The Girlfriends: Women Who Speak Out

  • 15.09.2023

By foregrounding female voices and perspectives, new Novel series The Girlfriends turns a story about a man accused of killing his wife inside-out. Andrew Dickson got together with host Carole Fisher and producer Anna Sinfield to discuss sound design, swearing and sisterhood

An image of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum. Collage: Novel
An image of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum. Collage: Novel

How much do you really know about that guy you just started dating? Sure, he seems great – smart, good job, attractive, solvent. But what if he has something to hide? What if you could corral his ex-girlfriends into one place and quiz them about what he was like when he dated them? What skeletons would you uncover in his closet? What if there actually are ... skeletons?

The Girlfriends is a true crime podcast with a twist – the twist being right there in the title. Instead of exploring the story of Bob Bierenbaum, a New York surgeon whose wife, Gail, went missing in strange circumstances in 1985, from his point of view, we hear the story from the perspective of women who were involved with him. It’s a formidable cast of characters. There’s Carole Fisher, who dated him briefly in Las Vegas in the 1990s and, despite being charmed initially, was freaked out by his erratic behaviour and volcanic bursts of anger. There’s Mindy, Carole’s pal, who also dated Bob, a true-crime nut who turns amateur sleuth. There’s Alayne, Gail’s sister, a lawyer who’s convinced that Gail has been murdered and is intent on bringing Bob to justice. And others beside.

Sure, some of these women are Bob’s (ex-)girlfriends, but when they band together to solve the mysteries surrounding him, it’s clear that they’re girlfriends in a more important sense. They’re a sisterhood; they have each other’s backs. And they’re determined to make sure everyone knows – in Carole’s immortal phrase – what “a sick fuck” Bob really is.

Released this summer on the iHeart platform, The Girlfriends has been one of Novel’s biggest hits of 2023, a critically acclaimed chart-topper that has found passionate audiences in both the UK and US. In addition to the way it places female voices and perspectives at its heart, the series has gained plaudits for its sensitive handling of topics including domestic abuse and controlling behaviour, partly because the production team partnered with NO MORE, a non-profit that works to end domestic violence.

As we hear in the show, while cases like Gail’s are extreme, they’re part of a continuum: according to the UN, an estimated 736 million women – one in three – experience physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. As Carole and co realise, the fight to end that is far from over.

To discuss how the show was made and shaped, and hear more about the issues it explores, I got Carole and lead producer Anna Sinfield together in a (virtual) room. We talked about everything from sound design and swearing – in The Girlfriends there’s a glorious amount of the latter – and discussed where the story might go next.

Andrew Dickson: What was it like to take on this project and host a podcast, Carole? Had you done anything like this before?

Carole Fisher: Honestly, it was a total journey of discovery. I had never even listened to a podcast before.

AD: What, really? Not even listened?

CF: No, I really mean that! I hadn’t, not at all. So when Anna asked me to host the podcast, I thought she was freaking crazy. But I was up for the challenge.

AD: How did you first come across the story, Anna? What did you make of it when you started to comb through it?

Anna Sinfield: Actually it was someone who was working on our brilliant Development team, Isaac, who first came across it. He read an article that Carole and Mindy had done around 2000, and we at Novel were all so fascinated. So it went from there. We reached out to Carole, started reaching out to the other women involved, and quickly found that the story was much larger than just their perspective. That’s when I started bothering Carole and Mindy and squeezing my way into their lives.

AD: Carole, did you have any concerns or anxieties about delving back this history after all this time? From what you say in the podcast, you’d kind of put it behind you.

CF: If I’m really honest, I went in kicking and screaming. I was also really living in denial about Bob. I dated him for a short period of time, a long time ago. At some level I wanted to believe that he wasn’t a murderer, that everything happened by accident, in terms of Gail and how she died; that an argument had happened and somehow gone tragically wrong. Obviously that wouldn’t make it right – the reverse – but I suppose that was the space I was in. But what I realised when I started working on the series was that my denial wasn’t working too well. I needed to face up to it. There was a lot to swallow. So it’s been a journey, to say the least.

AD: It must have been genuinely hard coming to terms with what he did. You dated him and saw his anger and how crazily he could act; he could have done something awful to you.

CF: Of course. But there were wonderful things in this project too. One of them was this sense of community we found with each other, all these girlfriends coming together. And, speaking personally, getting to know Gail was a really special journey for me; I feel very much that she’s a girlfriend to me today. One of the gifts I received during this was that I got to go back and explore her past, and who she really was as a woman. I hadn’t known any of that, and perhaps hadn’t wanted to think about it because of being in denial. So that was a real discovery.

AS: It was like that throughout making the series. I’m now in an email thread with Carole, Mindy and Alayne, and it’s like the four of us just sharing love and good thoughts and feedback that we’ve had. Alayne had never met Carole and Mindy before we made The Girlfriends, and I think if we’d done this show in a different way, that friendship could not have started. We are all kind of in this world together now.

AD: So often in true crime podcasts, the victims – and almost always they’re female victims – are just treated like victims. They’re defined by what happened to them. We never really hear their story. And yet here you went to a lot of lengths to discover who Gail really was. You really got to know her, it sounds like.

CF:  Well, she was full of life. She was a woman who was looking to live a life that was meaningful; she was studying to be a psychologist. She was extremely fun, had a quick wit, good sense of humour. So many things. I can really relate to Gail, and I feel this sense of responsibility. I don’t know how to explain it, except I just feel this true sense of responsibility to keep her voice alive, to make sure that she’s not forgotten.

AS: To me, what this story really represents is the fact that so many women have a shared experience in this space. The statistic is one in three women experience domestic violence at least once within their lifetime. Often it’s far more. These are the same statistics as cancer. That’s wild to me. Something I really wanted to do with this show is point out that this isn’t unusual. Sure, it doesn’t always end in death, thankfully, but when it comes to that experience of male violence and of just being scared, that’s something that every woman has experienced at some point in some way. It happens to everybody.

Collage: Novel
Collage: Novel

AD: Tell me about the music, Anna. A lot of people have commented on it; in fact, Novel has actually produced an album of it! It’s clearly a really important ingredient in the show; did you feel that from the beginning?

AS: For sure. We wanted to take this concept of female solidarity as far as we could. It informed everything: the team, the host, the writing, and of course the music. So we focused in on female harmonies, which felt like the right fit for all sorts of reasons. We found the composer Luisa Gerstein , who was amazing, and we worked with singers from the all-female Deep Throat Choir , who were also incredible. The whole thing was manipulated by Nick and Daniel on sound design, who did some really impressive stuff. The voices become like another character in the action; they become a bit like a Greek chorus, in a way. Sometimes they’re quite light and peppy, sometimes much darker. At the end it’s almost like a requiem mass. That meaning adapts throughout the series. A lot of people prefer true crime podcasts to not have a lot of music or sound design. They just want to be told the story and keep it as simple as possible. But I really felt like it added something. I’m glad we stuck to that.

AD: That’s interesting that you refer to it as a true crime podcast, Anna. Do you really think it is?

AS: Yeah, it’s interesting. As I we said before, we were trying to purposefully upend the idea of it being a true crime podcast, because so often they don’t treat female victims in the way we wanted to treat them here. But there’s also an interesting thing because the club Carole and her girlfriends set up was almost like a true crime club. It’s a bit of a game, as it so often is for those of us who listen to those shows: we’re binging on other people’s trauma. And only later do we realise it’s so much more. It’s true crime, but it’s also true grief. We hear from Gail’s friends; we get to know her as best we can. We’ve had several reviews say that we’ve made them miss somebody they didn’t even know. That feels important.

CF: For me, I didn’t know what true crime podcasts were before I started. Aside from that, if I was to categorise it, I would say that it’s about raising awareness, about empowerment. To me it’s about talking about not just domestic violence, but grief and loss too – a willingness to talk about things that are difficult and sometimes seen as shameful.

AD: We talked about the history and excavating that, going back over all this painful territory. Looking back on the series now that it’s done and out there, do you feel some sense of closure, Carole? Where are you on that stuff?

CF: In some ways yes, this was a box that was opened and making the series has helped close it. I’ve found it really empowering to try and make sure that some  voice is given to women who are struggling with domestic violence, and for people like Gail, who no longer can speak for themselves. But in other ways no; it doesn’t feel like it’s a journey that’s finished. Not at all.

AD: Ah, that’s interesting – I was going to ask about this, because it did feel at the end that there might be more. We shouldn’t spoil anything for people who haven’t listened yet, but at one point in the series a torso is discovered that might or might not be Gail’s. When we first hear about it, it’s not clear if it’s her, or if it’s someone else entirely who we don’t know. As a listener, you want to know more about who this person was.

CF: We are getting an unbelievable amount of attention to the torso. People want to be part of the solution. They want to honour her, and they want to see justice for her. We get a lot of emails. They’re rooting for Anna and the team to identify that woman. We all want to know.

AS: And we will continue to try. I am not going to let this go. It really took over my life in a way that is beyond a job. And in our research, I got to know the stories of multiple women who I believe it could be. And I can’t just forget about their names. Their names are very deeply associated with the show to me, and they’re really part of our journey. That would be a really moving opportunity. I hope we might be able to do something with it.

AD: So people haven’t just been listening? They’ve been getting in touch and wanting to be a part of the story?

CF: That’s one of the most amazing things. There’s a continued groundswell of women uniting from this podcast. I cannot begin to tell you how many women reach out to me every day through Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn or my website to thank all of us. When I respond, I always say that they’re now girlfriends, too. That’s how it feels.

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