First published in the Baltimore Sun Sunday Op Ed Section.
True crime television has always troubled me, though I’ve never been quite sure why. But after watching a reconstruction of a friend’s murder, I understand.
Melissa and I reconnected on Facebook six years ago. I couldn’t place the beautiful, fit blond when she first friended me, but I accepted her request as she lived near my tiny hometown. We’d attended the same high school for a bit in the late ’80s. She dove in, liking pictures of my kids, commenting on my posts. Like me, both her kids and art were as important to her as food, water and shelter. She was a well-read painter who once brought home a red drum set found by the road to make tables for her art studio.
One day, a year into our Facebook friendship, I realized I hadn’t heard from her in a while. Struck, I pulled up her Facebook timeline and saw:
“You will be so missed.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I am Melissa’s father. Melissa was murdered in the town of Viola. A lot of you have asked…”
I Googled her. The week before, Melissa was found by her young children in their yard, unconscious. Someone had bludgeoned her with a crowbar. The children ran to a neighbor for help. She was airlifted to a metro medical center where she lingered for a day and died. The cause of death was multiple skull fractures. It took years, but her estranged husband was eventually convicted of her murder.
Melissa was killed four years ago, but I recently learned a TV show was to feature her story. I felt compelled to watch it.
The show opened with the disclaimer: This is a dramatization of true events. I assumed that meant playing with details, collapsing a timeline here or there or inserting police lingo.
That’s how it started. The producers glommed onto the timing of her death, playing up a Halloween angle with shots of ghostly decorations. The narrator used a spooky voice. The actress playing Melissa’s daughter inexplicably wore a fancy dress as she meandered down a sidewalk decoratively lined with plastic shrunken heads. They then cut to a neighbor making popcorn in her darkened kitchen. She jumped at a knock at the door. She tentatively walked to answer it. Then the child forcefully smacked her bloody palm up against the glass.
The writers surprised me by adding two suspects besides her estranged husband. I scoured Melissa’s Facebook page after her death, trying to make sense of it. I learned she had a restraining order against her husband. She’d written in terror she had no place to hide from him. The show knew this; instead they insinuated that she was having an affair with a neighbor.
The truth is that those who knew Melissa solely suspected her husband. After her death, he whined to the news about the unfairness of the suspicion. Never mind it took a judge’s intervention to halt his plans to commandeer her body and bury her, one assumes, before an autopsy could take place.
The autopsy scene opened with a shot of Melissa lying on a metal table. I shivered at the close up of a deep gash on her forehead. The actress resembled Melissa enough to make me think I was seeing real gore. Though impossible, as blood doesn’t flow in the dead, blood trickled out of the laceration.
I felt raw seeing Melissa’s life played around in like it was a sandbox. I was also mesmerized. The writers morphed my friend’s brutal and tragic death into a well-tread whodunit, consequently stripping her of uniqueness and humanity. By dramatizing her story, they made her less real.
That’s why these shows dot the local cable lineup. This fictionalization allows them to make murder a formulaic tale, thus bypassing the real issue of domestic violence. If it’s just a story, there is no need for facts, like that one in five women will be victims of violence by an intimate in their lifetimes or that 20,000 calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide daily.
Let’s own it, we all have a bit of voyeur inside. There’s something darkly intriguing about violence and crime, as long as it’s kept at bay. That’s what this show did. It kept the real story far away. But Melissa was real to me. Her sweet soul, her beaming aura and the travesty of her murder got lost in the show, even to me. Melissa died a useless death twice. That’s the true crime.