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Yes, Serial Is True Crime — And That's OK

Sarah Koenig will, on Thursday, host the final episode of the first season of Serial.
Meredith Heuer
Sarah Koenig will, on Thursday, host the final episode of the first season of Serial.

As The Conversation About Serial reaches a fever pitch in certain circles, those of us behind Code Switch and Monkey See have been talking quite a bit about the show. You can read Matt Thompson'sinitial entry in this conversation here and Gene Demby's contribution here.

Below is the third part of our exchange.

Matt, Gene and Kat,

I think Gene is absolutely right that the specific timeliness of Serial cannot possibly be anything its creators could have anticipated, really. And I think Matt is absolutely right that Serial has served as a lesson in how little, at least in some cases, the justice system in fact resembles the justice system in theory. What jurors are told to ignore, they often don't. The way we imagine memory to work, it often doesn't. Stories are not always entirely false or entirely true; they can be part true, part false, part lie, part error. People act in good faith and bad faith at the same time, in the same case, in the same interview, in the same sentence.

But I think it's even more than that — Serial is true crime, and it has the quality that true crime always has, which is not just a fascination with the way the system doesn't work in logical ways, but also an appreciation of the way people don't work in logical ways.

I think one of the things host Sarah Koenig has done, whether this was a conscious part of the structure or not, was to slowly close off the explanations in which what everyone did can be made to make sense — even what we'd think of as criminal "sense." It's not just that she can't tell you a very satisfying conclusion, but that she's making it increasingly clear that there isn't one to be had. If you were waiting to hear that Adnan had a history of behavior that would make it seem believable that he'd suddenly murder his girlfriend, it never came. If you were waiting to hear that Jay seemed obviously shady or had ulterior motives or might have been guilty himself, that didn't really come either. No, it doesn't seem like it's all a terrible misunderstanding and it was a marauding stranger, because Jay knew where the car was. No, it doesn't seem like there was a secret history of violence. No, it doesn't seem like there were long-standing beefs that explain how all of this went so crazy.

Thus, here we are: It's hard, based on what the show has revealed, to intuitively picture Adnan, who had no history of violence and in fact had a history as a peacemaker, suddenly murdering a young woman with his bare hands just for breaking up with him and then coldly displaying the body and bragging about it like an ice-blooded sociopath the way Jay says he did. That doesn't seem right. But it's also hard to intuitively picture Jay, who knew where her car was and seems not to have been a stranger to the crime, implicating Adnan vindictively, spinning that tale out of whole cloth. That doesn't seem right either.

Koenig put me personally in a position where it's hard to wrap my logical mind around a story where Adnan is guilty, and hard to do so with a story where he is not guilty. It's not just the law that's a lot more vexing than it's often given credit for; it's people.

This is something any lawyer will tell you, and perhaps something lawyers and reporters have in common as a piece of life experience: People do things that don't really make any sense, even with the checks we think we have on our expectations for logical behavior. Stories arise that don't even fit any of our commonly understood narratives for uncommon acts. They do things that just seem ... unmotivated, random, not in range. Why does somebody send an email that will obviously be evidence against him? Why does someone renew a relationship in which they're mistreated? And that's not even to mention the questions that are elemental: Why do people hurt people they love? Why do they take huge risks for small gains? Why are people vindictive? Why do they lie? Why do they reward kindness with viciousness? Why do they give love that seems not deserved? That's not to say those things all happened in this case; it's just to say ... these are things that happen.

And they make for interesting stories, and that's why true crime is popular. It's not just the salacious details of investigations and twists and violence and betrayals; it's the way people act. People are weird and complicated and hard to predict and mean for no apparent reason, and they're beautiful and generous and forgiving and precious to each other. Koenig, as a storyteller, has proved one thing to me beyond a reasonable doubt, and that's that this is a story in which no matter what the answer is, some things happened in this case that are really hard to understand. They're counterintuitive, they cut against what we think we know, they challenge our narratives about human behavior, they're illogical, and they happened anyway. What we don't know is which of the weird things that could have happened, happened.

Crimes are a rich topic for people who are fascinated by behavior, in part because they leave records. They are investigated, documented, researched, contested, vetted. Imagine if you could do this with breakups or firings or family arguments. Imagine if there were a file about your worst breakup in which everyone had been interviewed.

That, in a lot of ways, is what This American Life always does, only with different evidence: It investigates stories that normally do not leave that many traces, or that have to be constructed from imperfect memories. And it prides itself on finding something essential within those stories — something that can be understood, appreciated, empathized with. It peers curiously at families, marriages, travel, business partnerships, love affairs — but although it certainly has done crime stories, it hasn't done one like this, in this much detail, with this much exactitude, over this many months. And it has appeared to me as a listener that the deeper Sarah Koenig gets into this story, the more it wriggles away from her and the less she feels confident that she's equipped to figure out what's essential in this story and what can be understood from it other than — you guessed it — a contemplation on the nature of the truth.

Very often, This American Life leaves you with something resonant but complex: that in a given story, for instance, everyone has done their best and everyone has partly failed. It has never feared ambiguity in that regard. But true crime is a very particular beast, because what essence can you take from this story that's meaningful and makes sense whether Adnan strangled Hae on the one hand, or has languished in prison for 15 years despite being innocent on the other?

One of the most fascinating through lines, for me, has been Koenig's constant nervous concern that she's being had, that she's a sucker, that she's being taken in. My sense is that as a person, she worries about being duped by Adnan because everyone fears being duped, but as a storyteller, she worries about being duped because if she is, she'll learn — and then share — the wrong thing from the story. She's clearly not going to leave you with a firm "guilty" or "not guilty," but there's no way she intends to leave you with nothing.

This is where you find that gauzy line between pure reporting and storytelling, as much as those concepts have enormous overlap. Reporting can be just "I am telling you this because it is true, because it happened, and because it's important." Storytelling tends to have something else at its core: "I am telling you this because it is meaningful." As a reporter, it matters not at all if Koenig doesn't know what to make of all this. As a storyteller, it matters more. And that may be why, more and more, the story is the only one she can really tell — the story of her own travels with this case.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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