Ted Bundy bludgeoned and almost killed me. I resolved he would not ruin my life

<span>‘In the first few weeks, I felt like this darkness was going to cover me up and consume me.’ … Kathy Kleiner in 1977.</span><span>Composite: Handout</span>
‘In the first few weeks, I felt like this darkness was going to cover me up and consume me.’ … Kathy Kleiner in 1977.Composite: Handout

When Kathy Kleiner was attacked by Ted Bundy, her life had just been opening out. A second-year student at Florida State University, 500 miles from home, she was living in a sorority house. She had her first boyfriend; she was taking all kinds of classes and picturing multiple possible futures – weather reporter, archaeologist, drama teacher, interior designer. “It was wonderful,” says Kleiner. “I was away from Mama, who had me in a protective bubble. I was having fun, going to parties, working when I had to! I was getting freedom.”

On a cold Saturday night in January 1978, she was in bed early. She had been to a wedding that day and had a calculus exam on the Monday. “I thought I should study a bit – or at least open a book.” Kleiner and her roommate, Karen Chandler, switched off the light and fell asleep well before midnight. “Then in the early hours, I heard our bedroom door,” she says. “I tried to wake up a little bit.”

Bundy, the serial killer, rapist, necrophiliac, failed law student, loner, drifter – or, as Kleiner sees it, “sad little man” – has been the subject of many books, films, documentaries, plays, even songs. You don’t hear so much from the people whose lives he detonated. Bundy’s killing spree – he murdered at least 30 women and girls between 1974 and 1978 – coincided with the start of criminal profiling; it was the decade that the term “serial killer” was first used by law enforcement. His trial was the first in the US to be nationally televised.

All this gave him a spotlight that has only shone brighter in the decades since – in the 2019 thriller Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, he was played by heart-throb Zac Efron. In popular culture, he has mythological status, a glamour and gloss never afforded to today’s serial killers and sex offenders. Meanwhile, his victims have been largely forgotten – and the few who survived, women such as Kleiner, have quietly found their own way forward.

On the night that he slipped into the Chi Omega sorority house where Kleiner lived, carrying a log that had been stacked outside for firewood, Bundy was on the run and on a rampage. Already the chief suspect in numerous murders across western states, he had been convicted of attempted kidnapping in Utah and charged with first-degree murder in Colorado, then escaped a small county jail and fled east to Tallahassee, Florida. The first bedroom he entered was next to Kleiner’s, and belonged to a student named Margaret Bowman. He bludgeoned then strangled her, slunk out and entered the room across the hall, where a student named Lisa Levy was sleeping. Bundy beat and strangled her too, then raped her, bit her (those teeth marks later helped convict him), and sexually assaulted her with a hairspray bottle. He still wasn’t finished. The next door he tried was Kleiner’s.

“He tripped over the little locker between our beds, and made a lot of noise,” says Kleiner. “I remember squinting into the dark, not wearing my glasses, and seeing this black shadow standing above me, looking at me. The next thing I see, he raises his arm up over his head and slams something down on my face. It’s weird because at first it just felt like a thud. It didn’t hurt.” That blow broke Kleiner’s jaw in three places and ripped open her cheek. The force made her bite her tongue so badly that it was barely attached. “At this point, my roommate stirred and he went to her side of the bed,” says Kleiner. “He lifted his arm and slammed the wood down on her face.” Kleiner was whimpering, trying and failing to shout. “I’m holding my face and it’s wet and sticky and all I’m doing is making gurgling sounds.”

Now the shadow returned to her, arms raised to land another blow. “I’d curled into a little ball, as small as I could be,” she says. “I just knew I was going to die.” That’s when the whole room was flooded with light, illuminated by the headlights of a car pulling up outside to drop someone home. (The curtains were never closed in Kleiner’s bedroom because she and Chandler loved the sunlight.) It spooked Bundy. Perhaps he feared the people in the car outside had seen him. It was enough to stop him.

Bundy left the building, heading straight to a basement apartment a few blocks away where he attacked a dance major called Cheryl Thomas. Back in the sorority house, Chandler was able to stumble from her room and get help. From there, Kleiner remembers drifting in and out of consciousness as chaos ensued. Her sorority sisters called emergency services; some looked into the blood-splattered bedroom and vomited. One – Kleiner can’t be sure who – stayed with her. She sat on the drenched covers, wrapped her arms around Kleiner and talked to her while they waited for help. It was a kind of tethering, reeling her back. “Her compassion was unforgettable,” she says. “It felt like I was going to be taken care of.”

In hospital for a week, Kleiner had the first of many surgeries on her jaw. (She is still having them now.) Her teeth were wired shut, and this, combined with her shredded tongue, meant she could barely speak. Kleiner only knew that she had been attacked. Her family judged that she was in no state to learn any more.

From hospital, Kleiner went home to Miami – but before she left Tallahassee, police wanted her to return to her bedroom and see if anything was missing, whether her attacker had taken a “souvenir”. “I couldn’t tell if anything was missing – I couldn’t even remember what had been there in the first place,” she says. She saw yellow tape around the doors belonging to Bowman and Levy – neither had survived – but her foggy brain barely registered it. “We went into my room. There was fingerprint dust and so much blood. My headboard, my bed cover, my mattress, the walls, all stained brown. I just looked and looked. It was horrifying but helpful. It gave me some clarity: so this is what happened.

“I walked away from that bed knowing I’d been in it, as small as a ball could be, and I was standing now. I was going to walk out the door away from all this and go somewhere better.”

Kleiner never returned to university. At home with her parents and sister, her life shrunk. “I have a Cuban mom and, like a lot of Cuban parents, her way was to sweep it under the rug. You don’t talk about your problems or let people know your business. You certainly don’t have therapy.” The focus was on physical healing, and her parents did their best to shield Kleiner from what had happened. It was weeks before she saw it on the news.

She devised her own kind of therapies. “In the first few weeks, I felt like this darkness was going to cover me up and consume me,” she says. “I was scared to look behind me because this terrible thing was right there, touching my shoulders.” Kleiner began to imagine a tiny desert island in the distance. “It had one palm tree and one little beach chair, and I wanted to get to that island. Every day, I’d take baby steps towards it.”

Each small pleasure helped. “One day, I’d do my nails or I’d sit outside with the sun on my face and look at the trees. Little goals to get me further away from the black swirling mass. I looked forward to my mouth being unwired, then had my first solid meal – scrambled eggs and ham. Then I went to the mall. I wasn’t just ‘pretending’ or ‘faking’ being happy. I was going there in my mind, knowing what I wanted for me, my parents and my sister – because they couldn’t be happy unless I was happy.”

“Exposure therapy” also helped. “I realised when I was out that I was uncomfortable around men I didn’t know,” she says. “I’d notice them from a distance or feel that someone was too close. I didn’t want to feel like that.” In March – just three months after her attack – Kleiner took a job as cashier in a lumberyard. “That’s where I thought I could see the most men in the shortest amount of time,” says Kleiner. “They never bothered me. They were just people. It worked. I was another step closer to that island.”

The life she had loved at FSU was over. Although she had called her sorority house, mumbling through her wired teeth, leaving messages to call her back, no one did. Now Kleiner can see that those students were young and traumatised too – and had been instructed not to exchange information in case they were accused of colluding in any future trial. At the time though, it felt like a cut-off, a complete rejection. (“They’re not really your ‘sisters’,” her mum would remind her. “You have a sister.”) Instead, it was decided that Kleiner would marry her boyfriend. “He was the first guy I’d dated. After the attack, my parents and his parents thought I needed to be taken care of,” she says. “I let it go ahead because they were enjoying it, my mum craved normalcy and I was enjoying it too. I got caught up in the invitations, picking the menu, tasting the cakes. It was fun. In a way, I needed that.” That summer of 1978, she married. “In six months, I’d totally turned my life into something else.”

Meanwhile, Bundy had been arrested. Soon after her honeymoon, Kleiner was called to Tallahassee to testify before a grand jury in pre-trial proceedings, where it would be decided whether charges should advance. It was the first time that she had really seen him. “Bundy was sitting at the end of a long conference table and I sat at the other end,” she says. “By then, I knew his history, the case they were building. I wasn’t scared. He was a non-thing. He’s remembered as handsome but he was just an average person – you’d pass him by. He was sitting there, impatient, arrogant, like a bored middle manager, like we were wasting his time.”

The following year, Bundy stood trial for the murders of Bowman and Levy, and the attempted murders of Kleiner, Chandler and Thomas. Kleiner gave evidence. “I wore a bright red dress and I walked in confidently,” she says. “I was asked what happened to me that night and about my injuries. I was asked if this was the man who allegedly attacked me and I had to say: ‘I don’t know.’” Still, Bundy was found guilty on all counts, and sentenced to death.

The fiction that has built around Bundy has been hard for Kleiner to stomach. “He wasn’t an ‘evil genius’ or a brilliant legal mind,” she says. His grades were, at best, mediocre; he took eight years to get his first degree, then failed at two law schools. He had never rented anything bigger than a single room in a boarding house. He didn’t rely on good looks and charm to lure victims into danger (no one says Fred West charmed his victims into 25 Cromwell Street). Maybe some women were programmed to “be kind” and suppress their instincts when he approached on crutches, or with an arm in a sling to ask for assistance. The majority, though, were bludgeoned from behind as they walked alone, or, like Kleiner, in their beds while they slept. “At some point, it became really important to separate out the truth, and I had to do a lot of reading on psychology to know what he was,” she says. “And now I know.”

Her life filled out. She enjoyed her career as a hospital buyer. She had a son, Michael. Her marriage ended after six years because, she says, she “married for the wrong reasons”. Later though, she married for the right reasons – she has been with Scott Rubin, a professor in neuroscience, for more than 35 years. Rubin’s career meant living in various southern states – Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana (they were in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina). They are now retired, based back in southern Florida, living close to their grandchildren. The two of them loved to sail boats and ride Harley-Davidsons. There have been difficult times too. Kleiner suffered miscarriages and survived breast cancer, but at 66, she considers herself lucky. She reached that desert island with the palm tree. “I’ve sat on that chair with my toes in the sand.”

Though she had thought of writing her story years ago, Kleiner put it off. “I didn’t want to live in the past,” she says. “I wanted Michael to enjoy his childhood. I wanted to be the mom who made cupcakes and had pool parties and birthday parties and watched his baseball game.” Only in the past few years has she really shared what happened. In October 2023, her book, A Light in the Dark, was published.

Michael was 37 when he learned it all. “He’d read an interview and called me,” she says. “I’d never hidden it. When he was little, he’d asked about the scars on my face and I’d said that a bad man had hit me one night. I answered questions when he had them but I didn’t want his childhood haunted by Bundy. When he phoned, his voice was shaking and he was shocked. He said: ‘Mum, you seemed so normal.’ And that’s exactly what I wanted. I told him: ‘I still am.’”

• A Light in the Dark is published by Chicago Review Press

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