Serial and the unknowability of truth

As a fan of podcasts, particularly The Moth, This American Life & 99% Invisible, and the Savage Lovecast, when the new podcast Serial was announced back at the start of fall I added it to my listening queue. I was quickly engaged by the story and Sarah Koenig (who I've always liked on TAL- This American Life) is a masterful storyteller and reporter. 

Today the last entry in the first season was published, and was the culmination of 11 weeks of podcasting and 15 months of reporting by the Serial team.  

For those who are unfamiliar with Serial, it is basically the podcast/audio version of the longform feature piece from a magazine told in serial form.  This first seasons story revolved around the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student from Baltimore, Maryland, and the story of Adnan Sayed, her classmate and ex-boyfriend who has been convicted, and remains incarcerated, for her murder.  The story was about, well the story of what happened to Adnan (as he is referred to in the story) since January 13th, 1999, the day Hae went missing, her remains were found a few days later.

Through the weeks we've been through the call logs, learned about cell phone technology, about the strange flasher who found Hae's body who was a potential suspect at one stage.  We learned about the mindset of Adnan's lawyer, who was censured for other reasons after his case, we learn about his "friend" Jay who seems to know what happened but his narrative of the day never seems to line up with the rest of the evidence.  We learn about what makes people snap, but also why some people remember what happened that day, even if Adnan doesn't.

However, the punchline of all this is that Adnan has been in prison for 15 years, rightly or wrongly.  And after the final episode, what we are left with Sarah's (the lead voice on the project) suggestion that if she had been a juror she would have voted for acquittal, because while he may have done it (she never makes a final ruling for public consumption of her own mindset), what the State presented at trial did not meet the burden of "beyond a reasonable doubt".   As well, she was left with a tantalizing clue about a potential serial killer who was at large during the period of Hae's murder, and committed a sexual assault and murder of a Korean woman in Baltimore in December 1999.  

What all of this brought be to is the true unknowability of truth.  Adnan says it beautifully, and morosely, right at the end.  The only people who know the truth are himself and the person who murdered Hae (Adnan has maintained his innocence throughout the trial, his incarceration and the podcast).  We as the public have no way of truly knowing if what we are getting to is the truth, if we know anything at all.

This story has impacted me for a couple of reasons, other than the obvious answer of it being a damn compelling story told masterfully.  I was 15 in 1999 and would have been a couple years younger than Adnan,, Jay and Hae (and the rest of the cast of characters).  I was in a new high school in Ottawa and for the first time was exposed to a greater diversity of individuals.  After years of living in very WASP-y communities I was able to meet and interact with students of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths, and with strong family ties to the Middle East and South East Asia (mostly Pakistan, where Adnan's parents come from). So on one level I couldn't help but place myself into their world and imagine what it would have been like to have that happen to students at my school.

A second reason was that in January 2003, a guy I knew from summer camp was killed on a sidewalk in New York City and to this day his killer has never been apprehended, nor have any suspects been brought forward.  Burke O'Brien, who was from Chicago, was visiting friends NYC and interviewing at a bank in Manhattan. He was older than me, I was 19 he was 25, and one of the trip leaders and a golden boy. He was a jerk, but one of those people who's personality was so magnetic you were drawn to him.  And he was super cute, too.  His younger sister, Carleigh, was in my age group and we went on a couple of trips together over the years at camp.

His story garnered press attention from the New York Times and ABC among other, but nothing ever came of the investigation.  Burke, his sister Raurie, who I also knew from camp, and a group were headed back to where they were staying on the Lower East Side.  Raurie and others were in the first cab and had headed up to the apartment while the second cab, with Burke in it arrived.  The exact details aren't known but I had always heard that Burke went to get money to pay the cab and was shot.  Raurie raced down to the street to try to administer First Aid and he died in her arms.  Initially, the friend of Burke's was questioned, but then released, and since then there has been nothing.

I will never know what happened to Burke.  The only people who know what happened are Burke and the killer.  They are the only ones who get to know the truth about the thing.  Not his family, not his friends, not the people who saw the obituary in the paper.  

The sad coda to this story, is that Burke's father, in an effort to get some emotional resolution after his son's death, went to our summer camp in August 2004 for a trip in the woods Burke loved so much, and on the drive back from Temagami, Ontario to Chicago was killed in a car accident in Sault Ste. Marie. 

Law & Order, NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds and the genre of crime TV has trained us to believe that all answers are knowable.  That there is a single truth, that it is findable, knowable and prosecutable.  This is not the truth.  

While watching these shows, we may know that they are fiction, that they are too perfect (as anyone who has had a family member undergo an autopsy knows, the results are not back in 20 minutes). For my uncle Leo, who died when I was in university, we were still getting the lab results, which substantiated that he died of a combination of an overdose, and the variety of chronic illnesses he had, they were never able to definitively declare a cause of death, foul play was never suspected by my family or anyone else.  My uncle had schizophrenia, he had managed throughout his life, however when my Opa died in 1997 he started slipping and then when my Oma died in 2002 he wasn't able to manage his condition much longer.  

I don't get to know the true truth about his death, but I don't need to.  However, by contrast to Burke and Adnan, there isn't anyone suffering because of our knowledge gap.  

I will be an enthusiastic listener of Season 2 of Serial, I enjoy the medium and I trust Sarah and the team to be honest telling of a story.  If there is any true truth to be known in their next story I hope they find, however I'm not holding my breath.