by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I watched a quite gripping movie I recorded last night from Lifetime, Family Sins, a 2004 production originally aired on CBS and telling the more-or-less true story of Frances Burt (played by Kirstie Alley and called “Brenda Geck” in the film, a deliberately ugly last name which seemed designed as a signal to the audience that as goody-two-shoes as she seems in the early scenes, we’re really supposed to hate her). She was a real-life mother and foster mother in Providence, Rhode Island (though the locale was changed to “Adelaide, New Hampshire” in the film and is actually “played” by Calgary, Alberta, Canada, since Canadian government money was a large part of the film’s financing) who was a pillar of the community, a friend of the city’s mayor and the reverend of her church, a landlord with a lot of properties — and a criminal mastermind who recruited the members of her family, biological, marital (one of her key conspirators was her son-in-law Gary Crandall — played by short, dark and very handsome Tygh Runyan) or foster, to commit crimes for her.
Among her criminal enterprises were arson — when you fell behind on the rent to her, her usual solution was to burglarize your home, torch it and then sell your stuff later — shoplifting (one of her “kids” is taught how to boost stuff from stores at age 10), insurance scams on her supposedly “accidentally” burned buildings, and kidnapping — since one of her “foster children,” Marie Devereaux (Deanna Milligan), is actually the child of a former friend and tenant of Brenda’s, Nadine Devereaux (Kathleen Wilhoite), who made the mistake of crossing Our Villainess. It seems that one day Brenda went to visit her and infant Marie soiled her diaper — and Nadine didn’t have a replacement available, so Brenda immediately talked her into moving out of the apartment and into Brenda’s own home, where she locked Nadine in the basement, starved her (giving her only enough food to keep her alive, and that only at irregular intervals) and told Marie that from then on she was supposed to use the word “Mom” to Brenda, not the crazy woman in the basement (who, not surprisingly, eventually did become pretty crazy from the effects of her imprisonment).
This went on, amazingly, for 18 years, until Brenda’s husband and co-conspirator (but definitely second banana) Ken Geck (Kenneth McNulty), who’d previously been helping himself to Nadine’s body — as was at least one of the Gecks’ biological sons — decided to rape Marie, sneaking into her bedroom one night and telling her, “Think of someone you like.” Marie got pregnant and gave birth to a son, Jeremy (Brandon Baylis), and three years later (there are some pretty wrenching time shifts in the first third of this film, and though it takes place over an 18-year period Kirstie Alley doesn’t seem to age visibly) — though Baylis looks closer to five than three in the escape sequence — Marie takes her son and gets out of the Geck menagerie, finds both a job and a living space in a trailer motel, and then makes complaints to the Department of Youth and Family Services and then to the state assistant district attorney, Philip Rothman (Will Patton). Rothman sends a police officer to investigate and the cop gets “snowed” by Brenda’s well-honed angel-of-mercy act, so nothing happens until Marie passes a department-store window in which there’s a TV blasting the news report from a Michael Turko-style activist reporter named Douglas Cain (Louis Koutis). She appeals to Cain, who does a story about her, and the report propels Rothman into action; he goes after other witnesses and gets the son-in-law, who’s moved out himself after (we learn later) a chilling scene in which the Gecks literally handcuffed him to a chair and tortured him, then threatened him with the loss of any contact with his two children if he turned state’s evidence (and as one of Brenda Geck’s principal fire-starters he has a lot to tell).
The rest of the story turns on Brenda’s attempts to derail the prosecution, both legal and illegal — in addition to taking aim at the credibility of the witnesses against her (Rothman learns that Marie once failed a mental competency test, and Marie insists that Brenda set up the test and deliberately ordered her to throw it so she could have that to use against her at some future date) Brenda also makes calls from prison to a Black hit-man named Leroy Hobbs (Viv Leacock — a boy named Viv?) and has him break into Marie’s trailer and threaten to kidnap Nadine and/or Jeremy. The film is directed quite effectively by Graeme Clifford and vividly acted, especially by Alley, whose performance is a tour de force; she plays Brenda neither as raving psycho nor coolly collected psycho but as a woman constantly on the defensive, able so totally to compartmentalize her mind (what George Orwell called “doublethink”) that she can not only declare herself the world’s greatest mother and get other people to believe her but believe it herself as well even though she’s literally training her kids to steal for her (the opening sequence, which is chilling enough as it is but becomes even more creepy later, is of a Mother’s Day party in which all the family members are giving Brenda household appliances and other expensive gifts — which, we realize later, they stole from the local big-box store and which she later “returned” for cash as part of her scam).
Rothman calls her a “sociopath” in court, but the description doesn’t quite seem to cover the extent of her crimes or her craziness — she seems capable of a twisted sort of affection and even loyalty — and one of the most bizarre aspects of this movie was how she was able to get away with this for so long. What’s even odder is that, while the ending of the movie made it seem like she was going to prison for a very long time (she gets a 30-year sentence and her husband gets 25), in fact the real Frances Burt’s sentence was reduced to 11 years (the other 19 were suspended) and she served only seven, from 1994 to 2001 — which means she’d already been released on probation when this film was made. Maybe there is something to the oft-expressed Right-wing belief that the U.S. is too easy on criminals, especially white ones …