Burden of Proof, the new HBO documentary, was not an easy watch. Stephen Pandos chronicles everything about his missing sister, Jennifer Pandos. The man was adamant about accusing his parents of being responsible for her disappearance. Stephen spent at least 22 years trying to find evidence that would validate his theory. As the oldest child of the household, Stephen believed he had some responsibility towards himself and his extended family to get answers about Jennifer’s whereabouts.
Margie, the mother of Stephen and Jennifer, woke up one day in the year 1987 to see her daughter missing and a letter she had left for her parents. Since the incident, every day has been an ordeal for Margie. 22 years later, Stephen wants to open the case because as a father of two daughters, he needs to make sure they are raised in the right kind of world.
In flashbacks, we get to see Margie as a working-class woman married to Ron. After the birth of Stephen, Ron was shipped off to Vietnam, and the man was away from his family for 18 months. He was a different person after his return, and he never spoke to Margie of the horrors he had witnessed. Ron was also not able to connect with Stephen because he was away for too long for the boy to be able to recognize his father. This was the beginning of the abuse that Margie faced at the hands of Ron. Ron and Margie had Jennifer, but that did not change the man’s attitude toward his family. Ron was suffering from PTSD caused by the war. His temper, impatience, and tendencies to physically harm Margie and Stephen also increased over time.
Margie, just like any other woman of that era, did not leave her husband because they were a family. A family is supposed to stick with each other and find solutions to their problems instead of quitting on them. Margie did not realize her abusive household was having a severe impact on the kids as well. This is what made Stephen livid, for he claims that she did nothing to stop her husband from harming them. Sadly, Stephen does not realize how the pattern of abuse works on women who are constantly brainwashed to believe that their lives are all about serving the men in their lives.
Margie was a victim of that old-world conditioning, and Stephen should have understood why she bothered to continue being a part of the marriage. Yes, she was a victim of emotional and physical abuse from her husband. But the pain she went through after Jennifer’s disappearance was a type of abuse as well. Margie was under greater scrutiny, for she was always under the radar as the bad mother who did not know what was happening in her home. It was not clear at that time if Jennifer had disappeared or just ran away.
Maybe Jennifer’s disappearance acted like a catalyst that ended her marriage to the abusive Ron. She got some relief in the end, but the constant badgering from Stephen about her role in Jennifer’s disappearance can also be considered a form of abuse. Stephen never had conclusive evidence to prove his theory, and since he never stayed in touch with Ron, his accusations were always directed at his mother for supporting her now ex-husband by keeping quiet about his crime. Stephen never realized the chronic pain Margie must have felt because of his accusatory tone. The woman was probably ridden with guilt for having her daughter disappear from under her roof.
Stephen had the right intentions, but his anger made him take the aggressive route without realizing that Margie was again being put through a kind of mental abuse. She was put through rigorous interrogation in 2006/07, which was painful to watch in the documentary because one could see how mentally exhausting it was for Margie to give the officers and Stephen the same set of answers. Watching Stephen lose his mind due to his frustration over Margie is also distressing.
Margie agreed to everything Stephen had asked her to. She never refused because she did not want to hurt her son or act hostile, which would further sour their relationship. Margie, though she failed the polygraph test, allowed herself to go through hypnosis and a talk with ex-criminal negotiators, only to be proven innocent by all of them. Stephen, who lived not that far away from his mother, never allowed his daughters to have a relationship with her because of the role he thought his mother played in saving Ron and letting go of Jennifer. Purposely denying people what they want or need can also be considered a form of abuse.
Thanks to Jake Rice, the investigation took a sharp turn when it was revealed that police were considering Tony Tobler as one of the prime suspects because of Jennifer and Tony’s dating history and an abortion as well. This finally gave Margie some much-deserved relief. Stephen was shaken by these revelations because he never considered Tony a suspect. This change in the investigation made Stephen realize the amount of time he had spent blaming his parents, especially Margie. There is a guilt growing in him, and he realized it is not too late to make things right with her.
Stephen takes it upon himself to apologize because he spent many years having a bad relationship with her. Stephen can only hope that after everything she was put through, Margie will allow him back into her life, which she does. Margie was quick to accept his apology because, as a mother, she had already lost a child, and by not accepting his mistakes, she could not afford to lose another one to petty ego. She is vocal about things she lost over the years because of the accusations, but bringing Stephen back into her life along with his daughters would only make her life peaceful.