Sins of Our Mother chronicles the descent of a woman into profound, religion-fueled delusion and how it decimated her family, leaving a literal trail of bodies in the wake of her self-aggrandizing doomsday fantasy. And it does it with precise, engrossing storytelling that defines binge-worthy.
Lori Vallow is a devout Mormon with a trail of trauma—abusive marriages, financial insecurity—and a fierce protectiveness toward her kids. Or that’s who she used to be. By the end of the three-hour run, she’s unquestionably a monster.
In plain terms, she falls into a religious conspiracy theory mixed with a messiah complex. She connects with an egomaniacal dickwad by the name of Chad Daybell (I sat here trying to think of a fitting moniker for a while, folks, and this is the one that stuck). Daybell is convinced that his poorly written, essentially self-published novels should be taken at the level of scripture, of course with himself as an end-of-days savior. Lori slides right in, via podcasts and online communities much like any number of ego-driven conspiracy theories. Eventually, though, her level of belief leaves even other doomsdayers behind, leaving her in a small cult of true believers. The thoroughness of her delusion is the emotional core of the story. She still believes, by all appearances, that she’s doing good.
What is it about this story, besides all the other serial killer docs and grisly murders trending on streaming services and podcasts, that makes it so grotesquely fascinating? It’s so … ordinary. Singalongs in the car and Instagram pictures. The Sins of Our Mother is voyeuristic, like all true crime, but there’s a reassuring sense of catharsis from the family and friends featured on screen—still processing these recent events. This is especially true of Lori’s son Colby, who appears as the main chronicler in interviews (not insignificantly because he is one of the few family members to have emerged alive, despite enormous losses). Colby as a presence and a storyteller is steady and heartfelt. This is not a story that has had time to scar over into a trauma narrative. It’s fresh: Lori’s trial is not slated until 2023. With that freshness comes the raw emotive force of the interviewees’ remembrances.
The twists and turns are absolutely wild: every new escalation of delusion and of casual violence revisits the question, how could you believe this of your family? Of your fiercely protective mother? It’s a question many families over the last years, as epistemological forged on social media and via extremist news sources divide families into different political realities. But the series isn’t trying to make a grand point. It’s telling the story of a single collapse from self and sanity that cost many people their lives.
Guess who the last zombie is??? Lori texts her brother—also a cult member—with all the giddy excitement of someone about to spoil you for the next plot twist on Game of Thrones. Zombie, by the way, is cult-speak for a person who Chad has determined has been replaced by a demon, therefore justifying and mandating their murder. This was the “logic” used to slaughter both adults and children, in a killing spree that Lori continues to appear proud of, even insisting to Colby from jail that he’s the one who doesn’t understand.
The ethics of telling this story so soon—and telling it in a trending Netflix docuseries, before the trial—could certainly be questioned; I think it would be a mistake not to. The causes of death for several of the victims had not even been publicly released at the time of filming. As solid as the storytelling is, it’s easy to imagine that there were aspects of the series that were not as carefully handled as they appeared. The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a piece interviewing Alex Gibney, Ken Burns, and other filmmakers detailing the lengths of such failures. One elderly couple who suffered unimaginable loss at the hands of Lori and her cult appear in footage, for instance, but not in interviews. Is that because they were grieving? Or because the documentary felt exploitative or unsavory in some other way when they were presumably approached?
Sins of Our Mother is good true crime, with heartfelt and viciously direct storytelling. But for all its directness, it cannot cut through the fundamental mystery of how a mind breaks so thoroughly that a person can’t see the blood on their own hands.
Header Image Source: Netflix