In the early morning hours of May 1, 2010, Shannan Gilbert made a panicked phone call to 911. Gilbert was working as an escort at the time, and had fled her client's home in Oak Beach, Long Island telling police that someone was "after her." Police and public officials were initially unconcerned by Gilbert's disappearance – as a sex worker they considered her a "high risk" victim, and therefore not worthy of excessive resources. Gilbert would remain missing for 19 months, until her remains were finally discovered in a marshy area close to where she'd last been seen.
On December 11, 2010 a Suffolk County Police officer walking his dog along Ocean Parkway on the south shore of Long Island discovered the skeletal remains of a young woman wrapped in a burlap sack. It wasn't Gilbert, but over the next week, they found four more bodies disposed of in a similar manner: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthélemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello. All four women were of small stature (like Gilbert), and were engaged in sex work at the time of their deaths. Suddenly Gilbert's disappearance became front page news again as police realised they were dealing with a serial killer.
New York Magazine journalist Robert Kolker saw the attention the case was getting and began wondering what wasn't being covered. Officials were openly disparaging of the women who'd lost their lives, essentially blaming them for their own murders. Kolker set off to find out who these women had been while alive and what circumstances had led them to their fate. He interviewed the womens' friends and family members and created an empathetic, realistic portrait of class, poverty, and bravery that connected these women to large portrait of our society. His book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American History, is revolutionary simply for its treatment of sex workers as human beings and serial killers as a secondary story.
The book has now been made into a stunning and harrowing movie by Liz Garbus and is currently streaming on Netflix. We spoke with Kolker about the case, his book, and the film adaptation.
The book goes very in-depth on a number of the people involved in this, but the film is surprisingly effective by showing primarily one perspective. How did that come about?
"I really had no idea of how I might make Lost Girls into a movie. I really was so focused on it as an ensemble with so many different storylines, it didn’t seem feasible to make it a feature. But almost immediately after the book was published, Kevin McCormick, a producer, offered to option the book. And the reason why he came in so quickly is because he had an approach that I never would have considered in a million years, which was to centre it all around Mari [Gilbert, Shannan's mother].
Mari was actually really reluctant to be interviewed for the book and only sat for [an interview] with me at the last minute. In the book she comes off as a rather combustible personality and doesn't really like it when things are too peaceful and likes to blow up relationships and is a pretty great person. And so when, when they came to me and said they were going to centre the film around Mari, my first reaction was, I never would've thought of that in a million years. But then my second reaction was – of course! She was the one who got the most attention on the case and her ordeal and everything she had gone through is a great way of telling the story of what they all went through. And so I was amazed and really pleased and said yes, immediately. "
My colleague, Anne Cohen, has called this an “anti-true crime film” in the sense that it focuses so much on the lives of these “lost girls” and the people they left behind. That feels incredibly true to the book. Would you agree?
What got me hooked on this subject in the beginning was the very precarious situation that all the family members were in. These were people who were not sex workers themselves, but had close relationships with all of the victims. And when those people disappeared, you know, nobody seemed to care. They never signed up for this, but they had to become advocates and champions of their lost loved ones because for years, nobody listened. And then suddenly, when the bodies were found, they got tied up in a serial killer case and everybody, including people like Nancy Grace was beating a path to their door. And that was both exhilarating and troubling for them. They were happy to finally be getting attention but terrified that it would lead to nothing. And then finally they saw their daughters and sisters being dragged through the mud and blamed for their own deaths and that forced them to become advocates for overlooked and objectified and vilified sex workers.
So that was a grey area that I really wanted to write about – that they didn’t ask for this. I also wanted to write about the girls' lives and talk about what motivated them to make decisions that not everybody would make. And I'm really, really pleased that the filmmakers picked up on that and really followed through on that quite nicely.
There is something of an expectation with “true crime” – a trial, an undiscovered piece of evidence – something that follows a typical formula. But you wrote a book about a potential serial killer and no killer has yet been caught. It’s a book (and a film) about dead girls, in which they feel very much alive. What was the reaction to that?
Well, if you look at the Amazon reviews or the Goodreads reviews, the one that is “most liked” is somebody who says, “there's nothing about the case in this book.” But I think we're in a period now that's just more hospitable to unconventional takes on crime stories. Just in the last year, there’s a Ted Bundy movie about his victims, and a Charles Manson movie about the women in Charles Manson's “family.” That environment didn't exist when I was writing Lost Girls.
I remember as I was writing it, trying to look around to find a comparable book – unconventional, relatively high minded, true crime. And the last one that had been very successful was Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which had come out several years earlier. But then suddenly within a year of Lost Girls coming out we had Serial, and The Jinx, and Making a Murderer. And suddenly it became acceptable to come at these stories from a slanted point of view. So I have high hopes that people will accept the movie in that way. I think if people right now aren’t ready for a serial killer movie without a killer, they won’t ever be.
Another thing that’s changed is our attitude towards sex work. I think it was very important that the book explicitly quoted the police saying things like, “It’s a consolation that the victims are just a bunch of sex workers,” and stuff like that. Quoting one member of the media standing there on the beach during the press conference and saying, “I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore.” Nobody was even bothering to disguise the victim blaming. And so calling people out on that was satisfying.
That said, I tried to stay on the journalism side of advocacy journalism. I wanted to explore the lives of these women and their decisions in a slightly detached manner and not make the book into a political document. My model was always the book Random Family, where you had women, who are making decisions, ones you might not make, but also are living lives with far fewer options than you might have.
And I don't want to put words in Liz Garbus’ mouth, but I think that is one of the things that is on her mind about movies in general. What we allow women to do and to be like in movies and how uncomfortable we really are with a female protagonist who does things that may not be the best, most admirable things in the world. She was interested in the book because it had a protagonist who was a real human being who was sometimes screwing up and sometimes doing good things. I think Liz’s decision to try to dial back everything in the movie that didn't go back to the women themselves, and the women's family members and what they were experiencing, had a lot to do with that.