Serially misinformed: A perspective on the Serial podcast from someone in the DV field

About a week ago, I was driving with some friends who brought up the podcast Serial. They were talking about the Best Buy tweet that referenced the podcast’s infamous payphone (or lack thereof). I listened to them discuss this podcast about a teenage girl, Hae Min Lee who was killed in 1999 and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime. As I listened, all I could think was ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! This is a conviction in a domestic violence homicide from 15, almost 16, years ago… and now someone is digging that up all again? Where’s this poor girl’s now re-traumatized family in all of this? Has anyone talked to anyone with extensive knowledge of violence against women?’… Because the murder by strangulation of an adolescent girl was likely an act of misogyny and therefore is violence against women, no matter who did it.

As they discussed this podcast, I felt my stomach turning. But I couldn’t speak much to these nauseated feelings and be taken seriously (or seria-sly) without having actually listened to the podcast. Unfortunately, even with all the work I’ve done in the DV field, I think the general cultural discourse is that you’re completely without credibility to speak on a podcast that relates to your professional field of work if you haven’t actually heard said podcast. This assertion may be somewhat true but usually the mainstream American mentality is, IMO, far too rigid. Anyways this is a tangent. So against my better judgment and the gut feeling I had that told me listening to this podcast was going to overwhelm, sadden and anger me, I decided to listen to the podcast. And finished the entire thing within a week. And as a result, I probably experienced a temporary elevated blood pressure level.

So when I first started listening to the podcast, I was okay. I felt like there were indicators that Adnan may have been controlling though I also knew that may not have meant he killed her, as most abusive relationships don’t end in murder. I was able to sit with this, even though I usually loathe the sensationalism of violence against women and media stories that obscure the reality that women are most likely to be harmed by someone who supposedly loves them. Anyways, for the first few episodes, I was still okay despite this and despite the fact there were times I was pretty annoyed. Like the time that Ms. Koenig says that while Adnan showed some controlling behaviors, it did not seem to bother Hae. Ms. Koenig bases this on one diary entry where Hae describes how Adnan showed up, uninvited, to where she was with some friends and brought her carrot cake. Never mind the fact that not all controlling behavior is going to necessarily feel that way in the moment, especially at first. Ms. Koenig also asserts that this behavior was tit for tat because Hae once wrote she was mad at him for not having contacted her since noon, and there was no mention of context around this. For me, I think ‘Okay so Adnan was mad (or “nasty” as Koenig says) because Hae didn’t get back to him quickly enough and this is definitely equal to the time Hae was mad too.’ There is just not enough information in either of these accounts to make me think these are “equal” behaviors. For instance, did Adnan get angry/nasty after two minutes went by or two days? Same question I have about Hae’s entry, was it 12:15 pm and she was mad? Or was it 9 pm and he had told her he would call her by 4 pm? With DV, context is everything – where was the context in Koenig’s accounts of their relationship? Where was the perspective of someone in the DV field?

But I stayed optimistic. I thought maybe she’ll interview someone in the DV field. Maybe she’ll focus more on Hae and truly humanize her, instead of the man who was convicted of killing her. Maybe she’ll acknowledge how voyeuristic this all is, in terms of domestic violence, in terms of race, in terms of immigrant communities.

But she didn’t. I listened until the end, thinking the elements of white privilege, American-born privilege and societal lack of  understanding of partner abuse – thinking at least one of those aspects would be addressed – or better yet, all of them, as that would not be so unreasonable to think would happen in this podcast.

So these are my Serial podcast take-aways:

1. When digging deep into a murder, it is essential to humanize and respect victims and their families

I guess my bottom-line feeling on this is that this case should not have been made into a whodunit mystery podcast without the permission of Hae Min Lee’s family. Losing Hae Min Lee must have been terrible, horrific and traumatizing for them. I imagine they still miss her deeply and they probably still have nightmares, hypervigilance and all those other trauma symptoms that come with the murder of a loved one. Having this horrible experience/loss dredged up by a reporter who they don’t know and then gossiped about by all sorts of people on the internet must be so re-traumatizing for them.

And to add to the insult of this is the fact that it is seldom mentioned how terrible it is for this girl that she died. She is/was approximately my age and as I listened, I kept thinking ‘Jesus, she should be about my age now.’ She was only 17 years old. That’s almost half my lifetime. Half my lifetime that is just gone for her now – and presumably/hopefully, I have more than half my life still ahead of me. So how much did Hae Min Lee miss out on? How much was so selfishly taken from her? To me, there should have been at least an entire episode on this – who she really was and how unfair and unjust it is that she was killed when she was only a child still. And that should only happen after the family has consented to having their daughter’s murder re-hashed all over the internet. Maybe I’m wrong to write this post and add to that. I acknowledge that but also feel like the damage has already been done and was done by creating the podcast to begin with and at this point, noting the problems is important. Maybe my thought process on that is totally misguided. Maybe.

2. When a crime involves a domestic violence conviction, it is crucial to interview someone who works in the Domestic Violence field.

I mean, it seems kinda obvious. And yet this perspective was totally overlooked. As if domestic violence homicide can be explained away by some other phenomenon (like a crime of passion or antisocial personality disorders) than the very behaviors and beliefs that lead domestic violence to exist in the first place – which have nothing to do with passion or psychopathology and everything to do with misogyny and entitlement.

So who were the professionals Ms. Koenig chose to interview? A defense attorney, Dierdre Enright, who says that the state’s motive that he killed her because she broke up with him is bogus. Ms. Enright says something along the lines of, “People break up all the time, but that’s not a reason to kill someone.”

Yeah no shit it’s not a reason to kill someone (although is there ever an actual, valid reason to kill someone other than self-defense???). Any Domestic Violence Advocate can tell you that killing someone over a breakup is a horrible thing to do, and it is also a horrible reality when it comes to abusive and controlling relationships. While the vast majority of DV relationships do not end in homicide, anyone who works in Domestic Violence can tell you that the end of an abusive relationship is typically the most dangerous time for survivors and that the majority of domestic violence homicides occur after the relationship has ended. I mean, Hae Min Lee wrote to Adnan Syed about their breakup and that he needed to leave her be and respect her wishes and still Koenig didn’t note this to be a huge red flag that this was a controlling relationship, that is just mind-boggling to me. Uggghhh… and that Ms. Koenig took seriously Ms. Enright on issues of violence against women when Ms. Enright refers to rape as “sex” is just so disturbing to me.

Ms. Koenig also interviews Charles P. Ewing, a psychologist who interviews people who have killed, often within the context of intimate partner abuse. At first I let out a sigh of relief because Dr. Ewing says most people who kill are not “psychopaths”, that they are actually pretty normal. Because what we find in the domestic violence field is that most batterers are not people with antisocial personality disorder. Sure occasionally, you come across a batterer who also has antisocial personality disorder and that’s when shit gets real scary. But most abusers are not. Most abusers have internalized beliefs about how they can treat their partners and these beliefs, while they may manifest by someone of any gender in a relationship of any sexual orientation, do stem back to a long history of misogyny in that played out especially in intimate partner relationships, that is still alive and well today. But then Ewing says that essentially these crimes are really out of the blue and that they happen when someone just loses it and, well, anyone could just snap and kill someone else. This is just BS. Most of us have been livid at some point but most of us have not killed anyone. The reality is that people who are abusive in relationships, who are not the majority of people but are a significant enough percentage of our population to impact it greatly, are pretty normal but have some really abnormal and harmful beliefs about their partners. The fact of the matter is that it is simply too much for most of us to bear that some normal, kind, even empathetic people actually don’t have empathy for their partners and really hurt them. I mean that’s a terrible reality and I understand why people go to such great lengths to deny it. And at the same time, it is doing no one any good to deny it.

Issues of sexism, misogyny and domestic violence were not addressed in Serial. And that is a big problem.

3. The issues of racism in Serial overlap with the issues of misogyny

Plenty of people have rightly pointed out the issues of racism in Serial. That a white woman is trying to tell Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed’s story is problematic and comes off voyeuristic. Moreover that Mr. Syed’s race/culture was brought up in the context of a motive is absurd and racist. At one point, one of the jurors is interviewed and says something along the lines of, “I mean, I don’t know their culture. I don’t know how they treat women.” When I heard this all I could think was, ‘Oh as opposed to all those egalitarian, feminist cultures? Oh wait, they don’t exist.’ I mean mainstream American (white) culture is misogynistic. Women of all races are abused and sometimes killed by men of all races. Violence against women is about misogyny, not about specific cultures, and to link violence against women to certain cultures while ignoring the misogyny that is endemic to every dominant culture is, IMO, racist.

4. Issues of misogyny, domestic violence and white supremacy that have already been discussed can go much further

There were so many times misogyny and the power/control dynamics of DV were ignored in this podcast that I could never list them all in one post. In addition, there was much focus on Adnan Syed’s race, but little focus on Hae Min Lee’s race. I mean American society doesn’t care about people of color, it doesn’t care about women and it especially doesn’t care about women of color, which Hae Min Lee was. For all the times the potential laziness with which prosecutors handled this case was mentioned, it was always about Syed’s race, and rarely about Lee’s race. Is it possible that the court wasn’t diligent about this case not only because society doesn’t care about a man of color’s fate, but also because society really doesn’t care about the death of an Asian woman? And even the fact that Syed’s culture was so focused on, even in the podcast that was so dedicated to him, is, to me, more evidence of our obsessive, voyeuristic and racist attitudes towards Muslims in this post-911 world. Even if Syed did kill her, focusing on his culture to such a great extent, seems exploitative and that it will add to the discrimination Muslim Americans already face.

Whew… so those are my initial thoughts. And I don’t know if I want to have more thoughts on this. I really think my blood pressure is higher from listening to this podcast so I need to go chill. Just wanted to put this out there. And that… I really think we owe it to this young woman whose life was cut short so brutally to do better.

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