A Sisterhood Of Lies: Showtime’s Buried

I grew up in a planned suburban community south of San Francisco. Foster City was the brainchild of real estate developer T Jack Foster. The idea was to build a community from scratch. My family were among the pioneers. Foster wanted to be the William Levitt of the West Coast and he succeeded to some extent.

Like the Talking Heads song, Heaven, Foster City was a “place where nothing happens.” Cue early musical interlude:

That changed in 1969 when an 8-year-old girl named Susan Nason went missing. Her body was eventually discovered near the Crystal Springs Reservoir some 11 odd miles from Foster City. After an initial flurry of activity, the case went cold for 20 years. Enter Eileen Franklin Lipsker who accused her firefighter father George of kidnapping and murdering her childhood bestie.

That’s the story behind the new Showtime true crime docuseries Buried in a nutshell. It hit close to home for me both literally and figuratively. I recall my father joining the search for the missing child and my mother taking food to the Nason home. My mom knew everyone in Foster City at that point: she founded the local Newcomers club and was later a successful realtor.

I was acquainted with George Franklin Jr. He was a shy kid, so I didn’t know him well but occasionally he’d turn up at the park for our pickup baseball games. I don’t think he was very good. Neither was I. I was the klutzy son of an athletic father but made up for it with enthusiasm. George Jr. was quiet and subdued. I know why now.

Looking back, I’m proud of my parents. They didn’t panic or stop me from roaming our community. We were all free-range children back then. Besides, the Nason kidnapping was an anomaly, the town returned to being a sleepy suburban burg shortly thereafter.

The Franklins were a large and wildly dysfunctional family. Buried presents credible allegations of George Sr being a violent drunk who beat his wife and children. There are also allegations of sexual abuse that are tangled up in the lies told by Eileen and Janice Franklin. Both sisters lied so often about so many subjects that it’s hard to know what to believe. Suffice it to say that George Franklin was a bad guy.

We’re not supposed to try defendants just for being bad people. We try them for specific offenses. That’s why the Franklin case eventually collapsed under the weight of what could be called a sisterhood of lies.

The case brought by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office in 1989 was based on Eileen Franklin’s recovered memories. It was the craze in the late Eighties and early Nineties and the Franklin case was one reason why.

Eileen claimed to have witnessed her father rape and murder her childhood friend Susan. The memory was supposedly evoked by Eileen’s daughter resemblance to Susan Nason. I’m skeptical: that sounds like a soap opera plot or something from a Lifetime movie.

The most disturbing part of George Franklin’s conviction is that it was based on the uncorroborated testimony of one witness. Nobody should be convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison based on that sort of evidence, especially as the testimony was based on recovered memories.

Media coverage of sensational trials is often dismissive of circumstantial evidence. It’s better described as physical evidence and it’s more reliable than eyewitness testimony. There was no physical evidence linking George Franklin to the murder presented at the trial. None. Bupkis.

Eileen committed perjury multiple times at her father’s trial.  She lied about whether or not she was hypnotized before recovering her memories. That would have made her testimony inadmissible under California law. Her therapist lied too. Neither was ever charged with perjury.

Eileen’s older sister Janice later recanted her testimony and turned on her sister thereby breaking up the sisterhood of lies. Their mother also changed her story after George Franklin’s conviction was reversed on appeal. The evidentiary pool was so tainted that the DA’s office dropped the notion of retrying the case.

Why did the Franklin sisters turn on their father? Revenge and fame.

As to revenge, they initially claimed that their father committed other murders. DNA testing proved that he had not. That’s circumstantial evidence. Repeat after me: it’s more reliable than eyewitness testimony.

As to fame, Eileen became a fixture on the talk show circuit after the trial: hopping from Oprah to Leeza to Sally Jessy to Larry King. She did them all. Eileen wanted her fifteen minutes of fame and she got it. She was even played by Shelley Long in a teevee movie about the case. And yes, George Franklin was a bad man who deserved to lose his family.

The heroes of this sordid tale are defense attorney Doug Horngrad and Dr. Elizabeth Loftus who has long been skeptical that repressed memories exist. As a law student, I wrote a paper about child sexual abuse cases and the prevalence of repressed memory claims. At the time, I found Loftus’ take on repressed memories convincing: the phenomenon is rare and is often embellished.

Did Eileen Franklin lie? As to the murder of Susan Nason, yes. I’m unclear about the abuse she claimed to suffer at her father’s hands because Eileen lied so often and so exuberantly. Eileen Franklin may be pretty, but perjury is not.

Adversity either brings people closer together or destroys them. The latter happened to the Franklin family. Eileen and Janice engaged in a public feud for many years until Janice died and Eileen disappeared from the stage. Allegations of perjury aren’t good for one’s image as a crusader against child abuse. It’s a tragic case all the way around.

Buried was produced and directed by Yotam Gundelman and Ari Pines. It’s more visually striking than your basic true crime docuseries. It’s more like an Errol Morris production than something you’d see on A&E, ID Discovery or Oxygen. That’s high praise indeed.

Here’s the trailer:

Despite my skepticism about the Franklin case, it did have some positive effects. Child sexual abuse laws were changed across the country to toll, extend, or eliminate the statute of limitations in such cases. That was a good thing, especially because of all the cases involving Catholic priests.

One such case exploded while I was writing the aforementioned law school paper. One of my classmates was a former priest. He was accused of abusing altar boys. He kept a low profile after that. I’m not sure what happened to him after graduation.

Enough strolling down memory lane. It’s time to grade Buried. I give it 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+.

The last word goes to The Smithereens:

2 thoughts on “A Sisterhood Of Lies: Showtime’s Buried

  1. shapiroout says:

    We arrived in Foster City just weeks before the Franklin story re-emerged into the headlines. I remember talking to many “old timers” who had been there when the murder occurred (I think even your mom) and two things were always mentioned. One was that even if it was a true “repressed memory” why did it pop up all of a sudden now? The second was that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if George Franklin had done it.

    Nevertheless it did not make us move and my boys were just as free range as you guys were. I wouldn’t let fear rule our lives. But Foster City was one of those towns back then where everyone knew, at least to nod to, everyone else. My boys complained more about how they couldn’t ride their bikes without a helmet or on the wrong side of the street without word getting back to us, passed along through the parent network of interlaced spies. To them it was the most boring place in the world. To us, it was a small town in the middle of big cities, safe and open.

    • Peter Adrastos Athas says:

      I agreed with your sons when I was a kid. But looking back, it was a good place to grow up. My deal with my parents was “be home for dinner.” It was a good deal.

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