Readers Write In #172: ‘Lost Girls’ and a Lost Opportunity

Posted on May 8, 2020

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(by Anuja Chandramouli)

These are hardly the best of times and sometimes all you want to do is Netflix and chill right? Maybe binge watch a sitcom or two or three. But some of us prefer the darker stuff. Which is how I ended up watching the Liz Garbus directed ‘Lost Girls’ based on a true story. The actual case is lurid, fascinating, terrifying and most importantly remains unsolved to this day.

Shannan Gilbert, a 24 year old aspiring actress who had turned to sex work to support herself, seemingly vanished after placing a panicked 911 call in the wee hours before dawn where she insisted there were people trying to kill her. She had been with a first – time client named John Brewer and had run away from his residence after making the call. A driver had been present in an SUV and was supposed to take her back but for reasons that remain a mystery she fled from him as well, running along a dark stretch of road, banging on the door of 86 – year old Gus Coletti’s residence and pleading for help. Shannan refused to elaborate on what was wrong, according to his statement. He called 911 and told her that help was on its way and she could wait right there. But again, she bolted. Her driver, Michael Pak followed in his Ford Explorer but she continued to run and knock on doors. Barbara Brennan also called the police.

When the cops finally arrived 45 – 60 minutes later she was gone. Pak insisted he tried to help but had lost her. While searching for the missing girl, the cops discovered the remains of four others who were found near Gilgo beach and along Long Island’s South Shore. They were all sex workers who found their clients on Craigslist. Their bodies had been wrapped in burlap and the evidence suggested they had been strangulated.

For the longest time there was no sign of Shannan herself and before her corpse was discovered in a marsh near Gilgo beach years later, 10 more bodies were found and some had been dismembered. A few remain unidentified. As for the killer or killers, the Suffolk County police seemed not to have the faintest clue and no arrests were made and no suspects were named or taken into custody. Later, the police issued a statement revealing that the autopsy reports suggested that Shannan, who had a history of bipolar disorder, depression and other mental – health issues had been drowned while attempting to run across the marsh and therefore she could not have been a victim of the Long Island/Craigslist serial killer. Her family disagreed and released a report saying she may have been strangled. Further tests have remained inconclusive.

Garbus does not quite take the procedural approach with this incendiary material. Instead she focuses solely on her MESSAGE. It is a good one. The movie makes it clear that the police clearly seemed to think that given their choice of profession, what happened to these girls was inevitable. In another powerful scene Mari Gilbert (played by a steely Amy Ryan), the mother of the missing girl berates the Commissioner of Police (Gabriel Byrne) for arriving at the spot where her daughter went missing in the time it takes to make a sandwich (12 minutes) when a resident of the private community dialled 911 but had taken an hour when Shannan called in distress.

Keen to portray the victims as sisters, daughters, friends, Garbus insists that by reducing them to ‘prostitutes’ and nothing more we do the departed a great disservice and it is certainly a laudable sentiment that can’t be stressed enough. Since the time of Jack the Ripper, serial killers targeting sex workers have gotten away with their crimes and it sucks that so many are content to shrug off such cases with ‘the whore had it coming’.

Yet, aside from that there is much that there is problematic in the film. Mari herself is a piece of work and a complicated person to say the least. The movie suggests that despite knowing her daughter’s mental history she did not dissuade her from taking up such a high – risk profession since there was money and gifts coming in. It is clear that she has asked her daughter for financial assistance often. Unable to care for Shannan during her childhood, she had made the decision to place her in foster care. But Mari also works multiple shifts and juggles two jobs to try and do better by her other daughters Sherre and Sarra. The latter also has mental health issues and is refusing to take her medication. By portraying her as a harried single – mother and dwelling on mitigating circumstances, the movie is inclined to let her off the hook for her lapses as a mother but given the available evidence and the twin tragedies that enveloped this family due to Mari’s more dubious choices, one can’t help but feel that parents need to be held accountable when they make a habit of dropping the ball when it comes to their kids.

Perhaps, spurred by her guilt, Mari becomes a relentless crusader and activist hell-bent on securing justice for the deceased, relentlessly pushing the cops to do better by the victims, gathering together the families of the others who have lost loved ones, generating publicity for the killings and raising all manner of hell. And yet, she doesn’t think too highly of the families of the other Gilgo beach victims, insisting that they are ‘better than them.’ I raised my eyebrows at that and they went up even further when one of the characters goes as far as to say that Mari might be an asshole but she gets her vote for Mom – of – the – year. She certainly doesn’t get mine.

The bestselling book by journalist, David Kolker of the same name (which has been adapted by Garbus for the movie version) and his articles on the subject paints Mari in a less flattering light and he admits that she had sent him a scathing email accusing him of spreading lies about her family. Kolker says the circumstances of her family’s way of life before the death of Shannan which he unearthed over the course of his research and interviews reluctantly granted by Mari herself, was definitely not something she wanted the world to know.

Mari had a troubled childhood, made unfortunate choices in love and faced untold difficulties raising Shannan and later, Sherre and Sarra. While Shannan was in foster care, she became involved with a man who molested and abused both her younger daughters and the girls were justifiably furious and resented her for letting it happen. Mari had another daughter named Stevie with this man. Garbus makes the decision to leave out this angle of the story and there is no mention of this live – in boyfriend and her other daughter. It is inexplicable given the fact that reports suggest that Shannan did not get on with him and his misbehaviour with her may have prompted her decision to leave home. The exclusion is even more perplexing in light of the fate that eventually befell Mari. Perhaps she felt a single mother would garner more sympathy. But it felt very manipulative and even as I was watching the film (before I had read up on this case), I couldn’t shake the feeling that Garbus was determined to get her message across  at all costs and make a strong case on Mari’s behalf at the expense of the facts.

Lost Girls bemoans the fact that excuses were made for all the incompetence and callousness displayed by the cops but none were made for the victims. I agree. But why not present the situation as is and still make the same case? Even if Mari was the worst mom of all time she still deserves justice. Why make excuses for Mari and portray her as something other than what she was? Her failings notwithstanding, her crusade was certainly heroic and surely that is enough? Why work in a scene that doesn’t work at all where Mari tries to dissuade the sister of one of the victims who is also a sex worker and has returned to her job simply to show that Mari has a caring side or as a clumsy attempt to make up for her mistakes with her own daughters?

In a final twist, a poorly placed text coda reveals that Mari was killed by her daughter Sarra, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The decision not to give enough screen time for this development doesn’t make sense either. Sarra stabbed her mother over 200 times, bashed in her head repeatedly with a fire extinguisher, sprayed her with foam, stripped her and removed her jewellery. She was hearing voices, believed her mother was an evil God, and felt her sisters Sherre and Stevie were possessed too. A habitual drug abuser, she had drowned a puppy in front of her son and threatened to do the same to him. Sarra had been admitted to an institution and the custody of her son given to Mari.

Despite her medical history that confirmed she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered from delusions, the jury rejected her lawyer’s insanity defence and found her guilty. The judge gave her the maximum sentence of 25 years which she is currently serving. Sherre was too distraught to give testimony but Stevie appeared for the prosecutor and said that the crime was premeditated and all of Sarra’s problems were self-afflicted.

The real life Sarra is on the overweight side with curly hair. In the movie, she is played by the petite Oona Laurence who has poker – straight hair. Even the real life Mari was on the heavier side unlike Amy Ryan. It makes one wonder why Garbus despite her righteous indignation for the marginalized seems to think that a thinking audience is likely to be kinder and give the benefit of doubt only to good – looking, well – groomed, skinny, Hollywood approved people.

In an earnest attempt to imbue the film with undertones of anger for a culture of victim – shaming and treat the deceased with the respect and sensitivity that is their due, Garbus well – intentioned though she may have been slips up and misses the basket by a mile and a half. In making the choice to paint key characters in idealistic hues, favouring politically correct clichés over naturalism, she doesn’t do justice to Shannan, Mari, or Sarra. Sometimes, the best of intentions are not enough and it is best to stay true to the story that is being told, even if it comes in several shades of unpalatable.