True Crime Tuesdays: Girl in the Picture
Helen Archer | On 26, Jul 2022
It’s a sad fact that most true crime focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims, who become voiceless in their deaths. While The Girl in the Picture adheres, stylistically, to Netflix true crime documentary conventions, where it differs is in the mystery it is trying to untangle – namely, who was the young woman who ended up dead on the side of a road in Oklahoma City in 1990 at the age of 20 What was the story of her life? In asking and answering these questions, the film puts ‘the girl in the picture’ firmly in the picture, even as it examines her suffering at the hands of an implacable abuser.
The picture referred to in the title is the reason that the documentary exists. When investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck saw the photo of a young Jane Doe, sitting on the lap of what was assumed to be her father, he was struck by her unsettling expression. Staring out into middle distance, she has a grown-up, pensive, desperately sad look on her face – the kind of look no child should ever have. Birkbeck ended up writing two books about her life, in the process teaming up with FBI Special Agent Joe Fitzpatrick as the case of her missing son was reopened. Director Skye Borgman (who previously made Abducted in Plain Sight) includes interviews with both men in this documentary, as well as some of the friends and relatives of the person who is eventually discovered to be Suzanne Sevakis.
The documentary works backwards, from the discovery of the body which was initially identified as Tonya Hughes, wife of Clarence Hughes (both assumed names) and mother of baby Michael. Her death is just the start of the story of the relentless series of crimes committed against her during her short life. We backtrack to her high school years, where her friends knew her as Sharon Marshall, and describe her in glowing terms, as someone sweet, thoughtful and exceedingly intelligent. Having been accepted to study Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she suddenly disappeared from their lives before she could take up her scholarship. They remember, too, her strange and sinister father – one classmate having witnessed him raping Suzanne at gunpoint during a sleepover.
And back we go, because Sharon Marshall, too, was an assumed identity, and the man in the photo, with the child in his lap, is not what he seemed. By the end of the film, we have built up a picture of the brutality Suzanne had to endure in the years before her death, and of the tragedies that happened after. There are some gaps in the story, which could perhaps have been investigated more, avenues that could have been explored in order to make some sense of it all. The myriad ways Suzanne fell through the cracks of social services, for example, and of the lack of any family (and law enforcement) looking for her. What is really appalling is the thought that this seemingly normal, almost thriving teenager was hiding such abuse – that she was able to compartmentalise her home life from her school life, and that this was all happening under the noses of the various authorities.
What the viewer is left with is a story that would not be out of place in one of David Lynch’s more disturbing works, a Laura Palmer who presented an all-American charm to the outside world, while behind closed doors she was battling forces of true evil. But we’re also left with the thought of the many other victims, both past and present, who are being dragged into the darkness just below the surface of perfectly manicured lawns surrounded by the white picket fences of a Blue Velvet-style suburbia. Suzanne’s story may be extreme, but it will doubtless resonate with far too many.