What Happened To Paula · Eazy-E · Baseball Stalkers
Plus A&E premieres and "Dr. Death" reviews
In July 1970, 18-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling borrowed her roommate’s car in the dead of night, wearing a dress frequently mistaken for a nightgown and no shoes. When she failed to show up for work the next day, family and friends feared the worst, but the police declined to investigate. Her body was found in a culvert several months later; no one was charged, and the investigation is still officially open.
We take for granted that one of the functions of true crime is to allow us to assert control over what can seem like a chaotic, dangerous world. The first half of Katherine Dykstra’s What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl falls squarely into that category, showing the series of decisions and circumstances that seem, inevitably, to lead to a violent end for Paula Oberbroeckling. It’s in the second half of the book, though, that things get interesting, as Dykstra flips the issue, and starts to ask whether these stories are asking the right questions, and if they may even be harmful.
All of the philosophizing works well because it has a catchy unsolved crime at the center. Oberbroeckling had recently moved out of her mother’s home, seemingly because of her mother’s opposition to her dating a black man. She was living in a bad part of town with two other girls, one of whom she barely knew, when she borrowed a car at one in the morning, and went out shoeless into the night. At some point, the car broke down, and a local security guard helped her get it back up and running; she then disappeared, until her corpse, seemingly tied up, was found months later.
As Dykstra digs into the case — she largely inherited it from her mother-in-law, who went to the same high school as Oberbroeckling, and had tried to make a documentary about the death — we get a litany of facts that make Oberbroeckling’s end seem preordained. Her boyfriend had been abusive towards her. When he went out of town for an extended time, she took up with another guy, who was both reportedly also abusive, and was involved in the local drug scene. Both men were apparently jealous. Word around town was that Oberbroeckling was pregnant, and she may not have known who the father was, though it would certainly be evident when the child was born, and there was an illegal and dangerous abortion provider operating near where the borrowed car was found. The police, years later, say that they believe she was a victim of a botched abortion, but this seems based on local gossip as much as anything, and doesn’t seem to fit all the facts of the case. Most commonly, victims of illegal abortions gone wrong died from hemorrhaging several days afterwards — could Paula have been bleeding out without anyone noticing, while wearing a dress as gauzy as the one she went out on the night she died? Would she have been going to an illegal abortion at one in the morning? With no shoes on? Why was her body found tied up? What about the boyfriend who showed up to get all of his stuff out of her room?
The fact that her body was found well after her death means that forensic evidence was mostly gone, and serious flooding in Cedar Rapids means that any DNA evidence was contaminated. Coupled with the inattention of the police, this means that there’s no way to know what actually happened. Most of the principals in the story have since died, and even the detectives on the cold-case squad admit that, without DNA, there’s little chance of new leads.
Dykstra starts the book off by saying that she didn’t want to investigate just one death, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that she was hoping to write a book in which she solved this fifty-year-old case, and the one we have is Plan B. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. People who knew Oberbroeckling inevitably say the same thing about her: that she was beautiful. She had won a modeling contest, been in Seventeen magazine, and as far as many of the people remembering her are concerned, “beautiful” is all that mattered. She seemingly liked to flirt with boys, and made bad decisions about whom to date, and wore short dresses. And, at a time when birth control wasn’t readily available, she may have gotten pregnant. With the benefit of hindsight, we point to these factors and think not that she had it coming, but that her death isn’t surprising. And that cause and effect — she did this, and this resulted — is often seen as one of the functions of true crime. By example, we learn what not to do, thereby reclaiming some degree of control.
What Dykstra wants to argue, though, is that Oberbroeckling’s actions are only “mistakes” within a deeply classist, misogynistic society, one that valued her almost entirely for her appearance, one that made both having sex and not having sex “wrong,” one that made birth control and safe abortions for women like her almost impossible to get, one that dismissed the concerns about her disappearance. And when we use victims like Oberbroeckling as an example, when we take lessons from her about how to avoid that fate, aren’t we buying into that misogyny, reinforcing it? Dykstra makes a compelling argument that such narratives become internalized, that women come to hold themselves accountable for putting themselves in situations where a man might hurt them, holding themselves, rather than the man, responsible.
Still, What Happened to Paula isn’t as effective as it could be. The bottom line is that we don’t know that much about Oberbroeckling, so like Jurassic Park scientists filling in the gaps of dinosaur DNA with that of frogs, Dykstra uses her own experiences, and that of her mother and mother-in-law and grandmother, to suppose what Oberbroeckling was going through and feeling, and it’s often a real stretch. On one hand, it reinforces the idea that these were societal, rather than personal issues facing Paula; on the other, it means we have long passages referencing different women that don’t actually have anything to do with the crime. Centering the victim is an admirable goal; centering the author and her extended family this much is self-indulgent. The frequent suppositions are often eye-rolling: at one point, Dykstra tells us that Oberbroeckling and her boyfriend went to the movies, then rattles off a list of popular movies of that year, and says that maybe they went to one of them. Dykstra is an experienced magazine writer, seems to know that she’s subverting the genre, and is perhaps overly proud of it. Sentences like “maybe this wasn't a mystery of one woman’s life and why one woman died but the mystery of why women die” are meant to be profound, but mostly sound like Carrie Bradshaw got really into Ann Rule.
So, the dueling narratives fit together only imperfectly, but taken individually, they work well. One of the top reviews on Amazon complains that the book is a feminist tract disguised as true crime. For some, that’s going to be a “you got your peanut butter in my chocolate” situation; others may want to enjoy the true-crime aspects without being implicated in the problem. I think both Dykstra and readers might have preferred the alternate-universe version of this book that ends with a definitive explanation of Oberbroeckling’s death, but What Happened to Paula is admirable in how it makes do without it. — Dan Cassino
VH1 is expanding its Monday-night true-crime line-up with My True Crime Story. The show, which promises “features first person stories of real people mixed up in headline-grabbing crimes,” is narrated by Remy Ma, who according to the press materials “can attest first hand to what it's like to get caught up in the fast life, face the consequences and come out the other side victorious.”
My True Crime Story will join Infamy in VH1’s stable of true-crime programming hosted by cultural figures whose connection to the material might seem…tackily overdetermined? This sounds missable to me (I still haven’t made the time to check out Infamy, which is sitting on my DVR, failing to tempt me), although I’d watch a doc on Remy Ma. Any thoughts? — SDB
In other upcoming-projects news, WE has dropped a supertease for The Mysterious Death of Eazy-E, a special apparently alleging that there’s more to the rap legend’s death of AIDS than meets the eye. This does have the glaze of crackpottery, IMO, but it’s certainly not the prepackaged-sounding same-old, so it’s more intriguing to me than MTCS; here’s that trailer:
And the Dan Abrams chann— er, “A&E” has a couple returning shows that might have flown under your radar, but which to my surprise I thought were well done. Accused: Guilty or Innocent? returns for a second season on August 19, and while I thought it might have fit better in another TV medium when I reviewed it last year, I still liked it. Kids Behind Bars: Life or Parole was also better than I expected, albeit with basic-cable-structure caveats, and it’s back August 26.
Does that mean you should watch A&E’s run at a grand unifying theory of mass murderers and ’Murrican culture, Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America? M…aybe? Sometimes it seems like the network is trying to atone for the copaganda it unleashed via Live PD, or the garbage-time content of its sister network’s ripped-from-the-headlines properties, or both, but more than a few of its less-heralded series and specials do try to do something different or take a new angle. Still, piquing my interest with anything Bundy-related is a long shot. That trailer’s below, FWIW. — SDB
On the face of it, this Mirror piece on why we listen to true-crime podcasts doesn’t have much to offer. The stilted writing starts in the subhed — “We discover whether we are weird for enjoying such macabre content or whether there is a deeper reasoning” — and matters don’t improve as the article continues, through what’s basically an aggregation of Googling the search string “true crime attraction psychology” by the author (who I won’t name; her editors may not have cared whether she looked foolish but I don’t need to pile on). The so-called insights aren’t bad, but they aren’t fresh, either, and the piece culminates with an utterly predictable list of pod recommendations and a cutesy Twitter link. And that’s when shit got weird.
I don’t know if this is an algorithmic result or if this tag shows up in the piece for everyone, but this is a screenshot of what the bottom of the story looked like for me…
I spend a not insignificant amount of time each day processing vintage true-crime inventory, ergo I am not a stranger to/easily shocked by classless branding choices, but: ew. — SDB
Speaking of classless choices, it’s time to talk about money! In order for us to pay our top-notch contribs like Dan Cassino, not to mention the cable bill, we do rely on your paid subscriptions. If you appreciate what we do and can spare $5 a month so I can — just as an example — rent misfires like this and report back, please consider upping your commitment to a paid sub today.
Can’t unpinch those pennies just now? We’ve been there. Maybe pass our info along to a like-minded friend or colleague instead; we’d appreciate that a lot too.
The “Midsummer Cluster” happened to peak over the weekend this year. As I’ve probably mentioned, my pops (still not the Zodiac, BTW) has a birthday right around now, which is no doubt why I started noticing the amount of tragedy that seemed to gather around mid-July. This year’s natal weekend didn’t pass without incident, either: not only did lightning hit a centuries-old tree in my parents’ yard while my dad was watching a deeply disappointing Mets game*, but a shooting halted play during a Padres-Nationals game in Washington at around the same time. Not sure what the universe is trying to tell us about the ghost runner, but it did seem to sign off on my birthday gift for my dad: a Kindle copy of Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder.
*everyone (except Edwin Díaz) is fine, and our myriad “Wonderboy” jokes aside, the tree seems unperturbed except for the on-the-nose lightning bolt scar running thirty feet down its bark
Dad promised to get back to me with a capsule review, but the Goodreads reviews suggest that the research on that one’s a bit whiffy, so I may have to lend him a related tome I just got in at Exhibit B.: The Chicago Cub shot for love: A Showgirl’s Crime of Passion and the 1932 World Series. The Natural rears its referential head again here, as the received wisdom on the shooting that catalyzes events in both book and film is that it’s based on the story of Eddie Waitkus…but some scholars now think the central figure is based on Billy Jurges, the titular Cub of Jack Bales’s book. You can read the SABR article from 2016 that became the book right here; if you’d like to read the actual book, but get a discount, great news — just enter code EXHIBIT5 at checkout over at Exhibit B., and save some money on that and anything else at the shop. Good until tomorrow night!
…Oh, and I checked to see if either of these incidents falls under the Cluster; Waitkus was shot in the middle of June, Jurges July 6th. Call it. — SDB
A couple of reviewers have clocked Dr. Death for failing to analyze the criminal at the center of the story. My esteemed colleagues Claire Spellberg Lustig at Primetimer and Daniel D’Addario at Variety separately complained, via the respective headlines on their reviews, that the series is “a whydunit with no answers” that “lacks insights about the criminal that inspired it,” and I don’t think their conclusions are incorrect. Both statements are true. I do think Lustig’s assertion in particular that the docudrama “seems to miss the point”…uh, seems to miss the point also, because Dr. Death is in this iteration, and has IMO always been, a how-dunnit. How did Christopher Duntsch rise as far as he did, and do as much damage as he did? How was Duntsch allowed to happen, to multiple people?
And neither reviewer is “wrong” to find the series unsatisfying on the basis that it doesn’t solve the puzzle of Duntsch’s motives. Lustig is perhaps incorrect in stating that “Dr. Death never once explores what might have been going on on inside the neurosurgeon’s head”; I think it does gesture at a handful of possible motivations — failure in other arenas; alienation from parents who revere Jesus and other siblings, not necessarily in that order — and I think those sequences, while they work very well on a performance level, don’t succeed particularly well narratively, and the reason I think that is something that I’ve said many many times in reviews of various series and documentaries about sociopaths, namely that it’s functionally pointless to analyze them, because we can’t understand them. I mean, of course analyzing actual sociopaths is useful, medically and culturally, but sometimes bad guys are just bad, and there’s no reason, or no one reason, and trying to boil it down to “his father’s disappointment corroded his ethics” or “he suffered a series of undiagnosed concussions playing football that something something corpus callosum-cakes” is just so much wheel-spinning, at least from a (re-)viewing standpoint. It’s like all the anecdotal longreads about “economic anxiety” driving Trump voters, like, yeah, maybe! Maybe that’s why they voted for him. Or maybe they’re just racist dicks, like him, and that’s something we snowflakes can’t really “understand” because we aren’t racist dicks, and anyway, understanding the why doesn’t change the what of it.
People have a lot of reasons for consuming true crime and a variety (so to speak) of different things they need it to do for it to engage them, and one of those things, sometimes, is the desire to understand what motivates a bad actor (…so to speak) so as to feel a measure of control, to de-randomize the horror of a case. That angle of connection to true-crime cases is very real, perfectly valid, and value-neutral, and this is not a call-out. It’s me interrogating (………so to speak) what we mean by the phrase “reviewing true crime,” and the different ways different writers respond to material, or cases, or media or act structures or whatever it is that lets stories resonate. I didn’t review this one per se, but my theoretical write-up may not even have mentioned the lack of a solution to the psychological Duntsch puzzle, because I don’t see it as a lack — because bringing the audience closer to an “understanding” of Duntsch is, in my opinion, not a realistic goal, and to try to reach it would have compromised the storytelling.
But what the hell do I know, I just got in a bidding war on eBay over a JFK comic. Step over to the weekend’s convo thread on Dr. Death to let us know your thoughts, if you watched, and if you feel any kind of way about the docudrama’s reviews so far or the way these things get reviewed generally, let us hear from you. — SDB
This week on Best Evidence: The FBI’s mishandling of the Nassar investigation, the death of a crime reporter, and much more.