The Real Mystery of Serial

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If you just started listening to Serial or you plan on listening soon, there are no spoilers in this post. I only cover the basic details of the case and a conversation that’s not important to the investigation.

UPDATE: I’ve included a recent statement on Reddit, purportedly by Hae Min Lee’s brother.

On February 9, 1999, the body of Baltimore area high school student Hae Min Lee was discovered buried in an infamous local park.

More than 15 years later, over one million people are combing through the gritty details of her life, her friends and her murder, hoping to discover exactly who was responsible for her death by listening to the Serial podcast from WBEZ, the makers of This American Life.

But is there something unseemly about this many people being privy to such intimate details?

Make no mistake, the storytelling ruthlessly grabs the listener and pulls you into the late ’90s teenage world of Lee and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, the one arrested and convicted for her murder.

Each week, podcast listeners hear former investigative reporter Sarah Koenig sift through the details of the arguably flimsy and definitely confounding case as she talks with friends, experts and Syed himself.

But that’s the thing. This isn’t something produced after all the answers have been discovered. Syed is sitting in jail right now, still maintaining his innocence. And, just to keep things in perspective, Lee is still dead.

Serial podcastOne million listeners aren’t going to change that, but they can make things morally complicated. Is it right to be a “fan” of this version of reality entertainment taken to a different level – one of life and death?

In one sense, it’s like any reality TV show. You see into the lives of real individuals through the lens of the storyteller, in this case, Koenig’s narration and interviews.

Yet, there isn’t a set of contrived games set up for a contestant to overcome and claim a prize. A guy has been in jail half his life and he may (or may not) be innocent and there may (or may not) be a murderer who has, up until this point, gotten away with it.

The show is not unlike Dateline or other real life crime shows. In fact, I tweeted that the show was Dateline: Hipster Podcast due to the similarities of the format, but the dissimilarities of the usual target audience for the two shows.

But when those TV shows air, the mystery has mostly been solved. And even when it hasn’t, the work has gone on beforehand. The show is a one-time summation of it all, not an on-going, almost real time presentation of the investigation.

Koenig claims she doesn’t know who murdered Lee. It could have been Syed or it could have been someone else. She’s not sure what all her digging – or podcasting – will turn up or where it will end up.

I should make it clear that Serial is not the first to commercialize and promote a murder and the subsequent investigation. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a best-selling book exploring the murder of a family in Kansas, first appeared as a four-part serial in The New Yorker in 1965. But Capote spent six years researching the story when the murderers were caught six weeks after the crime.

The premise of Serial is that the murderer could still be free 15 years later and that an innocent man could have spent half his life in jail. Now, come along and be entertained by it all? What exactly is our reaction to this supposed to be?

What is the reaction to this from those who actually lost a loved one? As of yet, the family of Lee has not been heard from on the podcast (though Koenig says that issue will be discussed on the podcast).

Apparently, she did attempt to contact Lee’s family, or at least her brother. Assuming this post at Reddit is true, Koenig attempted to contact him on Facebook, but he declined to respond.

While he recognizes the expertise storytelling displayed on the show, he is angry at much of it because to him, things aren’t a “story.” He wrote, in part:

But sorry 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 heart attack when she got the news 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 meet up… 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.

So much about the show and our reaction to it is unnerving, unsettling. There’s so much we don’t know and I’m afraid, just like with the podcast, the further down we go, the more we won’t like what it is we’ll find. (Even as I write this post, I’m unsure of my own reaction to the podcast.)

Maybe the show will result in truth being uncovered about the murder and about our judicial system. Maybe there’s some violation of so-called Son of Sam laws, with a real murderer gaining something from his crime.

Quite possibly, we discover we have trivialized the lives of those involved for our own personal entertainment, lumping it in, as Buzzfeed does, with fictional crime dramas.

In a way, Serial doesn’t help with that. They’ve added Audible as a new sponsor – in addition to the now infamous Mail Chimp. Seeing as how the audio book company advertises on numerous podcasts, this is no surprise.

But their first commercial says listeners will enjoy the Sherlock Holmes classic The Hounds of Baskerville. That is probably true, but remember, one is an entirely fictional mystery and the other is utterly real.

This is where the tension lies for me. How will it all end? Not just, how will the podcast end, but what will be the lasting response from those that spent weeks pouring over the details of this case?

Sarah Koenig Serial

Sarah Koenig

One of the most striking portions of the podcast comes in episode six when Syed asks Koenig why exactly it is she’s doing all this – reinvestigating this case and talking to him on the phone for hours. (Remember, he’s asking this either as an innocent man hoping she’s going to help justice prevail or as a cold blooded killer hoping she’s going to help him getaway with murder.)

She responds that she’s doing this because of him. Koenig found Syed – his circumstances, his personality, his being a nice guy accused of a heinous crime – compelling and fascinating. His answer catches her off-balance. She wasn’t expecting it.

“You don’t even really know me, though, Koenig.”

In her narration after the fact, she tries to retort that she really does know him because she has talked with him for hours over the phone for the last year, more than she’s talked with many other people she feels like she knows.

But in that split second, the listener gets a moment to look into a mirror and see ourselves in Koenig. It’s a reminder that, as great a story as Koenig and This American Life has weaved in this podcast, we don’t really know these people. And too often, we are treating them as “fascinating” entertainment characters instead of real people.

So how will that end? As the podcast comes to a close, will people be angry if we are not given a neat Hollywood ending? If things end with most of the questions still unanswered, will people feel cheated by a “show”?

Will listeners be able to keep the proper perspective (and distance) from this compelling, but all too real life drama? Or will we allow ourselves to become casual and callous spectators, voyeuristically gawking at the gruesome details of a teenager’s murder as if it were just another episode of a crime drama like Law & Order or True Detectives?

I guess, just like the podcast, we’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out. And that’s probably the most difficult mystery of all.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.