Memory, narrative, history, Serial.

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Note from the author: I wrote this piece before the conclusion of the investigative journalism podcast Serial dropped on December 18, 2014. I’m leaving it as is, without addressing the ending because it does not change the questions that were raised during its run, nor does it negate the ways we can discuss Serial in relation to public history. I’d hate to spoil it for those who have not yet listened. I’d be happy to discuss some of the new questions the ending does raise in the comment area.


Photo credit: Kate Preissler.

On October 3, 2014, journalist Sarah Koenig premiered Serial, a podcast featuring her investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Almost immediately dubbed the first podcast mega-hit, the series has sparked a nationwide conversation about topics intimately familiar to public historians.

Serial is the number one podcast in the United States with an average of 1.26 million downloads per episode. It is notable not just for the following it gained so quickly but for the very visible and thoughtful discussions it has inspired. There are weekly recaps and reviews, Reddit streams, articles everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Salon and the New Yorker, numerous blog posts from individuals, and even another podcast to reflect on weekly episodes of Serial.

People are talking about the 15 year-old case, dissecting the evidence, and speculating on possible scenarios, but Serial’s popularity has also sparked a broader conversation about our criminal justice system and has fostered a greater understanding of the journalistic process. What I haven’t yet seen anyone pointing out is how much Serial is also about public history.

“How do we make the past come alive?” outgoing American Historical Association President William Cronon asked in his 2013 address,“By telling stories about it.” Storytelling is cited again and again as the key to Serial’s success, as Slate writers David Haglund and Rebecca Onion describe in their post The 25 Best Podcast Episodes Ever:

The story they’re telling, about the murder of a young woman in Baltimore in 1999 and the questionable conviction of her ex-boyfriend for the crime, is immediately gripping. But more important is the care with which they tell that story, from the reporting, to the music, to the eloquent but conversational narration by host Sarah Koenig.”

In his talk, Cronon acknowledges the ways in which historians are not always free to craft a story like Serial because of the constructs of our discipline (including that “the interviews that enable Michael Pollan to construct such intriguing protagonists to populate his narratives and illustrate his arguments are impossible–to state the obvious–when the subjects of one’s work are all dead.”). And yet despite Serial being a journalistic endeavor, it provides the opportunity to introduce fans and commentators to the craft of public history.

Serial’s fans and detractors are currently wrestling with the same questions that we pose to students in public history courses–questions that constitute the meat, the challenge, and the excitement of doing public history.

Memory is a tough nut to crack.

“But too much airtime – particularly airtime that is supposed to have significance – is dedicated to fifteen-year-old memories that are, frankly, worthless…The problem is that fifteen-year-old recollections like this are worse than worthless: they’re pernicious, because they present themselves as truth.” – Serial listener

Remember those activities that teachers had us do as kids to prove that human memory is unreliable? Maybe you were asked to describe what a teacher had been wearing the day before or maybe you didn’t notice the gorilla in the room. The point of the exercises was to call attention to the frailty of human memory and to dismiss memories as evidence, historical or judicial.

But memory in the hands of public historians holds nuance, value, meaning, and, yes, even veracity as a source. Oral historians are doing beautiful work using memory as a guide. As Richard White puts it, “Memory and identity are too powerful to go unquestioned and too important to be discarded as simply inventions and fabrications.”[1] The Serial conversation hinges on memory and calls out for a public historian’s point of view.

Real people are more than characters in a story.

“We talked to Dierdre [Enright, Director of the University of Virginia Innocence Project Clinic], who is a fascinating character…  I mean, she was a really interesting character.” – Katy Waldman of Serial Spoilers Special

Serial is not the first to blur the lines between public entertainment and personal events, but it has some factors–the way its narrative unfolds incrementally over time and the presence of subjects who are not only still alive, but listening, reacting, and expressing opinions on the Internet, for example, that have made the issue stand out. Koenig has played with this, setting people up to make assumptions about individuals and then tearing them down with new facts and interviews, keeping our understanding of these people complex and un-pigeonholed.

There is a strong impulse to view subjects of historical research as characters in a story. Humans crave the sense-making of storytelling. People become archetypes, morals are clear, and endings are defined. Sometimes the most difficult part of public history work has to do with preserving the complex humanity of subjects and making sure that we do not reduce real people to literary tropes.

Everything is interpreted (there’s ALWAYS a narrator).

[To Sarah Koenig] “One of the things I love is that you speak to the listeners like they are your close friends, often expressing your own insecurity and exasperations. . . . It feels like a radical kind of reporting, in which the reporter herself isn’t completely sure she’s right.” –Rachel Syme, Vulture

One theme running through Serial reviews and commentaries is how much people enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Koenig’s reporting and how her personal voice is crucial to the series’ success. So, too, are there critical conversations about how Koenig’s perspective, privilege, and personality compromise her investigative ability. The discussion is similar to those in our field regarding how much to let audiences see our interpretational and curatorial choices and how much to include our own voices and views in a story. From the experience of Serial, it seems that audiences are not only able to understand how narrative voice changes a story–but are actively and eagerly learning from the technique.

Sometimes, there is no way to know “the truth.” Evidence does not always provide an ending.

“I don’t have a particular ending in mind, like…It’s not even so much that I have a legal verdict in mind; it’s more like how I would want to feel after reading a book. The sensation of thinking, ‘Wow, I got deep inside this thing, and I learned everything I could about it’–there’s a satisfaction to that.” – Sarah Koenig

When Koenig sat down for interviews mid-way through Serial’s run and admitted that she did not yet know how this story was going to end, there was a strong reaction. People realized the show may not provide a solid declaration of guilt or innocence, and the conversation shifted with posts such as this one titled “With one episode left, will Serial land well, or crash and burn?” It distressed listeners that there’s a good chance listeners will never know who is responsible for Hae Min Lee’s death.

This frustration is something historians encounter again and again. No matter how deeply we research, there are answers about the past that we can never know. When criticism arose about the lack of attention she seemingly gave to the victim, Koenig presented us with an episode describing exactly why she could not give us more. Except for Lee’s diary entries and friends’ recollections, there was nothing more to let us know her thoughts, feelings, and her true self. We do history because of the journey, without ever knowing if we’ll reach a destination.

In Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen reminded us that people do “not view the past as distant, abstract, or insignificant. Quite the contrary, through their understanding of the past, [they] addressed questions about relationships, identity, immortality, and agency.” Public historians need to find and utilize the moments when historical thinking intersects with daily life in such a way that it captures the imaginations of non-historians.

Thanks to Serial, people are having intelligent, insightful discussions about memory, historical evidence, and interpretational bias. Whether you think the series deserves a more critical eye or believe it has done something valuable, this is what it looks like when the public engages with public history concepts. This is a conversation we should join.

[1] Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: A History of Stories (New York:  Hill and Wang,1998), 6.

~ Kate Preissler, public historian and podcast junkie, is the Digital Media Manager at the Berkshire Museum.

  1. Thank you for articulating all the reasons I loved that podcast and couldn’t find my own words to express. One other idea to add – the fact that she did so much in-depth research spoke to me – as a research nerd – and I hope the general public understands that thorough, thoughtful research followed by analysis and evaluation contributes to great stories.

  2. Kate P. says:

    Great point! I noticed that Koenig made a point several times to emphasize the fact that she had put in a solid year of research for this story. Good research too often goes unnoticed.

    On a different note, I recommend this great piece by Nate DiMeo, written as a response to Serial and beautifully corresponding to my final point:

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