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Is ‘Lost Girls’ Based on a True Story?

March 12, 2020
5 min read

Netflix has certainly made quite a mark in the past years with its remarkable, hard-hitting crime narratives. The streaming giant’s past endeavor, ‘Unbelievable‘, is perhaps the best proof of the unforgettable content it has recently producing. Following the steps of the much acclaimed series, Netflix’s ‘Lost Girls’ carves out another unusual path for itself.

The film, which premiered during the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a crime drama unlike any other. It also marks the narrative debut of acclaimed documentary maker, Liz Garbus. While most crime narratives center around the event and eventually lead to some sort of justice being met, or the mystery being solved, Garbus’ ‘Lost Girls’ offers none of the two. The film recounts a horrifying tragedy, and centers around a mother’s desperate attempts to bring justice to her daughter.

Set in Long Island, ‘Lost Girls’ focuses on Mari Gilbert as her daughter, Shannan, suddenly vanishes. The twist, however, is that her daughter works as an escort, and the authorities refuse to take the missing person case seriously. Due to the inaction of law-enforcement agents, Mari begins her own personal investigation into the gated Long Island community. Her search eventually leads the police to the most horrifying murders of the past decade, that still remain unsolved. In case you’re wondering what inspired this hard-hitting, unsettling crime drama, here’s everything you need to know.

Is ‘Lost Girls’ Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Lost Girls’ is based on devastating real-life tragedies, and offers a much-needed critique of the system that’s meant to protect us. The Netflix feature is adapted from Robert Kolker’s 2013 book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, that recounts the life of five sex-workers that were murdered in Long Island whose culprit was never identified.

The novel, much like the film, can be seen as part crime story and part tribute to the victims and their families. It follows the story of victim’s loved ones, and traces the life of each of the victim, from her childhood to her disappearance.Netflix’s ‘Lost Girls’ centers around Mari Gilbert’s journey as a real-life mother who lived through the tragedy, until she met her own.

As Mari implores the police to investigate, a body is found. But it’s not Shannan’s. Neither is the next, or the next, or the one after that. In a matter of a year around 10 bodies are found, only after which Shannan’s body is discovered. And her death is proven accidental. Despite the 23-minute 911 call she made before she went missing, her death is not tied to the Long Island serial murders. But Mari continues to fight against the system to bring justice to her daughter, and in the process unites with the family members of other victims.

Long Island Serial Murders

Kevin Hagen / The New York Times

The Long Island serial murders, also known as the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders, refer to homicides of 10-16 people over a period of nearly 20 years. Most of the victims were women associated with prostitution, and all of their bodies were found in the South Shore of Long Island. Apart from Shannan Gilbert, the victims include Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Overstreet, all of whom were sex-workers. Each one of their lives and disappearances have been traced in Kolker’s book.

These murders came to light because of Mari Gilbert whose 24 year-old daughter suddenly went missing in Oak Beach. Despite the indifference shown by authorities, she pushed the officers to investigate the case which ultimately led to several bodies being found around 2010 and 2011. The police, however, believed that some of the deaths could have taken place years earlier.

The bodies and parts found around the South Shore mostly belonged to women, but there were also remains of a man and a toddler found in the area. Most of the victims were in their 20s, and at least 5 of them worked as sex-workers through internet sites like Backpage.com and Craigslist. While there have been numerous men suspected to be the Long-Island Serial Killer, the actual killer never got identified. An ongoing investigation continues to take place even today as the Suffolk Police Department tries to solve their longest-running case in history.

Failure of The Criminal-Justice System

The story that ‘Lost Girl’ narrates is a deeply unsettling one as it offers neither any answers nor an ending. It serves as a haunting reminder that the Long Island Serial Killer is still out there, and who knows, probably even reading this. It also offers a crucial lesson for us as society to believe our women and value each life. The fact that some of the bodies found around the South Shore could have been from the ’90s itself is heartbreaking.

‘Lost Girls’, then, is a tragic tale of how these women were failed by both our criminal-justice system, and the society at large. What’s particularly horrifying about Shannan’s case is that she made a 23 minute emergency call asking for help. It is also believed that she ran through Oak Beach, banging doors of the neighbours, but no one helped her. Kolker speaks of these in his book:

“Shannan and all of the others were failed by the criminal-justice system not once but three times…The police had failed to help them when they were at risk. They’d failed again when they didn’t take the disappearances seriously, severely hobbling the chances of making an arrest. And they’d failed a third time by not going after the johns and drivers.”

Interestingly, there have been new developments in the case lately, but not enough to catch the ones responsible. This served as motivation for Garbus who hopes the film renews public interest in the unsolved cases and helps in finally bringing the victims to justice.

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