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On Serial And The 'Crazymaking' Process Of Connecting With Prisoners

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AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

The heart of the show, many agree, is the strangely intimate relationship between the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, and the convicted murderer in question, Adnan Syed, who has always maintained his innocence. Koenig has logged 40 hours’ worth of phone conversations with Adnan. She’s learned about his inner life, his friends in prison, his family and his fears, his present and his past. In a pivotal episode, Koenig confesses that her interest in his case lies in the fact that Adnan is “a really nice guy,” so “what does that mean?” At times, she wonders if she’s being duped: Is Adnan a sociopath? A psychopath? In profound denial? But regardless of whether Adnan is innocent, the subtext of Serial is that if you talk to anyone long enough, even an accused killer, they become deeply, messily human.

Before Schenwar learns the crime of one of her pen pals, Sable, she’s in turmoil:

At this point, I’m absorbed and pained; I feel for my new pen pal. And I’m rooting for her! But the gigantic thought bubble hanging over my brain is shouting, “What was the mistake?” What act would bar her from receiving visits from her kids—or leave her with a twenty-two-year post-release “stigma”?

No Serial episode recalls this push-and-pull more than yesterday’s, which closes with Koenig reading from an 18-page, typed, single-spaced letter from Adnan. The last words she read took my breath away: “I guess the only thing I could ask you to do is, if none of this makes any sense to you, just read it again. Except this time, please imagine that I really am innocent, and then maybe it’ll make sense to you.”

These words could be a vulnerable plea of an innocent man, or the lies of a manipulative mastermind. We'll probably never know. This uncertainty, to borrow Adnan’s term, is “crazymaking.” But it’s all part of the pen pal process, Rev. Jason Lydon tells Schenwar. “Allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable can help us grow, and to build authentic relationships and understandings,” he says. “Being uncomfortable at times is OK.”

Lead photo: Prison artwork created by Adnan Syed sits near family photos in the home of his mother, Shamim Syed, Dec. 10, 2014, in Baltimore.

About The Author

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Nona Willis Aronowitz is the editor of TPM's The Slice and TPMCafe. Previously, she was an education and poverty reporter at NBC News Digital, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and an associate editor at GOOD magazine. She's written for The Atlantic, Washington Post, NYMag.com, The Nation, The American Prospect, Tablet, and Rookie, among others.