‘There was a lot of torment’: the family who lived through two true crime stories | Documentary

Ashley Stayner is a self-confessed true crime fan. She also sits front row on two true crime stories in her own family.

Her father is kidnapping victim hero Steven Stayner, the subject of the two-part television movie, I Know My First Name Is Steven, which aired in 1989. Her uncle is Carey Stayner, the serial killer currently on death row. for “the Yosemite murders,” which have been covered on numerous true crime shows such as American Justice, FBI: Criminal Pursuit, How It Really Happened, and more.

“I grew up learning all about my father and his whole story through the media,” Ashley Stayner told The Guardian. Her affection for true crime persists despite the exhaustive and profound focus on her family’s trauma. “It’s just interesting to know how the human mind works and how the environment can turn someone into what they are,” says Stayner, describing the genre’s appeal. “I think true crime shows a different side of what people can be.”

Stayner, 36, has spoken to the media from her home in Atwater, California as she prepares for her own true crime debut in Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story. Directed by Jessica Dimmock and executive produced by the Russo Brothers, the layered and self-conscious three-part limited series returns to the stories of Stayner’s family as she deconstructs how they were told and processed; how authorship, artistic generosity, and real-life crime tropes would play into the TV movie, and how the news media would package Carey Stayner’s heinous acts in stark contrast to his younger brother’s prior victimization and heroism.

Steven Stayner was seven years old when he was kidnapped in 1972. He was held captive in a remote hut and sexually assaulted for seven years. In 1980, Stayner’s kidnapper, Kenneth Parnell, kidnapped a second child, five-year-old Timmy White. 14-year-old Stayner refused to let White suffer as he had done and escaped with young White. He was praised for his brave actions, was reunited with his family and became a longstanding media obsession while coping with trauma he could barely talk to. He died tragically almost a decade later in a hit-and-run.

Ashley Stayner, who was a toddler when her father died, has only vague memories of him. Stayner explains that she was not familiar with his story for most of her childhood because her family didn’t talk about it. “It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that I really began to understand the complexities of everything,” Stayner says, referring to the period in 1999 when her uncle Carey Stayner murdered four women in Yosemite National Park. His heinous crimes dragged her family’s story back into the public consciousness.

Captive Audience will of course do the same.

“Here’s a story that has been told,” said Dimmock, acknowledging where her series stands in a long string of media outlets that have reported on the Stayner family’s trials and tribulations. “I just added to the stack.”

But her opinion is the first to involve relatives, including Steven and Carey’s mother Kay Stayner. The latter offers deep-seated and devastating details about the years her youngest son disappeared, recalling, for example, how she would never leave the house unattended in case Steven called home, or how her husband Delbert would search ground that appeared to have been recently excavated or another would chase. strange looking vehicles he spotted on the highway, desperately hoping to find his son.

Stayner Family photo Photo: Hulu

“I’m always very attracted to things that are as close to the skin as possible,” Dimmock says. “I knew I wanted to honor that this happened to a real family and that there was a lot of torment outside of the media spotlight.”

While capturing these intimate testimonials, Dimmock also draws attention to herself and the narrative device built to capture, edit, and frame the people in Captive Audience. She takes in the bits that generally remain on the cutting floor, such as Kay Stayner seeking a comfortable position under studio lighting as she emotionally prepares for a long and probing conversation with Dimmock, or her relaxing sigh after the interview, as if she can let her guard down. These are Dimmock’s memories that she too plays a part in wrapping Stayner’s story. And she raises questions about how that story was designed before.

The main sources of Captive Audience are recorded conversations between I Know My First Name Is Steven screenwriter JP Miller and network executives. Excerpts from those conversations are a revealing glimpse behind the true crime curtain, explaining the omissions, rearrangements, cliffhangers, massed facts, and outright fictions that the narrators introduce into the story for the sake of the audience’s attention span.

In her series, Dimmock begs to think of the Stayner family as part of the audience, most captive, adding another layer to the show’s involvement with true crime as a genre. Rarely do we get to see the aftermath, how a family copes with and struggles to readjust after a traumatic event that caught the attention of the national media, and how they too absorb those images and stories on screen. In the series, Ashley Stayner admits that she would mistake her father for Corin Nemec, the actor who plays him in I Know My First Name Is Steven. “That’s how your father was introduced to you,” Dimmock says, directly to Stayner. “I found those elements interesting.”

The family also had to absorb the media’s highly charged stories following Carey Stayner’s crimes. Journalists eagerly took to the theory that Carey Stayner had committed murder and wanted to be caught because he was both jealous of the attention Steven received decades earlier and hurt by his parents’ neglect.

Steven Stayner moments after reuniting with his parents in 1980
Steven Stayner moments after reuniting with his parents in 1980 Photo: Hulu

Dimmock explains her sensitivity to the varying sympathies, especially responding to the way the story casts Kay Stayner in a very different light, from the mother of a young hero to the woman who raised a perpetrator.

“I never really thought about what happens to a perpetrator’s families,” Dimmock says. “What do they experience? What are they going through? And honestly, I never wanted to talk about that before, because why would I want to know? But in this situation, I do care, because I know they’ve been through something really hard. Do they not deserve our sympathy?”

Dimmock treats Kay Stayner’s story with a level of care not normally afforded to the subjects in true crime, a genre that can often be exploitative. A section in Captive Audience very briefly suggests a history of mental illness and sexual abuse within the Stayner family without delving further. In the wake of Carey Stayner’s crimes, details emerged about his mental illness, the alleged abuse he suffered at the hands of an uncle and that his father allegedly abused his daughters.

“I didn’t feel like this was an opportunity to argue again,” Dimmock says, explaining her decision to omit the seemingly pertinent sexual abuse revelations and withhold the public the details they would normally expect. in real crime.

“I had the chance to sit down with the Stayners and hear their perspective. There was a time when I asked Kay Stayner if she wanted to talk about Cary, and she said no. I didn’t have to enter that. I wanted the public to be aware of a boundary.

“Kay says no, and we’re not going there.”

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