Serial Episode 9: What It's Like to Be Adnan

Three Atlantic staffers discuss the podcast's newest installment, a character study into the life of the accused.

Conor Friedersdorf, Lenika Cruz, and Katie Kilkenny discuss the latest episode of WBEZ Chicago's popular non-fiction podcast Serial.

Friedersdorf: Episode 9 of Serial, "To Be Suspected," begins with new reasons to believe that the state's explanation of Hae's murder is off. A person who regularly shoplifted at the Best Buy where Adnan is alleged to have called Jay after the murder insists there were no pay phones there. Another person, a friend of Hae, feels certain she saw her on the day of the murder at a time that messes up the state's timeline. Neither detail exonerates Adnan. But unlike last week's episode, they nudge the undecided listener back toward thinking that there is reasonable doubt about Adnan's guilt, as does hearing from the man himself for extended interviews about his story.

Those nudges aside, we get little useful information that advances our notion of what really happened. But that's okay, or at least it doesn't bother me, because what we get instead, via Adnan, is a service that Serial provides: It gives us a peek at parts of the criminal justice system that just aren't portrayed in many other places, even in procedurals like Law and Order. Invisible aspects of the system come across partly in the course of Adnan describing what he went through and partly from his description of what that felt like. For example, he explained how standing trial meant many, many hours just sitting in holding pens, doing nothing, waiting. It's something that isn't conveyed on television crime dramas, for obvious reasons, and it turns behavior that would've seemed inexplicable—like writing a casual letter when he was about to be sentenced to life in prison—into an understandable thing.

Listening to accounts of Adnan's behavior during the investigation and trial, I naturally kept thinking, "Is that how a guilty person would act? Is that how an innocent person would act?" For the most part, I think such speculation is best avoided, that committing a murder or being wrongly accused of one is a circumstance so unusual that we can't reliably say that a given reaction means anything.

I try to avoid the temptation to accord them any import.

The one I can't help but seize upon is Adnan's apparent failure, despite repeated opportunities, to angrily denounce Jay, the man who told the cops that he killed Hae. I get his ability to speak fondly of other friends who testified for the prosecution about some little piece of the story they knew, like, "Oh, I heard Adnan ask Hae for a ride that day." Lots of wrongly accused people could forgive that. But I don't get the even keel about the guy who accused him of murder. I feel like if I were wrongly jailed based on one person's accusation, my hate for them would burn, at least in the moments when I was discussing my feelings before and at my trial.

One of my feelings would be, "That *%$%^#* Jay!!!!!"

It seems like Adnan would be furious at Jay if he were innocent—but then again, it also seems like he would feign furiousness at him if he were trying to mislead us about his innocence.

One last thought. This isn't the space to flesh this out here, but amid a mini-backlash against Serial, accusing it of tone-deafness and cultural tourism in immigrant communities, I just wanted to register my own opinion, which is that Sarah Koenig has done as good a job as I can imagine anyone doing of treating everyone she interviews and portrays with fairness, and as complicated, fleshed-out individuals. As I see it, careful journalists digging into cases where there's a nontrivial chance of a wrongfully convicted person is an unalloyed good, especially in minority communities with comparatively less financial and cultural capital to navigate a system with bias problems.

But back to this episode. Am I alone in being perplexed that Adnan expresses more anger at himself for loaning out his car, smoking weed and otherwise being "a bad Muslim" than he does at the guy, Jay, who ostensibly killed his friend and framed him for it?

Cruz: Now that we're at episode 9, I think as Serial listeners, we've learned what to expect (and not expect) from the show. We should expect plenty of meta-investigative investigations, lots of asides, pieces that don't fit together just right, and more than a little bit of frustration. We should not expect pure objectivity, a projected path from A to B in the traditional narrative sense, and above all, an Answer. At this point, I've disabused myself of the notion that I'm listening to a murder mystery, where there'll be a great reveal at the end or even—to borrow Linda Holmes's phrasing—"meaningful uncertainty" when the seasons wraps.

So, without the subtle promise of this Answer, as listeners where does our satisfaction, our sense of enjoyment, come from?

For me, the true entertainment—for lack of a better word—value of Serial has been largely cerebral. Yes, Koenig is a great radio storyteller, but it's fascinating as a listener to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting on my own. Rather than sitting back and letting Koenig feed me pre-chewed pieces of information to swallow unquestioningly, I instead have to consider how much weight to give each piece of evidence presented, how much to trust her. Its exhilarating in its own way to not have to think about the possibility of an answer, because it frees me to focus on the complexities of the questions themselves.

As you noted, Conor, rather than relaying just the clinical facts of the case, Koenig has spent a good deal of time filling us in on the parts of the case that never made it to trial, that the jury never heard. Much of this episode listeners would consider irrelevant to the bigger picture: how Adnan carried himself after news broke of Hae's body being found, what he wrote in his personal letters, how he felt sitting in the bull pen awaiting sentencing. And the criminal justice system agrees, it's all irrelevant—which is why Adnan's been in prison for half of his life. At the urging of his attorney, Adnan never spoke in his own defense for the entirety of two trials. So if Koenig seems eager to let him talk, then I'm prepared to listen because, if only because Adnan didn't get to tell his story 15 years ago, when telling his story really mattered.

Maybe it's because we're nine episodes deep, but I'm past the point of feeling like I need to be convinced one way or another, at the end of each episode, of Adnan's guilt. Even in the shadow (or light?) of this conspicuous unknowability, this episode's powerful moments stood out to me clearly, especially Hae's mother's words about how a dead child is buried forever in a parent's heart, and so when she dies, her daughter dies with her. This very plainly didn't feel like weaponized emotion to me. It felt like a brief but necessary refocusing of the show—Adnan's guilt aside, someone killed Hae. All the interviews, all the retracing of steps, all the reevaluating of evidence in the world can't bring her back. I had been wondering from the beginning whether we'd get to hear from Hae's family, so I welcomed this long overdue moment.

To answer your question Conor, in the earlier episodes I was completely bewildered by Adnan's apparent lack of "ill will" toward Jay. If Adnan were innocent, how could he not blame Jay for putting him in prison for the rest of his life? Deep down, I'm still confused by this, but I also try to remind myself that a lot of rationalizing can happen when you're locked up for 15 years.

Kilkenny: Sarah Koenig is always balancing three genres in her work on Serial, which is one part legal analysis, another new reporting into a 15-year-old case, and finally (and most appealingly) a story, one so compelling that it’s the top pick on iTunes in four countries. This latest installment devotes itself to the "story" mode: The episode is a study in detail, compiling compelling, surprising, and—as Conor rightfully noted—baffling details about Adnan’s reaction to the accusations leveled against him. Like a good short story, Episode 9 briefly puts us in the position of being immersed, as Adnan was, in an impossibly dramatic situation. It then attempts to come to some sort of understanding with him as a human being, rather than a character.

When Koenig initially said she was going to let “Adnan talk” this time I around, I snarkily rewrote the show’s title, “To Be Suspected,” to “Sympathy for Adnan.” But on a deep listen, I realized the original name is appropriate, and my own is a complete misunderstanding of what Koenig is doing. Though Koenig initially hits us up for money (the deepest question this round: are you donating?) and debriefs us on a few new details that seem to throw suspicion on Jay’s testimony, she immediately sets out to put us in a different frame of mind. Koenig places us in the shoes of any trial’s token suspicious character—the ex-boyfriend—and shows just how non-token that experience really is.

Adnan’s defining characteristic in her portrayal is delusion. It’s as if the boy living under the weight of the world’s suspicion can’t grasp the nightmare is real. On February 10th, when Aisha, Adnan, and Krista convene in Aisha’s kitchen after learning that Hae’s body has been found, they begin to cry, except that Adnan doesn’t seem to believe it. Since “Hae was penciled into Krista’s agenda,” Adnan becomes convinced the police misidentified the victim, and calls Detective O’Shea to correct the situation. Playing dumb or simply being 17 years old and learning a loved one’s body was abandoned for nearly a month in a desolate park? These are the questions the episode throws at the listener thanks to its impressionistic details. It circumvents the politics and caricatures of court and tries to get to the emotional core of the matter—even if that won’t get us anywhere in terms of the cold, hard truth.

There’s more: When the detectives show up at Adnan’s house on February 26, he’s more worried about how his father will react sitting next to him, than the underlying reason why his father has to sit next to him. He stresses about his annotated bibliography due at school. And when he’s in prison, he thinks he might be out by the holidays, play-acts that Krista’s still a great friend after she testifies against him at trial, is pretty sure an officer who stops in and tells him to “Have faith” is giving him a vote of confidence.

Up front, in her request for money, Koenig says, “We believe in in-depth reporting and following the story wherever it takes us." It's now clear that where this story is taking us is out of the realm of courtroom cliches and into the realm of real, complex human beings. That's why it’s so hard to pass judgment on these characters, even when Koenig has her clear favorites.

I’ve been skeptical about Koenig’s methods before. Though her reporting is thorough and allows for a commendable breadth of perspective, she appears time and again to be on Adnan’s side. But this time, by framing the story as a narrative work, she convinced me that there is a method, no matter how unprecedented or genre-mashup-y it may be. She didn’t play reporter, or even legal critic (though her tone was definitely angry when describing how his public defender told Adnan to plead guilty). She filled in the gaps and offered them up for the public court of opinion. And her impressive rendition of what it might be like to be a 17-year-old silenced in court, scribbling notes in order to look like he had something to do, made for undeniably compelling listening.