‘There is a lot of torment’: a family experiencing two true crime stories | Documentary

Ashley Stayner is a true self-confessed crime fan. He also happens to have a front row seat for two true crime narratives in his own family.

His father was kidnapping-victim-turned-hero Steven Stayner, the subject of the two-part television film, I Know My First Name Is Steven, which premiered in 1989. His uncle is Carey Stayner, a serial killer currently sitting on death row for “murder.” Yosemite,” which has been covered on various true crime programs such as American Justice, FBI: Criminal Pursuit, How It Really Happened and many more.

“I grew up learning everything about my dad and his whole story through the media,” Ashley Stayner told the Guardian. Her love for true crime persists despite the deep and invasive attention poured into her family’s trauma. “It’s interesting to know how the human mind works and how the environment can change a person into what they are,” says Stayner, describing the genre’s appeal. “I think true evil shows a different side of what people can do.”

Stayner, 36, has been speaking to the media from his home in Atwater, California, as he prepares for his own crime debut in Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story. The self-conscious, layered three-part limited series, directed by Jessica Dimmock and executive produced by the Russo Brothers, returns to the stories of the Stayner family while deconstructing how they were told and processed; how authorship, artistic license, and true crime tropes will play out in a TV movie, and how the news media will package Carey Stayner’s gruesome act in direct contrast to her sister’s earlier victimization and heroism.

Steven Stayner was seven years old when he was kidnapped in 1972. He was held captive in a secluded cabin and sexually abused for seven years. In 1980, Stayner’s abductor, Kenneth Parnell, kidnapped his second child: five-year-old Timmy White. Refusing to let White suffer as he did, 14 year old Stayner flees with young White. He’s been praised for his brave act, reuniting with his family and becoming a long-standing media obsession while overcoming a trauma he can barely talk to. He tragically died almost a decade later in a hit and run.

Ashley Stayner, who was a preschooler at the time of her father’s death, has only vague memories of her. Stayner explains that he spent much of his childhood unfamiliar with the story, as his family avoided discussing it. “It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that I really started to understand the complexities of things,” says Stayner, referring to the period in 1999 when his uncle Carey Stayner killed four women in Yosemite National Park. His heinous crime dragged his family’s story back into the public consciousness.

Captive Viewers would naturally do the same.

“This is a story that has been told,” Dimmock said, acknowledging where his series stands in the long line of media covering the Stayner family’s ordeal. “I just added to the stack.”

But his opinion is the first to involve family members, including Steven and Carey’s mother, Kay Stayner. The latter provides deep and devastating details from the years his younger son disappeared, recalling for example how he would never leave the house unattended in case Steven would call home, or how his husband Delbert would search for apparently freshly dug land or chase after him. whatever. the strange looking vehicle he saw on the highway, desperately hoping to find his son.

Stayner . Family Photo
Stayner . Family Photo photo: Hulu

“I’ve always been interested in things that are as close to the skin as possible,” says Dimmock. “I know that I want to honor that this happened to a real family and there is a lot of torment outside of media attention.”

While capturing this intimate testimony, Dimmock also draws attention to himself and the storytelling equipment created to record, edit, and frame the people in a Captive Audience. She includes passages that would normally be left on the cutting room floor, like Kay Stayner finding a comfortable position under studio lighting as she emotionally prepares for a long, probing conversation with Dimmock, or a casual sigh after the interview, as if she could. let him off guard. It’s Dimmock’s reminder that he also played a part in packaging Stayner’s narrative. And he begs the question of how that story preconceived.

Captive Audience’s primary resources include recorded conversations between I Know My First Name Is Steven screenwriter JP Miller and network executives. Excerpts from the conversation are peeks behind the curtain of actual crime, explaining deletions, rearrangements, cliff hangers, massage facts and direct fiction the storyteller introduces into the narrative for the sake of the audience’s attention span.

In his series, Dimmock begs to consider the Stayner family as part of the audience, the most captivating of all, which adds another layer to the show’s engagement with true crime as a genre. Rarely do we get to see the aftermath, how a family copes and struggles to readjust after a traumatic event that grabs the attention of the national media, and how they also absorb the portrayal and narrative on screen. In the series, Ashley Stayner admitted that she would liken her father to Corin Nemec, the actor who played her in I Know My First Name Is Steven. “That’s how your father was presented to you,” said Dimmock, speaking directly to Stayner. “I found the elements interesting.”

Families must also absorb media narratives that were published specifically after Carey Stayner’s crime. Excited reporters ran with the theory that Carey Stayner committed the murder and wanted to be arrested because she was both jealous of the attention Steven got decades earlier and hurt by her parents’ negligence.

Steven Stayner moments after reuniting with parents in 1980
Steven Stayner moments after reuniting with parents in 1980 photo: Hulu

Dimmock describes his sensitivity to fickle sympathies, particularly responding to the ways in which the narrative casts Kay Stayner in different ways, from the mother of a young hero to the woman who raises a perpetrator.

“I never really thought about what happened to the perpetrator’s family,” Dimmock said. “What did they go through? What did they go through? And frankly, I never really wanted to talk about it before, because why would I want to know that? But in this situation, I care, because I know that they have been through something very difficult. Don’t they deserve our sympathy?”

Dimmock handles Kay Stayner’s story with a level of care not usually given to subjects in true crime, a genre that is often exploitative. A section on Captive Audience briefly outlines the history of mental illness and sexual abuse in the Stayner family without delving into it. After Carey Stayner’s crime, details emerged regarding her mental illness, the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of an uncle and that her father allegedly abused his daughter.

“I don’t feel like this is an opportunity to redress anything,” Dimmock said, explaining his decision to ignore any apparently related sexual harassment disclosures, denying viewers the details they would normally expect in actual crimes.

“I had the opportunity to sit down with Stayners and hear their perspectives. There was a time when I asked Kay Stayner if she wanted to talk about Cary, and she said no. I don’t have to enter that. I want the audience to be aware of a limit.

“Kay said no, and we didn’t go there.”

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