Thoughts on Serial


Since my 30-day reading ban, I’ve been casting about for ways to entertain myself on public transportation.  I’m all for spiritual enlightenment and walking through the valley of darkness, but riding a city bus without any distraction…no thank you very much.

Enter Serial. You know about Serial right? It’s the podcast spin-off of This American Life that explored the unanswered questions (like, WHO DID IT?) surrounding the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee.  Twelve episodes cover everything from alternative suspects, the character of the ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed who’s imprisoned for life for the murder, the wacky defense lawyer whose shrill questioning of suspects made my ears bleed, the technology of cell phones in 1999, etc..

Riveting stuff.

I was going to quit after two episodes because I’ve done habeas corpus work and I find it ineffably depressing.  Digging into criminal trials post-conviction raises so many more questions than answers and casts such a long shadow over “justice” that my psyche shuts down, compelling me to turn away and pray no one I know or love ever has to face a criminal trial.

Serial was no different.  After roughly 11.5 hours of podcasting, there are only more questions, which is why there are whole internet sites devoted to discussing Jay or the cell phone discrepancies.  It’s probably why this murder was the perfect subject for a podcast.

The highlight for me was the University of Virginia professor, Deirdre Enright. Enright runs the Innocence Project at the UVA School of Law, and she was the only bright light in this whole dismal case.  Her energy, intelligence, and tenacity on behalf of those wrongly convicted infused much-needed hope into an area of law that desperately needs it.  I love people who talk fast, think fast and know their shit.  That’s Enright.  If I would have had her in law school, I’d be living in Virginia right now looking for DNA samples and filing postconviction motions.

Downside: There would be times when I was sitting on the bus, listening to host Sarah Koenig talking to Adnan from prison, and a dirty feeling would come over me.  For me, this was all “entertainment,” albeit of the public radio variety so there was also educational elements, but overall, I was using a tragic story about a murdered high school student as something to keep my misanthropy in check while riding the bus home in a snow storm.  Is there something unseemly about that?  I guess if that’s true, then none of us should be watching Dateline or Frontline or 60 Minutes or the news.  (Does anyone watch any of those programs?)

How about the portrayal of parents on this show?  Was anyone else thinking that maybe it’s a bad idea to be too controlling about who your kids date?  With all due respect to religious customs that prohibit premartial dating or opposite-sex relations, it sure seems like some of the tension swirling about stemmed from the children’s fears of disappointing their parents.  It seems pretty obvious that the second you forbid your child, especially a teenager, from doing something, that something will start to look pretty fucking tempting.  While I’m not saying I’ll fling my kids out into the dating scene with zero boundaries, but I’m going to be very careful before drawing any lines in the sand.  (Easy for me to say, of course.  Ask me in ten years how I feel about one of my kids dating someone who doesn’t read or who didn’t grow up on Costco hotdogs.)

And ohmygod did those kids smoke enough pot?  I couldn’t get over how important pot was to them or how much they smoked.  Maybe because I went to an all-girls high school where we smoked pot only on the weekends.  Well, not me, but the girls who did.  And definitely none of my boyfriends, especially never Kevin, who never smoked pot before his basketball tournaments.  That never happened.

Moving on.

The biggest problem I had from the beginning was with memory.  I have a wicked sharp memory. I remember what you were wearing when I first met you and when you got your hair cut and where we went for your birthday 11 years ago (and that you ordered that crappy cheesecake that we sent back, then the waiter brought us a chocolate box “on the house”).  I bet you I could tell you what I was doing on Wednesday, January 13, 1999.  (I went to my job-ette at a university, then went to Flat Top Grill for dinner with two friends, and spent the night at my boyfriend’s house.  I had a Harry Potter haircut.)  How do these kids not remember anything?  Was it the pot?  Unless you are lying, how do you not know whether you went shopping, or the library, or the mall or to the fucking Best Buy?

My favorite people interviewed were the ones who had no shame about their past derelictions.  The person who was able to describe Best Buy because she used to steal from it.  Loved that.  How about the porn store clerk who worked with Jay?  (Forget what I said earlier about letting my kids date whomever they want: No porn store clerks. Or stars. Definitely no porn stars.)

In addition to feeling bad for Lee’s family and friends and anyone wrongly accused in this saga, I also feel bad for defense attorney, Christina Guitierrez.  She’s dead now and can’t defend herself or her so-called strategic decisions.  And that unfortunate sing-song-y voice.  It makes me cringe and pray that none of my professional orations end up on a podcast downloaded by 5 million people.



As I scrolled through websites discussing Serial and the murder, there was one other thing.  It was also mentioned by a friend on FB.  All of the producers and creators of the show are white: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Emily Condon, Dana Chivvas.  And Ira Glass, he’s involved, and he’s pretty white.  The story itself, however, is about people who aren’t. Adnan is the son of Muslim immigrants. Hae Min Lee is the Korean-American daughter of immigrants.   Jay is African-American. Koenig has been taken to task for getting things wrong with respect to the Muslim and Korean-American communities, for flattening the racial implications of Adnan’s conviction and for conflating two separate immigration cultures (Korean and Muslim).

This criticism of white privilege reminds me of an article about Jill Soloway, creator of the Amazon hit Transparent.  In her effort to get her fictional narrative on the transgender experience right, she has 2 full-time transgender consultants and enacted a “transfirmative action program” that favors hiring transgender candidates over nontransgendered ones.  Her cast and crew is upwards of 1/3 trans.   I know it’s public radio, but maybe an extra hour of pledge drive might create a budget to hire consultants to be sure that the nuances of the cultures that are unfamiliar to Koenig et al and her listeners would be a useful investment.  (Also: Everyone should watch Transgender.  10 episodes on Amazon.)

One more thing: Adnan did not take the stand, as criminal defendants are almost always advised not to take the stand because it opens them up for cross-examination which will potentially expose every bad deed the defendant has ever committed.  Then, jurors may conflate something like stealing money from the mosque’s till with first-degree murder.  Better to stay silent is the prevailing wisdom.  Juries are advised by the judge that they should not draw any adverse conclusions from the fact that the defendant opts not to testify.  One of Adnan’s jurors: “Oh sure, we were told it doesn’t mean anything bad if he doesn’t testify, but if he was innocent, why didn’t he get up and tell his story.” She clearly used his lack of testimony against him.  Doesn’t it make you nervous that these bedrock presumptions of our criminal justice system are routinely batted away by jurors?  IT’S SO DISTURBING.  What to know another one: Defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

I have to stop.

So what about you? What did you think? What bugged you? Are you joining the Enright fan club with me?







8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Serial

  1. But what did you think of the inconclusive conclusion? I was perfectly satisfied, because I don’t know what other conclusion Koenig could have come to, given what was known at the time.

  2. Yes to almost all of this. The only thing I didn’t feel was guilt at this long-form storytelling as entertainment. It served to engage listeners in an interrogation of the justice system, of jurors who shrug off instructions and juries who convict with reasonable doubt even as contemporary Grand Juries can’t find enough to indict.
    Even with its flaws, Serial wasn’t fictionalized. Editorialized, yes. Glamorized? No. I feel that podcasts better walk the line of education and entertainment than visual media do.

    But seriously with all the pot. And the defense! And Enright. And memory. And free advertising for Best Buy.

  3. I think we have the same brain. First of all, yes to Enright. Even just listening to her made me want to pack everything up and move to Virginia to join her Innocence Project. The memory thing also really bothered me while I was listening to the podcast, and I kept coming back to it over and over again through the entire 11 plus hours. I also have a really good memory, and I can remember my most ordinary days for years afterwards. So I had a hard time with the fact that none of them remembered any salient details from the day that a Very Big Thing happened – namely, that a girl from their school disappeared and was later found murdered. Because once her body was found, wouldn’t a smart person – or any person really – go back and reconstruct every minute of that day, just to make sure they could relay same to the police when they were inevitably questioned? I don’t know. To me, forgetting the events of that day would be like forgetting where you were when you heard about September 11th, or some other pivotal world event. The memory is my #1 reason for thinking that Adnan is so completely guilty. I believe he should have been acquitted, but I believe he is guilty down to his bones, and I believe that Jay is in it far deeper than he is letting on.

  4. When I was in school we had a very traumatic event happen, and now, 20+ years later I am hazy on all but the basics. A kid entered our school through the back door with the intention to kill the math teacher. She called in sick for the first time in her 20 years of teaching that day so the kid took another boy hostage, stole the substitute’s car and drove 45 minutes until he was caught. We were in 7th grade and he was 12. It was before cell phones existed, and there was no phone in the classroom either.

    I tell this story because it was a very defining moment in my childhood. I am not sure I could give exact details that would stand up in court today. I was in English class. Would it be different if I was in the actual class that he entered? I am sure it would. (He made them tie themselves to their desks with their shoelaces. That happened to be the year that penny loafers were in style and half the class didn’t have shoes that tied.) On a final note to this story, and how times have changed, the kid ended up coming back to our school after 3 years and graduated with us. Many of the people from our class are friends with him on facebook.

    I really enjoyed the podcast and I am glad they are doing another one. It was very educational in the ways of the court system. I had mixed feelings about it at the end. I am not sure Adnan was guilty, and I agree that Jay was more involved. I think the police did not investigate all the possible leads. Why didn’t they ever question the girl that said she saw him at the library?

    I guess we will never really know what happened.

    • Your story is so traumatizing and you have so much insight into memory and trauma. I was thinking as I read your comment that maybe part of the mystery is that something traumatized Jay and Adnan. Like a third party or whatever. Maybe the trauma blacked them out to the details. I suppose that’s possible. Really, anything is possible. I can’t wait to hear their next one. I hope to pay attention better– I got distracted a lot during Serial.

      On Fri, Feb 27, 2015 at 8:18 AM, Outlaw Mama wrote:


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