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Where Jeffrey Hamburg is Now and Barbara’s Case Updates, According to Their Son Madison Hamburg
In HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach, we watch as a nervous Madison Hamburg tapes a hidden microphone to his shirt and zips up his jacket before heading out to meet his Dad for a beer. While their outing is filmed from a hotel window across the street from the bar, Madison prods his father on details about his marriage to Madison’s late mother. It’s not a normal father-son catch-up scene. But Murder on Middle Beach is not a normal documentary.
HBO’s four-part documentary series is the compilation of eight years of work for Madison, who was 19 when his mother was found bludgeoned to death outside their Connecticut home in 2010. In the height of his grief, he decided he could use his medium of choice—film—to memorialize her, and also explore who she really was, who might have wanted to hurt her, and why. Through interviews with and secret recordings of his immediate family and the police, Madison and his crew tell the story of Barbara Beach Hamburg’s full life and tragic death. But Madison’s is not a traditional true crime documentary—he didn’t want to fetishize or agonize over the gory details of the murder. Instead, he draws just as much suspense and intrigue by looking hard at his family history and asking his loved ones tough questions, even when they don’t necessarily want to answer them.
Madison, now 29 years old, talked to Esquire before the finale of Murder on Middle Beach airs on HBO this Sunday. He updated us on his relationship with his father at present, his family’s reaction to the series, as well as the status of his mother Barbara’s open case today.
How has it been for you with it finally out in the world after all those years working on it?
It’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been dealing with throughout this process since partnering with HBO last year, but the idea that this was going to be in the public eye and that these vulnerabilities that my family has trusted me with were going to be exposed didn’t enter the equation until the stage was realized. It’s terrifying, and I think that something that was really important for me was naming and identifying the adverse effects of doing something like this in the documentary itself, because I just think that’s one of the unique aspects of the point of view. And sort of realizing that what I wanted as a character in the story and as a person is to know what happened to my mom, but I think what I need, and my sister said so beautifully as the beginning of the last episode, is peace.
There’s a double-edged sword in the fact that the episodes are released weekly. It’s an amazing thing as someone who’s created something, because the conversations extend week to week and to see the effects that it has and the momentum that it causes is really beautiful. But it’s also really challenging for both my aunts, my sister and my family, so we’ve had a lot of conversations. They’ve seen the documentary, we had family screenings before we even sent it out to press. That was mandatory to me, I wanted everybody to see how they come across and have a conversation about it to prepare them for what it’s gonna be like when we release this thing.
But one thing that surprised me—I remember the first message I got after the release of episode one. Someone sent me this beautiful essay about their loss and feeling alone, feeling that like they weren’t grieving correctly, and the guilt and all these things that come with grief, with something unresolved. And they just thanked me for releasing this story, and it’s really gratifying as someone who’s gone through something so traumatic to hear that someone else can watch this and feel a little less alone. That is unbelievably gratifying, so I don’t know, there’s a lot of mixed things swirling around in how I feel right now.
Have you had any other reactions surprise you?
In setting out to do this, I didn’t have an expectation that we would solve my mom’s case, but there are many goals I have had throughout this process and they sort of evolve. And one of them was, if we don’t solve my mom’s case, then the documentary becomes a tool for me to get my mom’s story out there and provide some momentum. We have the tip line, BarbaraHamburgTips.com, and I’ve requested a reward with the state, and the amount of tips, the amount of messages that we’ve received, and you never know what small detail is going to make a difference in an investigation, that’s been really surprising.
Madison’s mother, Barbara Beach Hamburg, before her 2010 murder.
I’m also so close to this, and I’ve seen it a thousand times over the past eight years that I don’t have perspective as to what is objectively good or bad. I know what I’ve set out to do and tried like hell to fulfill that, to challenge the conventions of true crime and the way that we tell the story, and just to hear people think it’s good…just to think that people were watching and telling other people about it and it was a part of the conversation outside of the people in my immediate circle was just, I don’t know, maybe it’s silly, but it’s something that is really gratifying.
How did it get to HBO?
I started the project in a documentary film class. When my mom died, I took a year off from school. I was a drug addict at the time, and really fell into my addiction and hit my rock bottom. I went to rehab and when I came back to school I was a year behind everybody, and I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me cause I didn’t want that label of the kid whose mom was murdered. There was sort of shame attached to that, telling someone that with the connotations around murder and true crime. So I was at film school when my mom died, in this doc class, and I told my immediate group. I was at a point in grief where I was trying to hold on to the memory of my mom and my greatest fear was losing my memory of the sound of her voice or how she smelled or how she looked, and I thought that taking advantage of the class to ask my family members about her could sort of memorialize her.
I was at a point in grief where I was trying to hold on to the memory of my mom.
But as soon as I started asking questions I realized it was much bigger than that. We filmed a lot and the story just kept going and going, and my professor realized we weren’t gonna finish this project. So he made a deal with us that he would give us an A if I never stopped working on it. My college was really supportive of me, Savannah College of Art and Design. When my mom died I really was kind of orphaned and Savannah became like a home, and I turned to faculty, people I worked with, people in the community as surrogate parents in a way, and so I kept in touch. I moved to Austin after school and found out there was this alumni artist residency that the president of SCAD was funding personally, and so I reached out to them about it. I didn’t necessarily fit the mold, but SCAD agreed to a really unique deal with me where they funded 10 weeks of production and we shot all of our master interviews. That was in 2016. I got my crew together, but before at that point I was very much a family member asking these questions with a camera in the room. But in 2016 the pendulum sort of swung to this other role I was playing as an investigative documentarian, and I thought it might be my only opportunity to ask these questions on camera and get these authentic reactions. So I pressed everyone pretty hard, and I ended up with 160 hours of footage. And I was just desperately trying to understand how to take the next step with something so personal and not sacrifice anything. I really didn’t want my mom’s story or my story to be told by someone else.
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So we took the 160 hours and made a sample that turned out to be like 14 minutes. We made a pitch deck and we pitched the networks. It really was a rollercoaster, especially because it is such a personal story, so trying to sell it was pretty interesting. And what we were selling was a personal approach that wasn’t a whodunit but more a story about identity, the duality of humanity, and the layers of what we share with each other, how open we are, and just me kind of coming of age and understanding my mother and in turn understanding my identity. None of that is the selling point of a true crime series. We got a lot of questions like, how does it end? Do you know who did it? Who do you think did it?
And I’ve been really careful not to have hunches and not to express any opinions about what I think happened ‘cause I think that’s the biggest challenge with any investigation. There’s already inherent bias from my point of view. And we ended up pitching to Lisa Heller, who was one of our last pitches at HBO and it was just incredibly emotional. She totally got it and they made us an offer. I was living in Austin at the time with my girlfriend and we both moved to New York and just gave up everything in our lives to facilitate me doing this.
How did you balance your craft and the desire to tell a captivating story from a film perspective with the personal element—working with your own family members and telling your own painful story?
The story sort of chronicles and parallels my journey in making this. I started in 2013 really fresh and very amateur to documentary. It’s funny ‘cause I feel like those are some of the more authentic moments in the documentary, from the earlier footage. It was a huge learning process, balancing those two roles of family member and investigative documentarian. I think the pendulum swung really hard in that direction when we started to really dig in in 2016 and I didn’t really hold back with my family members, but once we partnered with HBO, that’s when I started realizing that this could have adverse affects on my family. Even asking these questions, it’s just surfacing stuff that we were gonna have to work through and if we didn’t work through it, this could end unresolved and cause more destruction than there was when we started.
It was a really tough thing to balance with telling a compelling story, but I think it was knowing that the goal was to subvert the genre in a way, to lean in to those more kind of compelling conventions in order to eventually break them. But it’s been tough watching this go week to week and having breaks in between where people on the internet can react to my family. I hope at the end of this that they can see the adverse effects of that and that we’re all human beings, you know? Like I really didn’t want to create caricatures of my family members. I wanted to give their stories justice and unfortunately that involves exploring these conflicts. If I didn’t ask these questions, the questions would go unasked, but I’ve tried my hardest to do this what I consider the right way. I think the conflicts that I deal with in the fourth episode are pretty unique to the perspective.
Do you know if your dad has watched or is watching?
I don’t know. I assume he has, but I’m not sure.
Have you spoken to him since the scene where he hangs up on you in the final episode?
The last time I talked to my dad was on camera. You watched the last time I talked to my dad.
But he knows the documentary exists.
Yeah, I reached out to him before our promotions started because I wanted him to hear a fuller context from me instead of seeing it on television or as a commercial somewhere, but I didn’t reach him. I left him a voicemail.
What were the reactions of Ali and Conway like?
Those screenings were the most difficult family screenings. My sister and my aunt are the closest thing I have to my mom, like they’re the closest in DNA, and what they sound like. Especially my sister, she’s the person closest to me, who can empathize the most. But they’re in a really good spot now. We’ve had a lot of conversations, but both Conway and Ali have evolved. I’m in awe of my sister. She’s just such an amazing, beautiful human being and I think that really comes through. I was most worried about Conway throughout this whole process and I think she’s in a good spot.
Madison Hamburg and his late mother’s sister, Conway.
Would you do anything different now that it’s aired?
That’s a question that I’ve asked myself a lot. I think the hidden conflict is the sacrifice of the act of making this, having over 1000 hours of footage and over 200 shooting days. Would I even do this if I teleported back eight years and said, you started this documentary, here are the sacrifices that you and your family are gonna make but here’s what you have to gain. Would you do it? I think that when my mom died and I went to rehab and I decided to face a life without her, I made a decision that day that I was gonna live with as little regret as possible. Not looking into my mom’s story would be the biggest regret of my life, so I don’t know that I would do anything differently. There’s been a lot of mistakes and a lot of successes throughout this whole journey, but I don’t think I would do anything differently at this point.
Have you found anything surprising in the new police files that you received last month? I know the case is still open.
Yeah, I can’t get into details but I will say that after spending eight years just putting together fragments of memories about my mom or about the case or about a specific time period, the transparency and the accuracy of these facts that have been kept from me for so long has been extremely relieving. It’s like crack, I can’t stop going through and analyzing and it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s like if you have a piece of popcorn in your teeth, finally getting that piece out. Just doing that over and over. There have been corroborating leads, correcting things, things that we didn’t know about. I can’t get into details, but it’s been extremely illuminating.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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