I just finished listening to Serial, the podcast phenomenon by reporter Sarah Koenig, co-producer Julie Snyder, and members of the This American Life production team at NPR. And while I will never think of the words mail and chimp, separately or together, in the same way, I write for a different purpose.
Serial is great entertainment. But it is also a great lesson, one that is perhaps more vital for us in the age of social media than at any time before. That lesson is how each of us constructs the reality of others, how our perception of each other is a story we write ourselves. And it is a lesson of how destructive we can be as we write our stories.
This does not appear to be the principal lesson Koenig draws. In the beginning, she is most interested in the ways our memory works — what we choose to remember, how we remember it, why a person remembers the events of one day with great precision and another not at all. And this is quite fascinating. It is a powerful message to be skeptical of what we believe we remember. But we probably can’t change the way we remember. I could be wrong but I’m guessing that too much of this is hard-wired in our brains to allow for different results, even if different results were desirable.
But we can do something about the way we construct reality. I’ll give a bit of the story for context (I promise no spoilers for you who haven’t listened yet), and then make my point.
The story is the 1999 murder of Woodlawn High School senior, Hae Min Lee, whose body was discovered buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and imprisoned, although he continues to maintain his innocence. There were no eyewitnesses. Adnan’s memory of that day — at least by his account — is very spotty, and his alibi witnesses, to the extent they exist, are not very effective. His lawyer, who was a highly accomplished and prominent Baltimore criminal lawyer, had become ill during the case and, by all accounts, had embarked on a dramatic downward spiral which resulted in her consensual disbarment. One witness – -the famous/infamous Jay — claims that Adnan had told him he was planning the murder, and prevailed upon him to help bury the body thereafter.
And that’s the story. There’s a lot more detail, a lot more evidence which leads one way and then another, but never really conclusively anywhere. And Koenig does a superb job of reflecting this, in her own Hamlet-like musings on where the evidence leads and what she might conclude.
But here’s the thing — Adnan is not the kind of person who would murder anybody, especially premeditated. He is consistently described as a model young man, a “golden boy.” Popular, athletic, a good student, seemingly kind and generous, graceful and affable. And you come to know Adnan this way through his conversations with Koenig. Yes, he hid his normal teenage life (pot, girls, drinking) from his strict immigrant parents, but that hardly suggests a homicidal sociopath. And yes, there was an incident of petty theft from the charity box at the mosque. But it is hard to recall anybody interviewed for this program having anything really bad to say about him.
And that is my point. As broad as Adnan’s appeal seems to be, I was consistently struck by the way his arrest and conviction affected people’s appraisal of him. The possibility that he had murdered Hae Min in cold blood seemed to change almost everybody’s attitude. The common refrain goes something like this: ‘well, I guess I didn’t know that side of him’; or, ‘the Adnan I knew wouldn’t have done that. Maybe I didn’t really know him’ And sometimes this from people who had known Adnan for many years.
What troubles me about these reactions (and I think you really have to listen to Serial to hear the tone that people use) is that the accusation of murder changed people’s understanding of Adnan. I cannot recall anybody saying something like: ‘I know Adnan and he is not a murderer’ except perhaps his mom. And in fact he may be a murderer. But the universal accounts of Adnan pre-arrest would make it seem quite unlikely. Instead of fitting the fact of Adnan’s arrest into this prior account of him, people revised their accounts to accommodate his new status as convicted murderer. The new Adnan most certainly could have murdered Hae Min — his secret “dark side” was now revealed.
Well, maybe I’m making much of nothing. Maybe we do and should alter our accounts of people when something like this happens. But understand, please, that the conviction was based on the testimony of one witness who had enormous credibility problems, and that Koenig’s reconstruction highlights a series of perhaps five or six otherwise small events that, understood one way, could suggest Adnan’s guilt, but each of which could be entirely innocent.
That, too, is part of the problem. Those five or six events lend themselves to multiple interpretations, but taken together suggest one. One of Koenig’s colleagues — professing her belief that Adnan is in fact guilty — rhetorically asks whether it is possible for one person to have so much bad luck.
Yes, it is possible. Stuff happens. But it’s not just that these five or six events were bad. Rather, it is that they collectively lend themselves to a narrative that could be interpreted as bad. Taken individually, most of them could be entirely innocent. Taken together, they could be entirely innocent. And, interpreting one or two differently, there would have been an entirely different outcome.
I’m sorry – my commitment to avoid spoiling your listening pleasure makes the above seem a bit abstract. I encourage you to listen. But my point is that we can interpret those events generously or ungenerously, we can put them in the context of the Adnan we know, or the Adnan that we didn’t know. If we do the latter, we change our entire account of Adnan, the human being. If we do the former, we privilege our first-hand knowledge — our experience of Adnan –over what others tell us. We presume Adnan innocent until he is proven guilty. Or we presume Adnan guilty.
Yes, I know. A jury found him guilty. So I guess we are entitled to suspend our presumption of innocence. But not really — at least not those who know Adnan, those who described him pre-murder. Because wrongful convictions happen all the time. And Adnan, to his detriment, is pretty much doing himself out of the possibility of parole by maintaining his innocence.
I don’t know whether Adnan murdered Hae Min. What I do know is that the story that led to his conviction was a construction — a construction about Adnan revealed through events. We engage in such constructions every day, with every person we know (or at least those about whom we think at all). Even more, we engage in it when we accept media accounts, when we take a single event (or even a series of events) in a person’s life, and use that to draw sweeping conclusions about their characters, their personalities, their abilities — who they are. We construct our knowledge of others. And, in the social media era, we don’t hesitate to announce our conclusions, no matter how harmful, or damaging — or false. There is no jury in social media.
So I guess what I’m saying, is that Serial reminded me to be very mindful of drawing conclusions about anybody — but especially people I know — from what others tell me about that person. It reminds me to place events in a person’s life in the context of what I know about that person from my own experience of them. It has taught me again the virtue of presuming the best of people, of drawing the best and most generous inferences I can about them, until there is solid reason for me to conclude otherwise. It has reminded me that all we know of each other is a story — a story we construct by inference from observations. We can choose to make that story pretty or we can choose to make it ugly. Serial reminds me that it is my human duty to make it pretty.