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The HBO Filmmaker Attempting to Make Sense of His Mom — And Her Murder

Madison Hamburg talks about addiction, absent fathers and his moving new series ‘Murder on Middle Beach’

On March 3, 2010, Madison Hamburg’s life changed forever. The 18-year-old’s mother Barbara was found dead by her home in Madison, Connecticut, the sort of ostensibly safe neighborhood where such grisly crimes never occur. Brutally murdered — it looked like she had been beaten with a blunt object like a hammer — Barbara, 48, was in the midst of divorce proceedings with her husband Jeffrey, who was Hamburg and his younger sister Aly’s father. Devastated, Hamburg turned to drugs, a common problem in his extended family, which had battled alcoholism and addiction for generations. 

But after finally getting sober, Hamburg, who was taking a documentary class at his college and had been interested in making movies since childhood, decided he wanted to work on a project about his mom. It was supposed to be just a short, but he quickly realized his ambitions were much grander than that — and that he’d never be able to complete the assignment in time.

“The school I went to, Savannah College of Art and Design, was really good for me,” Hamburg, now 29, tells me. “My professor actually was like, ‘You didn’t turn in the project because it was way bigger than a 10-minute student film.’ We did a trailer, and he said, ‘I’ll give you guys an A if you promise to never stop working on this.’ We hopefully fulfilled that promise.”

Over the next four Sundays, the world will witness the culmination of a project that consumed much of Hamburg’s 20s. Murder on Middle Beach, which will air on HBO, is a documentary series about Hamburg’s memories of his mother, combining home movies, photos and interviews with family members and friends who knew her. But those reminiscences are complicated not just by the conflicting impressions different people had of Barbara — was she a bright light or a depressed alcoholic? — but also by the fact that her murder has yet to be solved… and that several family members suspect other family members of being involved in her killing. 

I’ll avoid spoilers, but Hamburg has stressed that he wasn’t interested in making a whodunit, which would have given Murder on Middle Beach a marketable hook during a time when cable and streaming services are awash in true-crime series. But although his passion project certainly investigates the possible explanations for who murdered Barbara, you sense that he’s more interested in clearing family members of any possible wrongdoing than delivering a big ah-ha moment. Murder on Middle Beach is less about solving a crime and more about investigating the pain and resentment that have been bubbling under his family for years — starting with his own strained relationship with his combative, distant father, who steadfastly doesn’t want to talk to his son about Barbara’s killing, making vague comments about outstanding legal issues. The more Hamburg digs into his mother’s past, the more animosity and dark secrets he unearths among his loved ones. What we’re left with is one of the odder, more heartbreaking coming-of-age stories in quite a while. 

When I spoke to Hamburg this week by phone, he sounded like he was still processing that this long-gestating project was finally over, about to be sent out into the world and no longer in his control. (As a self-declared perfectionist, he wasn’t entirely enthused about that prospect.) But instead of talking about murder suspects and possible motives, we focused on how he worked through his grief by throwing himself into this documentary. Before he started filming, though, he had to acknowledge to friends and classmates that his mother had actually been murdered — he was scared of the stigma such an admission might create. Ironically, he’s gone on to make a four-and-a-half-hour series that’s all about that very fact. His private shame is now out there for everyone to see.

During our conversation, we talked about staying sober while making such a heavy film, finally standing up to his father and what it was like to ask his family members on camera if they killed his mom. Near the end of Murder on Middle Beach, we see him at a memorial service telling his mom’s spirit that he’s going to be okay. That sense of bittersweet contentment pervaded our talk. “I feel like releasing this series is going to make me whole again,” he says. Below, he explains how he got there.

Note: There are spoilers in this interview.

We’re living in a golden age of true-crime series. While working on Murder on Middle Beach, did that make you think there might be an audience for this very personal story?

To be honest, it was a really hard pitch. [laughs] We’re not adhering to the convention of what has grown around the true-crime genre — in a way, it’s more of a story about identity. But I think there’s an audience because the audience isn’t just a true-crime audience — it’s a story for anyone who has a mom. It’s a story about me growing and understanding who she was as a human being and finding my own identity through that.

As you’ve started talking about the series with journalists, how much are they just asking you, “So, who do you think killed your mom?”

It’s definitely a question I get asked, but it’s one I’ve been really careful [about answering]. I welcome it because it gives me the opportunity to talk about what I’ve been trying to do differently — I hope, by the end of the [series], that isn’t the only resolution that people are looking for. From a storytelling standpoint, what I want is clarity on why my mom was killed, but what I need is to relieve myself of the grief and give up this eight-year-long double life I’ve been living — and hopefully get through this without causing too much destruction and resolve these lingering tensions between my family. 

A big thing for me was telling this story from the victim’s perspective, from the family’s perspective. That was really important because the initial reporting of the crime was about the brutality and who the news thought did it, and the victims get lost. There’s all this really traumatic material out there being used to get eyeballs on a story, when at certain points it’s not helpful for my family.

When you mention this “double life,” I’m curious what you mean.

When my mom died, I took a year off [from college]. I was a drug addict. I hit rock bottom in August of 2010. When I came back to school, I was a year behind everybody, and I didn’t tell anybody what happened to me. It sounds weird to say, but I had some shame attached to what it meant to tell somebody that my mother had been murdered. There’s connotations attached to it that I didn’t want to define me. It’s funny because, now, my directorial debut [is about that]. 

But the film has provided me a chance to define it and remove that shame attached to what it means to say that my mom was murdered 10 years ago. Hopefully the series can take steps toward alleviating those connotations attached to horrific crimes like this.

How does shame factor into your grieving process? 

Shame is something that followed me throughout my life. As a perfectionist, I think that that’s attached to shame as well. I didn’t want to be known as “the kid whose mom was murdered” — I didn’t want the connotations attached to that. I also felt I had a lot of residual guilt for not being a better son, because when I would [tell people] that my mom was murdered, it came with this slew of questions about my relationship with her. There were also the unavoidable questions of “How did she die?” But no one ever asked, “Who was she?”

It’s like any other type of grief — I just wanted people to say, “I’m sorry.” I’m a member of Survivors of Homicide, which is a support group for families of homicide victims. And everybody reacts to grief differently. Why I felt shame — or why it was hard for me to tell someone else this had happened to me — it probably has something to do with the guilt I had [over] not making the most of my time with my mom. In making this series, I realized I was [meeting] someone I didn’t know. My mom, I didn’t know her for all of the conflicts that she was going through.

The series operates on two tracks, both telling the story of your mom and investigating her death. Did it start that way, or was one impulse stronger for you than the other? 

[At the beginning of the project] I was at this point in the grieving process where I was just trying not to lose my mom’s memory. I was calling her phone so that I would remember what her voice sounded like, just to hear her voicemail. I was trying to visualize her face when I closed my eyes. And so, when we started, I had gotten sober, I got on my feet again and I really wanted to make the most of my life without her. But I also had these lingering questions: “Why was she killed?” So, in my documentary class, I told my team about [the project], and we went up [to Connecticut] and shot. But that’s when I started realizing that I was grieving someone I didn’t know. I got addicted to discovering Barbara, discovering all of the things that shaped who my mom was. I started to pull back the veil of this bubble I was living in. 

But when we partnered with HBO, I had the realization — which I should have had a long time ago — that all of these stories could have an adverse effect on the people involved, who were people that I loved. I started thinking, “What if my Aunt Conway watched this? What would she think?” 

Aunt Conway

And yet you point-blank ask your family members, including Aunt Conway, on camera if they had anything to do with your mom’s murder. It’s striking to watch. How easy was that for you?

When we started [the project], the archetypal relationship of brother or nephew or son was inescapable. But I sorta compartmentalized that. I talked to my crew at length about it back in 2016 when we shot most of our master interviews. I didn’t know where this was going to end up — I didn’t know what opportunities were going to come in the future — but if I didn’t take advantage of that moment in time, I would never be able to ask that question. And I couldn’t sugarcoat it, because I wouldn’t be taking advantage of that moment to hopefully work toward exonerating and dispelling distrust between family members. 

Now, obviously, we wouldn’t start with that question. [Laughs] There’s a process to the interview but, yeah, it wasn’t something that came easy for me.

We don’t see this in Murder on Middle Beach, but I wondered if you hurt any of your family members by asking them?

What’s crazy — and I think it’s because of who I am to them — is that every single person that I asked, maybe with the exception of my dad, all said, “I understand why you’re asking.” Because I think some small part of them would ask the same thing. As a family member, they understood that if I don’t ask that, the question remains unanswered.

Obviously, this is heavy subject matter, especially for you as the person who made it. How much did you have to struggle to maintain your sobriety? 

I grew incredibly dependent on my collaborators, probably to an unhealthy extent. It became my addiction. But the thing is, if I were to plunge back into self-medicating, I wouldn’t be able to continue the work that I was doing. And so I really found regained meaning in my life. 

Obviously, [addiction] is a daily thing — it’s a daily challenge to not use. It’s not something that ever goes away. I still get urges — they’re a really, really dangerous thing. But, yeah, I think my obsession turned toward the project — and, in many ways, to an unhealthy extent. I got deep into discovering who my mom was, and the investigation, and forgot the effects it was going to have on me.

For anyone, letting go of a project that took this long would be hard. But this separation seems uniquely challenging for you because of its personal nature and your addiction. So how are you coping?

There’s still work to be done [on the series] — and also work to be done in terms of my mom’s case. I’m a perfectionist, so you’re never done with something — you just stop working on it. 

But it’s time for this to go into the next stage, which is a more public, transparent part of the process. There’s a sense of relief there. I mean, I was working at a design studio when we were pitching [to HBO], and I didn’t tell anybody what I was working on, let alone what happened to my mom. And I always kept going on long weekends and coming back, and they’re like, “Where are you going that you’re taking vacation and coming back more tired?” [Laughs] There was a weird split-identity there, so I feel like releasing this series is going to make me whole again. 

Murder on Middle Beach was how you spent your 20s. We watch you literally grow up on camera over the course of the series. Do you have the perspective yet for that to really sink in, in terms of how you’ve changed and grown?

If this were a fiction series, we would be ending on me telling my children who grandma was. But, yeah, definitely it’s weird to think about. I’m in a weird place right now, anticipating the release and the response, and the fact that weeks are going to pass between each episode. But, yeah, my 20s were devoted to this story. 

The Hamburg family

The series touches on something a lot of documentaries do, which is the mystery of memory. Neither filming someone nor hearing stories gives a complete picture of a person. We hear a lot of conflicting things about your mom: Did you feel like you had to choose a version of who your mom was?

I think that’s a byproduct of trying to not have my perspective create a bias. I try to let other people talk about their relationship with her and their opinions of her. There’s a version [of this series] where I would [just] do voiceover the whole time — and I’m telling you the story — but my goal was to open up the audience to my journey. Do you know Minding the Gap?

Absolutely.

I actually called one of [that documentary’s] editors. After we signed with HBO, I was just calling around people for advice — I do that a lot, and I annoy a lot of people, but then some people really appreciate it, and he appreciated it. And [the editor] said early on they decided that story, while it revolved around [director] Bing [Liu], wasn’t going to be inherently driven by [his] intentions. Rather, it would be with him in the process, reacting to all of this stuff and letting the audience form their own response to it.

I felt that in Murder on Middle Beach, which lets us interpret your family members as we wish. But Minding the Gap is also a good comparison since both projects are really about difficult, distant fathers. There’s an incredible scene where you have a confrontation with your dad, all recorded surreptitiously. It feels momentous — this archetypal scene of the son standing up to his father. And it’s very out of character from your relationship with him.

My dad has always been an impenetrable force. [That moment] was driven by me wanting a relationship with him because he’s my only parent left. So, the ball’s kind of in his court [now] in terms of having a relationship. It’s hard for me to empathize with him, but I do. If he had nothing to do with this [murder], it’s traumatic, everything that he’s gone through. 

But from a storytelling standpoint, it’s very Oedipal in terms of just standing up to my father. It was really hard. A lot of my shame around being a perfectionist was attached to him pushing me really hard as a kid and having unrealistic expectations. It’s taken years to understand my relationship with him, and I don’t know if I ever will fully understand it. But, yeah, I had never done something like that before. 

Did you think you could do it?

Well, there was a lot of prep [before that scene]. It’s not in the film, but there was a lot of pre-conversation, role-playing, making sure that I hit certain points, logistics if something went wrong, if my audio recorder failed. But what I tried to do, for the most part, was enjoy the last day I really spent with my dad, because I may never have one of those again. 

Did you go into it assuming it would be the last time you two would ever talk?

It’s not in the series anymore, but before that meeting, my best friend and producer was like, “This might be the last time you talk to him because this documentary, upon its release, may create a rift in your relationship. So you should make the most of it.”

Addiction has been an issue in your family for generations, and a central theme of Murder on Middle Beach is how addiction keeps preying on individual family members over the years. The series puts all that out in the open. But how do you all talk about addiction? I’m wondering, going forward, if it’s understood that it’s in your genes and something you need to be really open about?

My family has an extremely mature approach. It was sort of a rite of passage as a family member. Obviously you want to avoid [getting addicted], but going to rehab really taught me some structure that I didn’t have in my homelife. There’s lifelong lessons that you learn from the best programs that are invaluable to anyone, addiction or not. 

So, we’re able to talk about [addiction], but when someone’s active, all you can do is offer them the opportunity because they have to be willing. Nothing’s going to change unless they’re willing. If they don’t hit rock bottom, it may be a reoccurring thing.

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