I'm one of the more than 5 million Americans who have downloaded the "Serial" podcast, and I'm waiting impatiently for the final episode of the series, which should air Thursday (or as some people have taken to calling it, "Serial Day.") Yes, I have an opinion on if Adnan did it, but I think that's one of the least important parts of the show. (If you know about the premise for the podcast, skip the next paragraph. If you don't, it will orient you.)
On the "Serial" podcast site, they sum up the true crime mystery, told in 12 one-hour episodes in as many weeks, like this: "On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t."
The reasons I love the show are probably shared by many. I have always enjoyed true crime stories, but for some reason, they are often told in a sensationalistic, biased, superficial or just plain inexpert way. And sometimes it goes the other way — a pretty fascinating crime is rendered as boring as a court transcript by someone who is too afraid to offend or have an opinion. "Serial" is neither of these things. While certainly not perfect, Sarah Koenig's storytelling is nuanced, intelligent, compelling — and it completely sucks you in. Perfection is for other subjects, like brain surgery and math proofs. I find that perspective makes for a good storyteller. I love the way this messy and sprawling case has been structured and paced, leaving plenty of mystery while orienting you in each episode.
(Here's where I'm not going to go into the critiques that some people have made about the possible racial bias in the show. My only comment is that if almost anyone is telling a story about races or cultures other than your own, you're bound to make mistakes — and none of Koenig's strike me as nefarious or mean-spirited.)
But beyond why I enjoy the show, there are the unexpected things I learned, which feel more important to me. First, I didn't know how police detectives work in the real world. Throughout the podcast I marveled again and again at the seemingly short shrift the detectives seem to have given the case. There were missed opportunities and uninterviewed subjects whom the small (and non-police-trained) team behind "Serial" came up with, and it's been 15 years since the crime and the police had the benefit of fresher memories and physical information that's long since disappeared. Why were some podcasters finding evidence and questions the police don't seem to? It looks from here as if the detectives at the time found a likely suspect (most women who are murdered are killed by husbands or boyfriends) and just went with it. And Koenig goes out of her way to assure listeners that independent detectives and other professionals she spoke with said that these police did an average to above-average job on the case.
Maybe it's easier to get away with murder than I thought.
David Haglund, who hosts the Slate "Serial" Spoiler Special, analyzes the show each week. He said something I had been feeling, but couldn't put into words: "This isn't about a larger subject except insofar as it's about the legal process generally and how hard it is to know things." That phrase, "how hard it is to know things," sums up the frustrating lack of closure we are all expecting to get with this story. We aren't going to find out who really did kill Hae Min Lee, nor are we going to get the truth. This is a real story with real people after all, and unlike the other binge-worthy entertainment of the last year, there aren't clean-and-tidy answers to this case because it's not fictional. There may not be a Truth with a capital "T" to be had.
This is difficult for the listener, but ultimately, I think, being OK with this reality makes us more thoughtful, critical people in our own lives and in our own stories. The next time you hear or tell your own history of a breakup or a fight (that hopefully doesn't involve murder but always involves different perspectives, emotions and details lost forever to time), remember how hard it is to truly know things. I will. This is the biggest lesson "Serial" has taught me.
All of this is why telling true-crime stories is so damn hard, and is done well so rarely. It's a puzzle and you can't control where the pieces fall. As the reporter or storyteller, you have to be OK with the fact that you may end up with an incomplete picture.
So we have to live with not getting all the answers to the "Serial" mystery. Just like in our own lives. (Though I don't think we can be blamed for pining for resolution — in "Serial" or personally.)
If you are hungry for more stories like "Serial" (I know I won't be the only one going into withdrawal on Friday), here are some suggestions curated by Slate that have given me some great new cases to explore — and ponder the impossibility of the truth — after "Serial"is over.
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