How Amanda Mustard Confronted More Than Her Pedophile Grandfather in ‘Great Photo, Lovely Life’
“I made this thing to be this Rorschach test for people,” Mustard told Jezebel of her HBO documentary, which is a rare revelation of family trauma.
Every family has its own lore. If you’re lucky, yours is a treasure chest of tales trotted out at gatherings to warm the cockles or wrest a chuckle from your uncle who’s reluctantly returned to the dinner table for the first time since Trump left office. Unfortunately, for others, the stories are more sinister and require the kind of scrutiny their elders are either ill-equipped or unwilling to account for. At some point, every new generation is faced with a choice: Continue to shirk them off or look longer and add some needful specifics for the next. Photojournalist Amanda Mustard leaned all the way into the latter. Now, anyone with a subscription to Max can become privy to a story that’s beset her family for decades: her grandfather, Bill Flickinger, was a prolific pedophile and convicted sex offender.
It’s been over a month since Great Photo, Lovely Life–Mustard’s staggering documentary about the now-deceased Flickinger and his decades of sexual abuse–premiered, and nearly a year since it began the festival rounds, yet the discourse endures. Mustard is very much engaged.
“I made this thing to be this Rorschach test for people,” the 33-year-old first-time filmmaker told Jezebel of Great Photo, Lovely Life, which was filmed over eight years and co-directed by Rachel Beth Anderson. “I very intentionally do not try and tell you how to feel but to reckon with whatever’s coming up in all of its complexity. To me, it’s like taking the temperature of where we’re at as a society.”
Production began in 2014 when Mustard sat down with Flickinger for an interview. That conversation, she said, was her first attempt to get answers for herself and her family, and accountability for the scores of his victims–including, as it’s later revealed, her mother, Debi, and older sister, Angie. Flickinger responded with revolting frankness. Less than five minutes into the film, he describes one instance as “quite an engagement.” Of another, he says he “more or less experimented” with a prepubescent girl. What emerged is a film that manages to be grim, not glib; incisive instead of incendiary; and a conclusion that offers both answers and salient questions about intergenerational trauma, women’s complicity in men’s wrongdoing, and the ways forgiveness can harm rather than heal.
“In the evangelical faith that my family adheres to, not forgiving is equal to the sin that was committed against you, which is insane. But it’s also a milder form of victim-blaming.”
Mustard is well aware that Great Photo, Lovely Life could’ve been the kind of true crime retelling you’d find on Investigation Discovery or Netflix. “My pedophile grandpa…” Mustard says, imagining an alternative, Abducted in Plain Sight-esque take on her family’s story. But with a rich archive of photographs and home movies, Great Photo Lovely Life surpasses any ripped-from-the-headlines salaciousness and becomes a searing rumination not of a “monster” but a truly reprehensible human whose actions had a ruinous effect on innumerable lives.
“We so rarely hear the perspective of a perpetrator,” Mustard said of the importance of confronting her grandfather onscreen. “As a survivor myself, it is weirdly healing to see somebody own it. There’s value in that. My whole question that led me to that interview in the first place was, ‘How did we get here?’”
Part of the “how” is in the title. Within some hundreds of pictures, Mustard and the film’s animation director, Charlie Tyrell, noticed Flickinger’s habit of writing what she describes as “playful and delusional” captions on the backs of photos. Scrawled on the reverse side of an old family portrait was “Great photo, lovely life.”
“To me, it just spoke to the kind of delusion of ‘everything’s fine, look how great everything is’ which is how it felt being raised in my family,” Mustard said. As she explains in the film, religious devotion and an overall deficiency in communication gave way for Flickinger’s behavior to be known simply as “touchy feely” for years. Meanwhile, he was actively preying upon young girls–inside and outside the family–under a thin shroud of professionalism as a longtime chiropractor and piousness as a church-goer. “I had been raised normalized to it,” she said, adding that she didn’t even become totally aware of his exact crimes until production began.
At the time of the documentary, he’d already been convicted of statutory rape in 1975, and a second charge for lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor in 1992 resulting in two years in prison. Neither put an end to his predation. For Mustard, his spoken admission was personal. In a video diary, Mustard shares that she, too, is a victim of sexual assault, though it wasn’t perpetrated by Flickinger but a friend’s boyfriend who never accounted for it. “It’s the least that I can do as the granddaughter of this piece of shit,” Mustard tearfully explains in the film. It’s at once a statement of intent and a bleak reminder of how elusive justice can be in cases of sexual violence, and that getting it—in any form—is often left to those who’ve been harmed.
Though Mustard contacted many of Flickinger’s victims, most of them aren’t in the film. Bonnie Dillard—who now identifies as Grace—is one exception outside of Mustard’s family. For years, Grace was sexually abused by Flickinger at the Pennsylvania practice where she was a patient and he worked as a chiropractor. The Herds, a God-fearing husband and wife who still own the practice, claimed they weren’t entirely aware of any previous wrongdoing when they hired Flickinger, even though offenses had already taken place elsewhere in the state. In one of the many difficult-to-watch scenes, Grace revisits the clinic for the first time since she became an adult.
“It’s hard to forgive someone who doesn’t ask for forgiveness,” Grace tells the Herds. Regardless, they ask to pray with her. “[Forgiveness] is this word we all use but have very different definitions of,” Mustard told Jezebel. In the evangelical faith that my family adheres to, not forgiving is equal to the sin that was committed against you, which is insane. But it’s also a milder form of victim-blaming.”As Flickinger’s health declines, Mustard and Debi confront him one last time with audio messages recorded by Angie and Grace. The outcome is frustrating yet, for survivors, achingly familiar. And, in a crushing conclusion, some of the fissures in the foundation of Mustard’s family only fracture further. Debi ultimately has difficulty reckoning with any responsibility for Angie’s abuse perpetrated by her father—their relationship, at times, has suffered for it.
In the end, viewers will understand that Flickinger was protected by religion, a pernicious culture of forced forgiveness, and, most complex of all, female complicity. Here, Great Photo, Lovely Life asks for more empathy. We learn Mustard’s grandmother, Salesta, was aware of what her husband was doing and largely looked on—even as her daughter, Debi, and granddaughter, Angie, became victims. Salesta’s silence in Flickinger’s abuse lingers long after the credits but Mustard thinks historical context should be considered.
“They knew each other for three months and got married and he was very manipulative,” Mustard said. But Lois, the name he insisted on calling her, remained by Flickinger’s side until finally leaving him with Debi’s support two years before her death. “I don’t know what made the name change happen because it wasn’t until she was in hospice care and my mom was writing her paperwork out for her that she piped up and said, ‘that’s not my name. My name is Salesta.’”
Since the film premiered, Mustard said she’s received hundreds of messages from viewers who see some part of their own lineage’s lore in hers. Others are more enraged by the actions of those who participated in it—even hers. The perfunctory hug Mustard gives her grandfather the last time she sees him alive, for instance, has pissed a lot of people off. Her mother and grandmother have also drawn considerable ire. But be it anger, applause, or some measure of both, all reactions, Mustard thinks, indicate a storytelling success.
“I think the misplaced anger in the comments comes from a place of trying to apply the rules of now to a time that was extremely different,” Mustard said. “It’s unrealistic to be like ‘hey grandma, hashtag me too.’”
She’s sympathetic to her audience’s eagerness to point the finger—especially at women. Simultaneously though, Mustard said she has respect for those who appeared in Great Photo, Lovely Life despite knowing they might be poorly perceived. “These are the women that were like, ‘hey we’re gonna try,’” Mustard said, specifically noting her mother.
“As much of a shitstorm as all this is, mom’s doing better than grandma, you’re doing better than mom, and your kids are going to do better than you,” Mustard tells Angie in the film’s final moments. This is ultimately the message of Great Photo, Lovely Life: When one generation finally tells of its trauma, the next one gets a little more free.