Notorious 1970s Serial Killer Reduced to Nose-Picking Incel in New Novel

“I think any woman who was approached by him was like, something’s off with this guy,” Jessica Knoll told Jezebel of her inspiration for Bright Young Women.

Notorious 1970s Serial Killer Reduced to Nose-Picking Incel in New Novel
Graphic:Jezebel Graphics/Shutterstock/State Archive of Florida

Jessica Knoll’s third novel, Bright Young Women, isn’t just a story based on Ted Bundy’s string of horrific murders…it rewrites the entire narrative around the notorious 1970s serial killer. Specifically, Bright Young Women is told through the eyes of Bundy’s victims—a perspective that’s been effectively ignored, beginning when one newspaper in 1978 described him as “Kennedy-esque” and persisting up until one streaming platform in 2019 cast Zac Efron to play him. The book is 376 pages, and Knoll doesn’t write the words “Ted Bundy” one single time.

“Once I started researching him and his crimes, I realized we’d gotten the story wrong,” Knoll told Jezebel. “I think any woman in her right mind who was approached by him was like, something’s off with this guy.”

But since we know so little about Bundy’s dozens of victims, Knoll invented their worlds herself. The timelines and causes of death are all true, but Knoll’s main characters—Pamela, Denise, Tina, and Ruth—are (mostly) not. Denise is murdered in a sorority house at Florida State University at the beginning of the novel (set in 1978). Her best friend Pamela is the only eyewitness, which quickly attracts Tina—a rich widow whose own best friend, 20-something Ruth, went missing years before. Through them, we learn tons of little side facts about the time period, all seemingly meant to punctuate the bullshit of Bundy’s real-life victims being all but erased from their own stories. For example, we learn the story of Frank Tucker, the district attorney in Aspen, Colorado, who was partly to blame for one of Bundy’s escapes…and who was later charged with embezzlement of public funds that he used to pay for his mistress’s abortion. Or, my personal favorite, the story behind 19th-century wearing blankets made by Navajo women.

That story found its way into the book through Denise, a lively and dedicated art history major who had a job lined up with Salvador Dalí after graduation—and a piece of a Navajo wearing blanket hanging about her bed. That detail is eventually revealed by Pamela, the type-A sorority president who’s convinced herself she wants to attend a small law school in Florida that her boyfriend got into, instead of Columbia Law, which only she got into. Pamela spends the novel oscillating between the past and the present, working to ensure the killer’s conviction and revealing pieces of Denise’s life throughout:

I thought about that weaving hanging about Denise’s bedroom wall in Jacksonville…It was a scrap from a Navajo wearing blanket and you could tell that the woman who made it did so under duress, Denise once explained to me. See the radio patterns of the lines? She’d pointed them out, rising and falling hard horizontally, creating a chaotic diamond series. The shapes only started to appear in the mid-nineteenth century, when Hispanic families in the southwest captured and enslaved Navajo women and children. The textiles were valuables and the women were forced to create them for their captive family’s profit. In a show of defiance, they invented a new loom sequencing meant to communicate that these weavings were not made by choice.

But in a book that reduces Bundy to a “run-of-the-mill incel whom I caught picking his nose in the courtroom. More than once,” it’s impossible to choose just one historical anecdote to highlight. With every turn of the page, there’s a snarky exchange, enraged revelation about how society treats women, or biting takedown of the idiot men who always seem to have all the power. Knoll sat down with Jezebel to talk about unresolved grief, watching morbid things, and the bumbling policing that let Bundy get away. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: This was a triumph. You rewrote history.

Jessica Knoll: My job here is done.

One thing that stuck out to me was how you had Pamela tell all these little anecdotes, side stories almost, of the Navajo women and Tucker the Fucker. Did you already have those stories in mind?

Image:S&S/Marysue Rucci Books

It just is the byproduct of living with this story for as long as I did and how challenging it was, personally, for me to write. It did feel like such a big undertaking. This is a story that’s been already enshrined in history, so if I’m going to add my voice to the mix, I better have something different to say. Because obviously this story’s been told so many times, but always from the same perspective.

So it was a bit of a mindfuck at times, where I would have those moments where I really got down on myself, like, you bit off more than you can chew. During all of that, I was desperate for inspiration anywhere I could get it. Denise is obviously an art student, so I wanted to immerse myself in the art world in a way…as an art student would see it. I think right before I went to Tallahassee, I was in New York and I went to the MET one day and I came upon an exhibition of weavings by Navajo women, and I ended up reading all the plaques about it. Anytime I would read something like that, that felt of the time to these women, I wanted to try and give it a place in the story.

I saw on your TikTok that you ordered a bunch of magazines from the ‘70s.

I wanted to get one from each of the big titles at the time, so I think I had a McCall’s that had Sophia Loren on the cover, with her baby. Oh my god, the way it was written, she was like an old mom because she was like, 41 or something.

That’s still kind of how we talk about it today.

When I keep saying not much has changed, that’s probably an example. I have a McCall’s, I got a Cosmo obviously, because I used to work at Cosmo. The coolest thing about Cosmo is it included a little booklet called The Bedside Astrologer, and I edited that when I worked there in 2009. There is a mention [in the book] of Denise’s horoscope for the month she died, and that’s from the 1978 Cosmo that I ordered.

In your acknowledgments, you mention the book The Myth of Closure. Did that inspire Tina?

The Myth of Closure was another thing that came to me during the time I was working on this. Pauline Boss pioneered this technique when it comes to unresolved grief—it’s something that she came up with in the ‘60s or ‘70s to describe the particular type of stress that wives of fighter pilots in the Vietnam War felt when their husbands never came home, their remains were never found, and they didn’t know whether they should have a funeral or not, because maybe they could still be alive. And how do you go through the grieving process when you don’t even know if you should be grieving?

It was interesting because at the time, psychiatry wasn’t really looking at any stressors that were particular to things women were experiencing. And Boss, who was really a pioneer in her field, her teachings kind of regained popularity around the pandemic. That’s how I came to know her, because the New York Times profiled her, because The Myth of Closure and this idea of how ambiguous grief could be applied to the pandemic. It’s really to describe when all the rituals that we as humans have developed around death are denied to us and how that can really obstruct you from moving through the grieving process and getting to a place where you can accept it and live with this pain in a way where you still have a good life.

I thought, oh my god, that’s extraordinary, I can’t believe no one’s talked about this in terms of sexual assault. Because a lot of sexual assault survivors, they are told that what happened to them wasn’t sexual assault, and they were somehow complicit in what happened. So that kind of grieving is obstructed too, because the thing you’re trying to grieve and process, you’re told isn’t even a thing that happened. It spoke to me so personally, and I was like, this absolutely applies to Tina, who lost her best friend, her loved one, but they never found the remains of Ruth.

I loved Pamela, but Tina’s character was so powerful.

She was a wish-fulfillment character for me. A bit of an older sister with wisdom, money, and status, who would come in and be like, “This is what you’re going to do, and I’m going to tell you how it’s going to be, and I’m going to be here for you to help you through it.” I think I would have loved a figure like Tina in my life when I was younger.

I’m familiar with Luckiest Girl Alive [Knoll’s first novel, about a writer who’s forced to confront her traumatic high school experience, including being gang-raped by classmates; Knoll eventually revealed that this happened to her when she was 15]. Was writing Bright Young Women hard based on that past? Or was there a level of healing to it?

I think when I set out to write the book, what compelled me was the idea that, once I started researching Bundy and his crimes, I realized we’d gotten the story wrong. I don’t wanna call it my Achilles heel, because ultimately it emboldens me to be able to write and create, I feel very agitated when I feel like we’ve gotten the story wrong, because that’s 100% what happened to me in my real life and that’s how I was able to write Luckiest Girl with so much fervor and passion. I was like, “You fuckers got this wrong and I’m going to tell you how it really went.” I felt a similar flame inside me when I realized we’d gotten this story wrong.

I knew about the myth around Bundy, but now that you’ve done all this research, where do you think it started? Was it the New York Times calling him “Kennedy-esque” in 1978, was it the press just building him up…?

“I think any woman in her right mind who was approached by Bundy was like, something’s off with this guy.”

I don’t know if you can really identify the one thing that kicked this all into gear. It was almost a conspiracy with many different parties involved. I think you have the police in Colorado, who were responsible for letting him get away twice, and what that meant for their reputation, and how it behooved them to lean into what he was presenting about himself, which was that he was so smart and wily. They could say, “We’ve never seen a criminal mastermind like him, it’s not that we were negligent, it’s that he’s almost not human. He’s one in a million.”

Really, the way he was able to escape in Colorado was, the guard who was supposed to be watching him in Aspen stepped outside to have a cigarette and let him roam the law library free of shackles. And he jumped and got out.

All idiots.

All idiots. Then the sheriff was warned multiple times by prison guards that he’s not touching his food, he’s getting really thin, and he’s messing around with the [ceiling] tiles above. The sheriff was just like, oh, nothing will ever happen. Then he got away and three people lost their lives because of it.

I do think the last piece of that is, there weren’t very many female perspectives in the newsroom. I don’t think from a malicious point of view any of the reporters who were telling the story were like, women were so smitten with him. I just don’t think there were women around to be like, actually, he posed as injured and asked women for help, and by all accounts, they didn’t want to help him. They were annoyed or they got a weird vibe off him, but they felt bad for him and didn’t know how to say no.

The way you didn’t name Bundy, it was kind of cathartic…especially how you described him as an incel, how he picked his nose, how he’s a toddler.

One of the survivors from the FSU attack, when I interviewed her very early on, she was the one who said to me that if you really looked at him, he wasn’t that good-looking. That put things in a clear perspective for me, because I was thinking about this guy we went to college with. Initially when we saw him, we were all like, “Oh my god, he’s so cute.” Then my friend had a weeeeird encounter with him, and after that, I could never see him as attractive again because he was just a weirdo. Bundy 100% fell into that category where he wasn’t ugly, but I think that he had blacked-out eyes, he was awkward, he was fake, he put on a phony accent. I think any woman in her right mind who was approached by him was like, something’s off with this guy.

Even hearing that description again, I immediately have someone that comes to mind.

Right, where if you just saw them on the street, you’d be like, that’s a good-looking person. But just talking to them for one minute, you’re like, there’s something off with that person and I would not give them my phone number.

One more question: The “forensics of decomposition” that’s mentioned, was that part of the actual investigation or did you create that storyline?

That was not part of the investigation but that is a real department, and it is something that potentially could help cold cases. I don’t know if it’s so advanced as to be able to pick up on remains as many years after as I made it in my book, but, for now, 10 years after? Yes, they’re able to see that.

How did you come across that?

Most people would be like, “You read and watch the most morbid things,” but they don’t feel morbid to me. I’m always trying to make sense of the violence that happened to me, the violence I know that’s happened to others I know. So I find it to be soothing or comforting when I’m able to make sense of something that’s otherwise illogical and hugely disorientating and changes the course of your life. So, who knows, probably in one of my late-night scrollings I came across that somewhere.

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