Uncategorized

Do You Think He Did It?

serial-social-logo

“Do you think he did it?”

It’s a question I’ve heard more times than I can count in the weeks that Serial has dominated water-cooler chit chat in my office and dinner party debates with my friends.

The answers are fascinating, not for what they reveal about the fifteen-year-old murder trial of Adnan Syed, but for what they reveal about the speaker. They reveal that there are those who want to believe Adnan is innocent and are determined to disarm every piece of damning evidence, weaving it into a story of tragically bad luck. Likewise, there are those who want to believe that Adnan is guilty and are determined reinterpret every piece of exculpatory evidence, appropriating it into a story of a premeditated murder.

Confirmation bias. We believe what we already believe and reject what we already reject. If your temperament, life experience, and beliefs lead you to view Adnan as trustworthy or untrustworthy from Episode 1, your subconscious likely filtered the facts that followed accordingly. You already had your narrative. And new facts alone were unlikely to shift your position.

Serial is interesting precisely because it recognizes this reality. From the very beginning, it seemed obvious that the creators of Serial – Sarah Koenig in particular – wanted to believe in Adnan’s innocence. The narrative never claimed to be entirely objective, with Koenig’s excitement over every scrap of new exonerating evidence as palpable as her disappointment over every bit of new incriminating evidence. Koenig transparently played out a battle with her confirmation bias each week on the podcast, openly acknowledging the limits of her neutrality and constantly questioning whether she was fairly considering all of the evidence. And, by extension, Koenig invited each of us to acknowledge our own bias.

It’s an apt invitation – because, like it or not, bias is inescapable. Necessarily limited to our own perspective, we construct narratives every second of every day to make sense of everything that happens to us. We have no choice in the matter. Facts without narratives are meaningless, void of any inherent significance or mechanism for interpretation.

This is why court cases essentially boil down to an exercise in storytelling. In law school, I took a class called Law and Psychology where we spent most of the semester studying all of the illusion-shattering ways that facts are essentially irrelevant at trial. For better or worse, whichever side constructs the better story that resonates with the most jurors, wins. And, whether jurors realize it or not, the narrative that resonates with them will almost be the one that intersects most closely with their personal story about the world.  In Adnan’s trial, the defense made the mistake of focusing on scattered facts without tying them to a cohesive narrative. The prosecution, on the other hand, managed to tell a compelling tale of deception, jealousy, and young love gone wrong.

In the Serial finale, Adnan explained that when he agreed to participate in the podcast, “all he wanted was to take the narrative back from the prosecution.”  He clearly succeeded on this front. While Serial left no stone unturned in pursuit of the facts, it did so in unabashed advancement of Adnan’s narrative, tying it with the narrative that our justice system is fallible and wrongful convictions are possible. Intentionally or not, over the course of this podcast, Adnan became the poster child for the wrongfully convicted in this country.

“Yeah, but do you think he did it?”

Your answer will likely depend on the extent to which your personal narrative resonates with the dangers inherent in our court system. I would suggest that the more broken you believe our system is, the more likely it is that you believe Adnan is innocent.

But of course, ultimately, your belief in Adnan’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. All that Serial asks is that you consider the possibility that our justice system is capable of failing and the hurdles your personal biases present to this consideration. In my estimation, Serial’s greatest accomplishment has been encouraging an unprecedented number of people to contemplate the malleability of facts, the limits of a justice system that proclaims the primacy of empirical evidence while necessarily bowing to narrative, and the idea that perhaps the only true objectivity is awareness of our own subjectivity.

Standard
Uncategorized

Love According to Rainer Maria Rilke

My college boyfriend introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke. Beauty is only the first touch of terror, he quoted during one of our first conversations, leaving me speechless. I was convinced that he had read my mind; that he had intuited something deeper than I could express as I stumbled through an inarticulate explanation of my junior-year obsession with Blake and the “sublime.” I was more than intrigued. I was dizzy with the rare thrill of feeling implicitly understood. I knew his words were borrowed, but it was all mixed up together in the months that followed – a whirlwind of handwritten letters and a borrowed copy of the Duino Elegies and professions of love.  I had never read Rilke before and so I was in awe at the way his beautiful words seemed to expand inside me, making room for new thoughts and carving out places for new feelings.

When the dust settled, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been so much in love with my college boyfriend as with Rilke.

I didn’t read  Letters to a Young Poet in college. But, reading it for the first time recently, it still took me right back to junior year, confirming my suspicions.  I hadn’t fallen for a boy in my third year American Literature class.  I had fallen for a long dead Austrian poet and his ideas of what love should be. The college romance might be a distant memory, but I still hold to Rilke’s singular belief in this exquisite, indomitable vision of love:

Continue reading

Standard
Learning

Lessons From a Writing Workshop

In an admittedly frantic effort to make the most of the last year of my 20’s, I drafted a list back in January. This list consists of a ridiculously ambitious curriculum of workshops, classes, and books to be completed before my birthday in November.  And, although the list was born of a full-on panic that has since receded (at least for now), I’m still plugging away at it. Not because I feel obligated to follow through on a  neurotic resolution, but because these are things I’ve been wanting to do and study and read for as long as I can remember and I’m enjoying every minute of finally, actively pursuing them. What percentage of these self-ordained pre-reqs to my 30’s will actually be completed before I enter the next decade of my life remains to be seen, but I do know that I want to record my biggest takeaways from these little adventures. And I’ve decided my blog is as good a place as any to do so.

It seems appropriate that my inaugural post in this series should center on a writing class. Last weekend, I attended an all-day workshop at The Newberry Library, taught by Carol LaChapelle, the author of “Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories.” I’ve never attended any sort of writing workshop before, and so I made my way down the stairs into the Newberry basement with a certain amount of trepidation.  My nerves, however, were quickly erased by the easy humor of the teacher and the infinitely supportive environment she managed to create. By the end, I was voluntarily reading my work aloud for my classmates to critique, the very idea of which would have paralyzed me in fear only hours earlier.   In addition to pushing me so thoroughly outside my comfort zone, the workshop also offered the following, very useful bits of wisdom:

Continue reading

Standard
Writing

The Living Room

I avoided the living room when I could, pristine white carpet stretching under straight-back furniture, breakable family heirlooms in every direction – the pocket watch my Great-Grandpa brought over from Switzerland and the faded black-and-white picture taken before my Great-Grandma left Austria – she and her parents and her nine siblings, all in their Sunday best, not a single smile in the bunch.

But for thirty minutes every evening, I was held hostage, shackled to the centerpiece of the living room, the antique upright piano my parents had seen advertised in the newspaper and purchased with the doomed hope that I might turn out to be a protégée concert pianist. I hated that beautiful piano, intricate floral carvings and real ivory keys, piled with the sheet music my fingers refused to learn, and topped with a taskmaster metronome.

Continue reading

Standard
Writing

All Wrong

His mouth was all wrong. 

Everything was wrong . Sallow skin and sunken cheeks.  Over-slicked hair and the box he was lying in. But nothing was more wrong than his mouth, which had never before greeted me with anything other than a grin, now severe and unforgiving, forever set by the mortician in a cold, hard, unnatural line. 

The funeral director was asking if we wanted him buried with his wedding ring – and did we want to donate his glasses?  The slideshow was playing for the third time through and my most treasured childhood memories were on display, bizarrely accompanied by violins and kitchy lyrics. Visitors were telling me that I looked just like my mom and they were sorry for my loss. I would feel better in a month or so and we would see him again in heaven and 90 years is plenty long enough to have lived on earth, anyway.

“The things people say,” hissed my cousin, scowling beside me in the reception line.  “Death makes people stupid.”

Continue reading

Standard
Thinking

On faith, doubt, and growing up in church

I have such happy memories of growing up in church. I remember vanilla wafers and flannelgraphs on Sunday mornings,  all the girls in our tights and ribbons, all the boys in their tiny jackets and miniature ties. I remember memorizing the books of the Bible to the tune of nursery rhymes and reciting verses in exchange for AWANA pins, trading prized “Bible cards” for candy, and earning Pioneer Girl badges for giving my “testimony.” I remember daydreaming about playing the coveted role of Mary in the Christmas pageant while perched in the baptismal as a manger-scene dove and singing a slightly off-tune Handel’s Messiah in the choir every Easter.

I made my first life-long friends in youth group and played out the awkward flirtations of my first crushes in the fellowship hall. There were road trips and lock-ins featuring elaborate games of Capture the Flag followed by contests to see who could stuff their mouth with the most whipped cream.  There was my nerdy junior high stage where I joined the church puppet team and my (obviously much cooler) high school phase where I joined the church drama club. There were service projects that turned into laughter-filled afternoons of paint fights or leaf-jumping, “missions trips” filled with white water rafting, and, of course, Nationals, where thousands of hormonally-charged Evangelical teenagers gathered every other year on a college campus to  rock out with Jeff Deyo, “rededicate their lives to Christ,” and scope out potential future spouses.

But there are less happy memories too.

Continue reading

Standard