High school student Sara Parcell is a talented violinist whose teacher believes she should attend a summer program at Juilliard in New York. Sara’s father, Dave, lost his business and is now working for his father-in-law’s garden shop. What he’s paid, however, is not enough to keep the family above water. Each day, Dave comes home during lunch to go through the mail and hide the overdue bills from his wife, Jeannette. He knows that Sara’s dream of a summer stint at Juilliard, let alone becoming a full-time student there, is out of reach.
When Sara goes missing, the family’s life is turned upside down. Detective Felix Calderon is initially reluctant to investigate since Sara has been missing for less than a day. But as the hours pass, Sara’s phone continues to go to voicemail, and Jeannette insists her daughter would never run away, a full scale search begins.
Sara is an example of “missing white woman syndrome,” a term Gwen Ifill invented in 2004 to explain the media’s tendency to throw all their resources towards coverage when a white woman disappears, compared to what fate befalls women of color. Local reporters turn up at the Parcell’s home when news about Sara leaks out. The story is about to get much bigger. Reality TV producer, Casey Hawthorne, looking for a new project, hits on the idea of filming what’s happening to the Parcells.
Daniel Sweren-Becker (Photo Credit: Jenny Hueston)
After getting the green light from her network boss at TNN, Casey lands in Frederick, Maryland. Her first night, she meets Felix, and their mutual attraction leads to a night in bed. Aware of the obvious conflict – sleeping with the lead detective investigating Sara’s disappearance, while she’s hoping to sign Sara’s parents for a TV show – she lies and tells Felix she’s a salesperson.
Dave and Jeannette are initially reluctant to be filmed, but two points made by Casey win them over. First, the program will bring millions of people onboard to look for their daughter. Two, they would be paid $50,000 for each episode. They play down the importance of the money, although it would help them out of their financial straits and pay for Sara’s Juilliard tuition. They agree, sign the contracts, and soon the neighborhood is flooded with TV cameras.
Daniel Sweren-Becker’s true crime novel tells the story of Sara’s abduction ten years later through interviews with the family, neighbors, Sara’s teachers and friends, law enforcement officials, local TV personalities, Casey, and those at TNN involved with the program called “Searching for Sara.” We learn early on that Dave is in prison and Sara is dead. What crime Dave committed is later revealed, but who was truly responsible for Sara’s death?
Felix never believed the program would help find Sara, in fact, he thought the opposite, that the person who had kidnapped her would panic and kill her. Thus the name soon attached to Casey’s project – “Kill Show.” Searching for a missing young person often takes a toll on the police working on the case. Felix transferred to Frederick after he failed to find two missing children in Houston. Coming to a small town, he hoped he would never again face a similar case. But kidnappings happen all over the country, in small towns and big cities. Felix’s initial attraction to Casey turned to revulsion when he learned she was using Sara’s disappearance to further her career.
There are other casualties surrounding Sara’s story. Her brother, Jack, fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide. Those initially thought to have something to do with Sara’s disappearance, had their reputations and businesses ruined. Casey might have been collateral damage, too, but somehow those involved in reality TV rarely pay the price.
Sweren-Becker shines a light on this popular genre, revealing, as the jacket copy reads, “the seedy underbelly of the true crime entertainment machine.” The genie, however, has been let out of the bottle and true crime shows continue to proliferate. The public has an insatiable appetite for stories involving a missing young woman and, yes, more times than not, a missing white woman. We should all be concerned when someone – man, woman, or child – goes missing. Allowing some to turn these tragedies into entertainment, however, raises legal and ethical questions. Perhaps Kill Show will cause some to pause before tuning in.
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