Well, like I said in my last post, yesterday, Michael and I started watching Netflix’s “Evil Genius” series about the bizarre pizza bomber case in Erie, PA. And, riveted as we were to the story, Michael and I finished the series already. In my last post, I predicted that Marjorie-Diehl Armstrong would be humanized by the documentary during the second half. And while the documentary interviews people who saw a human side of Marjorie in the courtroom of her trial, I would argue that the documentary, itself, didn’t do much to humanize her. In fact, I think the interview clips that were pieced together did a lot to suggest that Diehl-Armstrong was innately bad, and that maybe she’d always had at least a strong proclivity to be that way. This really interests me, because it flies in the face of what I think I know about human beings, and the existence of evil in the world. It’s also just a dangerous road to travel down: what can we do to someone when we label them “evil from birth?” These are some questions this post will consider.
To be fair, Diehl-Armstrong’s talent and promise is showcased in the documentary. The second half (episodes 3 & 4), like the first half, allude to her Bachelor’s degree in sociology and her Master’s in Education. The camera often pans in on the trim figure and pretty face of the young Diehl-Armstrong, who’s described as having had beauty and brains early in life—along with a modicum of mental stability that the documentary insinuates she’s lost later in life. But Marjorie’s on-paper accomplishments aren’t great mechanisms of humanization, and what the documentary left out, I thought – perhaps because it had to, perhaps because resources weren’t available to include these things – was any indication that Marjorie was ever just a normal sort of kid. The documentary didn’t include any details about her, in childhood or early adulthood, aside from her talents, skills, and accomplishments. I felt myself grasping to figure this woman out, to try to piece together what she’d been like as a small child, to begin to explain how she came to be someone who could kill without mercy or remorse, someone who could laugh at the brutal way she ended other human lives.
We know, from the documentary, that she used to play an instrument, that she felt something was very wrong with her from an early age and sought counseling many times, that she got good grades as a kid, and that, according to her father, “she’d always just come around when she wanted something.” The documentarist’s interview with Marjorie’s father revealed no great love for his daughter, which raises the question: was Marjorie a difficult child? Was she, for lack of better words, hard to love?
I guess, as a sidenote, that’s one critique I have of the documentary: I would have liked it to dig deeper. It digs really deeply into the actual case, but the documentary concludes (MAJOR SPOILER) with an interview that has nothing to do with Diehl-Armstrong and everything to do with the facts surrounding the case. The documentary was named after Marjorie – “Evil Genius” – and it tries to be both about her and about the facts of the case, but it’s only a little about her. There are, perhaps necessarily, gaping holes in the description of Marjorie’s life, and scant interviews with people who knew her that include mostly shallow details. We know, for example, that Marjorie’s mother spoiled her – or so the documentarist tells us – and we know that in her trial, Marjorie broke down crying when talking about abuse she experienced. We certainly know that she has a mental illness, because the documentary emphasized and over-emphasized that point. But what we miss are stories about quirks, idiosyncrasies, specificities. We don’t find out much not only about what young Marjorie was like, but the things she said and did throughout her life that made her particularly human. We’re left, after finishing the documentary, with as many questions as we have answers.
I find myself very puzzled by this. First, from the standpoint of on-paper achievements and physical appearance, there is a drastic difference between the Marjorie foregrounded in old black and white still shots that are often showcased in the documentary and the Marjorie we see, yelling into the camera, often, like a raving madwoman, proclaiming her innocence despite all evidence to the contrary. I think, perhaps, to that end, an entire second documentary would be needed to track her change. Did she ever really change fundamentally, or was she always mean and destructive? Did only her exterior, her ability to accomplish things condoned by society change? If so, what prompted that change, and if she changed as a human being, what contributed to her ultimate decline? For all we know about this woman, still, there’s much we don’t know.
Second, what do we do with the documentary’s potential insinuation that Marjorie was always inclined to this sort of life? How do we handle the gaping ellipses that is Marjorie’s documented childhood? How do we digest her dad’s comment that even as a kid, she only ever came around when she “wanted something?” Was she really abused? Can we begin to account for her indifference to human life, or is there no accounting for that? Can individuals really be born that way? And what are the consequences of suggesting that such a person is possible, a sort of “innate bad guy.”
I think, the problem is, it’s always precarious to essentialize a person. To essentialize someone is to suggest that something lies at their core, and to essentialize Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong might be to say that she is either innately evil, or, worse, has always been innately evil. I think the documentary, for all its strengths – and it was excellently done – really does, even through the execution of its title, want us to believe that Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is innately evil, that perhaps this “evil genius” always had a proclivity toward darker things, has always had a self-serving penchant and some disregard for human life. After watching the entire documentary, I am, as I said before, completely willing to call Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s actions monstrous. I still can’t quite, on the screen, type out “Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong must be evil,” or “Marjorie Dieh-Armstrong must be a monster,” no matter how hard I try. I still find myself wanting to know more. I am still hesitant to label, even if labels are deserved in this case.
Of course, perhaps this wanting to know more is problematic. In my last post, I questioned the implications of glorifying the so-called monster, of making the criminal seem more fascinating or intriguing that he or she really is, thereby glorifying the criminal’s deeds. Still, I think a more in-depth examination of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s life could tell us a lot about people who commit violent crimes, could help elucidate why people who do things like this do what they do. I guess, in the end, for better or worse, the now-deceased Diehl-Armstrong is a fascinating individual, and while the documentary gave us an astounding amount of answers, it still left me, ultimately, with an equally astounding amount of questions.
3 thoughts on ““Baby I was Born That Way”: Depicting Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in “Evil Genius” as Bad-Since-Birth.”
Humanizing a monster is often done so we can try to understand what made them go “bad” so we can congratulate ourselves on being good and not making the same evil decisions even if we’ve had trauma in our life. I believe that is why there is so much victim shaming when a woman has been sexually assaulted or when people blame parents when a child has been hurt. We want to delude ourselves that we would never make such decisions that ended in catastrophe for others. In essence we want to feel superior.
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I like the phrase you use, “congratulate ourselves.” It’s funny, because watching documentaries like this does often make us think “wow, I’m not so bad.” In fact, that’s why Stephen King says we love horror – to congratulate ourselves, as you would say, on not being as bad as the other guy. It’s a strange means of self-validation, but to an extent I bet we all do it. At the same time, I think true humanization helps us realize “if I’d had that person’s life, maybe I would be doing the exact same thing that person’s doing.” I don’t know that that’s the case with Diehl-Armstrong – I think few could do what she does – but I think really humanizing someone can work for the better, too.
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A story I think of in regards to humanizing a “monster” is the amazing graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. In that particular story you ache for this teen who was let down by everyone around him when he was exhibiting many troubling behaviors. Would any intervention have helped? So it’s not always just the criminal but also the people around them.
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