A and I are a few episodes in to Making a Murderer. Every night she asks to watch it, and almost every night I say, um how about tomorrow? Because I have a low sadness tolerance and I don’t like feeling so helpless. About a million things have already been written about Making a Murderer, but the thing I keep coming back to (aside from the constant reaffirmation of my commitment to prison abolition) is how class is portrayed.
A is from a Wisconsin town a couple hours away from Manitowoc County, and I am from Northern Michigan. Parts of our families look at lot like parts of Steven Avery’s family. Last night, while we were watching A said, this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone who talks like me on TV. The Avery family has the look of a life lived hard, the same look that could be read on to so many people in my own family, the same look that stands in as a social cue of someone’s class and someone’s worth. The remarkable thing to me, so far, is not the insane lengths prosecutors go to for a conviction, but the compassion and complexity with which the filmmakers portray Manitowoc residents and the Avery family. None of it is overt, and none of it overdone, but we are allowed to a glimpse into the full and difficult lives of people different than those usually portrayed on TV. Interspersed with the long panning shots of the Avery junkyard are moments of honest humanness, Avery being handed a baby he doesn’t know when he is first released, and Avery’s girlfriend being too embarrassed to tell him she loves him over the phone while camera’s recording. Avery telling his sister he loves her after a heated conversation about his nephew during a from-jail phone call.
There are people the world wants to leave behind, and they have to make their own families, their own money, their own fun and often we begrudge them for that, wanting them to be more like us. More respectable, less uncomfortable. But, they’re not like us, and as Avery says, “the poor lose.” That’s true in life, and true especially in the criminal justice system.
Watching Avery’s family hold onto each other reminded me immediately of something I thought I’d long since forgotten: a moment, probably 11 or 12 years ago when I was driving with my dad in his busted out red Ford Explorer (nicknamed, affectionately, “the exploder” due to its notoriously bad safety). He had just finished explaining to me that he had broken up with his longtime, live-in girlfriend because he had discovered that she had been taking the prescription pain medication he used as part of his treatment for lung cancer. When he finished, I sat in the car feeling sick as he went inside an unfamiliar liquor store to pay of the hundreds of dollars he had discovered that she owed the owner for alcohol purchased on credit. You do what you have to do for your family. When he died a few years later, we tried to invite her to the funeral only to discover that she was gone too. In a family marked by poverty, you simply do what has to be done for your people and you accept the tragedies along the way.
That’s the thing, I think, about what I see in Making a Murderer, is that the filmmakers show the tragedies, but they don’t make anyone tragic, and they don’t make them noble either. They are simply people I recognize as familiar.