As a hopeless podcast addict, I’ve been inevitably sucked into the phenomenon that is Serial, the spin-off podcast from This American Life that is currently examining the 1999 murder of a 17-year old high school student in Baltimore. A part of me is very uncomfortable with the feverish obsession that Serial has spawned in its audience. A promising young girl was senselessly murdered, and it’s likely that more than one person is lying about what they know. It’s disturbing and a little distasteful to me that so many people on Reddit and other forums are treating this like a fictional murder mystery rather than a tragedy that involves real human beings whose lives are still being affected by it. But I also understand why so many are held helplessly in its grip. It’s utterly compelling, because there are so many facets to the story and so many different ways that the storytelling itself messes with our sense of how good our instincts about people really are. Then there are the myriad clues, questions, cell phone records, court documents, timelines—perfect fodder for the naturally obsessive. Evidence maps and detailed timeline charts and cell tower ping maps are being created by fans of the show and shared online, as listeners play detective and try to determine the true course of events on the day of the murder.
I don’t have the time, patience or stamina to participate at that level, and the evidence isn’t what interests me most about the case. Personally, my fascination lies with the motivations and psychological make-up of the people producer Sarah Koenig interviews. To summarize the story, Hae Lee Min was strangled on January 13th, 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and convicted of her murder, based largely on the inconsistent testimony of Adnan’s casual friend and pot-smoking buddy, Jay (who is almost universally described as “shady”.) To this day, Adnan claims that he is innocent. “Serial” sets out to find the truth, and in doing so, wades into an ungodly mess of conflicting testimony, contradictions, intrigue, and seeming cover-ups. Week to week, the podcast yanks it’s listeners from one perspective to another, so you are convinced of Anan’s innocence one week and just as convinced of his guilt the following week. It is brilliant storytelling that has me constantly wondering about Jay’s motives, if Adnan is really the victim he claims to be, and the nature of memory. Finally, I wonder about producer Sarah herself, and how much her own feelings about this case are influencing what and how she chooses to report.
The show is also a meditation on the good person/bad person binary. I think that some of what its listeners find so alluring is the compulsion to categorize Adnan as all good or all bad, because the thought that we can carry both light and darkness within us is frightening. The idea that a basically good kid could snap and carry out a strangulation is psychologically destabilizing and an affront to our sense of predictability. Much is made of the fact that Adnan was a popular and well-regarded in high school, and now after fifteen years in prison, comes across as intelligent, kind, calm, and accepting of his fate, hardly the markers of an out-of-control killer. There are rabid believers on both sides of the spectrum. Those who believe he is innocent stand behind him with fierce loyalty. Those who think he is guilty believe that he is a brilliant sociopath who is manipulating Sarah Koenig and using “Serial” to his advantage. He is a perfect mirror for our projections of fear, and our need to believe in purity of character.
However, in all of my addictive fascination with Serial, I try to remember the words of victim Hae Lee Min’s brother, who posted a single plea on Reddit recently before vanishing back into the ether: (Quoted in part with no corrections —the full quote can be found here.)
"I won't be answering any questions because... TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren't there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck when she got the new that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping,crying and fainting. You don't know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup... you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don't have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.”