Editor’s note: Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: [email protected]
The Bernie Tiedes story
By Missy Beattie
Bernie Tiede was released from prison, the Telford Unit, on May 6, 2014. Convicted in 1999, the former Carthage, Texas mortician was 38 when he fired four shots into the back of his companion, 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, and stuffed her body in the freezer beneath the Marie Callender pot pies. Bernie indulged, spending Marjorie’s money and lying as to her whereabouts until she was found nine months after her death.
Read about this case here:
Man convicted of murdering companion, stuffing body in freezer, on Amarillo.com
Over 15 years, a town’s stance on a convict shifts, on NYTimes.com
The Bernie Tiedes movie
Filmmaker Richard Linklater recognized a dazzling opportunity, one whose tragic elements are overshadowed by comedy. He developed a brilliantly entertaining movie, called Bernie, while provoking sympathy for a murderer. Selecting Jack Black to portray Tiede was genius.
The unpopular Marjorie Nugent was despised in the community, where Bernie, a charming, golden-tongued Christian, was revered. Residents of Carthage whose loved ones were prepared for burial by Bernie were consoled to hear that the departed were in a better place or died because God needed another angel. In reality, the town was split, but the film emphasizes Bernie worshippers. One character says Bernie only shot Marjorie four times, when he could’ve shot her five. Many say she got what she deserved.
The district attorney had the trial moved—so that the victim, Marjorie, was treated fairly.
After I saw Bernie, I Googled Bernie Tiede, finding his blog. I read about his outreach to other prisoners, the model behavior. Bernie made the most of whatever road or detour he chose. I recall reading on that site that someone (I’m thinking Linklater) expressed, after visiting Tiede in prison, that Bernie didn’t belong with this type of people.
A white, Christian murderer doesn’t belong among murderers?
Another look at the film
When I read that Tiede was released to the custody of Linklater, I decided to watch the film again, more critically. I knew Linklater interviewed Tiede—research, you know, for the screenplay and also that Jack Black had visited Bernie.
So here’s the deal: Marjorie Nugent was disliked. Not too long after Bernie embalmed Marjorie’s husband, Bernie initiated the seduction, with flowers, reassuring words, attention. (Really, this is the modus operandi of a sociopath. I know. My personal s’path arrived, bearing gifts: a grin, pretense, and three bags of potato chips—my favorite nourishment.) Soon, Marjorie and Bernie were having dinner, going out to dinner, taking extravagant vacations, attending cultural events. Bernie’s contribution: his presence, advice, and charisma. Marjorie was happy, smiling. And Bernie soon was making decisions about Marjorie’s investments, had become not only her traveling companion but also her business manager. Eventually, Marjorie changed her will, naming Bernie her sole beneficiary.
It’s at this moment in the movie that there’s an abrupt change in Marjorie. Suddenly, she’s demanding and controlling. Scene after scene underscores this. Poor beleaguered Bernie’s fed up with the supposed female dominance. So he kills Marjorie, hides the evidence, and continues to spend her money on the requirements of his taste as well as making donations to the church and various individuals while saying Marjorie’s unavailable, napping or something. Finally, the police and Marjorie’s family search her house and find the body. Bernie confesses. He’s sorry, soooooo sorry, but he has an excellent rationale: Marjorie was domineering, smothering. His life was no longer his own. He’d “snapped.” Bullshit.
There’s an instant when you understand that much of this story is Tiede’s narrative, told to Linklater. Those Bernie-adoring Carthage residents, forthcoming about their dislike of Marjorie, weren’t witness to the couple’s relationship when they were holding hands at home or on those many trips.
Recently, a judge heard new testimony, that Tiede was sexually abused as a child. The information, along with knowledge (hearsay?) that Marjorie intimidated him, resulted in Tiede’s release. This is special treatment. Seldom are cases without extenuating circumstances, but these excuses typically aren’t used as justification for acquittal or early release. Tiede’s a free man, owes oodles to Linklater for making the movie. Plus, Tiede was released to Linklater’s welcoming arms to live in a garage apartment owned by Linklater.
If I were the filmmaker, I wouldn’t change my will or allow Bernie Tiede control of my finances.
The sociopathic spell
I thought of a book by Sally Caldwell, called Romantic Deception and what I’ve learned about lies and certain revealing signs when I watched Bernie that second time, with different eyes. And I realized that Tiede is self-focused, assuming the center-of-attention position in most situations. If he volunteered to help with a musical production, soon he was singing the lead, soon he was directing.
I searched for that Bernie blog and it’s been taken down, but I found something else, another blog with a quote from Jack Black about meeting Bernie in prison:
It was interesting to see how scary it is. It was especially fascinating to see Bernie in that environment; he didn’t belong there. It’s like, imagine the sweetest guy you know now in the —”˜cursing ”˜— prison with the most scary tattooed dudes that like to murder people.
Okay, I GET it. Bernie’s friends and acquaintances see sweetness. He’s not a man who likes to murder people, except Bernie did murder someone. He murdered Marjorie, whose fortune he administered. Truth is sociopaths are slick. This particular one oozed a spell over Linklater and Black, a spell so magical that Bernie is celebrating his freedom and probably believes that the State of Texas, Telford Unit in Boston, has lost an angel.