If one single genre defined television in 2015, it was true crime. Bookended by The Jinx and Making a Murderer, it suddenly felt as if “quality” television had fled fictional narrative to seize on true crime documentaries as its last resort. In retrospect, the movement has been fairly short lived, with American Crime Story emerging almost immediately to parody this tendency towards “quality” forensic recreations and explorations. Nevertheless, the moment has been pronounced enough to encourage many fledgling true crime fans like myself to seek out some of the forerunners to these two incredible documentaries. While various series have been invoked as precursors, 2004’s The Staircase has been consistently remarked upon as one of the most powerful. Like both The Jinx and Making a Murderer, it’s about a situation that initially seems fairly simple – writer Michael Peterson’s discovery of his wife Kathleen’s body at the bottom of the staircase in their family home in Durham, North Carolina in 2001 – and quickly gets more complex. In many ways, I wasn’t left with any firm conviction as to Peterson’s guilt or innocence, but instead a strong sense of the possibility of reasonable doubt, a possibility continually foreclosed by a prosecution team that was determined to prove that, at the very least, Peterson had pushed his wife down the staircase and, more dramatically, that he had bludgeoned her to death before artfully positioning her body and preparing himself for a hysterical call to 911.
What ensues follows the various attempts made by the defense, led by David Rudolf, to refute this claim, although the series didn’t necessarily start out with any great ambition, with director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade only attaching himself to Peterson and the defense team due to the high profile nature of the case, which is apparently still much discussed in Durham to this day. For the first couple of episodes, then, the series has quite a downbeat, naturalistic kind of vibe, not that far from reality television, as we get to know Peterson in the weird distended space between his prosecution and his trial – bail time – along with the defense team hired to represent him. It’s only when two quite unexpected factors enter the case that the documentary starts to take on a more urgent and dramatic tone. Firstly, it emerges that one of Peterson’s old friends, and the mother of his adopted daughters, died in similar circumstances a decade before when he was living in Germany with his first wife. As with Kathleen, she was discovered at the bottom of a staircase, in a position and attitude that the prosecution set out to prove is just as incompatible with a fall as this more recent event. Secondly, it emerges that Peterson was bisexual, and had entertained many liaisons, if not actual relationships, with men over the course of his marriage with Kathleen, although it is unclear whether Kathleen was as amenable to this as Peterson claims.
Complicating all that is the sprawling, heterogeneous character of Peterson’s family life, which feels well suited to the his family home (no matter how much time we spend there, it’s impossible to ever feel totally oriented, even or especially as it becomes homelier with each episode). Firstly, there is Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, from a previous marriage, who becomes progressively alienated from Peterson and the Peterson cause as the series proceeds. Secondly, there are Peterson’s own sons, Clayton and Todd, from his first marriage (and we eventually meet Peterson’s first wife as well, who is still living in Germany after she moved there with Peterson in the 1970s). Finally, there are Peterson’s adopted daughters, Martha and Margaret, whose parents were friends of Peterson and his first wife in Germany. It is these two girls whose mother was also found at the foot of a staircase, shortly after their father had passed away, inducing Peterson and his wife to adopt them, with Peterson apparently taking on most of the parental burden after he and his wife split up in turn and he returned to the United States. As might be expected, Martha and Margaret’s relationship with Peterson is one of enormous pathos, since it’s clear that they desperately love him as their adoptive parent even as they are forced to consider the possibility of him having murdered both their biological and adoptive mothers.
Nevertheless, Martha and Margaret’s loyalty never feels like desperation either, just because what emerges from the forensic investigation is how much of a family man Peterson is, at least amongst his immediate family. While he cautions the defense against going too far in search of character recommendations, it’s clear that he’s utterly beloved in his own household and that he treated his adopted children as his own, with even Caitlin having to concede that, while she does believe that Peterson murdered her mother, it was a different version of Peterson from anything that she ever knew or saw, a side of him that must have been confined in some way to the relationship. It’s not surprising, then, that the relationship becomes in some sense the focus and object of the trial, but what is surprising is how the picture of Peterson’s bisexuality emerges not as a shameful secret but as a part of his sexual self that was – apparently – fully accepted by Kathleen and divested of any shame on his own part. Nevertheless, the trial and series is irreducibly contoured by the sheer possibility of this being a functional, devoted marriage, a possibility that comes to feel more or less coterminous with the possibility of reasonable doubt.
In that sense, it feels as if the events of the trial anticipate the debates and conversation currently taking place around polyamorous relationships, as well as the shift from gay/straight identification to a more fluid and provisional conception of bisexuality and queerness. By the same token, it makes you realise how much things have changed since the early 2000s as well, not least because of how aggressively prosector Freda Black turns Peterson’s sexual life into the centre of the trial. While DA Jim Hardin is officially in charge of the case, it is Black who steals the show, always appearing at such a pitch of melodramatic intensity and insanity that it continually feels as if her face is about to fall apart under the competing pressures placed upon it. In particular, she registers disgust more viscerally and inadvertently than anyone I have ever seen in a documentary – to the point where she’s almost unable to speak – which serves her perfectly in a case where it’s just as important – if not more important – to convey moral disgust to the jury as to regale them with the forensic particulars of the case, which become increasingly doubtful and open to interpretation as it proceeds. What is striking, however, is that Black’s disgust seems to peak at just those moments at which the defense claims something like a functional family life for Peterson, just as his bisexuality – and especially his paternal and biological relation to his children – seems somehow more confronting to her for not being able to be relegated to the remoter reaches of homosexuality.
From that perspective, one of the great scenes in the series is the cross-examination of “Brad” a male escort styled as “Soldier Top” who is brought to the stand to testify to his plan to meet up with Peterson for sex in the weeks preceding Kathleen’s death. What Black is expecting exactly is not clear, but she seems totally unprepared for this handsome, respectable but also somewhat cheeky All-American soldier who is as unashamed and pragmatic about his profession as the defense could possibly hope. In reality, he ends up becoming an asset for the defense, as he sets about explaining – somewhat sweetly and awkwardly – that most of his clients are married men, that most of their wives know about their dalliances, and that very few of them fall into the stereotypes or preconceptions with which Black is trying to tarnish the minds of the jury. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he points out that he’s had several attorneys and even one judge amongst his clients, at which point the judge in this particular case murmurs “Not this judge” and an unearthly laugh ruptures Black’s face – the laugh she’s always trying to hold back in some way – as she finds everything she has been trying to project onto the accused suddenly somehow thrown back upon herself. In its own way, it feels like a small victory for LGBT visibility, while the laughter it sets free across the courtroom creates a weird momentary respite from the merciless character assassination of the prosecution, a sudden and shared awareness of absurdity that is as fragile as it is fleeting.
The respite is all the more relieving in that it gradually becomes clear – or is at least implied – that Peterson was a “bottom,” passive in sexual sensibility if not always in sexual practice. If a clearly delineated homosexually “top” is about the most amenable form of queerness in this conservative context, then this bisexual “bottom” who also happens to be a functional and successful family man creates a cognitive dissonance that doesn’t just warp Black’s face every time she talks to him, but costs the prosecution considerable affective labour to both articulate the contours of his sexuality while impressing upon the jury that it there is something unspeakable about it at the same time. Put even more simply, it gradually comes to feel as if there is a radically queer conception of family and family obligation that is somehow promulgated by Peterson, which thwarts any straightforward attempt on the part of the prosecution to disavow him in the name of family values while also ensuring that their moral outrage – and their performance of their moral outrage – becomes more and more affectively charged with that frustration. As a result, there is something strangely and irreducibly ethical about Peterson’s presence, as well as an enormous pathos and poignancy that makes his final conviction almost unbearable to watch, especially because Lestrade chooses to conclude the series in a very abrupt way, with the jury only bringing in their decision in the last five minutes and the final shot briefly lingering on Martha and Margaret’s faces as Peterson is taken into custody before cutting clinically to black. Watching it in hindsight, I now know that Peterson was acquitted in 2011 – the subject of The Staircase 2: Last Chance – so I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to watch it at the time, when it appeared as if this was going to be an irreversible life sentence. Indeed, was only a major and quite unexpected expose of police corruption in Durham that led to this acquittal, rather than any single new piece of evidence coming to light.
While The Jinx and Making a Murderer may have galvanised and agitated me, then, neither of them moved and preoccupied me as much as The Staircase. In part, it has to be the queer angle, as well as the breathtaking portrait that the series paints of hate-mongering. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a series that really brings it home that the early 2000s belong to a totally different moment in queer history and liberation, making it one of those salutary reminders that the queer present is always fairly recent, and that advances that seem so integral to our experience of the contemporary world are often rooted in struggles that took place within the immediate past. At the same time, I think I was doubly surprised and shocked because I have always pictured the Durham-Raleigh area where the series unfolds as something of a liberal pocket within the South, thanks to the presence of Duke and Chapel Hill. Unlike both Robert Durst and Steven Avery, Peterson was also something of an intellectual presence within this community, having supplemented his writing career with a regular column in which he reflected upon the state of his adopted home town. It is no coincidence, then, that the only really expansive “tour” we get of Durham comes from a drive with Peterson himself, in which he points out the various unfulfilled economic promises of the city, nor that our only excursion into Duke comes by way of Kathleen’s two sisters, who visit to investigate the Peterson archive in search of “clues” from his manuscripts as to his sexual deviance. Two of the most memorable characters in their film, their capacity for disgust is only exceeded by Black’s and my impression of the Duke library will always be contoured by their forensic efforts.
At the same time, the pathos of the series, for me, doesn’t just come down to the way in which it positions queer people but the way in which it positions queer kinship and family-building more generally, since it’s clear that what finally scandalises the prosecution – and possibly wins them the case – is not Peterson’s discrete sex acts – some of which are quite difficult to prove – but the fact that he still nourished familial aspirations. In that sense, the very expansiveness and provisionality of Peterson’s sprawling, adoptive family – and its correlative in the Peterson house – feels like the main subject of the trial, reminding me of how often queer kinship structures are devalued, disavowed and pathologised, even or especially when they aspire to the same level of sociality – or a better level of sociality – as the nuclear family. Whereas both Durst and Avery’s crimes – assuming they were guilty – could easily be framed as symptomatic of wider social, political and economic currents, there is a more visceral and affective sense here that Peterson is really in some sense a victim as well. Of course, that’s not to excuse Peterson if he is guilty, nor to suggest that anyone other than Kathleen is the ultimate victim, but simply to say that Lestrade does a particularly eloquent and affecting job of contextualising the crime within the broader kinds of criminality projected onto Peterson’s “lifestyle,” if only by adopting an impassive, casual, domestic approach that forms a necessary counterpoint to the prosecution’s invasive, hectoring and aggressive cross-examination.
If that sounds too heavy though, it’s also important to end by affirming that this casual domesticity also gives the series an incredible joy, resilience and good humour, in keeping with Peterson’s stoicism about going to jail, and his assurance to his daughters, in particular, that he will be able to retain his connection to them. In particular, the footage shot in and around the Peterson home often feels like the last days in some great experiment in American family-building, with the result that the more poignant dimensions are more than offset by moments of great comic serendipity, as well as moments between Peterson and his family that are comic in the broader, more optimistic sense of being able to envisage a happy ending, or a reparative kinship structure, even if that is not necessarily how the trial itself plays out. Without being too verbose about it, I really did feel that, in their own little way, these segments felt like a strange and elusive utopia, making me less and less certain that Peterson had had anything to do with the murder, a position that has been reinforced by the allegations that have emerged around the Durham blood spatter expert, whose testimony played a critical role in the prosecution’s case.
To their credit, too, the defense team seem to recognise that there is something special and sacrosanct about this experimental family space, not intruding themselves too much on the multiple occasions they work from the house, but not restraining or abstracting themselves too much to puncture the essentially comic, inclusive and reparative atmosphere as well. In a cautious and yet joyful manner, they also enter into the Peterson family as the series proceeds, which gives their relationship with Peterson himself a quite different character from, say, the relationship between Avery and his lawyers in Making a Murderer. At one point, Rudolf suggests that they put part of their capital towards conducting a Kinsey-like report on polyamoury, bisexuality and marriage, in order to contextualise Peterson’s behaviour and make it seem less alienating to the jury. While this normalisation is ultimately what proves to be most affronting, Rudolf’s attitude – “if it turns up one unpredictable fact, it will be worth it” – epitomises the defense’s attitude to the Peterson family as a whole, as well as the stance that we are encouraged to take as viewers. Even more than The Jinx and Making a Murderer, which more or less advocate for a particular forensic conclusion, The Staircase asks us to open ourselves up to unpredictability, transforming reasonable doubt into a kind of aesthetic apprehension of the serendipitous – almost the miraculous – in what has to be the most moving and mercurial true crime documentary that I have ever seen.