Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Adventures with a True(ish) Crime Show

By Angela Dove

“Could you scream?”
“Shout out?”
“No. I already told you. I just sat down.”

The director tapped her chin in thought. “But you cried, right? I mean, we could film you crying? Maybe collapsing onto your husband?”

I watched the match unfold between director and subject. This particular subject, Jacque MacDonald, had the home court advantage. Regardless of all the lights and cameras and sound equipment, this was still Jacque’s home. Jacque’s living room, to be exact. And she wasn’t about to mince words in her own home.
“I most certainly did not collapse,” she said, the London accent of her youth becoming stronger in her anger.

“I sat down. “
The director just didn’t get it. “But you were crying, right?”
Jacque expelled her breath all at once, probably in lieu of shouting. “I had just learned my daughter had been murdered. I was not crying. I was in shock. I sat down.”
The director nodded, her long ponytail bobbing up and down.  “Of course we want to be as truthful as possible—“
“—because it’s a ‘true crime’ show—“ Jacque cut in. I smiled at her.
“Yes,” said the director, unphased. “But what that means is that we present the truth of a situation, not necessarily every little detail.”

I started. Her words sounded exactly like a talk I’d given myself while writing about our family’s story . The murder of Jacque’s daughter (my stepmother) had been the starting bell of a race that lasted for nine years, until Jacque’s efforts finally solved the case.  So much of it was important, but I couldn’t possibly include it all. I had condensed events. I had brought forth key characteristics of detectives and friends while leaving other details behind. But I knew not to change the details of the most gut-wrenching moment in Jacque’s life.

Anyone who spoken to many victims or survivors would understand the sanctity of the Moment. The moment when everything changes. The moment when all the rules are revealed to only be comfortable assumptions. No matter what your storytelling medium, you don’t tamper with the Moment.

Jacque had agreed to do this show because she hoped—as I did—that it could help other families struggling with their own cold cases. Having Jacque reenact her moment was bad enough, but this woman wanted . . . theater. She wanted to tantalize her viewers at Jacque’s expense. It was wrong.

“Let’s take a break,” I said, maneuvering through the cables snaking across Jacque’s carpet.
“I don’t understand this,” Jacque was saying. “I’ve done a lot of these shows, and I always tell the truth. What’s the matter with the truth? I was making tea. My husband returned a call to work. He came out again. He told me the phone call was really about Debi getting killed. I sat down—“

“You were making tea?” The director had let Jacque’s words wash around her while she stood dry on an island of indifference.  “I have an idea! Why don’t we show your husband talking to you, right? And you’re holding the tea pot on a tray, and you spill it—“

Finally, Jacque lost all composure. “I’m British!” she shouted. “The British do not spill their tea!”

The assistant producer (read “gopher”) was a caring soul who obviously understood more than her boss. She was making a bee-line toward Jacque with a glass of cold water. Together we steered Jacque toward the kitchen.

 “You’re right, Jacque,” the assistant said. She had soft curly hair, soft eyes, a soft smile. “We only want to tell your story. The real story.”

 “Has she lost a child?” Jacque fumed glaring toward the living room. “Has she been told her daughter was stabbed to death in her own home?”

I looked toward the director, who was too engrossed in a conversation with her crew to hear the angry grief spilling out of the kitchen. Still high and dry.

“Have some water, Jacque,” I said. She took a shaky sip. “Remember,” I told her. “If you don’t do it, they can’t film you doing it. That’s the biggest truth in the room right now. You’re in control of this situation.”
I didn’t care if the director heard me. I didn’t care if the assistant director was annoyed. What they didn’t understand, but what any survivor could tell them, is that one of the worst components of violent crime is the victim’s feeling of powerlessness. I’d heard Jacque say many times, “When that beast killed my Debi, he took control. But when we found him, I got my control back.” Sure, there were a hundred other emotions with which we all had to contend, but Jacque had the essence of it right there. The truth of the situation, as it were.

Jacque understood my meaning immediately, and we shared a moment apart from any busyness surrounding us. She nodded. Then she turned to the assistant director. “I know what you need, and I’m trying to help you get it,” she said. “I am cooperating, but I will not act in any way other than what I did that night."

I watched warily as the crew filmed Jacque sitting down in her shock and grief. Later, while Jacque was outside, I saw the director have her camera man film Jacque’s tea pot steaming away until its built in whistle screamed into the quiet of the kitchen. She had found her theatrical element at last.

# # #
Angela Dove [link to] is an award-winning humor columnist and author of the true crime memoir No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder  She has appeared on three true crime shows since the book’s release, and is happy to say that the above incident was unique in its ickiness. 

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