A couple of weeks back I did something I’m awfully good at: I stuck my foot in my mouth. A friend had posted a link on Facebook to a T-shirt designed by another friend. A black shirt that read in white block letters: “Adnan did it.” I commented on the post: “Wow. People are jerks.” To which the shirt’s designer promptly replied, “Thanks.” Yep, that’s my foot, and it’s in my mouth. But I should probably rewind a bit and explain.
Over the past couple of months, I have listened obssessively to a new podcast called Serial. An offshoot of the popular NPR program This American Life, Serial has broken records as the most listened-to podcast ever with something like 5 million listeners.
Serial is faithful to its name. It tells a fascinating story over a number of episodes, each roughly an hour long. The finale, episode 12, airs this Thursday. The premiere season revisits a 15-year-old murder. In late January 1999 a Baltimore teenager disappeared; her body was discovered in a park a month later. Her ex-boyfriend, a high school senior, would eventually be convicted of the crime; he is presently serving a life sentence. He still maintains his innoence.
Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s writer and host, has rehashed the case over the past year. She’s sifted through court records and police interviews, logging numerous hours of phone conversations with Adnan Syed, the man the state of Maryland found guilty of killing Hae Min Lee. With each episode—and I promise, there are no spoilers here—I swing back and forth in my belief regarding either Adnan’s guilt or innocence. As I listen, I ask myself: If Adnan didn’t do it, who did? Why did the police never really investigate Hae’s current boyfriend Don, a man considerably older than she? What was Adnan’s lawyer thinking? What’s the deal with that guy named Jay? Who is telling the truth? But did Adnan do it after all? Could he?
Beyond all of that is a simple truth: A girl is dead. A high school senior. A girl with dreams, with plans, with college ahead of her. With life ahead of her. A girl who wrote in her diary about boys and school, who had a great sense of humor, who played lacrosse and field hockey, who had a job at the LensCrafters at the mall.
What troubles me the most about Serial and its sudden, overwhelming popularity is that this story, this true and tragic situation, is being treated as an entertainment. It’s taken over conversations at water coolers everywhere. Separated by 15 years and the frame of a podcast, we talk easily about the people involved in the case like they are characters on a Dick Wolf crime procedural. Sure, the story is fascinating. But does that mean it’s acceptable to weigh a man’s guilt and innocence flippantly, like we might consider entrees on a menu or prices at the gas pump? “Are you on Team Adnan, or Team Don?”
And yet I won’t stop listening. I can’t stop listening. I want to know more. Serial is well crafted, a narrative that just sucks you in. My writer’s brain wants to create as complete a picture as I can of the murder and the events surrounding it. I want to wander the halls of Woodlawn High School with Hae and Adnan, understand their relationship, deducing what drove them apart, all the time wondering if those events drove Adnan to murder. It’s almost as if I appreciate the humanity and reality of the story more because it makes me uncomfortable.
You might ask: Mel, what does any of this have to do with drama, let alone Mormon drama? Maybe not a lot, so I hope you’ll forgive me. But it’s got me thinking: Mormon history is pretty thorny and uncomfortable, and that thorniness is a turn-off for many. I may be the odd one out, but the thorny bits intrigue me. Do we as Latter-day Saints have a story of Serial proportions? And though it may be all kinds of difficult to hear, I’m definitely looking forward to the telling of it.