By now, it’s hard to deny the existence of the recent surge of nostalgic television, from the monsoon of classic 90’s sitcom reboots to the plethora of true crime reenactments. The current season of American Crime Story takes part in this nostalgia, and transports American television viewers back to the late 90’s with the reenactment of the events leading up to the assassination of Gianni Versace. Having been a fan of the highly successful first season revolving around the OJ Simpson trial, I expected nothing short of amazing with the proceeding season. As expected, I found myself clutching my sides in anxiety, gasping (and sometimes scream-yelping) at alarming pitches, and shielding my eyes from the intensity of the show. I watched in horror, bewilderment, and anger as the scenes played before me. Being that American Crime Story is another bullet point in Ryan Murphy’s long list of high-intensity, boundary-pushing television shows, I was ready for the sleepless nights I spent pondering the latest episodes and eagerly awaiting the ones to follow. What I didn’t expect was the sudden rush of empathy towards Andrew Cunanan as his life story unfolded before my eyes.
Let’s get one thing out of the way – the actions of Andrew Cunanan leading up to his demise were deplorable, and it is an absolute tragedy how his life, and the lives of those he took, ultimately played out. Just like the rest of the population of those who remember the grizzly murders he committed, including his own suicide, there was a lot to be questioned about those events. What kind of person is capable of committing such hideous crimes? Was he just a ticking time bomb, an avalanche, awaiting eruption? Was he just innately evil? I think it’s safe to say that up until the premiere of this season of American Crime Story, Andrew Cunanan was painted with the worst shade of monster. While the show doesn’t immediately excuse his actions, it at least flips the switch in the minds of its viewers, turning the incessant “why’s” of the story into exhalations of “oh…okay that makes sense.” For me, personally, yesterday’s episode depicting Andrew’s upbringing was what flipped that switch for me, and hit home on an uncomfortably personal level.
Andrew Cunanan was raised by his over-adrenalized Filipino father and often-submissive American mother. Because of his father’s commanding personality, the Filipino half of his Filipino-American upbringing tended to hold the stronger glare. His father, much like many Filipino immigrants in America, came from poverty and sought a life infinitely better than the one he left in the Philippines. My own parents, along with the caravan of relatives I have here in the States, all sought the same exact thing. As I watched last night’s episode of American Crime Story, I related to a lot of the things that Andrew went through as a child, but quickly cringed in my seat as his father took frequent sharp turns throughout the episode.
At first, I actually felt bad for Modesto Cunanan, Andrew’s father. In the first part of the episode, we see a young Andrew going into an interview to study at a prestigious private school in La Jolla, with scenes interspersed of Modesto (“everyone calls me ‘Pete,'” he often asserted) going into an interview for a stock-broker position with Merrill Lynch. We see Modesto, a less-than-average-in-stature man in a three-piece suit, sitting among a long line of Caucasian men, all gunning for the same job position. In the scene of his interview, you can immediately feel the tension in the room, as the panel of interviewers sized up Modesto (“We don’t normally call in many applicants like you. At least not to be stock brokers.”), already forming conclusions about him by just looking at him. Modesto began to tell the story of how he came from poverty, served in the US Navy, and moved his family from a tiny 12,000-dollar bungalow into an 80,000-dollar home within a small handful of years. Knowing the plight and the struggle of getting people to take you seriously – despite the word “immigrant” being etched on your forehead – from stories told by both of my parents, I felt for Modesto. I silently cheered him on when he told his story. Sadly, this is where my sentiments came to a screeching halt and took a hard turn.
Andrew Cunanan was very obviously the favorite among his siblings to his father. After moving into the beautiful, large 80,000-dollar home in San Diego (let’s try to remember that this was the late-1980’s), Modesto gave Andrew – not even a teenager at that point – the master bedroom, leaving his older siblings to share a room, and his parents with the couch. He bought Andrew a brand new sports car before he was even old enough to drive. He spent every chance he could worshiping the ground Andrew walked on, and thrust away those who put a toe in the way, including his wife and Andrew’s siblings. He made sure to ingrain into Andrew the notion that without monetary and material success, life was meaningless. He began teaching him that the ends justify the means. He showed Andrew that it was okay to lie and deceive other people as long as they saw you as “successful.” He essentially paved the way for Andrew’s life that was riddled with pathological lies, theft, and debauchery.
I understand the want to provide a life for your offspring that you didn’t have. I understand the desire to give your children everything underneath the sun. Having parents who came from the same modest roots that Modesto Cunanan came from, I understand the need to supplement your children’s lives with the things you didn’t have in your own childhood. While I, myself, had a relatively privileged upbringing (compared to those of others), my parents never wanted me or my sister to think that we could get things handed to us if we asked. We weren’t taught that status and money are more important than the work you have to put into those things if you wanted them bad enough. Yes, my parents came from modest beginnings, but never once did they underscore their past with shame or contempt. As a result, my sister and I are hard-working. We understand that if we want something, we have to put in the work necessary to get there. We also know that no goal is worth reaching if that means undercutting the successes of others. This, I believe, is where Modesto Cunanan went vehemently awry – letting his pride get in the way of being human.
Eventually, the fraudulent life Modesto was leading caught up to him, ending with the FBI running him out of the country, and back to the small village in the Philippines he came from. He took whatever money he had left from his family, sold their house from underneath them, and fled. Just as any son awestruck by their father, Andrew followed Modesto to the Philippines to try and get an understanding of what happened. Long story short, there was a heated exchange between the two after Andrew confronted his father about being a liar and a criminal, resulting in Andrew’s downward spiral towards his ultimate demise.
Throughout the show, we continue to see Andrew slowly turning into his father. He let the shame of his past take hold of his life, and allowed pride to dictate his actions. He lied his way towards his climax, and fell hard and fast. He ran when things got difficult and often sought after the easy way instead of the right way. He destroyed lives when his own life got mildly inconvenient. The tragic thing about all of this is that this all could have been easily prevented with one flip of a switch in the opposite direction.
Having recently done some research of my ancestry, I noticed that having a strong work ethic and being a compassionate human being runs deep in my blood and in my lineage. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that these same things coarsed through the veins of everyone who came to America seeking a better life for both themselves and their offspring, Modesto Cunanan included. The divide forms with how you decide you want your past to design your future. I, along with those following along with this season of American Crime Story, can’t help but wonder how things would be different today for the Cunanan and Versace families had a different message been passed down to Andrew.