By Daniel Sweren-Becker
Harper/HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, 240 pages; $27.99
Daniel Sweren-Becker is an author, television writer, and playwright, whose play Stress Positions premiered in New York City at the SoHo Playhouse. A Manhattan native who currently lives in Los Angeles, he is the author of two young adult novels, The Ones and The Equals.
Sweren-Becker has now released a true crime novel, Kill Show, which is a gripping story that speaks to our inner citizen sleuths while revealing some sobering realities.
"I'm fascinated by our national obsession with true crime content, Sweren-Becker says of what inspired this book. "How do we detach from the horrific facts to find it entertaining? How do people doing this professionally sleep at night? And for those of us in the audience who can't get enough - are we passive consumers or something much more uncomfortable to admit?"
Kill Show begins with the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Sara Parcell, and the utter tragedy turns into a national obsession, as a parent's worst nightmare meets people's true crime addiction.
A viral plea for help brings Hollywood to her family's Maryland doorstep, and the race to find Sara turns into a reality TV sensation. Producer Casey Hawthorne is able to convince the desperate Parcells to let her go ahead with her game-changing concept, "Searching for Sara." Casey's pitch was to let the world find your daughter, and get paid for it.
It isn't long before "Searching for Sara" becomes appointment viewing, as the entire country becomes invested in Sara's safe return. However, the real drama lurks off camera, as prying eyes and ratings gold come at a cost for everyone involved and expose much darker truths.
Sweren-Becker tells this compelling story in oral history style, as insiders and observers speak out ten years after the events in question. These "interviews" include Sara's loved ones, friends, neighbors, teachers, the personnel of the show, the lead detective who tangled with Casey, the founder of the SareBears Facebook group, early suspects, a would-be Alex Jones, and Casey herself.
The secrets they reveal, after being hidden in plain sight through it all, might stun even the most cynical true crime aficionados. This story maps the morally gray intersection of entertainment and violence. Lines are blurred between truth and storytelling, and a family's pain feeds the appetite for the mysteries, cold cases, and violent tales people turn to for entertainment.
In this excerpt, Sweren-Becker writes of what those closest to Sara say about her last morning heading to school:
Jeannette Parcell (mother): It was a normal day. I hassled the kids out of bed, fixed breakfast. Jack was filming himself trying to eat Front Loops off his nose - he was always posting silly videos like that back then. Sara was fixing the strings on her violin. We had bought her new strings that weekend. Thirty dollars, for the good ones. Dave was reading the sports section, complaining about the Orioles' bullpen, I bet. Everyone in their own world. I'm sure the four of us barely talked, but still - it was our last good morning.
Dave Parcell (father): I had a pit in my stomach, for sure. When the kids left for the bus, I tried not to make a big deal of it. But I gave Sara an extra squeeze on the shoulder. I remember what I said: 'Have a good day, Sare-Bear.' She didn't even blink.
I stood in the doorway, staring after them as they walked to the bus stop. Jeannette saw me. I don't know if she thought anything of it.
Jack Parcell (brother): We didn't take the same school bus - Sara's went to the high school - but we waited at the same corner with some other kids from the neighborhood. When my bus came, she probably said, 'Later, dude.' and flicked my ear or something like that. I don't remember.
We got along, even if I annoyed the hell out of her sometimes. She would kick me out of her room when her friends came over, that's for sure. I get it, who wants to hang around with their little brother? Sara was five years older, but she was still nice to me, always looked out for me. Especially when our parents fought.
Jeannette Purcell (mother): Dave and I, our marriage was...good. It was fine. We just never had enough money, that was pretty much the problem. We laughed a lot, but when you don't have enough money, there's also a lot to fight about. I know that was hard for Dave. Maybe I could have eased up on him a bit. But our water heater needed to be replaced, Jack needed braces, Sara had outgrown her track shoes. I couldn't pretend these things weren't real.
Dave Parcell (father): It had been a rough few years. I was bone-tired and out of ideas. We owed a lot. The bank was coming after our house. I had started doing this crazy thing, I would leave work on my lunch break, drive home, check the mailbox for any new bills, and leave the rest of the mail for Jeannette to grab later. I didn't want her or the kids to see how bad it was.
I thought if we could just get a little breathing room to get back to even, we'd be fine. But when you've got a music prodigy in the house, there's a sense of urgency, a timeline you don't get to control. One missed opportunity could change everything.
Jeannette Purcell (mother): We'll never know how far it could have taken her, but she really was quite talented. It was always such a kick to me - where did this come from? Dave and I wouldn't have recognized Mozart if he was our uncle.
Dave Parcell (father): She got musical genes from me. I followed Aerosmith around one summer, played a lot of guitar in the arena parking lots. A guitar's not that different from a violin, you know. And Jeannette? She couldn't carry a tune if she had a bucket with a lid on it.
Jeannette Purcell (mother): My God, Sara could take your breath away, just practicing up in her room. I'd be doing the dishes at night and hear her start to play. I'd creep up the stairs and stand in the hallway, put my hand lightly on the door. Close my eyes and just listen. I'd picture her onstage. She was so small when she started, she looked like a bay horse trying to wrestle that bow, all arms and legs. She was so young, so innocent. But she played with such power. It lit me up.
Jack Parcell (brother): I never learned an instrument. My dad tried to teach me guitar one weekend when I was eight or nine years old. My fingers were hurting so bad, and he was getting frustrated and yelling at me...I threw it on the ground and ran off crying.
Dave Parcell (father): Sara wanted to do the teen summer program at Juilliard that year. It was expensive, but she deserved it, she had worked so hard. It's the best program, the best music school in the world.
So, yeah. That's how this whole mess got started. When Sara left the house that morning, I thought it was her first step to Juilliard.