The Lingering Mystery of Netflix’s ‘Sins of Our Mother’
Our mother’s sins chronicles a woman’s descent into a deep religion-fueled illusion and how she decimated her family, leaving a literal trail of bodies in the wake of her self-aggrandizing apocalyptic fantasy. And it does so with precise, gripping storytelling that defines the frenzy.
Lori Vallow is a devout Mormon with a trail of trauma — abusive marriages, financial insecurity — and fierce protectiveness of her children. Or that’s who she was. At the end of the three hour race, she is unmistakably a monster.
Clearly, it falls into a religious conspiracy theory mixed with a messianic complex. She hooks up with a self-absorbed dickwad by the name of Chad Daybell (I sat here trying to think of a suitable nickname for a while, folks, and this is the one that stuck). Daybell is convinced that his poorly written, mostly self-published novels must be taken on the level of Scripture, of course with himself as a savior from the end of days. Lori creeps in directly, via podcasts and online communities, much like any number of ego-driven conspiracy theories. Eventually, however, her level of belief leaves even other doomsdays behind, leaving her in a small cult of true believers. The minuteness of his delirium is the emotional heart of the story. She still believes, to all appearances, that she is doing good.
What is it about this story, other than all the other serial killer material and grisly murders all the rage on streaming services and podcasts, that makes it so grotesquely fascinating? It’s so…ordinary. Singalongs in the car and Instagram photos. Our mother’s sins is voyeuristic, like all true crime, but there is a reassuring sense of catharsis from the family and friends shown onscreen, still processing these recent events. This is particularly the case of Lori’s son, Colby, who appears as the main columnist in the interviews (not insignificant because he is one of the rare members of the family to have come out alive, despite enormous losses). Colby as a presence and storyteller is steady and heartfelt. This is not a story that has had time to turn into a trauma story. It’s fresh: Lori’s trial isn’t scheduled until 2023. With that freshness comes the raw emotional force of those interviewed’s memories.
The twists and turns are absolutely wild: each further escalation of delirium and occasional violence revisits the question, how could you believe this of your family? Of your fiercely protective mother? It’s a question many families have been asking themselves in recent years, as the epistemology forged on social media and via extremist news sources divides families into different political realities. But the series doesn’t try to make a big point. It tells the story of a single breakdown of self and sanity that took the lives of many people.
Guess who is the last zombie??? Lori texts her brother, also a cult member, with all the giddy excitement of someone about to spoil you for the next plot twist. game of thrones. Zombie, by the way, is a cult for a person who Chad believes has been replaced by a demon, thereby justifying and mandating his murder. It was the “logic” used to slaughter both adults and children, in a slaughter that Lori continues to appear proud of, even insisting to Colby from prison that he’s the one who doesn’t understand.
The ethics of telling this story so soon — and telling it in a trending Netflix docuseries, before trial — could certainly be questioned; I think it would be a mistake not to. The causes of death of several of the victims had not even been made public at the time of filming. As solid as the storytelling is, it’s easy to imagine that there are aspects of the series that weren’t as carefully handled as they appeared. The Hollywood Reporter recently published an article interviewing Alex Gibney, Ken Burns and other filmmakers detailing the duration of these failures. An elderly couple who suffered unimaginable loss at the hands of Lori and her cult appear in footage, for example, but not in interviews. Is it because they were in mourning? Or because the documentary felt exploitative or otherwise disreputable when they were presumably approached?
Our mother’s sins is a good true crime, with heartfelt and viciously direct storytelling. But for all his frankness, he can’t unravel the core mystery of how a spirit breaks so deeply that a person can’t see the blood on their own hands.
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