People are the worst, right? I think that’s the moral of this week’s Serial, which investigates a grab bag of nasty rumors about Adnan, and then tacks on some additional investigation into whether he might be a psychopath. That’s something that’s come up several times during the podcast, but has always been disproven (it’s disproven, again, in this episode). Also, big news: Next episode is going to be the final one of this first season.
Thank God. If there’s another moral to today’s episode, it’s perhaps that there wasn’t really quite enough in this case to sustain this many episodes. In my opinion, the last truly interesting one was Episode 5, “Route Talk,” where Koenig, with a stopwatch, drove around Baltimore and tried to recreate the prosecution’s timeline of the case. It was dramatic, there were stakes, and it was even pretty funny, thanks to the one-time appearance of Serial co-producer Dana Chivvis. It produced this extremely quotable and ridiculous exchange, as Koenig and Chivvis drove around together. Chivvis is doing that thing where you see a sign outside a car window and just kind of mindlessly read it to fill a hole in the conversation:
Chivvis: There’s a shrimp sale at the crab crib.
Koenig: [in voiceover] Sometimes I think Dana isn’t listening to me.
It was hilarious—really effectively puncturing the tension of the moment. There are “Crab Crib” t-shirts now, plural, and it often comes up in articles about the show.
Serial simply has not had as much going on in the episodes since, and certainly not in the last three weeks, which have felt like treading water. Speaking of! This episode investigates rumors about Adnan, many of which have been circulating on the internet (specifically, on Serial’s subreddit) since the show became monstrously popular. People, usually anonymously, write things about Adnan which say, either explicitly or implicitly, I grew up with Adnan, and if you knew the stuff about him I do, you wouldn’t be surprised that he killed someone.
This kind of thing—a person being vaguely nasty without any, you know, actual evidence, and doing it all anonymously so that it could never come back to them—is hard to take too seriously. Apparently, Koenig has been getting these kinds of messages, too, via email, text, and in actual phone calls. She tracks some of these people down, and not only is there usually nothing to their stories, but they all insist on complete anonymity. Not just having their names kept private, but also having their voices obscured, all to spread nasty rumors about someone already in jail for life on a murder conviction. It’s hard to think of another word for that than “cowardly.”
Many of these rumors are apparently so pointless that Koenig doesn’t even mention them. Some she does mention, just to illustrate how generally pointless the rest of them are, like this one: “He took a piece of my clothing, a piece of designer clothing, then over-explained that it wasn’t mine, or he didn’t know it was mine, and then apologized profusely.” Well, I guess he strangled someone to death, then.
One that she does devote some time to is a story, told by a brave individual with his voice digitally obscured, that Adnan used to steal money from the collection plate at his local mosque as a child. This person, apparently sincerely, says he must have stolen “thousands of dollars every week,” taking on the whole “tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand dollars” in this way. As I listened to this, I couldn’t help but think of a child who describes any amount of money over $5 as one million dollars with an awed voice. Koenig investigates, both by asking Adnan and Maqbool Patel, who was president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore at the time. According to Patel, Adnan’s mosque likely wasn’t taking in more than $2000 or $3000 per week, total, and it literally needed that money to keep the lights on. So, he reasons, they would have noticed if thousands of dollars per week were disappearing. Adnan, for his part, admits to taking money—something on the order of $20 to $60 when he was 12 or 13, which he and his friends used to go to the movies. Eventually, his mom found out and he tearfully apologized. He seems to genuinely feel bad about it when discussing it with Koenig, and lashes out at her for maybe the first time, wondering why they’re even talking about it. “This has nothing to do with the case!” he says to her, over and over. I agree. In Koenig’s defense, she had 12 episodes to fill.
There’s more back and forth, with different people interpreting similar things Adnan did in totally different ways. One person says Adnan was always trying to charm everyone and diffuse situations, which proves he’s a manipulative psychopath. Another person, who actually tried to start a fight with Adnan once, says that after he finished yelling in Adnan’s face, Adnan simply stood up and kissed him on the cheek, like some mixture of Gandhi and Bugs Bunny. There was no fight after that, proving what a great guy Adnan was.
Then, finally, Koenig investigates the idea that Adnan might be a psychopath by talking with professor at Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist and lawyer who teaches at the SUNY Buffalo law school, who’s testified at over 700 trials in homicide cases committed by people in intimate relationships. He listened to about half of Serial and weighed in with his opinions. He too said Adnan is probably not a psychopath.
Honestly, given Koenig’s obsession with the idea of psychopaths, I’d recommend she check out The Psychopath Test, by her This American Life co-contributor Jon Ronson. The book, which to be fair is as much humor as reportage, is about how slippery an idea psychopathy really is. He interviews a man who got in a bar fight, got arrested, and then claimed insanity on the idea he’d get off. Instead, he’s spent years locked up in a mental institution, unable to convince anyone that he’s not truly a psychopath. Anything he’s tried to prove that he’s not crazy—dressing nicely, being polite, complying with doctors, generally acting normal, and even confessing that he invented his insanity plea to get less jail time—is only taken as evidence that he is, in fact, a psychopath. How could he do this violent thing, and then be so normal and charming? their thinking goes. Answer: Because he is a psychopath. On the other end of the spectrum, Ronson administers the actual clinical psychopath test to a CEO, who takes most of its indicators—not caring about other people’s feelings, using them to achieve your own ends, being ruthless—as the things that made him an incredibly successful businessman (both of these stories were also broadcast on This American Life). Being “a psychopath,” in other words, isn’t exactly a simple or even a terribly meaningful thing.
If there was one truly interesting bit from today’s episode, it was a story from someone who grew up with Adnan in Baltimore’s Muslim community. After Adnan’s conviction, he says, the story became a kind of local parable: The good Muslim boy who strayed from the path. More specifically, and fascinatingly, the story got reduced to one simple moral: don’t give rides to strangers. Of course, this doesn’t exactly fit the facts of the case, but it’s got a sort of mythic truthiness that I can understand. This man (who, again, was anonymous), explains that he was forbidden to ride in cars with people from outside the community for basically the rest of his life. His parents would nervously ask him where he was going any time he opened the front door, even if he was just going to get the mail.
This goes to show the power of cases like Adnan’s, and how they continue to grow and shape our interactions with the world for decades after they’re officially over. Parents keep their children close. Classmates look back on innocent, everyday things—a fight averted, some money stolen—and freight them with importance and gravity they honestly probably don’t have. It’s only human.
Next week: the final episode. What’s going to happen? Will this 12 hours of your life lead to some kind of meaningful resolution? I wouldn’t bet on it. But, then, this has been an exercise in storytelling more than anything. And it’s mostly been a great story. It’s just that Koenig doesn’t get to pick the ending.