By Jackie Santo and Ariana Wolk

Spoiler Alert: This blog contains significant information about the movie Bernie.

Viewing Bernie through an Elder Abuse Lens

Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a shocking true story of elder abuse and murder in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  Told through the perspective of the community, the film focuses on the unlikely relationship between the young, eponymous Bernie Tiede, and Marjorie Nugent, a millionaire in her eighties.  Linklater’s self-described Southern Fargo uses dark humor to explore how attitudes towards the elderly can affect the sympathies and judgment of a community tasked with bringing justice to the victim of a heinous crime.  Based on a 1998 article from Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth, who also co-wrote the movie, Bernie stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey.

Bernie Tiede, a young mortician, was beloved in Carthage for his kind nature and involvement in the community.  The town was surprised when sweet Bernie became a close companion to the wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, who was notoriously cold hearted and tight with her fortune.  Estranged from her family, Marjorie trusted her rumored paramour with full access to her bank accounts, which he spent regularly and magnanimously on gifts for others in the community.  After a few years, however, their relationship became too suffocating for Bernie, and in what the movie portrayed as a moment of frustrated despair, he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and threw her body in the garage freezer.  Her body remained there, undiscovered, for nine months, during which time Bernie generously spent $600,000 of Marjorie’s great wealth on donations and investments throughout the community.  After he was arrested and confessed to everything, the town of Carthage was thrown into a state of denial, where few could believe what Bernie had done and others could not blame him.

Prosecuting Elder Abuse

Bernie brings to light some of the social and legal challenges of convicting abusers. Bernie breezed through explanations about Marjorie’s extended absence thanks, in part, to ageism.  Mrs. Nugent’s controlling and demanding personality did not excuse abuse or justify her murder. In all of Carthage, Texas, District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson seemed to be the only person in town who saw through Bernie’s smile and seemingly prodigious charitable acts.  In the end, Danny “Buck” got his conviction by moving the trial out of Carthage, a town captivated by Bernie’s charm.  Today, Bernie is serving a life sentence in prison.

It seems absolutely astounding that Bernie received sympathy from a large percentage of the Carthage following his arrest. Justice was served in Bernie’s case, but his story exposes some of the more frequent obstacles for prosecutors seeking justice for elder abuse victims. In response to these challenges, the US Department of Justice funded the National Center for State Courts to write the guide, Prosecuting Elder Abuse Cases: Basic Tools and Strategies.

About the Bloggers

We – Jackie Santo and Ariana Wolk  – were summer interns in 2012 with The Risk and Resiliency Project at Weill Cornell Medical College’s Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology. The internship was specifically designed to educate undergraduate students about the positive side of aging as well as abuse that can occur in later life.

As part of Dr. Karl Pillemer’s The Legacy Project, we devoted many hours interviewing older adults and learning about the lessons and wisdom they have accumulated over the course of their lives. We heard stories of success, romance, and painful and emotional difficulties. (Our work focusing on resiliency is described on The Legacy Project’s website.)  Connecting with older people motivated us to care about the safety and security of this inspiring group of individuals.

We also had the opportunity to work with the NYC Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) and learn about elder abuse from many angles, including legal action. We attended trainings and case conferences that highlighted the possible criminality of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation cases, all three of which Ms. Nugent unfortunately fell victim to during and after her life. As part of our work with NYCEAC, we decided to blog about Bernie, as it is our desire to use it to stimulate conversation about ageism, elder abuse and elder justice.

Did you see Bernie? We’d love to hear your perspective! Please send your comments using the space below.


Jackie Santo is majoring in Marketing at Tulane University, Class of 2015. Ariana Wolk is currently planning to major in Psychology at Cornell University, Class of 2015.

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8 Responses to “Bernie”: Does Hollywood Do Justice to Elder Abuse?

  1. Jacob says:

    Great article! What do you think of Linklater’s statement that he thinks Bernie should have only received somewhere on the order of fifteen years in prison and not a life sentence? Seems to me that this movie attempted to exonerate rather then condemn Bernie. Maybe craft services got the recipe for, and served on set, the same cool-aid favored by the residents of Carthage, TX.

  2. Cara Kenien says:

    Hi Jacob, Thanks so much for sharing your important observations about the film! I think that ageism was a factor underlying the perception that Bernie should be exonerated or serve less time for killing Ms. Nugent. It seems that many of the Carthage, TX folks believed that Ms. Nugent’s behavior warranted the multiple kinds of elder abuse that she suffered from in this situation. What are your thoughts?

  3. Page Ulrey says:

    This is an important article on how easily we block from our consciousness the suffering and wrongful treatment of elders. I watched this movie, and was disturbed not only by the town’s self-serving support of Bernie, but also of the filmmaker’s one-dimensional portrayal of Marjorie as mean and controlling. Surely Marjorie was also lonely, vulnerable, and afraid of the fact that she was aging and had no one in her life but Bernie, who very clearly was only interested in her for her money. None of those aspects of Marjorie were explored by the film, leaving the average viewer with few options but to jump on the bandwagon along with all of Carthage.

    It is time for us to move past our knee-jerk denial of the loneliness, neglect, and abuse that can so often accompany aging, and to make acknowledging it and discussing what we can do about it part of our public discourse. This blog entry does just that.

    Nice job, Ariana and Jackie.

  4. Cara Kenien says:

    Hi Page, thanks so much for comment and for sharing your observations and reactions to the film. You are so right about the need to raise public awareness around aging and elder justice issues. I’m wondering if you have ideas about how we can continue increasing this important discourse in our work and everyday lives?

  5. Leanne Collins Miller says:

    I have forgotten about this film and need to see this portrayal of a very serious subject. I really appreciate the way the NYCEAC uses multiple platforms to open the discussion about elder abuse and elder justice.
    People don’t like to talk or think about aging issues and elder abuse. They are uncomfortable topics, but innovative ways to open discussions move this dialogue into the forefront.
    I have asked friends and family what their perception was of “Silver Linings Playbook” in regards to elder abuse. No one associated what happened in the film with abuse.
    Being the daughter of parents who were abused and financially exploited, I am very sensitive to even the subtlest form of abuse.
    This confirms to me that a majority of people need to be made aware of all forms of elder abuse and the potential for abuse.
    Family members are usually the perpetrators. This area needs to be examined as to how we can prevent financial abuse using a DPOA. It is very common and very easy to defraud a relative using the very powerful elder law documents that are drafted every day. Adult children have access to their parents’ social security numbers and by using the Internet, they can easily take control over their credit cards and even open new credit cards.
    I am not an expert, but learning through victim’s stories may help to understand other ways to prevent elder abuse and financial exploitation. It’s a steep hill to climb and we have to keep the conversations going about this horrible epidemic in our country.
    If we don’t hold perpetrators, including family members criminally responsible for elder abuse, they will move on to the next victim. We become complacent in this cycle if we don’t find ways to prosecute perpetrators.
    At 93, my mother who has dementia, was left penniless. Civil litigation is not an option to recover stolen funds if the funds have been spent. We have criminal laws that need to be enforced and allocated resources need to be used for victims. Shelters and pro bono legal services are very much needed for victims of abuse across the country.
    I will never forget the look on my mom’s face when she found out her own child misappropriated her funds for his personal gain and profit. I can easily say the financial exploitation of my mother has been one of the worst events in my life and most improtantly my mom’s.
    There is no justification for elder abuse and exploitation.
    Thank you for your insightful blogs. Will be getting a copy of “Bernie” to watch soon.

  6. Cara Kenien says:

    Hi Leanne, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and reflections about the film. Also, thank you for continuing to share your story and passion for this work. You’ve added so many great points to the larger discussion and have helped raise awareness of elder abuse. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Thank you again!

  7. George Cobbs says:

    I am not sure if you are aware, but there have been some very strange developments in this case post the Movie. The D.A. flipped and filed a motion to release Bernie on time served. The family objected and got the D.A. removed from the case. The Appellate Court ordered a new trial, and Bernie is living with Linklater while he is out on bond. The family has released several documents and claim that Bernie was Marjorie’s caregiver, and that Bernie perpetrated a financial scheme much like a Bernie Madoff type scheme. He would “invest money for Marjorie” and pay her back a small return. In reality he would take Marjorie’s money, spend most of it, and give her back a small portion of it and call it “a return”. Obviously this is a true example of financial exploitation of an elder person by a caregiver.

  8. Cara Kenien says:

    Hello George, thank you so much for sharing this update as a comment on this blog post. We really appreciate it. Best, Cara

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