It is as if I kill the victim(s) multiple times, especially by not including their side of story and not even considering that the entire crime genre needs to be redefined.
There is something universally alluring about crime. Whenever I talk about my research into crime films and fiction, I see eyes light up around me. “Fascinating,” they say. I often become the center of conversation, and I am guilty of enjoying that attention. My insatiable thirst for crime stories started at the age of 12. The Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet entered my life, and I was never the same again. I own all 75 Agatha Christie’s novels — something I brag about often — even as they gather dust at my parents’ home in India.
True crime documentaries are a more recent of my obsessions. In the past three years, starting with Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx, I have been on a shameless true crime watching spree. In December 2017 I plowed through 21 true crime films in six days, a number which thrills me and takes me on a guilt trip all at once. I often end up expecting true crime to fulfill the “excitement” I get from a mystery/thriller fiction or film — a fascinating crime, an evil genius leading me on an exotic journey of a cat-and-mouse game. And there are many like me, oblivious of their sadistic consumption.
I use the term sadistic because on that journey we hardly pay attention to the victims or survivors. And even if we do, it is only to further our depraved curiosity, thus only strengthening the marvel of the evil genius. I am guilty of exoticizing and valorizing a serial killer like Ted Bundy when the likes of him should be completely out of public consciousness or shouldn’t be receiving the attention of addiction they get.
Arwa Mahdawi writing in The Guardian rightly interjects: “It seems as if many of us can’t get enough of murder, full stop. In recent years, true crime has become a pervasive part of popular culture.” Take note of the popularity of Wild Wild Country, Evil Genius, The Confession tapes, The Keepers, to name but a few. These narratives make for a good small talk at a bar. Instead of focusing on the consequences of the likes of Bundy or Ma Anand Sheela (of Wild Wild Country), we are mesmerized by their ability to carry out their heinous missions. We are almost rooting for them to kill.
I remember one friend of mine excitedly telling me that Sheela should become president of the United States. I paused. Why does Sheela’s conniving evil inspire my friend to make such a wild proclamation? Why is Ted Bundy — one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century who confessed to murdering at least 30 women before his execution in 1989 — called a “handsome devil” or “the diabolical genius” by his investigators?
These stories are repeated, reprocessed and set out for a perverse cinematic consumerism, one based on dead, vanished, abused, and tortured victims and survivors who no one cares about. I will speak for myself. It is as if I kill the victim(s) multiple times, especially by not including their side of story and not even considering that the entire crime genre needs to be redefined.
What would the Ted Bundy documentary have looked like if it had been told from the victims’ perspective? At the least it would have set an important example of how to undo the dominant narrative of glamorizing the criminal.
All these thoughts came pouring down on me when I was watching Joe Berlinger’s Conversation With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix. I finished the four episodes in one sitting. Berlinger is also the director of the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, in which Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy, reminding me over and over that the “Bundys” cannot be easily forgotten. I am not saying that all true crime documentaries are exploitative. Thin Blue Line and Berlinger’s earlier, and now iconic, three-part documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills have helped redirect the national and legal attention to the loopholes of the justice system. True crime podcasts like In the Dark and Serial have been crucial for understanding how wrongful convictions can occur.
So, what goes wrong? Berlinger said in an interview: “My immersion in the Bundy story rocked me to the core as to my belief in human nature and the capacity for evil.” Why doesn’t he also immerse himself the victim’s stories? Why can’t we see more stories from the point of view of victims and their families? In his quest to shock viewers with the depravity of human nature, Berlinger, like any true crime enthusiast, is guilty of ignoring the victims and the ones who survived Bundy’s hell.
Skye Borgman’s 2017 Netflix documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight, could be the prototype for true crime documentaries to come. The film is about Jan Broberg, a woman who was abducted and sexually abused by her family friend, Robert Berchtold, or “B,” in Pocatella, Idaho. The story takes place in 1970s, when people “did not lock their house doors.” When Jan was 12 years old, she went through a hell ride with “B” where he made her believe that she was on a mission to save humanity by sleeping with him.
The absurdity compounds from there. Viewers have expressed their rage by attacking Jan’s parents who did not initially seek the FBI’s help in order to protect their reputation. Jan’s parents had their own affair with “B,” which paralyzed and confused them to such an extent that they failed to take the right measures for their daughter. I could not help but think about one right thing this film did — bringing Jan to the forefront to tell her own story.
Seeing Jan speaking on screen almost shocked me. I am not used to looking at a woman who survived heinous crimes interact with the filmmakers directly. I have seen various photographs of victims, as in the case with Bundy tapes. I have seen Carol Daronch (the woman who escaped Ted Bundy) make an appearance, only to be trapped in the past. Images of young Carol fill up the screen while we hear her voice in the background for most of the time, a blind spot that Berlinger hits with his film, but Borgman does not.
Daronch talks about Bundy, but the filmmakers are hardly interested in her journey, her story. Her purpose for the film is to recreate Bundy as an enigmatic figure planted permanently in our consciousness. And so are other victims’ parents. Those interviews are from years ago. We cannot move ahead. We are stuck in the past, whereas Jan takes us with her on a healing journey. We cry with her. We are agitated with her. And when she says that she has been able to forgive her parents, we believe her. We hear from her sisters and hear of their struggles. We hear from her parents. Yes, they are guilty of not coming for Jan’s help when they could have. To hide their own moral frailties, they sacrifice Jan to a pedophile.
But if Jan says that she has forgiven them, then I have no choice than to respect her agency, her authority over her story. Jan says, “The way I came to forgive my parents was be helping them to forgive themselves.” She takes charge of her tragedy and doesn’t let it “run her” anymore.
What would the Ted Bundy documentary have looked like if it had been told from the victims’ perspective? At the least it would have set an important example of how to undo the dominant narrative of glamorizing the criminal. Andrea DenHoed’s piece in The New Yorker a couple of years ago started a much needed conversation about the victim’s position in a true crime world. Through Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, director Kurt Kuenne brilliantly subverts the exploitative side of true crime filmmaking and tries to bring the audience closer to an understanding of the dead.
Abducted in Plain Sight is another contribution to true crime that deserves attention and conversation. It brings us closer to the survivor and lets us engage with the crime as she wants us to. We are not majorly guided by the narratives of investigators, journalists and the police force. Instead, B is hardly humanized at all — a leverage that criminals like him do not deserve. It is time we hail this as a path-breaking documentary when we are hungry to hear the voices of marginalized, the ignored and the powerless.
*[Updated: March 4, 2019]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.