Life & Style
A Son’s Promise to His Mother Results in HBO Documentary: Murder on Middle Beach
Madison Hamburg hugging his aunt, Conway Beach, at the spot where his mother was found murdered. (Photo courtesy of HBO )
Jeffrey Hamburg, Barbara Beach Hamburg, Madison Hamburg, and Ali Hamburg. (Photo courtesy of HBO )
Madison Hamburg (Photo courtesy of HBO )
Conway Beach placing flowers where she found her sister murdered. (Photo courtesy of HBO )
Madison Hamburg was one of the kids at Daniel Hand High School who looked like he had it all. Then, one year, the day before Christmas, his parents told him they were going through a divorce. On Christmas Day, he got his first handheld movie camera as a gift.
In the turbulent times that followed, he remembers finding refuge in the class of Nick Arsenault, a video production teacher.
“I was good at editing,” says Hamburg. “When my parents were going through a divorce, I would hide out in Mr. Arsenault’s TV production lab. And he taught me how to play guitar. He was truly like a surrogate parent. And so I turned to video production early...It’s always been a coping mechanism.
When he went away to college, he continued to use his camera to make sense of the world, and then, one day, he was called home to the news that his mother, Barbara Hamburg, had been found murdered outside her rental home on Middle Beach Road West in Madison.
In the years that followed, he continued to turn to his video work to help him unravel her story, to make sense of his own story, and to understand the story of a community where, often, creating the appearance that everything is just wonderful is prioritized over dealing with the problems that make it anything but wonderful.
His work recently culminated in the release of HBO Documentary Films’ Murder on Middle Beach, a four-part documentary series. It debuted Nov. 15 and will be available to stream on HBO Max. The police who have so far failed to solve the crime hope the series might shake loose some information or evidence.
There is a tip line set up at barbarahamburgtips.com. Tips can be provided anonymously, for those who might prefer that, and can be provided through a form on the site, via a phone call (1-860-619-BARB—”Press 9 to leave a message. Your phone number will not be recorded”), or through an email or an anonymous email service, with links to those provided on the site.Tackling Unanswered Questions
Madison Hamburg also hopes the documentary will help solve the crime. He says he started the documentary to explore all of the unanswered questions he had about his mom, who his mom was, and what happened the day she was killed. He remembers a moment, while he was working on the project, that he was with his aunt Conway Beach, outside the rental home where his mother was murdered. They placed flowers on the spot where she was found.
“That moment I made a promise to her,” Hamburg says. “That I would never give up on her. I said ‘I’ll never give up on you.’”
Hamburg says the many years of work that went into creating the documentary provided him with some answers about himself, his mom’s life, and the community they lived in, Madison. As for the town, he says he explored the importance the community puts on the appearance of perfection, and the problems that can hide in a way that they cannot be addressed.
“So I think that one of the overarching themes for this series is the duality of American idealism, this rosy, reinforced exterior, no matter how dark the realities are,” he says. “And I got addicted to discovering who my mother really was. And I think the shocking thing is that I didn’t know Barbara. I was hearing all the stressors she was under, and things she was protecting me from, as my mother, so that they would not enter my life. I started to really value the empathy I could have for everyone else in my community dealing with that.”
He says Madison is a picture-perfect postcard shoreline community. But, as he dug into the story, he learned upsetting things about his own family, about deep-seated problems with the town’s police department at the time, and about scandals like the self-help multi-level marketing scam that swept up his mother.
“There is a human-ness in every aspect of that,” he says. “Most people are dealing with baggage. I’ve grown to empathize with that. There’s a great quote that says something like in America, everyone’s a millionaire going through a rough patch. Like, everything is just fine, it’s just not my time.”The Greatest Regret
After Hamburg’s mom died, his family gathered and he says one big regret was family members losing touch with each other.
“A big part of this is about not letting your warts show, and holding resentments, and then facing that,” he says. “And this documentary shows how important it is to learn the ability to communicate through those things.”
He says it was often a difficult, brutally difficult process, as he juggled his roles as an investigative documentary filmmaker, son, brother, and nephew.
“Those roles were not always in concert with each other,” he says. “It was important to me that the documentary didn’t feel performative and didn’t feel like I was completely manipulating the narrative.”
He says he tried to accomplish that in part by “breaking the fourth wall,” where the audience is addressed directly, and showing those conflicts on camera.
“I’m showing the challenges I’m having asking those questions,” he says.
Immediately after his mother’s death, he did not know all the details of the crime. Working through those details was difficult, but allowed him to achieve some finality about the idea of her death. He also said he met with a grief counselor while working on the documentary.
“When my mom died, I didn’t really have a relationship with my dad, so I was like an orphan,” he says.
The grief counselor worked with him during one of his hardest periods, about a year after his mother’s death, after the immediate burst of support for the family died away.
“Dealing with my mom’s birthday, [and the anniversary of her murder] on March 3, and Mother’s Day was so hard,” he says. “I was feeling her absence.”
He eventually came up with a strategy to deal with those days.
“Through the course of the documentary, I’m making new memories on those days that were tough for me,” he says.
There was a Mother’s Day where he went to his grandmother’s house to watch old home movies of his mom. On March 3, he held a memorial service.
“Now, when I hit those days, her absence is not as present. I’ve come to accept my mother is never coming back and I’m sort of growing up again,” he says.The Perils of Asking Questions
Another goal of the documentary was to show how he found his footing in a world without his mother, and how he grew into who he is today, through understanding and sharing her story.
As he worked on telling his mother’s story, and his own story, he realized that asking so many questions, and sharing it on the huge stage that would be provided by HBO, could be potentially destructive to himself and other family members. He says the struggles and conflicts of being both a son and investigator are part of the series.
One place where he found support is a Connecticut-based organization called Survivors of Homicide (www.survivorsofhomicide.com). He is grateful to that group, and to Erin Cox, a news reporter who, he says, is one of the few who did not let his mother, as the victim, get lost in all the details about the brutality of the murder and speculation about who might have committed the crime.
“It can feel like an impossible task to resolve an unresolved homicide,” he says. “But maybe what you can do is look at the process, and how you can make a change in the process for the next person. And I hope this brings attention to the pitfalls of the legal system in Connecticut, and the need for transparency in law enforcement. That’s something I’ve been successful at, and maybe I can set an example for someone else going through this. Maybe even for a small portion of the audience, they can feel that much less alone.”‘Call Your Mom’
He says he holds no grudges against the police department as it continues to investigate the crime.
“The police were pretty overwhelmed, that is my opinion,” he says. “I don’t hold any resentment towards the Madison Police Department. I think they were overwhelmed with what was basically only the second murder ever in Madison. They had a depleted force at the time, and a brand new chief. They were doing the best they could at the time. They didn’t have the correct resources, and despite wanting to solve the case, they were overpowered by the details.”
He says the process of making the documentary reinforced how grateful he is for family members, including his sister Ali, who he says is “amazing.” He also is grateful for the executive producers, including Ron Nyswaner, and the producer, Solomon Petchenik, who he says is like a surrogate brother, and to all of his teachers in college, and to “Mr. Arsenault.”
And he has this to say, “I think that everybody, the first thing they should do: Call your mom, if you can, or your dad. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”