Jim Mordecai was a star football player, a high school teacher, a top Future Farmers of America executive, a landscape architect and a respected and beloved presence in his Bay Area community. He was also a tyrannical husband and father who sexually abused young girls (including his stepdaughters), manipulated and tortured family members, and tore his multiple families apart.
But even that monstrosity may have been the tip of the iceberg since then The truth about Jim claims he may also have been a never-caught serial killer, or perhaps even the infamous Zodiac.
From prolific true-crime director Skye Borgman (Dead asleep, Girl in the picture, I just killed my father, Sins of our mother), The truth about Jim is a four-episode Max docuseries (Jan. 15) about Sierra Barter’s attempt to investigate her step-grandfather, finally grappling with the secrets that have plagued her extended clan for generations.
In a spirit similar to Great photo, beautiful life: confronted with the secrets of a family And Nuclear family, it’s a nonfiction act of excavation, with Sierra digging into the past to unearth that which has been buried by bitterness, trauma, and time. Though it falters during a second half filled with extended detours and excessive self-indulgence (not to mention few answers to its central questions), it proves an intimate look at women’s struggle to make their voices heard—especially when they have played the leading role. victims of heinous crimes – and the painful process of trying to heal serious wounds.
Sierra always knew there was something wrong with her step-grandfather Jim, who radiated creepiness and was more or less detested by her mother Shannon, who didn’t speak to her mother Judy for an entire decade because she stuck with the man. Judy was Jim’s third wife, as he had married first high school sweetheart Sharon Yeager (with whom he had one child) in 1960 and then, in 1973, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, with whom he had two daughters: Melissa and Jaime. – to join Jeanne’s children from a previous union, Christi and Michael. Growing up, Sierra heard several rumors about Jim, but it wasn’t until beginning this nonfiction venture (spurred in part by her own two sexual assault ordeals) that she coaxed details out of her family members—almost none of them flattering.
It became clear that Jim was a despicable enemy with a penchant for teenage girls and a habit of dominating everyone in his household. In the many interviews she conducts everywhere The truth about Jim, Sierra hears how Jim repeatedly raped Christi and Jaime, tried to do the same to Shannon, engaged in “deviant” sex with Jeanne, and threatened to slit the throat, hogtie, and dump the body of anyone who dared displease him . Jim is accused of doing these things at home, at the school where he taught, and in the remote cabin he inherited from his parents. And the accusations from those closest to him are so numerous as to be convincing.
So when it is revealed that Jim’s early retirement from teaching was actually prompted by a scandal involving a student he tried to assault, it only reinforces the impression that he was a predator hiding in plain sight.
Sierra used The truth about Jim to paint an ugly portrait of a person who has tormented her loved ones in countless ways, and she soon begins to suspect that a man so violent and controlling could also be one of the Bay Area’s uncaught serial killers are. In particular, she fixates on the Santa Rosa elevator murders of 1972-1973, in which at least seven (and possibly as many as eleven) young girls were rounded up on or around Highway 101, murdered in unknown locations, and discarded in rural spots. .
Considering the similarities between these crimes and Jim’s perverse approach – as well as his familiarity with the area, tendency to take long, mysterious drives with a large knife in his car, and possession of random jewelry (trophies?) found posthumously by Judy and Shannon – Sierra develops a working theory that Jim may have spent his free time as one of the most notorious homicidal maniacs of the era.
The truth about Jim makes a fairly credible argument that this could be possible, and that’s even before Sierra obtains DNA evidence that could conclusively link Jim to the murders. However, Borgman’s docuseries loses its way somewhat once Sierra begins to speculate that Jim is responsible for both the Santa Rosa elevator crimes and the Zodiac murders.
This idea certainly gives the proceedings a more explosive, headline-grabbing angle. But it seems far-fetched from the start. Thanks to lengthy conversations with Zodiac expert Mike Butterfield that highlight some flaws in her hypothesis, Sierra accepts that Jim was probably not the Zodiac, making her preliminary research a case of imaginative overreach. Although she is relieved to learn that she has no connection to the legendary madman, there is a sense that everyone involved in this production is a little disappointed to have missed what would have been the true crime bomb of the century.
Sierra’s quest to develop a DNA profile of Jim for the police – who can then compare it to the sperm they have left from Santa Rosa’s hitchhiking victims – proves to be a promising thread. Unfortunately, after teasing Jim as not just a domestic terror, but a historical Big Bad, The truth about Jim falls a bit flat with its ultimate (lack of) revelations.
Instead, it refocuses its attention on the therapeutic nature of Sierra’s mission. Bringing together estranged mothers, children and siblings to air grievances, forgive and face harrowing realities, Borgman’s latest book does its best to focus less on its title subject than on the strong, courageous and united individuals who survived years of his cruelty.
Yet, regardless of the encouraging portrayal of women reclaiming their agency, there is something slightly deflating about the series’ inability to finish what it started – a fact emphasized by the closing text cards that indicate Jim’s relationship with the hitchhiking murders in Santa Rosa is destined, for now (and perhaps in the future), to remain unknown.