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Sherri.png

I'm Getting Real Tired of 'Don't Believe This Woman' True Crime

By Alison Lanier | TV | July 9, 2024 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | July 9, 2024 |


Sherri.png

Perfect Wife, the newest true crime docuseries from Erin Lee Carr, sure was a journey. My wife knew the twists and turns ahead of time, and I think she was mostly watching me instead of the show for those holy sh*t moments. And there are plenty. But as wild as that story was, and as emotionally charged and carefully cataloged, after the final credits rolled, there was a bad taste in my mouth, and not only because of the terrifying sociopathic behavior on screen.

Perfect Wife follows the story of Sherri Papini, a pretty white suburban “super-mom” who vanished off the street. Her husband Keith, her friends, and the rest of her family embarked on a desperate and highly public search for twenty-two days before Sherri was discovered, chained and battered but alive, by the roadside.

So, here comes the spoilers: Sherri fabricated the whole thing. She truly did a Gone Girl, staging the disappearance and then hanging out at an ex-boyfriend’s for weeks while everybody was going out of their minds trying to find her. She watched all the coverage from a burner phone and chose her moment to re-emerge after intentionally injuring herself … even having that ex-boyfriend help her brand herself.

The story she told was predictably very different: according to her, she was kidnapped, chained up, fed only black beans, and tortured by two Hispanic women. In the aftermath, her extreme and—at the time— understandable displays of traumatized behavior demanded constant support and attention from her husband, whom she had apparently been ready to frame for her murder. Keith remained one of her biggest advocates even while retaining some doubts about her story, right up until investigators finally tracked down Sherri’s hideout and shattered the elaborate lie once and for all.

Sherri becomes a fascinating and disturbing figure over the course of the story, as we see countless adorable home videos of her with her small children and try to square that person with the understanding of what she did. Over time, it emerges that she told a huge number of lies to different people over a long span of years … as well as espousing some wildly explicit white nationalism. She even had a Pinterest board of branding equipment. This lady was thorough but not exactly clever.

That’s the story of Perfect Wife; the storytelling doesn’t exactly line up. For most of the series, Sherri’s cover story stands: she’s the traumatized victim of a brutal and senseless crime, just grateful to be back with her family. But the viewer is directed to doubt Sherri throughout the story. It’s not clear why. Until it all comes out, very late in the runtime.

That in-between time is what bothers me. I can’t help but remember the nearly identical structure of An American Nightmare: a young white woman who has been the victim of a violent and horrific kidnapping, whose story is told with conviction and yet continually doubted by the investigators and eventually publicly decried. But: she was telling the truth. The pain and terror of her years-long struggle to be believed—while her attacker continued victimizing women—was a completely arbitrary exercise in cruelty (with a healthy dose of police incompetence).

Perfect Wife spins the same process of horror and doubt, but with the resolution that “ah, yes, you should never have believed this woman, clearly she’s a master manipulator working toward her own ends!” Does the need for narrative tension justify that story shape? I really don’t think so. There must be a better way to get the gotcha moment than meticulously trotting out trauma after trauma with the underlying question: “But who would be gullible enough to believe her?”

Perfect Wife is now streaming on Hulu.