Ashley Stayner is a self-proclaimed true crime fanatic. She also has a front row seat to two true crime stories in her own family.
Her father is kidnapping victim-turned-hero Steven Stayner, the subject of the two-part TV movie I Know My Name Is Steven, which aired in 1989. Her uncle is Carey Stayner, the serial killer currently being killed. found on death row. for “the Yosemite Murders,” which have been covered on numerous true crime shows like American Justice, FBI: Criminal Pursuit, How It Really Happened, and more.
“I grew up learning everything about my dad and his whole story through the media,” Ashley Stayner tells The Guardian. Her affection for true crime persists despite the extensive and invasive attention she devotes to her family’s trauma. “It’s interesting to know how the human mind works and how the environment can make someone who they are,” says Stayner, describing the appeal of the genre. “I think real crime shows that different side of who people can be.”
Stayner, 36, has been speaking to the media from his home in Atwater, California as he prepares for his own true 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, returns to the stories of the Stayner family while deconstructing how they have been told and processed; how authorship, artistic license, and true crime tropes would play out in the TV movie, and how the media would present Carey Stayner’s horrific deeds in direct contrast to her younger brother’s earlier victimization and heroism.
Steven Stayner was seven years old when he was kidnapped 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 son: five-year-old Timmy White. Refusing to let White suffer as he had, the 14-year-old Stayner escaped with the young White. He was praised for his brave actions, reunited with his family, and became a long-time media obsession as he dealt with trauma he could barely speak 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 not knowing her history, because her family avoided talking about her. “It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that I really started to understand the complexity of it all,” says Ella Stayner, referring to the period in 1999 when her uncle Carey Stayner murdered four women in Yosemite National Park. Her heinous crimes dragged her family’s story back into the public consciousness.
The captive audience will naturally do the same.
“There’s a story here that’s been told,” says Dimmock, acknowledging where his series sits in a long list of outlets that covered the Stayner family’s ordeals. “I just added to the stack.”
But his version is the first to involve family members, including Steven and Carey’s mother, Kay Stayner. The latter provides visceral and devastating details of the years in which her youngest son disappeared, recalling, for example, how she never left the house unattended in case Steven called home, or how her husband Delbert searched the ground that seemed freshly dug or chased any strange-looking vehicles he saw on the road, desperately hoping to find his son.
“I’m always drawn to things that are as close to the skin as possible,” says Dimmock. “I knew that I wanted to honor that this happened to a royal family and that there was a lot of torment outside of the media spotlight.”
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 usually left on the cutting room floor, like Kay Stayner finding a comfortable position under the studio lighting as she emotionally prepares for a long, deep conversation with Dimmock, or her relaxing post-interview sigh, As if I could let my guard down. These are Dimmock’s reminders that she, too, is playing a role in the packaging of Stayner’s narrative. Ella e ella invites questions about how that history has been formed before.
Captive Audience’s main resources include recorded conversations between I Know My Name Is Steven writer JP Miller and network executives. Excerpts from those conversations are a revealing look behind the curtain of true crime, explaining the elisions, rearrangements, cliffhangers, massaged facts, and outright fictions that narrators weave into the narrative for the sake of attention. the audience.
In his series, Dimmock begs to consider the Stayner family as part of the audience, the most captive, adding another layer to the show’s commitment to true crime as a genre. Rarely do we get to see the aftermath, how a family copes and struggles to readjust after a traumatic event that garnered national media attention, and how they, too, absorb those on-screen depictions and narratives. In the series, Ashley Stayner admits that she would conflate her father with Corin Nemec, the actor who plays him in I Know My First Name Is Steven. “That’s how you’ve been introduced to your dad,” says Dimmock, speaking directly to Stayner. “I found those elements interesting.”
The family also had to absorb the especially charged media narratives following the Carey Stayner crimes. Journalists ran wild with the theory that Carey Stayner committed murder and wanted him caught because he was jealous of the attention Steven received decades earlier and hurt by his parents’ neglect.
Dimmock explains her sensitivity to shifting sympathies, responding particularly to the ways in which the narrative casts Kay Stayner differently, from the mother of a young hero to the woman who raised a perpetrator.
“I’ve never really thought about what happens to the families of a perpetrator,” says Dimmock. “What do they experience? What do they go through? And honestly, I never wanted to talk about it before, because why would I want to know that? But in this situation, I care, because I know they’ve been through something very hard. Don’t they deserve our sympathies?
Dimmock handles the Kay Stayner story with a level of care not typically afforded true crime subjects, a genre that can often be exploitative. A section in Captive Audience very briefly hints at a history of mental illness and sexual abuse within the Stayner family without digging deeper. In the wake of Carey Stayner’s crimes, details emerged about her mental illness, the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle, and that her father allegedly abused her daughters.
“I didn’t feel like this was an opportunity to re-litigate anything,” says Dimmock, explaining his decision to set aside seemingly pertinent sexual abuse revelations, denying the audience the details they would normally expect in a true crime.
“I had the opportunity to sit down with the Stayners and hear their perspective. There’s a point where I ask Kay Stayner if she wants to talk about Carey and she says no. She didn’t have to include that. I wanted the audience to be aware of a limit.
“Kay says no, and we’re not going there.”