Ashley Stayner is a self-proclaimed true crime fan. She also happens to have front row seats to two true crime stories in her own family.
Her father is Steven Stayner, kidnap victim turned hero, the subject of the two-part TV movie, I Know My First Name Is Steven, which aired in 1989. Her uncle is Carey Stayner, the serial killer currently sitting in the hallway of the dead. for “the Yosemite murders”, which have been covered in many true crime programs like American Justice, FBI: Criminal Pursuit, How It Really Happened and more.
“I grew up learning all about my dad and his whole story through the media,” Ashley Stayner told the Guardian. Her affection for true crime persists despite the exhaustive and pervasive focus on her family’s trauma. “It’s just interesting to know how the human mind works and how the environment can transform someone into who they are,” Stayner says, describing the appeal of the genre. “I think true crime shows that different side of who people can be.”
Stayner, 36, spoke to the media from his home in Atwater, Calif., while preparing for his own crime debut in Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story. The layered, self-aware, three-part limited series, directed by Jessica Dimmock and executive produced by the Russo Brothers, revisits the stories of Stayner’s family while deconstructing how they were told and handled; how fatherhood, artistic license and true crime tropes would play into the TV movie, and how the media would present Carey Stayner’s horrific deeds in direct contrast to his younger brother’s earlier victimization and heroism.
Steven Stayner was seven years old when he was abducted in 1972. He was held captive in a remote cabin and sexually abused for seven years. In 1980, Stayner’s kidnapper, Kenneth Parnell, kidnapped a second child: five-year-old Timmy White. Refusing to let White suffer as he had, 14-year-old Stayner escaped with young White. He was praised for his brave actions, reunited with his family, and became a lifelong media obsession while dealing with trauma he could barely talk about. He tragically died nearly a decade later in a hit-and-run.
Ashley Stayner, who was a preschooler at the time of her father’s death, has only vague memories of him. Stayner explains that she spent most of her childhood without knowing her story, as her family avoided talking about it. “It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that I really started to understand the complexity of everything,” Stayner says, referring to the time in 1999 when his uncle Carey Stayner murdered four women in the national park. of Yosemite. His heinous crimes brought his family’s story back into the public consciousness.
Captive Audience will naturally do the same.
“Here’s a story that’s been told,” Dimmock says, acknowledging where his series sits in a long line of outlets that have covered the ordeals of the Stayner family. “I just added to the pile.”
But his take is the first to involve family members, including Steven and Carey’s mother, Kay Stayner. The latter provides visceral and devastating details about the years of her youngest son’s disappearance, recalling for example how she would never leave the house unattended in case Steven called home, or how her husband Delbert searched a floor that seemed freshly dug up or was chasing any strange vehicles he saw on the highway, desperately hoping to find his son.
“I’m always very drawn to things that are as close to the skin as possible,” says Dimmock. “I knew I wanted to honor the fact that this happened to a real family and there was a lot of turmoil outside of the media attention.”
While capturing these intimate testimonies, Dimmock also draws attention to herself and the storytelling apparatus built to record, edit and frame the people in Captive Audience. It includes the bits that are typically left on the cutting room floor, like Kay Stayner finding a comfortable position under the studio lights as she emotionally prepares for a long, in-depth conversation with Dimmock, or her relaxing sigh after the interview, as if she could let her guard down. These are Dimmock’s reminders that she, too, plays a role in wrapping Stayner’s narrative. And it invites questions about how this story has been shaped before.
Key Captive Audience assets include taped conversations between I Know My First Name Is Steven screenwriter JP Miller and network executives. Excerpts from these conversations are a revealing glimpse behind the real curtain of crime, explaining the elisions, rearrangements, cliffhangers, massed facts and outright fictions the storytellers weave into the narrative for the sake of the viewer’s attention. audience.
In his series, Dimmock begs to consider the Stayner family as among the audience’s most captives, which adds another layer to the show’s engagement with true crime as a genre. Rarely do we see the aftermath, how a family copes and struggles to readjust following a traumatic event that captured national media attention, and how they too absorb these depictions and narratives on screen. In the series, Ashley Stayner admits that she would confuse her father with Corin Nemec, the actor who plays her in I Know My First Name Is Steven. “That’s how your father was introduced to you,” Dimmock says, speaking directly to Stayner. “I found these elements interesting.”
The family also had to absorb particularly charged media accounts following Carey Stayner’s crimes. Reporters eagerly ran the theory that Carey Stayner had committed murder and wanted to be caught because he was both jealous of the attention Steven had received decades earlier and hurt by his parents’ neglect.
Dimmock explains her sensitivity to shifting sympathies, particularly responding to how the narrative casts Kay Stayner in a different light, from the mother of a young hero to the woman who raised an abuser.
“I never really thought about what happens to the families of an abuser,” Dimmock says. “What are they going through? What are they going through? And honestly, I never really wanted to talk about it before, because why would I want to know? But in this situation, I care, because I know they’ve been through something really tough. Don’t they deserve our sympathy?
Dimmock handles Kay Stayner’s story with a level of care not usually given to true-crime subjects, a genre that can often be exploitative. A section of Captive Audience very briefly suggests a history of mental illness and sexual abuse within the Stayner family without delving further. In the wake of Carey Stayner’s crimes, details emerged regarding his mental illness, the alleged abuse he suffered at the hands of an uncle, and his father allegedly molesting his daughters.
‘I didn’t think it was an opportunity to question anything,’ says Dimmock, explaining his decision to leave out seemingly relevant sexual abuse revelations, denying the public the details they’re getting into. usually await in a true crime.
“I had the opportunity to sit down with the Stayners and hear their perspective. There was a point where I asked Kay Stayner if she wanted to talk about Carey, and she said no. I didn’t have to put it in. I wanted the audience to be aware of a limitation.
“Kay says no, and we’re not going.”