Bundy and Oswald:

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  • Author Robert Depaolo
  • Published September 21, 2022
  • Word count 3,473

Bundy and Oswald:

Murder, Psychopathology, and the Compensation Dynamic

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses psychological factors behind the acts of two of the most notorious killers in American history: Theodore Robert Bundy and Lee Harvey Oswald. While the details and scope of their actions differed, it appears the psychological roots of their violent tendencies were similar, if not identical. With that in mind it seemed appropriate to discuss their acts in a psychodynamic, rather than historical or legal context.

This article discusses psychological factors behind the acts of two of the most notorious killers in American history: Theodore Robert Bundy and Lee Harvey Oswald. While the details and scope of their actions differed, it appears the psychological roots of their violent tendencies were similar, if not identical. With that in mind it seemed appropriate to discuss their acts in a psycho dynamic, rather than historical or legal context.

Two Assassins….

Despite volumes of written material, congressional. Testimony and recently released, declassified documents little is known about Lee Harvey Oswald's actual reason for murdering john Kennedy. Indeed, a review of all the material written about him, including investigators to those who knew him renders Oswald somewhat enigmatic. Many have asked whether he alone killed JFK. Theories typically reference ostensible involvement with Cuba, the Mafia, the CIA and people who nowadays might be referred to as members of the deep state. Few have asked why he killed the president and still fewer have inquired whether his violent act could have been predicted or prevented through an accurate enough understanding of his personality dynamics.

Oswald appeared to be two distinct people living two separate lives. As depicted in author Priscilla McMillan’s book Marina and Lee, his wife Marina described him as a loner with few acquaintances who seldom interacted with co-workers, seemed aloof - even during his stint in the marines, and as being so caught up in the turmoil of his tumultuous relationship with Marina (which waxed hot and cold, and featured physical abuse, fits of rage, intense jealousy and Lees' constant attempts to alternately dote on and control Maria that one might assume he had little time to hang out with CIA operatives, visit various foreign consulates, switch impulsively his allegiance between Russia and the USA and get involved in plans with other members of the anti-Castro movement to plan the assassination of JFK.

It's not as if Oswald was a vagabond father. He was attentive, present, and constantly trying to find work to support his family. He moved between Minsk, New Orleans, and Dallas to find greener pastures, and worked very hard to re-ingratiate himself to his wife who asked him to leave the home on several occasions.

One could therefore ask the question of whether it was even possible for him to have the time or singular task orientation to cohort with rebels, Mafia figures and CIA personnel amidst all this economic strife and marital discord. Indeed, according to his wife Marina Lee seldom left the home, presumably because he was far too jealous and controlling to be away for too long

It wasn't just Marina stating this. She befriended Ruth Paine, who spoke Russian, lived with the Oswalds in her home and was witness to the goings-on at the time. Her description of life with the Oswalds was consistent with that of Marina. In her opinion Lee was marginal, socially awkward, uncertain of himself, extremely controlling and hyper-vigilant when it came to Marina.

That was one version of Lee Harvey Oswald. Another version cropped up in documents. Some of which were used to support tenuous conspiracy theories, but nonetheless suggested Lee had another side. These sources suggest he was involved with people of intrigue, that he did engage in plans to train alongside anti-Castro rebels, that he did travel to Mexico a few weeks before the assassination with a sponsor and that he was part of an assassination plot - thus his contention of being a patsy after his arrest in Dallas. To date, no one has really been able to resolve this apparent conflict between the two Lees - the key question revolving around time; specifically, how Oswald could have found time to be both a suspicious, controlling husband and world traveler who interacted with CIA operatives?

The feeling here is that there is no conflict, that there was only one Lee Harvey Oswald. He was a man who sought solace in fleeting interactions with political types and revolutionaries in response to bouts with insecurity that were fostered by marital discord and general frustration over his lot in life.

One of more curious aspects of the assassination is that Oswald’s feelings for JFK present a paradox. He expressed admiration for the president to his friend (yet another alleged CIA operative) named de George Mohrenschildt. This was understandable since Lee and JFK had similar views. Oswald was angry over the oppression of blacks and the downtrodden. JFK sent the national guard to Mississippi on behalf of James Meredith when the latter was prevented from attending the University of Mississippi. JFK was intelligent and charming and both Lee and Marina were impressed by that. JFK was of course anti-Castro whereas Oswald created a fair play for Cuba organization in New Orleans. On the other hand, Oswald is said to have associated and trained with anti-Castro rebels in a CIA sponsored training camp in Louisiana. Beyond that, Oswald attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker for his right wing extremist views and JFK ended up firing the general for the same reason. Therefore, one could argue both Oswald and JFK were on similar ideological tracks. If so, then why murder a president with whom one had no core argument?

That might be the most pressing question regarding the assassination. The suggestion here is that the act of murdering JFK had nothing to do with politics but was the result of a personality dynamic run amuck, and one that has fomented similar acts of violence throughput the course of history. It was an extreme attempt to sustain and/or create an integrative, functional self-system.

For all the clinical personality theories espoused over time there are really two core factors involved in the development, stability and maintenance of the self (an internal process that maintains intrapsychic stasis with obvious neurological correlates) and adapting to the demands of the external environment.

Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that the self-system holds us all together, serves as reference point for all that we do and feel. Therefore, self-systemic stability is a very significant factor one’s actions. Since two factors appear to drive human behavior: the task of adapting to the outside environment to secure approval, meet needs, fit in socially and attain some level of control, and the task of holding the personality in a state of stability. In other words, human experience is intrapsychic as well socially interactive and external.

Most of the time, for most people there is a congruence between external need attainment and internal stasis- simply because in a normal personality social success tends to create internal contentment However, for some people the internal apple cart can be so upset that an inordinate focus on self-stabilization dwarfs external, moral considerations. This dynamic is the seedbed from which springs the sociopathic personality.

Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy to restore stability to his psyche. JFK’s policies and actions didn’t matter. What did matter was Oswald’s disrupted self-system, fostered by lack of a father figure as a stabilizing source of identification, a neurotic mother who sought greatness in Lee while at the same time berating him for his lack of achievement and a level of insecurity and identity confusion so profound that he could rapidly drift from belief in socialism to disdain for that very same political system. In the final analysis it was not about politics, economics, Edwin Walker or John Kennedy. It was always about Oswald. The assassination attempts, the threat to reveal secrets to the Russians about spy planes, the ostensible alliance with Cuba, the back- and-forth allegiances between the USA and Russia were all self-sustaining mechanisms writ large.

Therefore, ultimate resolution to the Oswald/Kennedy episode can best be found by exploring his personality structure.

Another person who shares that same dynamic was serial killer Ted Bundy. Like Oswald, he was somewhat of an enigma. Various theories have been proposed as to why he killed so many young women and preadolescents yet demonstrate sensitivity and kindness and live an apparently normal life.

The most prominent theory suggested his kills were a reaction to rejection by a woman named Stephanie Brooks, even though it was clear that Bundy’s sociopathic tendencies began much earlier — possibly at the age of three, when he planted a circular array of knives in the bed of his aunt Julia in order to create a fearful reaction (an early example of a tendency to sneak up on women to frighten them that persisted throughout his adult life).

Like Oswald, Ted Bundy seemed to lead a double life; one as an extreme, socially detached, vindictive introvert who in his own words could not connect with people, the other as a charming, glib individual whom some pegged as future governor of the state of Washington.

The polarities and changeable characteristics of both men make it difficult to gain an understanding of why they acted as they did and what, in a psycho-theoretical sense they had in common.

One common factor was that both seemed to be acting in ways that sustained or restored self-equilibrium and in that sense were not living two separate lives. Oswald’s flirtations with seedy characters and secretive organizations were totally in line with his insecurities. When the socially detached, vengeful Bundy killed women it resulted from the same motive that enabled him to endear himself to people. His self-equilibrium was so disrupted that gaining approval through charm and avoiding rejection through murderous control were two sides of the same coin. (Having sex with dead women who could not reject him and whose posthumous passivity provided him a kind of acceptance by default.

Still, despite the common goal of restoring self-equilibrium the actions of Oswald and Bundy were obviously extreme. The question of why someone would veer so far in the direction of self-focus as to feel no remorse for destroying others is not difficult to answer.

The Systemic Self…

To understand atypical. Extreme behavior it is necessary to look beyond external causation, and in the case of both men it appears external factors played only a minimal role in their actions. Certainly, Bundy had great difficulty handling rejection, indeed suffered panic reactions whenever any of his lovers seemed interested in other men. Meanwhile, Oswald was a political fanatic who, to compensate for his internal misery constantly sought some version of Utopia, usually through a belief in socialism. However, the scattered nature of their attitudes and feelings suggests the outside world was largely irrelevant, that Bundy’s hate for women was not the point, and that Oswald’s passion for socialism was not central in his emotional makeup. Under such circumstances one must look within, that is, to the personality structure of both men which, as it turns out were quite similar.

One place to begin is with lack of a father figure. In terms of both child development and statistical analysis it seems apparent that a boy without a father is a building without a foundation and that without a father figure psychological collapse is predictable. Studies bear this out. Male children from fatherless homes are much more likely to engage in criminal activity (Harper & MClanahan 2004). They are also more prone to suicide attempts, to engage in substance abuse and to do poorly in school (Friedman, Murphy 1998).

Having a father serves many developmental purposes — especially for a male child. For one thing it provides a template for attitudes. Emotions and behaviors. Even if a child eventually rebels against a father figure — for example in adolescence, he is doing so in terms of a specific set of values and actions that were exhibited by a father figure. Whether a male child respects, loves or rejects his father there is a structure in place, thus a guide by which to gauge and confirm the probity of his actions and feelings. Without a “paternal map” the male child will tend to meander throughout life, perhaps engaging in impulsive trial and error adaptations in the search for identity. That search does not always turn out badly.

Some fatherless boys become priests, scientists, and teachers. However, the random nature of that search will make a boy susceptible to influences that are anti-social, extreme, and ultimately pathological.

Neither Oswald nor Bundy had a true father figure. Bundy was illegitimate. His only male authority figure - his volatile grandfather Sam Cowell, (whom he was told was his father) died when he was young. Oswald’s father died early in his life as well. In that sense both men were adrift from the outset.

That dynamic made them vulnerable to psychopathology. In effect, lack of a male role model and an emotional/behavioral template made extreme behavior not only possible but likely.

In addition to the identity vacuum created by lack of a father figure, another factor comes into play. Having a father figure means having an authority figure to whom a young boy must defer. That doesn’t mean boys reject a mother’s authority. It does mean a paternal influence can carry more weight for a boy. That in turn means a boy with a strong father figure will learn the precious skill of deference. He will not tend to adopt super-dominant values, behaviors, and emotions, and consequently will not come to view people as inferior and deserving of domination. Having been in effect dominated himself (hopefully within the context of a loving relationship) he will not usually view people as uniformly either weak or strong. Left to his own devices, the fatherless boy will not develop that highly adaptive sense of “interactive diplomacy”, i.e. ability to compromise nor the capacity to consider the viewpoint and feelings of others

One byproduct of that can be narcissism, which is often described as a disregard for others and obsession with self-aggrandizement. Here, it is argued that narcissism is less about vanity than about confusion. More specifically, when one is forced by confused identity to engage in constant self-stability it detracts from social learning and leads to a remote sense of importance of the outside world.

Another byproduct is aggression because social detachment and self-confusion can lead to resentment. In not being able to fit in the actor is more likely to blame society than himself -once again for purposes of maintaining self-stability. Such dynamics could combine to set a young man on a path to destruction.

The process by which that dynamic unfolds might seem complex but is rather simple. By not having a paternally influenced anchor point the male child will tend to oscillate between feeling superior and inferior - as Alfred Adler described in his personality theory (Hoffman 1994). That means he will be prone to mood swings; perhaps appearing congenial one minute, hostile the next. He will also have to compensate in the extreme when faced with periods of insecurity. Rejection — particularly by females would serve as a trigger in that respect. Before killing JFK Oswald was kicked out of the home by his wife. Meanwhile, several of Bundy’s murders were preceded by fights and breakups with his girlfriends, Stephanie Brooks and Liz Kendall (aka Meg Anders). In that case the act — regardless of how historically heinous and unconscionable ultimately had little to do with the victims. Indeed, all such acts seem to have been nothing more than extreme attempts to restore self-equilibrium to a personality structure lacking a foundation. To compensate for feelings of inferiority they must dominate. Domination equals submission by the victim and the quintessential version of submission is sheer passivity by the victim, i.e. death. In that context, murder is virtually a form of therapy for such individuals. In a kind of bizarre, anatomic equation, as the victim falls the status of the perpetrator rises.

Neither Oswald nor Bundy had a supple personality foundation. Neither was capable of social deference — authority meant nothing to them, indeed was an alien concept. Both men wavered between grandiosity and insecurity, and both spend most of their time on earth engaged in extreme attempts at compensation. By killing females Bundy re-asserted his artificially contrived sense of superiority. By becoming a “renowned” target of investigators in several states he was able to fortify that delusion. He could not sustain it because his social behavior was so awkward that rejection was always on the horizon. So, he had to conjure up a horrendously murderous lifestyle. His compensatory dynamic revolved around sex.

Oswald chose politics as his prime focus. He needed to demean political figures, all the while searching in vain for the father figure he never had — his most usual one being his hero, Fidel Castro. Yet for all the notoriety encompassed in the actions of both men their behavior was nothing more than self-restorative. The outside world was irrelevant, even as the outside world came to be appalled, confused and in Bundy’s case, fascinated by their actions. In the final analysis John Kennedy and the thirty some odd females that were murdered by Lee Oswald and Ted Bundy were the secondary targets of men who started out and ended up pathologically confused about who they were and how they could somehow become grounded by taking it out on the rest of the world. While both men likely had personality and emotional quirks that went beyond the need for identity, their actions point out the importance of fatherhood for individuals and all of society.

When it comes to understanding the nature of such crimes and the men who commit them all the Senate committees and legal investigations in the world will never explain why such murderers do what they do or prevent such future occurrences. To gain a true understanding — a true sense of causation - one must look to the development of the self and come to realize the sociopath is someone driven by an imbalanced psyche with a necessary focus on self-equilibrium to the relative exclusion of external/social concerns. He is an animal licking his wounds, focally over-concerned with relief from self-instability to the exclusion of the mores, feelings, and rules of the outside world.

Is there a formula for remediation? Probably not, especially since keeping tabs on individuals and their families across the land is impossible. However, it seems clear that diminution of the father’s role - as has occurred recently in some circles and an emphasis in western culture on achievement equivalence — the notion that “you can do anything you want if you just set your mind to it’ can create a false set of expectations. Coupled with a parent’s alternating lofty expectations and on the other hand, harsh criticism for not measuring up can produce a permanently confused self, requiring high and chronic maintenance, and leading to extreme swings between inferiority and contrived grandiosity. That sense of instability can lead to any number of heinous self-restorative actions, often involving the need to completely dominate others, with murder employed as a prime mechanism by which to achieve and restore the self. In a sense, the core motives of men like Bundy and Oswald might be encompassed in the phrase…it was either them or me. Extreme self-disequilibrium is not a clinical term included in the Diagnostic Annual of Psychiatric Disorders, but it is possibly the most dangerous personality trait and one that likely has a greater negative impact on the social order than any of the psychotic or traditional personality disorders.


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Robert DePaolo master's in clinical psychology, author of six books and many articles on education psychology science religion and politics

email robertde61@comcast.net

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