Dead Asleep · Jane Stanford
Plus a speedy longread
From John Serba’s pan of Dead Asleep for Decider:
In 2017, Randy Herman Jr. attacked and killed his roommate and longtime friend Brooke Preston, stabbing her 25 times – then claimed he had no recollection of what happened because he was sleepwalking at the time.
Serba isn’t alone in taking out after Hulu’s latest true-crime feature doc, which is directed by Skye Borgman (Abducted In Plain Sight), and it’s not that I think Dead Asleep is particularly brilliant. It isn’t, and I’ll talk about that more in a moment, but a couple of the reviews, including Serba’s, strike me as somewhat unfair — and not just unfair, but performatively indicting Dead Asleep for an entire genre’s historic failure to center victims in its narratives. Brooke Preston’s sister (and Brooke and Randy Herman’s third roommate at the time of the killing), Jordan, came out against Dead Asleep over a week ago, basically calling it a trigger and noting that the Preston family had declined to participate, and I have no kick with that reaction from a victim’s relatives, or with consumers or reviewers not feeling entirely comfortable with a property that simply can’t dimensionalize the victim because it doesn’t have access. But Serba empties both barrels into the doc, calling it “bottom-of-the-barrel true crime crud” and “a frankly irresponsible piece of quasi-journalism that reaches only one solid conclusion: The backlash against true crime docs is justified.” And here’s Natalia Keogan for Paste:
The unyielding, algorithm-fueled glut of true crime content gains yet another entry in the straight-to-streaming canon with Dead Asleep, the latest from documentarian Skye Borgman. Much like in her 2017 Netflix film Abducted in Plain Sight, the film’s goal is to be as shallowly entertaining and consumable as possible, even if that means trading documentary ethics for a slick, sensationalist slant.
Not sure what Keogan means by “unyielding” here, but they go on to complain more generally about the “incessant churning out of half-baked documentaries,” before clocking the film for not providing a conclusion that is not available, to it or to any of us. “Dead Asleep offers absolutely no resolution”? It followed the entire case to its resolution; that’s literally all it, and all most true-crime narratives, can do. I mean, look, not to be straw-man line-editing Keogan here, because on the broader points, I agree: there is too much true-crime content; we do have to set a high standard for material in the genre, so that the desire to solve or inform does not eclipse the very real pain and horror being documented; this doc is more than a little whiffy in spots, with the psychologist who’s never met Herman talking about toxic masculinity and the use of dolls in re-enactments. As I said, it isn’t brilliant; Dead Asleep isn’t even good. The case is compelling, as is the conversation it inspires about whether a parasomniac attack indicates diminished capacity, and therefore diminished responsibility — and I didn’t Google any of the details or second-screen while I was watching. But Serba gigs it for a “sensationalistic” opener, and while I didn’t find it particularly exploitative, I did think the first five minutes were doc-clichéd, and overdirected in that “let’s give them a sizzle reel for a thing they’ve already decided to watch” way that’s really started to annoy me the last few years. The whole thing feels kind of first-drafty and like Borgman either couldn’t get better experts, or couldn’t get experts who wouldn’t dismiss a sleepwalking defense out of hand. That the Prestons didn’t participate is, in my opinion, not as fatal to Dead Asleep’s credibility as Serba and Keogan feel it is, and the film really does try to give us a picture of Brooke Preston to the extent that it’s able…but that picture feels a lot like the “her smile lit up a room” garbagio you’d hear at the top of a Dateline hour.
All this by way of saying that I don’t think either reviewer is “wrong” or not entitled to their opinions, and I am not this movie’s lawyer, but what I get from both of these reviews is not just impatience with the doc’s shortcomings, but burnout — on the entire genre, on the content, on having to meta-navel-gaze the volume of the content and the probative cultural value of the content all the damn time without becoming complicit in the very “glut” you’re lamenting. And let me just say, my siblings in true-crime analysis, I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING GET IT. I do! I had several reasons for stepping back from my column at Primetimer earlier this year; mostly it was that my mother was failing and I needed to make space for that, but part of it was that I felt like I was turning in the same sour, exhausted, Evil Willow “boooored now” explication over and over that wasn’t particularly helpful to readers, or the best use of my boss’s money or my time. And not for nothing, but it’s the end of the year, and all of us who do cultural crit for a living are in that December-sprint mode, which can sometimes mean that you spend 90 minutes on a documentary that’s really only kind of a weak C-plus, but it’s 4 PM, you’ve got two more of these to go on the day, and you just…light the fucker up. Again, doesn’t mean either of them is wrong, but I was taken aback by the vitriol, and I really don’t think I’ve become so inured to the genre’s lazier excesses that I failed to despise this film hard enough, which is why I’m talking through these reviews and wondering if I missed something or if they did.
And I think the answer is: neither. I didn’t despise Dead Asleep, but it may in fact be despicable; I don’t think the ravenous maw o’ streaming is why Dead Asleep got made, but it may in fact be why it feels like it got made too quickly and with insufficient rigor. If you watched it anyway, feel free to discuss here, but if you haven’t yet, you can skip it and read Lindsay Lyon on other cases that invoked a similar defense instead. — SDB
Henry Grabar’s longread for Slate on the American “national health crisis” of speeding is fantastic. It does everything true crime should do: puts a thin slice of The System (traffic stops are “the No. 1 way Americans interact with police”) under the microscope, then irises out to look at the larger implications (they’re also the start of 1 in 3 police shootings, and state-trooper intransigence on driver profiling persists). Grabar gets a lot of history into the piece elegantly, like on the “double nickel” 55 mph speed limit and the culture wars it spawned — and the gelid capitalist calculations that argued against it:
Calculating the benefit of something so many people want to do against the cost of thousands of deaths can feel a little grotesque. But economists do the cost-benefit analysis nevertheless, and the results for the 55 mph speed limit were soundly in favor of letting people drive faster if you assigned even a fractional wage value to all the wasted, 55-mph highway hours. In short, at higher speeds, many people died, but many more got to work on time.
Grabar goes on to talk about the relationship between auto-death annual rates and car safety, the rising prevalence of seatbelt usage, and — particularly pertinent in my Zip code, where drag racing is a problem the pandemic utterly failed to curb and oversized pickups regularly zoom down my residential street at 40 mph trying to make the light — why speed limits in closely settled areas are the ones that ought to come down. History and social science through the lens of enforcement = true-crime Buntnip. Check it out. — SDB
In 1905, Jane Stanford, the widow of Leland Stanford (the founder of Stanford University) died in Hawaii, where she had gone to recuperate after surviving strychnine poisoning. While local doctors and a grand jury concluded that she had been poisoned again, the President of Stanford worked to make sure that the death was regarded as accidental. This effort was, until recently, successful. Two recent books make the case that Stanford President David Starr Jordan, a noted naturalist and leader in the U.S. eugenics movement, may have been involved in the death.
The apparent murder of Jane Stanford is getting attention recently because of its role in 2020’s Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller, of the public radio science show Radiolab. Miller’s book is unusual in how it blends genres: it’s marketed mostly as a book about David Starr Jordan, a noted taxonomist who made the cataloging of fish his life work. This blends into a memoir from Miller, which blends into a coming-out story, but it’s about halfway through what seems like a conventional micro-history that it takes a sharp turn into a true-crime narrative about how Jordan may have been involved with Stanford’s death. The story then takes another turn into Jordan’s involvement with the even larger, societal-level crime: the early 20th-century eugenics movement.
In her description of the crime, Miller draws heavily on a 2003 book by Stanford physician and neurology professor, Robert W.P. Cutler, The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford, and as Miller tells the story, Jordan came from a strict religious upbringing that disapproved of his interest in natural science. While he seemed to have left such views behind, they infused his research, leading him to believe that by studying the progression of species along an evolutionary track, we could understand the intent of God. To this, he added the belief that species could also devolve, that acquired tendencies could lead species to move down the evolutionary chain.
Miller uses Jordan’s story to tell, then undercut, the now conventional story about the importance of grit and perseverance. The central image of the book comes after Jordan’s gathered thousands of specimens of fish that have never before been named and described, all in glass bottles on shelves at Stanford — and the great earthquake of 1906 destroys them. Rather than give into despair after seeing his life’s work ruined, Jordan starts identifying all the fish he can, and sewing the identifiers directly to them, rather than placing them on the bottles. He rebuilds, confident in the meaning and importance of his work, a view mirrored by his acceptance of a series of personal tragedies. He knows that he’s right, that his mission is almost divine in nature, and he’s not going to let anything get in the way of it.
Such views, however, make him a poor administrator. As President of Stanford, he clashes frequently with Jane Stanford, who leads the Board of Trustees. She wants the university to put more effort into studying spiritualism, as she hopes to communicate with her dead son; Jordan thinks it’s bunk, and goes out of his way to show mediums to be frauds. Jordan also staffs the university almost entirely with his friends, not even bothering to look at applications. Trying to get rid of Jordan, Stanford starts using other professors as spies, and seemingly finds sufficient reason when Jordan covers up a liaison between one of his friends and a female undergraduate. When a librarian comes to tell Jordan about the inappropriate relationship, Jordan threatens to have the witness jailed for “sexual perversity” (a coded term for homosexuality) if he tells anyone; the librarian flees the state, but not before Stanford hears of it. She writes that Jordan may need to be removed.
It’s shortly after this that Stanford is poisoned for the first time, with massive doses of strychnine put into the bottled water she has shipped in. Fortunately, she immediately recognizes that something is amiss, stops drinking, and survives. She then takes a trip to Hawaii to recuperate, with only a few staff members accompanying her. There, coming back after a picnic lunch, she feels sick, and takes some sodium bicarbonate to settle her stomach. However, she soon feels worse, cries out that she has been poisoned again, exhibits all of the signs of strychnine poisoning, and dies.
An autopsy and a grand jury in Hawaii conclude that she was poisoned, via strychnine in the sodium bicarbonate, but Jordan soon arrives in Hawaii, and hires a doctor to put forward a second opinion. Without examining the body, and with Jordan’s sizable payment in hand, this doctor concludes that she died from over-consumption of bad gingerbread and tongue sandwiches. Jordan then proceeds to publicly call out the Hawaiian doctors as incompetent, and has the body taken back to the mainland, where he successfully quashes all mention of the suspicious nature of the death; it’s only recently that official histories disputed Jordan’s story. Modern doctors Miller speaks with concur with the Hawaiian doctors that this is a classic, though rare, case of strychnine poisoning. Oddly, Jordan continued to talk about how Stanford’s death was accidental for years afterwards in unrelated speeches and writings, protesting a bit too much. Perhaps most damning, though, is the fact that he used, and often carried around, strychnine in order to collect samples from tidal pools: he would just drop some in the pool, and see what floated to the top, as research ethics boards apparently were not a thing.
For Miller, this is part of an overarching story about the problem with pressing on, sure in your convictions, regardless of what anyone else might say. We think of it as a good thing to stick to your principles, and keep going when everyone else says you’re wrong — but sometimes you are wrong, and maybe you should stop. This sort of inappropriate confidence in his own beliefs leads Jordan to his involvement with the nascent eugenics movement, as he tries to ensure that humans don’t devolve because of the bad habits of what he sees as inferior specimens.
Neither Miller nor Cutler provides a conclusion about who actually poisoned Stanford. The only person present at both attempts was a maid of 35 years, who had a close relationship with Stanford and no apparent reason to kill her, though she did receive a sizable bequest after Stanford’s death. Jordan had motive and means — but it’s not clear that he would have had the opportunity to get to Stanford’s water, or to her stomach remedy. Both do conclude that whatever his role in the killing was, Jordan spent years afterwards covering up the true nature of the death.
Cutler’s book is about as detail-oriented as true crime gets, laying out the circumstances of Stanford’s death piece by piece. That makes for dry reading sometimes, but the main text is relatively short, and lays out the evidence: given that Cutler was investigating a nearly 100-year-old case, and was very ill himself at the time (he died shortly after the book was completed), it’s impressive work. Miller’s book is much less focused, but makes for an entertaining read: natural science, history, memoir, and true crime make for a heady combination, and none of the elements lasts long enough to outstay their welcome. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a definitive answer as to who killed Stanford, but the odd circumstances and colorful cast surrounding her murder make for a compelling mystery. — Dan Cassino
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Thank you for posting the Grabar article. I currently live in a state (Jerz) where speed cameras are illegal, and in a city (Jersey City) where the PD has *no traffic enforcement division at all*. I've been an New Yorker my entire adult life, but it wasn't until I moved to a residential nabe near the Holland Tunnel that I found myself nearly being murdered by drivers on a regular basis, by drivers who YELL BACK when I yell at them. It's a level of driver entitlement I've never encountered before.
I'm not sorry that our cops don't do traffic stops, and there has been some street design work (they added a speedbump (and stops signs at intersections! Which we did not have before!)) but it's going to take a lot of will to build out the curbs or cobble anything. I was in Rome recently and loved how the cobbled, narrow streets forced careful driving and sharing the streets in the older parts of the city. I think cameras are probably the quickest way to effect change while the other stuff slogs along.