How These Brave Women Narrowly Escaped the Clutches of Serial Killers
The new A&E docuseries ‘I Survived a Serial Killer’ highlights the stories of women who avoided death at the hands of some of America’s most heinous monsters.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the current (and seemingly unending) spate of true-crime documentaries is the means by which modern society treats women as disposable. In tale after tale, female faces and names flash across the screen, relegated to sad data points on a list of victims slain by monstrous men who viewed them as nothing more than objects to be kidnapped, violated, and discarded on the sides of roads, in remote forests, and in the middle of deserts. Watch enough of these efforts, and it’s difficult to not despair over the misogyny that drives so many individuals to commit heinous offenses which ruin lives, destroy reputations, shatter families, and terrorize communities.
I Survived A Serial Killer, A&E’s new 12-episode series (premiering Aug. 18) about the fortunate few who escaped the clutches of their homicidal attackers, is thus a corrective of sorts to the usual true-crime narrative, diligently focusing on the testimonials of women who successfully avoided becoming another serial-killer statistic. It’s an opportunity to give voice to those who were almost silenced and, in doing so, to allow someone to speak for the many who weren’t able to evade their assailants. In half-hour installments (the first two of which were provided to press), it affords a platform for survivors to tell their own terrifying accounts of near-death abuse and violation, as well as of the strength, perseverance and courage it took to make it out of their ordeals alive.
To be fair, such noble ends go hand in hand with more sensationalistic intentions—I Survived a Serial Killer is a docuseries that also wants to drum up ghoulish excitement from these women’s horror stories. That creates an unresolvable tension between the show’s virtuous and shameless objectives, which is par for the course in such ventures. Nonetheless, A&E’s true-crime affair generally proves more respectful than tawdry, thanks to the front-and-center participation of its subjects, who recount their harrowing experiences with a candidness that by and large overshadows the proceedings’ clunky (if competent) format. In their first-person interviews, a genuine sense of bravery and resilience shines through.
I Survived A Serial Killer’s debut episode concerns Jennifer Asbenson, who on Sept. 27, 1992, was a 19-year-old girl working with physically and mentally challenged people in Palm Springs, California. On the way to work one evening, she missed the bus and opted to accept a ride from a stranger who’d pulled up beside her. When she departed, she gave this individual a fake phone number, and that wound up being a terrible mistake considering that, upon finishing her shift, she was once again approached by this man, who convinced her to join him for breakfast. As she’d come to learn, her companion was Andrew Urdiales, a former Marine and all-around psychopath, and he quickly set about making Asbenson his latest victim, tying her up, bashing her about, threatening her with guns and knives, and driving her out into the desert, where she was sure she’d perish.
She did not, of course, and Asbenson describes both her nightmare and her fortuitous flight from Urdiales via popping the latch on his car trunk and racing to nearby motorists. Asbenson relays this with genuine tears in her eyes, but she sometimes speaks in a soundbite-y fashion that suggests the involvement of a behind-the-scenes writer’s hand. That also holds true for I Survived A Serial Killer’s other interviewees, including police detectives, district attorneys, and the second episode’s center of attention, Lisa McVey Noland, who spent 26 long hours in the clutches of Bobby Joe Long, a Florida madman with a fondness for abducting women, binding them, and then raping, torturing, and killing them—after which he’d dump their bodies in out-of-the-way spots where they wouldn’t be found until long after decomposition had set in.
As with Asbenson, Noland’s commentary has a somewhat stilted quality that makes it sound like she’s reading from a script, and that goes hand in hand with phony newspaper-headline graphics and TV-reporter audio blurbs that have obviously been recorded expressly for this show. The effect is to make I Survived A Serial Killer feel prepackaged to the point of insincerity, and not helping matters are dramatic-recreation sequences often staged from the point of view of Asbenson and Noland. These various devices are designed to facilitate the show telling entire stories in a brief half-hour window. Yet the trade-off for such concision is an absence of some intriguing details (such as Long’s strange upbringing due to his struggles with Klinefelter syndrome, which left him with an additional X chromosome), as well as an air of cheesiness that undercuts the gravity of Asbenson and Noland’s torment.
Fortunately, Asbenson and Noland are compelling figures, with the latter in particular exhibiting an admirable level of candor as she describes the various sexual assaults perpetrated on her by Long. Noland was eventually released by Long, who left her blindfolded in a parking lot not far from her home, thus sparing her from joining the ranks of his other eight murder victims. Upon being caught and confessing to his various crimes, Long additionally admitted to being the “Classified Ad Rapist” who had operated in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas for years. Though it’s hard to discern precisely why Noland was granted a reprieve from this sociopath—in the end, it appears her attempts to show him kindness may have done the trick—what’s not in question is her fortitude, which she continues to exhibit today as a deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
I Survived a Serial Killer intertwines its survivors’ remembrances with those of their attackers, whose nonchalant archival-interview statements verify not only Asbenson and Noland’s claims, but their own chilling cold-bloodedness. Future episodes concerning fiends such as David Parker Ray (“the Toy Box Killer”), Richard Beasley (“the Craigslist Killer”) and Angel Resendiz (“the Railroad Killer”) will no doubt follow an identical format, for better and worse. Thankfully, on the basis of its maiden two episodes, there’s more good than bad to A&E’s latest serial-killer endeavor, which for all its corny impulses never loses sight of the tenacity—then and now—of its female subjects.