Gifting Tables, White Feminism, and the Gender of Criminality in ‘Murder on Middle Beach’

HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach, a four-part mini docu-series about the unsolved murder of Barbara Beach Hamburg in Madison, Connecticut in 2010, has been critically acclaimed by many media and true crime watchers since it aired at the end of 2020.

What has caught viewers’ and critics’ attention is the relationship of the filmmaker to the case. Madison Hamburg, Barbara’s son, began filming interviews with his family members while in college as a way of sorting through the unanswered questions he had about his mother, his broken family, and, of course, his mother’s unsolved murder case. What began as a personal school project evolved, over eight years, into this four-part series that opens more questions for Madison and his family, while also, perhaps, bringing some closure to old wounds between siblings and extended family members in the wake of the shocking and confusing murder.

Barbara was found murdered on March 3, 2010. She had been beaten and stabbed sometime during the morning hours after dropping her daughter, Ali, off at high school. Later that day, Barbara’s sister, Conway (“Connie”), would bring Ali home and find signs of a struggle on the front lawn: discarded keys, purse, and a knocked-over small sculpture by the front door. Connie and Ali would soon find Barbara’s body hidden in some bushes beside the house, partly covered with cushions from outdoor lawn furniture.  Barbara was due in court in New Haven that day to finalize some financial matters related to her divorce from Madison’s father, Jeffrey Hamburg.

Madison Hamburg was 19 years old in 2010 and in his first year of college. After the tragedy, he took a year off from school, spiralled into addictions, went to rehab, and then returned to school. Working on the documentary when he returned to film school was an attempt to channel his questions and grief into this art form he was learning. After many years, and hours of film, he and his small production team pitched the project to HBO.

ET Online’s take on the series is that it “turns the true crime genre on its head,” which is not really true.

“ . . . the documentary doesn’t conclude with a conviction or typical resolution that comes with most of these sensational and addictive crime series. Instead, to Madison, Murder on Middle Beach is really more of ‘a story about identity and family, the sort of duality of American idealism, and everyone’s sort of projected identity and facades.’”

But if you’ve been paying attention to true crime — and following this blog —  then you realize that it’s always been about “identity and family” and, in the U.S. at least, it’s also been about the “duality of American idealism” and the lurking darkness beneath the pristine projection of the American Dream. That is literally what the American “noir” genre is all about: the shadows behind the glitz.

Cassie Da Costa’s take, for Vanity Fair Online, is that “Murder on Middle Beach Is the Real-World Version of The Undoing, But Better”:

Murder on Middle Beach’s fictional mirror is The Undoing, HBO’s limited drama series about an extremely wealthy New York family rocked by the murder of a working-class mother whose son attends the same fancy private school as their son. Viewers will flock to both series for similar reasons—it’s fascinating to see how wealthy families fall apart, despite all their access and comforts. Yet Madison’s identity as the deceased’s son, as well as his amateurish though steady work trying to solve the crime, allows the narrative to reveal deeper and deeper layers as it goes along. Rather than trying to push viewers to the brink with a series of cliff-hangers or gotchas, Madison and his producers are more interested in a thorny question: How well can we know even those closest to us?”

The comparison with The Undoing, in terms of class and gender dynamics, and the ways that those performances and rituals of “class” identities actually overlay very naturalistic motivations and responses that are not bound by social illusions (or are they?), makes sense.

But I would disagree that Madison’s docu-series does not rely on typical genre devices of cliff-hangers and almost-gotcha moments. It absolutely does.

Each episode sets up the possibility that one of Madison Hamburg’s family members might be behind his mother’s brutal murder. And the various hidden camera and recorded audio scenes with Madison’s dad, Jeffrey Hamburg, are absolutely meant to set up gotcha moments with him. In fact, much of this series is comparable to the daddy-of-HBO-true-crime-series in this documentary style: The Jinx.

Image from HBO's 'The Jinx' about Robert Durst
Scene from finale of HBO’s ‘The Jinx.’ Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki confronts Bob Durst with “gotcha” evidence.

From the production team segments, where Madison and his team discuss how to approach an interview with his dad, or when they go through evidence and discuss its implications, to the grainy and gritty hidden camera footage watching Madison’s dad get in or out of cars, go into coffee shops, etc., there is almost a shot-for-shot duplication of the earlier true crime canonical “gotcha” documentary, from filmmaker Andrew Jarecki.

Madison, or his HBO producers, were likely trying really hard to recreate the docu-crime sensation, rather than turn it on its head. The fact that Madison was so close to the subject matter and all the primary suspects, however, does offer a different emotional element to the interviews. While Jarecki admits that he let himself become somewhat invested in Bob Durst as a person, which perhaps clouded his sense of Durst’s probable involvement in multiple murders, Murder on Middle Beach takes this dynamic so much further than other docu-crime-series could.

To be honest, Madison’s ease with asking family members if they murdered his mom is often awkward for the audience. On one hand, Madison can get more intimate with these interviews than perhaps an outsider would, getting his family in private settings and situations. But we’ve already seen that kind of intimacy before, if you recall, with the canonical docu-series The Staircase. In the end, what Madison gets out of his various family members, and the detectives working on his mom’s cold case — who are unknowingly recorded behind closed doors — is pretty standard: narratives that put the speaker (whoever is telling their side of the story) in the position of victim, narratives that point the finger at another person, and that construct a version of history and events that removes all possibility of personal responsibility.

But here I’d like to shift analysis to something really specific about responsibility and social structures that I noticed in the series.  And this is something both unique to this particular case, this particular family, and yet also illuminatingly uncanny about the cultural intersections of gender, racialized class, and crime.

This is where we can talk about the infamous Gifting Tables saga that is entwined with Barbara’s murder investigation.  Here is a brief description of the Gifting Tables as a kind of Multi-Level Marketing scheme (MLM), from Bustle:

“Often compared to pyramid schemes, MLMs usually work by having their members sell a product and recruit others to do the same, with those recruiters earning a share of their recruits’ sales, all the way to the top of the pyramid. The Gifting Tables, by contrast, is not technically an MLM, as its members weren’t selling anything to anyone. They weren’t hawking essential oils or supplements. Instead, they were “gifting” existing members of the organization large sums of money in order to join, and then recruiting others so that they themselves could eventually receive their own ‘gifts.’

In other words, where MLM schemes usually skate close to pyramid schemes, Gifting Tables were just literally pyramid schemes. And this particular scheme activates the language and ideologies of white feminism in order to attract women — predominantly suburban, middle class, white women — to the scheme.

On March 21, 2010 — nearly three weeks after Barbara Hamburg Beach was found in the yard of her Connecticut home — the New Haven Register published an exposé of the local Gifting Table craze and its targeting of women:

“Gifting circles, which right now are only targeting women, are rampant along the Shoreline. Women involved also confirmed that Barbara Hamburg, a Madison resident who was slain March 3, was a member of a local table. There is no indication her membership played any role in her death.

Law enforcement officials and fraud experts said women nationwide are joining gifting tables at higher rates than ever to battle the emotionally and financially taxing effects of the recession and to find a sense of belonging. The gifting table may be wonderful for a while, officials said, until the table’s legs collapse.”

Later in Madison’s documentary, however, the revelation of the Gifting Tables and the involvement of his mother and aunts in them, becomes much more central to the complicated weaving of possible motives for Barbara’s murder.

Before we get to that, let’s dwell on the language used to “lure women” into the scheme and keep them involved in it. Women’s Health magazine published an article about the women-oriented scheme after the popularity of the Murder on Middle Beach documentary:

“These meetings often took place inside a woman’s home and each woman was treated as a new recruit. A 34-page handbook of guidelines was given to “Table Sisters” in one gifting table, per The Hartford Courant. “Our intention is to benefit women, period,” the handbook states. There’s also a poem titled, “Imagine a Woman” included in the handbook. The poem encourages members to think of themselves as assertive, independent, and strong. They’re told that they’re someone who ‘refuses to color inside someone else’s lines.’

This glimpse at the handbook is fascinating and chimes with Koa Beck’s recently published study on White Feminism, a journalistic history and critique of the development of white feminism in U.S. culture and politics from the turn of the 20th century to today.  In particular, the Gifting Table handbook encourages a notion of “feminism” that is aligned with individualism and greed, and therefore constructs a “sisterhood” within the exploitative structure of capitalism. That means that the language and teachings of the Gifting Tables are really at odds with the feminist practices of solidarity and breaking down the status quo of systemic inequality.

This kind of oxymoron-feminist practice is what Beck analyzes in her book, out this January from Simon and Schuster. Seyward Darby recently published an interview with Beck for Electric Literature and summarizes Beck’s argument:

“According to Beck, white feminism is a “practice” and “state of mind” in which gender equality is a matter of ‘personalized autonomy, individual wealth, perpetual self-optimization, and supremacy.’ Instead of questioning power structures, it embraces them, ‘replicating patterns of white supremacy, capitalistic greed, corporate ascension, inhumane labor practices, and exploitation, and deeming it empowering for women to practice these tenets as men always have.’ “

I mean, that pretty much describes the strategy behind the Gifting Tables and therefore aligns that women-luring scheme with white feminism. And by the time the series turns to exposing the risky business schemes of Madison’s father during his parents’ marriage and divorce, in the series finale, we’ll see that the Gifting Tables scheme is a kind of white feminist echo of international money laundering schemes facilitated by the global exchange of oil and prime bank guarantees (fake investments) through shell companies and tax shelters.

To hear Jill Platt, Madison’s great aunt, talk about the Gifting Tables, however, is to get a sense of the deep intersections between gender, racialized class, and assumptions of criminality.  Not only does Jill still advocate for the “women’s empowerment” angle of the Gifting Tables in Madison’s documentary — even after Jill has been convicted and done prison time for her involvement in the fraudulent scheme — but she narrates a version of her arrest that suggests that she is the victim. She also throws Barbara — her dead niece — under the proverbial bus.

In the filmed interview with Madison, Jill says that it was Barbara’s recruiting of people from her AA meetings that caused problems. She asserts that these women were “not healthy enough” to participate in the tables, and that led to the “quagmire,” which was the collapse of the tables and the complaints to the Connecticut Attorney General’s office. The complaints kicked off an investigation that would ultimately result in the conviction of Jill Platt and another leader in the area, Donna Bello.

Scene from HBO's Murder on Middle Beach - Jill didn't invite just anybody
Madison’s great aunt Jill explains that they weren’t supposed to “invite just anybody” to participate in the Gifting Tables scheme

The coded language around “health” and “success” in Jill’s explanation of why their Gifting Tables scheme crashed, along with her assertion that “not just anyone” should have been welcomed into these so-called women’s empowerment groups points to its deep roots in white, classist, even eugenicist discourses. In one breath, Jill and other table leaders proclaim the scheme’s ability to make women feel “safe” in uncertain economic times (in the wake of the 2008 recession), and with another breath they reveal that only those with generational wealth and social connections to others with wealth could possibly fit into their group.

That’s because there was a $5000 buy-in to the scheme. And women were encouraged to mortgage their “homes or boats,” or ask for “early inheritance” to raise the cash, if they didn’t already have it. And they were expected to recruit other women like them to join future tables.

This particular run of Gifting Tables swept the Connecticut shoreline region and went further inland, targeting predominantly middle-class and wealthy suburban networks of women.

Docu-series graphic - map of Gifting Tables networks in CT
Graphic from the docu-series. Illustration of the Gifting Tables network spreading from the coast of Connecticut inland

Interestingly, Madison asks the former AG Richard Blumenthal in an interview about how and when that “line is crossed” between “victim and criminal,” especially in a pyramid scheme (and isn’t white feminism a kind of pyramid scheme, after all?).

Graphic from the docu-series: Illustration of the Gifting Tables pyramid scheme.
Graphic from the docu-series: Illustration of the Gifting Tables pyramid scheme

After Jill and Donna, in separate interviews, describe being “shocked” at being arrested because they were just “a bunch of women having dinner parties,” Jill goes on to say that if Barbara had not been murdered, Jill and Donna would probably not have been investigated for the Gifting Tables scheme. This is because it was Barbara’s confiscated computer during the murder investigation that provided police with emails and details about Jill and Donna’s organization of the tables and the recruiting.

Email from Donna to Barbara
Email from Donna Bello to Barbara Beach, found on Barbara’s computer after her death. From HBO’s ‘Murder on Middle Beach.’ Notice the language and tactics: sisterhood combined with insinuation that one of their “sisters” has “issues.”

So is Jill saying, out loud and directly to Barbara’s son’s face, that she blames Barbara not only for bringing the tables under suspicion because of the AA recruiting, but also because she was murdered and therefore left a trail to Jill?!

Jill repeats story of misbelief at being arrested.
Jill recounts her disbelief at being arrested for fraud. Notice the implied assumptions about who is a criminal, and who could never be one.

 

Donna Bello recounts her shock at being arrested.
Donna Bello recounts her shock at being arrested for fraud. Again: it is inconceivable that she could ever be held accountable for criminal actions.

 

Jill is smug in her beliefs
Jill is smug in her beliefs that “crime” is something that other people do, not white suburban housewives like herself. And yet . . . her son tells us in another interview that he would come home and find stacks of paper money in bags stored in the freezer during the height of the Gifting Tables era. Who stores stacks of cash in plastic bags in the freezer?

In these screenshots of Jill and Donna recounting their experience of being arrested for their organization of the Gifting Tables, we see their shock. It is inconceivable to them that their whiteness, their womanhood, and their middle class status had not protected them from being arrested for fraud. And here they are, in these shots, surrounded by their gendered middle class protections: the well-appointed kitchen, the styled living room.

But this leads to something else that is interesting. The confiscated emails and documents from Barbara’s house after her murder includes diagrams of their scheme: both computer illustrated and hand-drawn sketches of the transaction levels.

Hand-drawn sketch of Gifting Tables scheme.
Hand-drawn sketch of Gifting Tables money scheme.

Remember this moment, because I think there’s an important flipside to this in the last episode of the series, which turns to the emails and letters and documents that Madison uncovers from Barbara’s stored files. Those files will be framed in the documentary as incriminating evidence of Madison’s father’s financial fraud schemes during Barbara and Jeffrey Hamburg’s marriage.

***

At the beginning of episode four, “Reasonable Doubts,” which is the long finale to the short series, Madison meets up with his aunt Conway again — Barbara’s sister — who has boxes of belongings from Barbara’s house that she has stored since the murder. Among the belongings are some pretty surprising things, including the purse — with wallet and other items intact — that was found on the lawn the day Connie and Madison’s sister, Ali, found Barbara’s body hidden in the bushes next to her house. Madison and Connie comment that it seems some of these belongings should have been taken into police evidence during the investigation — and Connie says this is why she believes something has been terribly wrong about the Madison Police Department’s investigation from the beginning.

But the episode shifts focus here to the files found among Barbara’s things. These files include letters to her lawyers and to the police describing what she thought were international financial fraud schemes that her husband, Jeffrey Hamburg, had been engaged in. Barbara gathered documents and provided her own statements during the time of their divorce, apparently, because she was afraid of two things: first, that she would somehow be considered liable in any future investigation of Hamburg for these transactions if they were found to be illegal, and, secondly, that she might actually be in danger, from either Hamburg directly, or indirectly from his business contacts, because she had knowledge of these transactions. It is this perceived danger in Barbara’s paperwork that Madison and his production team try to understand more in the next scenes.

While the “reasonable doubts” of the episode title might refer to the various threads that Madison, for his own peace of mind, puts to bed — the culpability of his sister Ali or his sister Connie in his mother’s death, for example — the phrase also refers to the lingering doubts about his father’s innocence in both his own family’s various financial and emotional struggles, and in his mother’s death.

What I suggest is that the language used in his father’s paperwork, as well as the graphics used to describe the various schemes that Hamburg took part in or orchestrated, are very similar to the Gifting Tables scheme. They are both based on kinds of fraud and pyramid schemes. Further, they both draw on specific kinds of gendered structures of power and expectations of responsibility and risk — or safety.

Hand sketch of bank transfers
Madison’s production team shows a sketch of bank transfers diagramming Madison’s father’s international fraud.

 

Image of contract for prime bank guarantee scam
Financial Crime expert explains to Madison over the phone that the letters and contracts for Jeffrey Hamburg use language that sound like legitimate legal and regulation references, but they are made up. These terms have been flagged by FBI for fraud.

 

Image of diagrammed bank transfers for Prime bank scheme.
Madison’s production team diagrams the financial transfers between Hamburg’s shell companies and pass-through investors.

 

Image of Madison's uncle, Barbara's brother, who retells going into business with Hamburg when he started his own company. Madison's uncle was excited to get in on the "ground floor" of what seemed would be a profitable business -- just like the recruits to Gifting Tables were excited to get a seat at the table that would one day bring them $40k in returns.
Image of Madison’s uncle, Barbara’s brother, who retells going into business with Hamburg when he started his own company. Richard Beach was excited to get in on the “ground floor” of what seemed would be a profitable business — just like the recruits to Gifting Tables were excited to get a seat at the table that would one day bring them $40k in returns. When Richard became suspicious of the too-good-to-be-true promises to investors the company was making, Hamburg called him up and told him he had to leave the company. To be clear, the “return on investment” that Richard was suspicious of was a pyramid scheme, a Bernie Madoff style Ponzi scheme.

 

Image of email from Barbara, found on Barbara's computer, describing her family's investment in some of Hamburg's ponzi schemes.
Image of email from Barbara, found on Barbara’s computer, describing her family’s investment in some of Hamburg’s ponzi schemes.

 

Image from docu-series when the secretly recorded audio between Madiosn and his Father is played.
Image from the docu-series when the secretly recorded audio between Madison and his father is played. Hamburg is resistant to Madison’s questions about his financial schemes, explaining that he’s “the father” and therefore has the right to conduct business in whatever manner he wants, and that not only should his “son” be fine with that, but he should never question him about it.

 

Another still from the secretly recorded audio session between Madison and his father.
When Madison asks his father more directly about some of the contracts and letters he found describing financial transactions between shell companies and other agreements, Hamburg can’t explain what the business was about.

Where Jill’s Gifting Tables were fine because they were for “a bunch of women having dinner parties,” Jeffrey’s international laundering schemes were fine because it was “just (complicated) business.” As far as Jill and Jeffrey are concerned, anyway. And they probably really believe this, at some level, because that is what they have been shown to be true: whiteness, plus gender roles, plus class status affords you certain kinds of entitlement to more money, regardless of how that money is secured, or who else might lose money (or worse) in the process.

What the comparison of these schemes shows, however, is that these family members were (and perhaps still are) willing to hurt each other, whether financially or emotionally or physically, in order to keep climbing that social ladder of money and status.

This brings us back to the beginning of this discussion, to Madison’s own interpretation of the kinds of schemes he uncovered during his documentary investigation. Again, from the ET Online interview with Madison:

 “Despite Barbara’s involvement in the ‘Gifting Table,’ which purported to uplift women but was really a pyramid scheme, or her strained relationships with her sister, Madison believes ‘she was making a lot of decisions out of desperation, out of coercion and just wanting truly the best for her children.’”

The family roles of motherhood and fatherhood — even sisterhood — are sometimes just fronts for various criminal schemes.

One thought on “Gifting Tables, White Feminism, and the Gender of Criminality in ‘Murder on Middle Beach’

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