Documentary, True Crime

#Netflix: “The Staircase” & the Peterson Name

With a variety of different spellings, a number of Petersons (all unrelated to one another) have been in the news for murder charges. Some people think the sketchiest Peterson (my opinion), Scott, is innocent or not guilty of killing his pregnant wife Laci and have posed alternate theories. There may be some reasonable doubt in that case, but because of all the lies Scott told, I have a problem believing him when he says he’s innocent. My friend Jennifer Lewin Yates was consulted for her psychic prowess on the Reality Life with Kate Casey podcast and she feels strongly that Scott should be absolved of the murder, that Lacy met her fate independently of him.

There’s been little to no question about Drew and the evil attached to his name. He married several much younger women and when his fourth wife Stacy mysteriously disappeared and was never found, it was after his third wife had met a sinister demise. There’s nothing “sketchy” about him – it’s blatant. He went on to be charged with soliciting a hit man in an attempted murder-for-hire of Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow.

The one Peterson who is not in prison now is featured on the very popular series The Staircase, now available on Netflix. He is American Novelist Michael Peterson who discovered his wife Kathleen at the bottom of their staircase bloody, after a fatal fall. However, there might have been more than simply a fall as her injuries included a “fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head.” (Wikipedia)

As with Scott Peterson, so much was made about Michael Peterson’s double life, specifically the fact that he was bisexual and emails discovered on his computer that were written to a male escort. Michael claimed that Kathleen knew he was bisexual, that they loved each other and had an idyllic marriage despite that, and only discussed his sexual proclivities “obliquely” and infrequently.

Friends who were interviewed described their marriage as appearing to be the perfect one, that they never fought (a claim that would arouse my own suspicions. Arguing – here and there – with one’s spouse has always been the norm to me) and seemed like the couple every other couple wanted to be. The “secret” of Michael’s bisexuality was as much on trial as the man himself. Kathleen’s sisters and daughter from her first marriage turned on the once beloved Michael. I should refrain from spoiling every last detail of the documentary, but let’s just say I began to have my doubts about whether Michael was guilty or not. He’s a very charming, seemingly benign older man (74 today) whose children, save for that one stepdaughter, adore him. There’s something endearing about this intellectual, who I think some viewers will deem cocky, and after serving eight years in prison that severely aged him, I don’t personally see him as a danger to society.

Kathleen’s sisters and daughter are understandably livid that an initial “life in prison” sentence didn’t stick. However, after hearing about evidence tampering and incorrect statements regarding the alleged murder weapon (a blow poke to the head), I am left with reasonable doubt.

There is so much detail to this case and generally, a ton more involved than I described above. It is very likely that the producers of this film manipulated viewers by showing Michael with his children and grandchildren as the doting, elder, grieving family man. And then later: the doting, elder, grieving family man severely broken down by his eight year prison stint. Because of how the prosecution and it’s witnesses botched the presentation of evidence, it’s hard to argue against reasonable doubt and whether Michael is or isn’t where he should be now.

This is the type of post in which I’d love to see readers weigh in. If you’ve seen The Staircase or are all caught up on the Michael Peterson case, please share your thoughts in the comments.

I’m also curious to know if there’s any other surname in history that has sparked as much attention as the Peterson name has within the arena of True Crime.

(Photo credit: Netflix)

Standard
Documentary

The Keepers, The Cosby Victims: Repressed Memories Versus the Courts

Netflix’s True Crime binge The Keepers has us captivated from episode 2 through its finale in episode 7. I leave out the first episode only because we don’t see the whole terrifying picture initially. We hear in episode 1 that a nun was murdered – suddenly, brutally and seemingly without context – and that’s not something to take lightly at all. However, we’re given an even weightier context in episode 2, the equation of murder plus molestation. Around the same time Sister Cathy Cesnik was abducted (and later found lifeless in the woods), a local girl suffered the same fate.
In episode 2 we learn that the young nun had been a protector of students in a girls’ Catholic school who were being molested and raped by the head priest in charge. We soon discover that the story is more intricate than we ever could have imagined. The nun very likely may have been killed because she was about to report the crimes to the police and had just let the main perpetrator, Father Joseph Maskell, know that she was on to him.The Keepers becomes focused on the acts of molestation that occurred in the school and how it seemed impossible they were not linked to the murders. The documentary arose after a Facebook group of former students (now in their 60s) formed with the objective of solving the crime, supporting each other as fellow victims, and ultimately, bringing justice for their beloved teacher’s murder and to Sister Cathy’s living family members.

 

We often hear of molesters grooming their victims, but we don’t hear as much about them enlisting other perpetrators to join them in their crimes. In the Keepers, some young students in the 1970s were sought out by these molesters because they seemed easy to take advantage of. Father Maskell is the first who then encourages another priest and a Baltimore police officer to have their turns with the minors. It is horrifying to hear and these minors are now mothers and grandmothers, women trying to remember the terribly shameful abuse that their minds have done everything possible to block out. Some of the victims have NOT repressed the memories and when they finally came forward, thanks to Facebook, their accounts lend credence to the case for Jeane, a woman who struggled with the memories.

Unfortunately, Father Maskell passed away and will not be brought to ultimate justice in this life time, although he was brought to court in the 1990s before the notion of “repressed memory” was discredited. Back then, there was no Facebook to bring forth the women (and a man) who so clearly did remember the abuse. Today, there is strength in number for his victims when it comes to recalling past experiences and feeling validated after suffering psychologically for decades.

“Experts in the field of memory and trauma can provide some answers, but clearly more study and research are needed,” states the American Psychological Association website APA.org about repressed memory. “Experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice). Although laboratory studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors, memory research usually takes place either in a laboratory or some everyday setting. For ethical and humanitarian reasons, memory researchers do not subject people to a traumatic event in order to test their memory of it. Because the issue has not been directly studied, we can not know whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and stored differently from a memory of a nontraumatic event.

Some clinicians theorize that children understand and respond to trauma differently from adults. Some furthermore believe that childhood trauma may lead to problems in memory storage and retrieval. These clinicians believe that dissociation is a likely explanation for a memory that was forgotten and later recalled. Dissociation means that a memory is not actually lost, but is for some time unavailable for retrieval. That is, it’s in memory storage, but cannot for some period of time actually be recalled. Some clinicians believe that severe forms of child sexual abuse are especially conducive to negative disturbances of memory such as dissociation or delayed memory. Many clinicians who work with trauma victims believe that this dissociation is a person’s way of sheltering himself or herself from the pain of the memory. Many researchers argue, however, that there is little or no empirical support for such a theory.”

When watching The Keepers, one must keep in mind how taboo sexual abuse was for those who attended high school 47 years ago. One must furthermore imagine why such shameful memories from those times could be mentally shunned by an individual (even subconsciously). Jeane recalls attending confession as a student in the catholic school to disclose how her uncle had molested her. The priest then asked to see her face and she felt the shame as he let her know that’s exactly how she should feel – like a damaged slut, a bad girl for having been molested and deserving of further punishment. She was someone he would go on to molest and he would encourage his small circle of trusted friends (including the other priest and the police officer) to do the same. As mentioned above, some of Father Maskell’s victims went public with their accounts of abuse as adults and in 1992, when reports were first made, people questioned the idea of “repressed memories.” The victims’ testimonies were discredited temporarily as those in the psychiatric community suggested that members of their own profession had planted false memories in patients’ minds.

Despite the schism between clinicians and practitioners and the difficulty of quantifying empirical evidence, practitioners who attest to the realness of “repressed memories” explain that victims of abuse mentally shut down in the face of trauma and post traumatic stress. Before The Keepers outlined the efforts of the women to trace Sister Cathy’s murder and tie up loose ends of a mystery, comedian Bill Cosby’s victims began to come forward and that drama played out in the public arena. Drugs were administered by both Father Huxtable and Father Maskell to their victims, to cloud the already murky memories of torturous and incomprehensible situations, crimes committed by publicly respected and trusted paternal figures.

MSNBC.com
Cosby, The Women – a recent New York Magazine cover

Today, people are commonly taught from a young age: No one should touch you in this way. In the post- Spotlight (the recent blockbuster hit about sexual abuse in the Catholic church) era, there is much discussion and an awareness of the sexual abuse history attached to the Catholic Church. Those who teach in religious schools are more seriously vetted. New, strict rules are in place (i.e. more than one teacher in the classroom) and everything is sized up greatly behind a veil of scrutiny. It cannot be easy to be a priest in 2017. Inappropriate behavior is more likely to be reported, but there are still children in the United States who are vulnerable and don’t have proper and adequate support systems. There are still children who do not have the strength to come forward as compared to their peers. Victims of circumstance, these boys and girls may also lack the mental fortitude to remember.

The Keepers is currently available on Netflix.

(This article originally ran on in my Huffington Post archive in July of 2017.)

Standard
Documentary

Holocaust Documentary ‘Four Seasons Lodge’: The Legacy of Survivors

A poignant 2008 Holocaust documentary is now being re-released with an accompanying guidebook for educators. Four Seasons Lodge is a film that captures the summer experience of a group of Holocaust survivors who gather annually at an isolated rural compound in the Catskill Mountains. There, they play poker, dance, sing, listen to music, socialize…with others who understand their unfathomable pain. It is a unique seasonal meetup for those with shared experiences and ties that bind, one that has solidified friendships and even romances over the years.

Throughout the film, we see that the survivors are dealing with a new challenge: They are at risk of losing their beloved lodge of 25 years. The film follows the residents as they grapple with the idea that their summer residence, with all the sentimentality that is attached to Four Seasons Lodge, may be put up for sale.

Focusing on individual survivor stories and past experiences, the producers of Four Seasons Lodge have created a powerful tool for Holocaust education. The newly published handbook, written to accompany the documentary as a teaching tool, offers educators an effective way to engage students in meaningful dialogue.

The film was directed by Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times who discovered the lodge while writing an article for the newspaper.  He decided that a documentary would be the ideal way to capture the atmosphere and magic surrounding Four Seasons Lodge. Jacobs then teamed up with Rainlake Productions to create this emotional and powerful documentary.

Principal Characters in Four Seasons Lodge

HYMIE ABRAMOWITZ is the Lodge godfather, its unpaid handyman, resident misanthrope and an irreverent atheist who takes pleasuring in riling up the faithful. He is also a driving force behind the decision to dissolve the colony — and the only one who can save it.  “They call this place paradise. It’s not a paradise for me. It’s a labor camp.”

TOSHA ABRAMOWITZ is Hymie’s  beleaguered wife and sidekick who, after 55 years of marriage, still finds his off-color jokes unbearable. She often provides a sobering counterpoint to Hymie, who uses humor to deflect questions about his agonizing past. “No matter how hard I try, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

ARON ADELMAN embodies the raucous spirit of the Lodge. He may be 91 and grievously ill, but Aron drinks scotch like water, stuffs his face with artery-clogging kielbasa and dances the mambo like a young ruffian.   “The best thing in life is to eat, drink and be happy. When you’re finished, you’re finished!”

BASIE ADELMAN is the bracingly frank wife of Aron and a Russian-born rebel who can dispense love and disdain with a single glance.  “He’s going to live like everyone else. Until he dies!”

OLGA BOWMAN travels to the Catskills from her home in El Paso each summer to share a room with Genya Boyman, her life-long companion. Loving and insightful, Olga is the film’s unofficial narrator and a font of philosophical musings about life, aging and the value of friendship.  “Life is not easy for everyone. But life can be beautiful even when it’s not so easy.”

EUGENIA “GENYA” BOYMAN, Olga’s companion, is an occasionally dour but eminently regal presence at the Lodge. She is a straight-shooter who heaps ridicule on those who hide their age, but when it comes to the past, Genya is incapable of talking about her wartime experiences.“One day, one day I’ll tell my story – I suppose it will be on my deathbed.”

TOBIAS BUCHMAN is a former soccer star who was the only Jew on the German team. After the death of his wife, he falls in love with Lola, a fellow lodger whom he first met at a Nazi death camp. Unexpected illness, however, tests the bonds of their blossoming affair.  “To be in love at my age is something I never expected. Somebody must be watching over us.”

CARL POTOK is the president of the lodge and a selfless workhorse who struggles to keep the colony going even as he tends to his ailing wife, Cesia. He is also a pragmatist who has no use for religion.  “I was in concentration camp four years and I never saw no miracles. Luck yes. As far as I’m concerned God is about miracles.”

CESIA POTOK, Carl’s wife, is battling Alzheimer’s disease and confined to a wheelchair. Her haunting cries, which reverberate across the colony, are an unwelcome reminder of mortality. “We were together in one camp. When we were liberated she didn’t have nobody and I didn’t have nobody. Four months later we got married.”

LOLA WENGLIN is the spunky paramour of Tobias Buchman who reluctantly agrees to leave the colony early after he gets sick.   “I’ll run away, find another boyfriend and come back to the country.”

**If you are interested in finding out more about this film and how to screen it in your schools, please send me an email: Sweiss@WeissmediaGroup.com. I am working closely with my friend Kelly Sheehan, the Executive Producer of this film, to arrange screenings nationwide. **

 

 

 

 

 

Standard