What is the point of retelling a true story?
It’s a question I keep returning to when listening to Serial, the new WBEZ/This American Life podcast, which is being downloaded 1.2 million times per episode and for which there’s now a meet-up group, and a bunch of pop culture sites with podcasts dissecting the podcast.
Serial is a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season. We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.
The first nonfiction story Serial is covering is the fifteen-year-old murder of Hae Min Lee and the possible wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed.
I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of true crime. Sure, I’ve read In Cold Blood and Fatal Vision, but generally I find true crime exploitative. It dwells in misfortune and the macabre: imagine a horrible way to die, and here’s a book detailing, in lurid tones, how it happened to at least one person.
Serial fits the grand old tradition of narrative journalism. Obviously, narrative can be a force for good: it helps us make meaning out of the world and from a sequence of events. Narrative encourages us to see a bigger picture. But in Serial, the bigger picture is Sarah Koenig’s jigsaw puzzle. As a result, listeners are more interested in sifting through the bits of data (selectively) shared with the audience, as if it’s a mutli-player Cluedo competition, or, as the redditor who claims to be Hae Min Lee’s brother said, an episode of CSI.
With mystery narratives or other serialised crime shows, the audience tries to outsmart the show’s detectives, to determine what happened before they do. Serial’s virality sees serialised theories emerge online, week after week, with little relationship to reality or legal process. The fandom that’s sprung up around the show, particularly on reddit, has little concern for objective reality – the fans seem to think that truth can be ascertained by cross-referencing times, locations and intonation.
But what will narrative resolution or truth look like for Serial?
More importantly, where is the sense that what we’re intimately witnessing are systemic injustices that extend far beyond the particulars of this case?
Giving a voice to the dead or missing is a challenge that many writers and journalists face, but Hae Min Lee’s absence in what is effectively a whodunnit about her murder is perturbing. Hae Min Lee is the dead girl wrapped in diary entries and other people’s memories, tainted by distance and self-preservation. While she is frozen in permanent adolescence, the manner in which she died and her innermost thoughts at the time of her death are very much on public display. Hae Min Lee is the inciting incident, and her death the high stakes laid out in the very first episode.
‘This entertainment factor leaves a bitter taste,’ writes Stephanie Van Schilt, ‘because Lee isn’t Laura Palmer, she can’t be resurrected in a fictional land of flashbacks and surreal dream sequences. Lee is real and she’s dead. Likewise the recordings of Syed in prison attesting (falsely or otherwise) his innocence are raw and emotional because they’re not scripted.’
Not only are Adnan Syed’s contributions unscripted, he speaks to the audience directly from prison. Syed was sentenced to life plus thirty years while still a teenager, in a case that journalist and former public defender and criminal lawyer Jami Floyd argued on last week’s Slate Serial podcast was completely unfounded.
He shouldn’t be in prison. There’s just not enough evidence to have this kid in prison. What you’ve got is a snitch and a bunch of cell phone records, which although at the time we thought was pretty good evidence, we’re now starting to see as junk science. Even then, when we thought it was reasonably good evidence, the Jay testimony didn’t match up with the science they thought they had – the cell phone records. And that’s all they had.
Much of the criticism that’s started to emerge about Serial discusses the ethics of using the murder of Hae Min Lee as a hook. I agree that, with true stories, we don’t always remember the real-world consequences, or the real lives such accounts invade, but I think it’s the fate of Adnan Syed we should be worried about here.
Thirty years plus life, can you imagine?
But perhaps we find it hard to discuss the ramifications of this show, because we so rarely talk about what justice is, or what it looks like, for victims and perpetrators.
Serial has been praised for revealing the mechanics of journalistic investigation, and for Sarah Koenig embracing her subjectivity, but I find her faux naivety grating. Surely she’s adopted it purely for narrative effect? Because, despite the actual evidence that piles up, she keeps returning to speculating like the uninitiated – not someone who’s been working on this case for more than a year.
What if he is this amazing sociopath and I’m just being played, you know? I don’t get that sense, but he’s really charming. He’s really smart. He’s really. He’s funny and he could totally be a sociopath.
After seven episodes, that’s her conclusion? (For the record, ‘sociopath’, is a highly contested term.) It’s as if she thinks that the act of murder utterly transmogrifies a person, something that besmirches and colours all interaction and action forever thereafter. That is, bad people murder; good, likeable people don’t.
In Telling true stories, Matthew Ricketson warns of the dangers of too much writerly subjectivity: ‘When one kind of narrative style denies the people being written about their full humanity by an inability or unwillingness to engage with them, the other kind denies subjects their full humanity by treating them as less important than the writer’s own subjectivity.’
A writer’s participation with their subjects sits on a spectrum: all nonfiction writers and journalists participate at some level, so it’s not Koenig’s presence I’m objecting to here. It’s more the question of what’s driving the story and why. Here’s Koenig’s version: ‘He has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.’
On The Awl last week, Jay Caspian Kang put many of Koenig’s reporting flaws down to ‘white reporter privilege’. I appreciate the perspective: racial politics have all but been stripped from the show. But what that article labels white privilege, I would’ve labelled liberalism – the idea that the truth can set you free (which those overrepresented in the US prison system can attest is not the case), that everyone is equal and so a journalist gives equal weight to all sides of the story – including the prosecution’s, which is already the official record of events.
Even though evidence Koenig herself has uncovered suggests the police helped fashion the testimony of the key witness, and that there was DNA evidence that wasn’t bought to trial, Koenig still says that ‘there’s not gross negligence or malfeasance or something on the part of the detectives or the State Attorney’s office. Everyone seems to be doing their job responsibly’.
The conclusion of every chapter of Serial reminds me of This American Life’s ‘Retraction’ episode (following the Mike Daisey controversy), when someone describes to Glass the working conditions in Foxconn factories, and Glass replies, ‘As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad?’ It’s almost as though Glass is hoping his guilt for living a life that mostly overlooks inequality – inequality that largely works in his favour, as much of his fame is based on airing various expressions of it – can be absolved.
On the surface of Serial, it appears that Koenig is questioning authority and working for those who don’t have a public audience – but wouldn’t it be more persuasive to cite the other times she’s encountered judicial misconduct or evidence of a judicial system more interested in process and conviction than justice? In the many interviews about her serialised investigation, Koenig insists she’s just interested in solving the mystery, that it’s not her role to get Adnan Syed’s conviction overturned.
It’s a fair point, but what, then, is the point of retelling this story? Why did Sarah Koenig get involved if she doesn’t think there’s a wrong that needs to be righted?
If, in the end, Adnan Syed finally confesses that he did murder Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago, solving Sarah Koenig’s mystery, what then? Does it mean Adnan Syed deserves to be in jail, even though the evidence and trial were so flawed? Does it make thirty years plus life a fair sentence?