What is the Human Cost of True Crime Entertainment?
This past week on American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace we saw a depiction of the murder of James Miglin by Andrew Cunanan before he fled to Miami and murdered Versace. We saw Miglin and his wife at a political fundraiser, and later together at home in their beautiful house were a slight distance could be detected between the two despite their 38 years of marriage. We saw Mr.Miglin get a call from Andrew Cunanan, and plan a clandestine meeting while his wife would be out of town over the weekend for a work trip. We saw Cunanan and Miglin interact with each other, this meeting clearly not their first, and the push and pull of Miglin’s need to feel desired and admired by Andrew butting up against the clear financial incentives for Andrew. We saw Andrew Cunanan take Miglin into the garage, and murder him, before returning to make himself at home in the house for the rest of the night. Even bathing and sleeping in the Miglin’s room. Then, when the body is discovered, we see Marilyn Miglin insist that her husband was murdered by an intruder despite the police’s conviction that the crime was personal, and when they discover a car stolen from a previous crime parked around the corner and connect Andrew Cunanan to the murder, we see her leak information that will allow Cunanan to escape the police so the truth about her husband stays a secret. It was a complex, gripping hour of television. And almost none of it is based in fact.
James Lee Miglin was killed in May of 1997 in a brutal murder that was later linked to Andrew Cunanan. His wife was out of town on business that weekend. Cunanan’s jeep was parked around the corner from the crime scene. The killer did shower and stay in the house after the murder. However, there is no evidence to support an ongoing association between Miglin and Cunanan. There’s even less evidence that Miglin’s widow purposefully scuttled a police investigation to keep her husband’s affiliation with a known prostitute and murderer a secret. The entire narrative of the episode is editorialized in a way that FEELS true, and grimly satisfying, but very little of it is based in fact. The longer I watched the episode, the more uneasy I became with editorializing Miglin’s family this way. They are still alive, Marilyn still works on the Home Shopping Network as she has for the last 25 years. I wonder at the decision to depict her as someone who would be willing to let a killer, a man she knew had killed others, go free in order to keep a secret about her husband. I wonder it it WAS a secret, or if Cunanan had targeted Miglin for some reason the same way he targeted Versace. I wonder if she even would have been told how the police where intending to track Cunanan. Her actions in the show could be seen as leading directly to the murder of William Reese in Pennsylvania, who Cunanan killed for a new vehicle, and later to the murder of Versace in Miami. It’s a very unkind way to depict her and it’s based on supposition and, I guess, a desire to tell an interesting story with complex characters. But Marilyn Miglin isn’t a complex character, she’s an actual person, and this “story” is a horrible tragedy she and her family suffered through. The more I consider it, the sleazier it feels.
There’s been a resurgence in the true crime genre across all forms of media; television, movies, and podcasts are brimming with gruesome tales that are horrifying and compelling all at once. Perhaps with the onslaught there’s a bit of desensitization happening to us, and we’re losing sight of the fact that while these stories are presented as entertainment, we’re talking about tragedies that ripped apart people’s lives. Some of those people are still alive. Some of them choose to participate in these shows, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Wanting the world to know the story of their loved ones and that they were more than just victims is an entirely understandable impulse. But when the family doesn’t want to talk, the idea of finding an “angle” to make the story “compelling” feels deeply disrespectful to the victims and insulting to their families. We’re not owed a story about any crime, no matter how well publicized.
There are exactly two people who could have told us the details of the night of James Miglin’s murder and both of them are dead. We know what the outcome was, but we have no idea what the inciting incident could have been, what transpired during the time they were together, or what happened after. However Miglin’s family reacted to the crime is their business and not for us to judge. I’ve been enjoying this season of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace but this episode left a bad taste in my mouth and made me think long and hard about the concept of true crime entertainment.