Intro from Jay Allison: This is a story about a terrible crime and everything that followed. It's an intensely personal documentary, but it extends into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.
Some stories take a long time. This one is an hour long, and took two and a half years to produce, after twenty years of living with it.
Speaking personally, I'm privileged to have worked with Samantha on her brave telling of her story, her mother's story, and, by proxy, the story of thousands of prisoners serving life sentences.
Revisiting Difficult Things
The story of the violent crime my mother survived in the fall of 1994 has never been something I share easily. It’s more something I offer after I’ve really gotten to know someone and feel that there’s something important they need to know about me, about my family.
I’m acutely aware of the impact this crime has had on my mother’s life, on our family’s life, and I’ve always had a sense of its larger consequences. I thought if I could tell the story of both the intimate and the public impact, it might be worthwhile.
There were a lot of people who warned me this would be hard. And it was. Hardest of all was hearing again the details of what happened to my mother that night. And then hearing them repeatedly as I transcribed our interviews, assembled the script, cut tape, and listened to mixes. I spent many days horizontal on my couch, literally knocked over and out again (nearly 20 years later) by what happened to her.
Revisiting difficult topics isn’t for everyone. When I interviewed my brother for this piece he said he doesn’t like to talk about it. I’ve come to respect that point of view. Over the past two plus years, I’ve had stomach aches and nightmares, I’ve locked my doors more than before, and one day was even sure I saw Reginald McFadden (the man who attacked my mother) walking down the street in the small town where I live. Still, I know myself well enough to know what I can tolerate and that ultimately, for me, it’s always better to stare hard stuff straight in the eye than to turn away from it.
Here are a few things I learned from producing this documentary.
Willingness To Talk
My mother started talking about what happened to her the night she landed in the emergency room and hasn’t stopped since. She says that talking about it has saved her life. Going into this, I knew she would be willing to talk with me about what happened to her. But I had no idea about how others — family members and strangers — would feel about me, out of the blue two decades later, asking them to talk on tape about their connection to events before and after the attack.
To my surprise, most people I reached out to said yes. Yes. Immediately yes. There was a sense that they had been waiting to talk to someone else who also carried this event around with them. And that’s often the way the interviews would go. After introductory awkwardness and pleasantries, we would jump right into what for some of the interviewees was one of the most difficult times in their lives. And our conversations would go deep.
I always left the interviews exhausted. I’m sure the people I interviewed did too. I think Mark Singel (who I talked with for three hours) summed it up best.
Producer Me And Me Me
I have never done a personal piece before. While working on it, I became keenly aware of Producer Me (head) and Me Me (heart and belly). Producer Me would think about what was good for the piece, would handle details, would think about the story. Me Me was on a personal journey, was feeling lots of feelings. Me Me was seeking answers and resolution.
The beauty of this, it turns out, is that despite the fact that I was on my own in the field conducting these interviews, I never felt alone — these two parts of me worked together and helped each other through the rough patches. For example, it was Me Me that convinced me to go to McFadden’s sister’s house in Philadelphia and it was Me Me who got me out of the car to approach her. Meeting Charlotte was something I had thought about for 20 years; I knew if I left the city and didn’t at least try to find her, I would regret it. It was Producer Me, though, who thought to turn on my iPhone and record the whole thing.
On the other hand, Producer Me knew going to meet McFadden himself — or even trying to — would probably make great tape. But once I learned about his current mental state, it was Me Me who put a stop to the whole idea. Me Me knew that no matter how good the tape might be, it wouldn’t be a good for my own mental health for me to meet him.
I think the best interviews were those where both parts of myself showed up and were present in the conversation.
Going into this, I really did think I might end up forgiving McFadden. I asked nearly everyone I interviewed about forgiveness. And even though that didn’t end up happening, the conversations about forgiveness were some of the most poignant ones I experienced. I was sorry I couldn’t include more of them in the piece itself. I’m glad I can share some here.
The first clip is from Jo DeMarco. She is the mother of Dana DeMarco, the 39-year-old woman McFadden murdered a couple of weeks after attacking my mother. McFadden was never tried for this crime. And Jo has been left for all these years not knowing exactly what happened to her daughter. She told me that after Dana’s murder she turned to religion to cope with her loss. When asked about forgiveness she said:
Bobby Van Cura is one of the two local detectives (the other Steve Toth) who worked on my mother’s case. Bobby met my mother when she was in the emergency room, and he and Steve became huge parts of our lives for the next year. Thankfully, they are still part of our lives. My interview with Bobby was surprisingly emotional. I felt so vulnerable, as though all the cells in my body were on high alert all over again. He knows everything. What happened to my mom. How close she came to dying. He’s one of the guys who tackled McFadden literally trying to run away, and arrested him. When I listen back to our conversation, I can hear the vulnerability in my voice. This bit of tape of Bobby and I talking about forgiveness slays me.
There’s no way this piece could have been made without the time it took to make it: Twenty plus years from the actual event, nearly three years of field-work, and a month of close daily work with Jay Allison to write it and produce it.
Some things simply take as long as they take. I am grateful to have had huge support throughout — from family, friends, and co-workers — to keep on keeping on.
And yet, despite the fact that I worked on this for as long as I did and that the final piece is an hour long, I still wasn’t able to include all the people I interviewed or interview all the people I wanted to.
In addition to Jo De Marco and Bobby Van Cura (mentioned above) I also had the opportunity to interview James Gilligan. Gilligan is a psychiatrist who — among other things — served as the director for the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.
His book, Violence: A National Epidemic first gave me perspective on the causes of violence in this country and in individuals like McFadden. When I interviewed Gilligan I kept thinking: This man sat across from the worst of the worst and he is still hopeful and optimistic that with the right supports, people can change. His book, meeting him — knowing there are others like him in the world — makes me feel hopeful.
From My Mom
I asked my mother if there were anything she’d like to say here on Transom. This is what she sent:
“I have been asked by those close to me how it has been to have Samantha producing this piece. My answer has been that it has felt good. I am so proud of her work and I am grateful. My feeling of being pressed to write a book has been lifted and replaced by relief that the story of what has so strongly impacted my family and community of friends and those involved was being told so well by my very own daughter. Some of the interviews provide me with more strength and courage as I battle with day-to-day survival. Gratitude and many thanks to Jay Allison and the Transom team for unending support, compassion and willingness to listen over the many months it took to get this “just right.””
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Thanks And Dedication
First and foremost, thank you to my mother for her extraordinary courage. I love you.
I am also hugely grateful to Jay Allison for taking this on — me, this story, this amount of tape, this amount of emotion, this amount of time. All of it. Jay was the perfect guide for both Producer Me and Me Me. He seemed to know the exact right moments to swoop in and — as he says — provide me with oxygen when I was deep in the cave of working on this.
Thank you to all the people I interviewed: Jeremy Brown, James Gilligan, Timothy Broun, Mark Singel, Ernest Preate, Martin Horn, Bobby Van Cura, Tyrone Werts, Tom Ridge, Charlotte McFadden, Dr. Julia Hall, John McCullough, Jo DeMarco, and Mark Safarik.
Thanks to Nancy Rosenbaum for her sleuthing skills and Daniel Denvir for doing a huge favor for a stranger. Thanks to Melissa Allison, Sydney Lewis and Viki Merrick for all their support. Thanks to my father, Daniel Broun, for always asking how the work was going, and to John Wolanski for being my mother’s rock. And to Rob Rosenthal, thank you for keeping me honest and upright (literally).
This piece is dedicated to Jeremy Brown, Sonia Rosenbaum, Robert Silk, Margaret Kierer, Dana Demarco; to their families; to the thousands of lifers who are behind bars in Pennsylvania without hope for a second chance; and to the Tombs Angel.
These are just some of the books that have helped me make sense of all this the past 20 years. I recommend them all.
Violence: Reflections On A National Epidemic by James Gilligan
All God’s Children: The Bosket Family And The American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield
Crime And The Politics of Hysteria by David Anderson
True American: Murder And Mercy in Texas by Anand Giriharadas
Music In The Piece
“Remember Me As A Time Of Day” by Explosions In The Sky
Various by Stellwagen Symphonette
“Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” by Stars Of The Lid
“Villa del Refugio” by This Will Destroy You
“They Move On Tracks Of Never Ending Light” by This Will Destroy You
“Ambient Shimmers” by Stellwagen Symphonette
“Elliot’s Dream” by 3 Leg Torso
“Luppulagio (Live)” by Sigur Ros
“Burial On The Presidio Banks” by This Will Destroy You
“Memorial” by Explosions In The Sky
“First Breath After Coma” by Explosions In The Sky
“Can Light Be Found In Darkness” by Gustavo Santaolalla, Soundtrack for 21 Grams
“Did This Really Happen” by Gustavo Santaolalla, Soundtrack for 21 Grams
“You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash
Support for this work provided by the
National Endowment for the Arts