cheryl Thomas was attacked at a nearby location. She survived, but her injuries were so severe she had to abandon her dreams of being a professional dancer.
Bundy’s attack on the four sorority sisters lasted 15 minutes, but for the women and their families, the consequences are endless. “Margaret and Lisa really haunted me,” she says. Her sorority sisterhood ended after the attacks: Kleiner never went back to the Chi Omega house, staying with her family until she recovered. Over the years, she went on to have a varied career, working at a lumber yard, bank, and hospital.
Although Kleiner’s case is exceptional, around 35 percent of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence. We talk about this on the phone: The relationships, trauma, and hyper-vigilant tactics we use to protect ourselves when we sense a stranger walking too closely behind us. “That’s just the way it is for women right now,” Kleiner sighs.
Women are also at greater risk for developing adverse reactions to trauma: studies have shown they are almost twice as likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Psychotherapist and Clinical Director of the York Stress & Trauma Centre Matthew Cole explains that if someone develops PTSD after a traumatic event, this might lead to “frequent flashbacks, nightmares” and “intrusive thoughts.”
Kleiner was visited by two psychologists whilst she recovered in hospital in Tallahassee. After a couple of visits, they told her she seemed to be coping well and asked her if she needed them to come back. “I told them, you know, you’re the professionals here,” she laughs.
She never struggled much with her mental health after Bundy. “After the attack,” she recalls, “everyone told me I should be afraid of men.” So, Kleiner faced her fears head-on. She got out. The same year she was attacked by Bundy, the bank she worked at was robbed at gunpoint whilst she was serving the counter. She took the afternoon off and went back to work the next day. “What are the chances the bank would be robbed twice in a row?”
Cole tells me Kleiner’s attitude may be attributed to a psychological theory dubbed “Post-traumatic Growth” (PTG), in which people give meaning to a traumatic event that allows them to not only survive but thrive. Cole tells me that PTG can manifest in many ways: “Individuals have described profound changes in their view of relationships, how they view themselves, and their philosophy of life.”
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I ask Kleiner what she'd like to be remembered for. “I'd like to be known as someone who can make it through a lot of things.” She describes herself as a mama bear. Protective. A mean negotiator. “Plus,” she says, “I won’t take shit from anybody.” She doesn’t mention Bundy. “I knew I was attacked,” she says, “and I also knew I did not want to always be known as the victim”. She is not defined by that night.
Bundy, however, will always be defined by his crimes. After exhausting his appeals, Bundy was executed by electric chair on January 24, 1989. Hundreds of revelers celebrated outside the prison. They sold pin badges, drank beer, and set off fireworks. Kleiner watched the celebrations at home, on TV.
“I was glad Bundy has no control over how he died,” she says, “because he took control away from all those young women he killed.” Bundy, she believes, was motivated by control. And this is her main issue with the recent spate of media attention on his crimes.
Bundy is probably the most famous serial killer in the world, and his fame continues to grow: As seen with recent Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the much-hyped Sundance premiere of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, a fictionalized biopic starring Zac Efron. Kleiner doesn’t have a problem with true crime culture, she tell me, because she consumes it too: she’s watched all the documentaries about Bundy, and read all the books. But to her mind, the problem with most of these cultural products is that they reinforce the narrative that Bundy himself projected when he was alive.
By all accounts, Bundy was a narcissist with a desperate need to control his own image. A devious and manipulative person, Bundy created a myth of himself as charismatic, handsome, and smart: A myth that, arguably, still endures today. One of the most disturbing moments in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes takes place when Judge Edward Cowart, who presided over the Chi Omega trial, told Bundy in paternal tones that he would have made a “good lawyer.” Now dead for 30 years, almost every piece of media covering the Bundy story centers the mythology he helped create. There’s an undertone of flattery, and almost admiration, to it all. “Do you think he’d enjoy the attention,” I ask. Kleiner laughs. “Oh yes,” she says, “he’d love it.”
“People want to hear about the gore,” she continues, “but with the gore, there are also victims.” She worries the voices of the women Bundy killed have been forgotten. “We’re not part of the story for them.”
Kleiner tells me that she didn’t hear from any journalists or filmmakers until 2018, when CNN approached her about a documentary they were producing to mark 30 years since Bundy’s death. She was not asked to be a part of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. She also wasn't interviewed by Ann Rule, who wrote the bestselling 1980 Bundy biography The Stranger Beside Me—though she claims that Rule did send her an autographed mousepad.
Now, Kleiner wants to take back control. This is her story, too. “Bundy took me on a journey, one that I did not ask to go on, but now I am going to make it my journey. On this journey, I have taken back control of my life.”