A Self-Absorbed Journalist Cozies Up to a Serial Killer

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos via Starz/FBI
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos via Starz/FBI

Samuel Little claimed to have fatally strangled 93 women in numerous states over the course of his homicidal life, and Confronting a Serial Killer lets him expound on his crimes—and his motivations—in hours of audio interviews conducted by author Jillian Lauren. Both for this docuseries and as part of the research for her forthcoming book Exit Sandman: The True Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, Lauren struck up a friendship with Little following his 2014 conviction and incarceration for the murders of three women. And as she states repeatedly throughout this five-episode affair, her goal was to coax confessions from Little (who died in December 2020) in order to identify his victims and, thus, to give voice to the voiceless, whose demises were ignored by a criminal justice system that saw them as, per Lauren, “less dead.”

Thus, Lauren and director Joe Berlinger want Confronting a Serial Killer to be a story about not only Little but, more importantly, the dozens of female prostitutes and drug addicts he murdered—a noble cause, that, unfortunately, is undone by the fact that this non-fiction work’s real protagonist and subject turns out to be Lauren herself.

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Premiering April 18 on Starz, the latest true-crime effort from Berlinger (Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel) is a case of a journalist allowing herself to become the story. Lauren’s intentions are principled and her triumphs are real, but from the moment she first appears on camera, there’s a performative quality to her every teary breakdown, breathy line reading, narrated piece of prose, and reference to Little as “Mr. Sam.” Especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the proceedings’ talking heads, Lauren overacts for the camera, which dovetails with the fact that she, and Berlinger, consistently keep her role in this saga front-and-center, such that it quickly becomes less about what Lauren is doing than about the fact that she’s doing it—empathetically, righteously, and at great cost to her own sanity and the well-being of her family.

Lauren’s husband Scott Shriner (the bassist for Weezer) and their two sons occasionally pop up to expound on the toll Lauren’s work is taking on her and their clan. That notion is then emphasized by Lauren’s first-person commentary, during which, with intense sorrow in her voice and eyes, she talks about her responsibility to Little’s victims, her identification with them (thanks to her own history with drugs and abusive men), her desire to create safe spaces for her kids amidst her macabre toil, her inability to let go of these many victims’ ordeals, and—most of all—her struggle to endure endless chats with Little. Despite denying any culpability at his initial trial, Little candidly opens up to Lauren during their phone calls, providing all sorts of gruesome details regarding his childhood, his mindset, and his myriad disgusting crimes.

Alas, in a manner that’s the opposite of Liz Garbus’ I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which married Michelle McNamara’s quest to ID the Golden State Killer with a portrait of the sociopolitical climate of ’70s and ’80s America, Berlinger turns the proceedings into a platform for his star. And every time Lauren says she’s putting the spotlight on the dead, it feels as if she’s courting it herself.

Compounding matters further, Lauren’s analysis of Little is of a pedestrian variety—although that doesn’t stop her from delivering it as if she were dispensing heretofore-unknown insights. The notion that Little was a “predator” who preyed upon marginalized women whom society presumably wouldn’t miss—and who wouldn’t warrant serious police investigations—is spot-on and borne out by the facts of Little’s decades-long killing spree. Yet it’s also a quite obvious facet of this tale. Time and again, the series makes weighty pronouncements that just aren’t nearly as astute or revelatory as it thinks they are, thereby rendering everything a bit exaggerated and empty.

Lauren’s larger contention is that Little’s saga is a stark example of criminal justice system failures, since despite having a rap sheet that totaled nearly 100 pages (including offenses that ranged from breaking-and-entering and assault, to rape and murder), he constantly evaded serious prosecution. This too is true, and speaks to a general disregard for sex workers and drug abusers (especially when they’re women of color). And an angry new confrontation between Laurie Barros, who survived a Little attack, and the prosecutor who failed to get a guilty conviction (instead, he settled for a plea deal that netted Little two years behind bars) speaks to the misogyny at play here, where on-the-skids women were discarded in fields, in barrels, and in trash dumps by the monstrous Little, and then were slighted by the institutions designed to stand up for them.

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Even in this respect, however, Confronting a Serial Killer tells us things we already know while simultaneously stating things that don’t jibe with the material at hand. For example, Lauren proclaims that Little’s ability to escape prosecution for so long is proof that the justice system is racist—this despite the fact that he was a Black man who, in many instances, killed white women, which you’d think would make him ideal fodder for a racist system. Not helping matters is a screwy non-chronological structure that makes things less—rather than more—clear, and suggests that Berlinger himself knows that there isn’t anything especially profound to be gleaned from Little’s reign of terror, save for the fact that it’s depressingly easy to get away with killing those who reside on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

In his chats with Lauren, Little offers up ample evidence of his own deviant sex-driven sociopathy, his preternatural coldness, and his arrogance. He repeatedly tells Lauren that she’s destined to be with him “forever,” and that like the souls of the women he killed, he “owns” her. He’s a chilling creep, to the end. Unlike its genre brethren John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise or The Confession Killer, though, Confronting a Serial Killer marks Little as a habitual liar and yet takes much of what he states at face value. Lauren and law enforcement’s success at pinning numerous unsolved murders on Little—based on his own testimonials—does suggest that, in many respects, he was telling the truth. But the possibility that he was also an egomaniac laying claim to crimes he didn’t commit goes unexamined here—unsurprisingly, given the series’ general blind spot when it comes to self-absorption.

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