I’m a bit of a freak for made-for-TV movies.
It started with the premier of Fatal Vision—the drama about the murder of Fort Bragg Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife and children in 1970. Gary Cole, now most famous for his portrayal of Mr. Lumbergh in Office Space, was Dr. MacDonald, and the story he brought to life (which the real Dr. MacDonald calls “fiction”) left a permanent mark on my six-year-old psyche. It was then that I realized that when people die, they’re…dead. And they leave all these things behind them, a trail, a life: unwashed dishes, dirty clothes, used toys, thumbed-through books, partially used tubes of toothpaste.
That fascinated me. From then on, I thought of everything around me as possible evidence that could speak for me after my own death, which, thanks to Fatal Vision (and “Quincy”), I realized could happen to a kid at any time, under bizarre circumstances. By evidence, I mean “story.” Stuff as story. I didn’t think of it in a morbid way, just matter-of-factly: the things, people, and thoughts we choose to have around us tell our story. One person serves as a hub, connecting it all, weaving it all together.
In Fatal Vision, there was blood, skin, hair. There was a Valentine’s Day card from three days before. The youngest child’s bottle. A rocking horse, a giant stuffed dog, a doll. The furniture the family had chosen was all on display in photographs, serving as police evidence. An Esquire magazine, probably bought on a whim at the grocery store, became suspect. MacDonald’s wife’s bra lay over the armchair in their bedroom. Their pajamas and gowns were evidence too, as ice pick holes in the fabric were aligned with those in the bodies. The ice pick itself, the kitchen knife, the hairbrush, the piece of wood: household items they had used over and over again were reduced to weapons, data, proof. Ordinary things became famous, were tagged and assigned numbers and locked away in a box for decades, in case the story needed to be retold, recreated, revised.
In Adam: Find My Child, which now serves as the story of how John Walsh became so passionate about bringing criminals to justice through “America’s Most Wanted,” even the mother describing missing 6-year-old Adam’s clothing to security guards struck me as poignant. The clothes a person chooses any given morning, the clothing a parent chooses for a child, could become more than clothes: they could become a description.
Then there was the lighter side of dark, when someone died under more normal circumstances (if disease can be considered “normal”). In Alex: The Life of a Child, the writer Frank Deford, played by Craig T. Nelson, sits in his dead daughter’s room and sifts through the jewelry she wore to play dress-up. Her things, her room.
And in my next-favorite Gary Cole made-for-TV movie, Those She Left Behind, his wife, who dies of an aneurysm in childbirth, leaves behind an entire child.
And on it goes. Homes of murdered people are entered by strangers. Their DVDs, microwaves, kitchen tables, toilet seats, lampshades, light switch covers, fungal cream tubes, are dusted, confiscated, displayed in courtrooms, telling stories that missing people can’t. I’ve seen it all in these movies. It’s all been done, and it all adds to my back-of-the-brain thought that any day I leave the house to take my child to school, to go to work, and any day my husband leaves to go teach—that could be it.
Will someone think we have good taste in clothes and books? Would we be embarrassed by anything in our medicine cabinet? Would they think we’re clean? What DVD is in the player right now? Are there any emails from past boyfriends that I should delete?
Minor things, of course, compared to being snuffed out, for sure. But when I leave for a trip, I think of these things. I straighten up a bit more. I clip our dogs’ toenails and hide the lube. I clean under the fridge and organize my disaster of a closet. Not only because of what people might think, but also to save friends and family the task of doing it themselves.
Just in case. Because you never know. That’s the ultimate lesson of made-for-TV movies: You just never freaking know.
Speaking of people left behind having to do stuff, Jim Meirose inserts a bit of comedy into the situation in “An Appropriate Funeral.” Why not be buried nude? Joel Best does universe math in “Calculated,” and I give him an A-plus. Our poem this week, “Residents” shows how seasons leave behind remnants that signal endings of tiny little stories all around—of people, animals, plants, homes, routines.
Photo by James Allenspach