it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.

23 Responses to “it could be you”

  1. You need to curate a night of clips from these mini series on the big screen!

  2. ***tv movies, not mini-series!

  3. Well, Fatal Vision WAS a miniseries–several of these were—ah, the true-crime miniseries. Golden age.

  4. Tales of kids murdering abusive parents followed that trend into into the ’90s.

  5. Clarification: Heck, I forgot about the Menendez brothers. That is a case I never followed. But, television news magazines were on a kick for stories where kids kill parents.

  6. Gerard–Wow, feels so Greek, a decade of kids-in-peril (frequently at hands of parents) movies in the 80s, followed by kids-killing- parents movies in the 90s!

  7. I don’t really buy that middle-class homes are just ready to burst into violence at any time. On the other hand, my oldest son is now a teenager, and – to quote Chris Rock, about OJ Simpson – “Now I’m not saying he should have killed her… but I can understand.”

  8. Ha , well I should hope not, Graham! But it’s fascinating that there were these dozens and dozens of movie, based on books, based on real-life cases that had captured the public attention–creating this feeling of eruptive domesticity. I can’t think of any other time when that was the trend–typically, the cultural myth is that violence comes from the “underbelly,” or even among the rich, before the middle….

    • I dunno – I’m no expert on the juvenile delinquent fiction of the 50s, but I think many of those books were about middle class kids gone wild. I belive that Leigh Brackett’s 13 West Street went that route, though I’ve only read about that book.

  9. Quite true! though their violence typically took place outside the home, on the streets, and those were kids misbehaving, not parents killing. I wonder how much of the 80s trend has to do with the kidnapped child hysteria of the same decade?

  10. Megan, your piece was brilliant! I loved DARK PLACES and I’ve heard such nice things about Gillian! For me, the reality of the situation (are middle class suburban families violent?) is interesting but even more interesting is the way these things are represented in pop culture as both scary and dangerous but also very alluring! You referenced my 80s-teen-hooker-morality-tale obsession–all those stories were about girls from “nice homes” who somehow ended up on the streets of Times Square. But in reality, the vast majority of street prostitutes come from a background of sexual/physical abuse. It’s a pretty clear statistical correlation. Yet our cultural references in the eighties were all about kids who left home after fighting with mom about staying up too late or doing homework and ended up selling it on 42nd Street! And, on the other hand, also made that life seem so much more interesting than staying home and fighting with mom and dad. Gillian’s work is so interesting because she brings it back to the house-where-it-all-began, literally but also on a kind of spiritual/metaphorical level, in terms of grounding these characters of crime fiction back in a more “realistic” setting, if that’s the right word. What a great post!

  11. Sara, I realize this should really be a co-authored piece at the very least because I know so much of this comes from what you’ve said in our conversations!! (And I know you will have more to say about teen-hookers very very soon…)
    What is it about the 80s that wanted to present these ideas? That’s a big question but I do think the impact of these movies really might truly, as you’ve suggested (also in relation to VC Andrews), have resulted in much female-written crime fiction today.
    One of the things Gillian said too is that what always interested in her is the AFTER of these movies that seemed to tie things up so nicely. What happens when the child is returned, or what happens to everyone else when she or he is gone forver? What happens when someone does a very bad thing–it doesn’t just end. This is what’s so great about DARK PLACES, as it’s driven by those questions.

  12. Our conversations where all the intelligent parts came from you–those conversations:) I wonder if every generation goes through this to some degree–using their writing to fill the “lack” that previous writers left behind. I was also thinking the other day about lucky you and I (and Gillian and lots of others, of course!) are to have found this unmined vein of dark girl-woman-stuff that our beloved elders just did want to deal with, or did not have the opportunity to deal with. Most writers have to work so hard to find something that’s “theirs” but I think we’ve got it a bit easier because what interests us hasn’t really hit at the right place/time to strike a chord (before now, of course, when we will dominate the bestseller lists this summer!).

    • Hi there–I am late to this conversation, but huge thanks for the shout outs! Being a true-crime obsessive, that’s always been my hangup, TV movie or otherwise: What happens to all those people involved, once the interest in the case wanes? The older brother who was a suspect or the sister who was away at college and so avoided being killed? Those questions, and the fact that—while these stories are being repackaged as entertainment, there is always someone out there, actually living with the fallout—is definitely always on my mind.

      As far as the long and delightful list of TV’s women-in-jeopardy movies: Clearly, the three of us should write a Lifetime movie together.

      And yes: Fatal Vision! I reread the book about once a year, and the miniseries was awesome. Makes watching Gary Cole int Talladega Nights a strangely unsettling experience.

      • Gillian! What you had said about the “after” really continues to strike me. It seems like if the story isn’t the Mother/Father/Child, etc. who continues to hunt for the killer decades later then there’s no other story to be told. But imagine the power of carrying that with you forever? Do you recall the Clara Harris case from about ten years ago? The enraged wife who lost it and ran over her cheating husband (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_David_Lynn_Harris)? I remember being so affected by what life would be like for her daughter after (she was in the car that day).

        And yes, I STILL can’t see Gary Cole and not think of Fatal Vision–when he played Mike Brady, well…..

      • Gillian and Megan, I had a strange FATAL VISION obsession too! And HELTER SKELTER, of course, but i think everyone shared that one. Gillian, that’s what made DARK PLACES so great (among other things)–you seemed to have filled in this missing piece of the narrative. I think these narrative “holes” kind of stick with people in a way they might not realize until they’re filled.

        I have already started our lifetime script! It’s called FATAL DESIRE: THE MEGAN ABBOTT STORY. Megan, you’ll have be kidnapped by a stalker, but your hair will always look good–is that OK?!?!

  13. Hello – the ones stained on my brain are: hardcore (george c scott as vigilante father) and Fallen Angel (paedophilia) and Angel (I was obsessed with Angel – high school student by day, hooker by night) – the film Foxes is one I remember as being full of tough chicks – Little Darlings felt like total feminism! I love the heroines of the 70s/80s (kristy mcnicholl!) ….

  14. Simmone! I am a huge fan of Hardcore, though I only saw that as an adult. Foxes and Little Darlings, however, were key touchstones for me too–both felt very forbidden. And gosh, Kristy McNichol!
    But you are really giving me a total memory flood with Fallen Angel–was that the one with the amazing Dana Hill? One of the truly great child actresses.

  15. Yes! I can see her face right now. What I remember most about that was that she had a sort of romance with another fallen angel – I don’t think a film like that would get made these days … For some reason our high school had a copy of it on VHS as well as Go Ask Alice (in GAA the girls wear amazing 70s floppy hats and v. high tight jeans … I know I wasn’t supposed to be concentrating on the (as perceived by me) hipness but it’s what remains.

  16. Angel! I’ve meaning to rewatch those all year. She had to avenge a whole lot of murders, from what I remember! I have memories of all these other movies that I can’t quite remember the name of–do you guys know? There was one, similar but not identical to HARDCORE, where a girl gets into porn and her stepfather finds out when he sees her in a porn magazine. They were very working-class-suburban from what I remember. And then there was one where this woman was a sociologist and she takes in all these prostitutes. AND one where these kids went on a class trip to NYC and one of them fell into prostiution! isn’t there a database of teen hooker 80s movies somewhere where I can just look these up?!

  17. Many years ago I rented the VHS of DIARY DIARY OF A TEENAGE HITCHHIKER. The cover image gave me high hopes but I knew I would be disappointed when I started watching and saw it was a television movie.

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