Unreliable Narratives: Navigating Serialized Crime Documentaries

From popular crime narratives such as the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” to the podcast “Serial,” modern-day sensation narratives have recently spiked in popularity. Similar to the sensational reports published in nineteenth-century newspapers, these narratives dramatize real life while trying to maintain integrity to facts. Yet, by nature of narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, stories are always patched and weaved into a representational narrative that excludes information so it can never be fully accurate, which can be troubling when narrative is used to reinvestigate a past crime (“Making a Murderer” directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos had seven hundred hours of footage that they whittled into ten one-hour long Netflix episodes).

Exploring the purpose of narrative is essential to literary scholarship, where academics analyze narrative to discover, or come closer to discovering, some higher truth. My current project is an exploration of Jekyll and Hyde through the lens of sympathy and trauma theory. As I research, my reviewers constantly remind me to be careful not to apply theory to fictional accounts in the exact same manner as I would to a nonfictional account. While reading and analyzing fiction informs, and educates audiences and persuades them toward action, we also have to remember that fiction is not real life, and, for example, trauma experienced by a fictional character is not the same as trauma experienced by a living human.

Yet I wonder how analysis works when true events become dramatized into narratives that resemble fiction; they are informative, but they are also meant to be entertaining. While some writers and film directors use their modes of expression to help exonerate wrongfully convicted people or to cast light on problems with the justice system, their narratives have other lasting, and sometimes unintended, consequences. The justice system, while potentially flawed, still follows a set of procedures by which people seek to fairly right wrongs. This can be problematic when filmmakers and artists take these problems into their own hands, as Kathryn Schulz articulates: “We still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort.” This questions modes of justice and whether or not one artist, filmmaker, author, etc. has the right to go about seeking justice without adhering to regular rules of the justice system, leaving those involved in the project or the crime at the mercy of one person’s code of ethics.

These narratives are influenced by the opinions of only a few people who have their own biases and agendas rather than an entire court system that includes a jury. While the jury may also be biased, the narrative is unfolded to them, and they do not usually have an initial collective opinion about the guilty or non-guilty status of the accused. Schulz writes about the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” and the potential biases of its directors. She reminds readers that Penny Beerntsen incorrectly identified Steven Avery as her rapist, which led to his first wrongful conviction, causing him to spend eighteen years in prison before being released after DNA evidence suggested the crime was committed by another man. Beerntsen has expressed great sorrow over accusing Avery, but she was wary about helping with the documentary about his second conviction. Schulz writes, “But when Ricciardi and Demos approached [Beerntsen] about participating in ‘Making a Murderer’ she declined, chiefly because, while her own experience with the criminal-justice system had led her to be wary of certitude, the filmmakers struck her as having already made up their minds. ‘It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent,’ she told me. ‘I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.’” Ricciardi and Demos disagree with this sentiment, but others, including Schulz, have questioned the biased nature of the documentary. Conclusive closure is one essential difference between fiction and nonfiction narratives: there are no conclusions in investigative narratives, and it is problematic for people to think of these reports as having a clean ending.

In addition to this problematic representation, these documentaries also spotlight actual people’s lives in a medium of entertainment rather than reporting. Emily Nussbaum comments on this phenomenon stating, “There is, of course, a queasy undercurrent to any show like this: we’re shivering at someone else’s grief, giggling at someone else’s crazy. Many of the best documentaries have this ugly edge, which may be why we cling to the idea that their creators . . . are as devoted to truth as to voyeurism.” These documentaries meant to exonerate and bring forth justice also serve as a mode of entertainment in which every person involved in the case is brought out on camera whether they wish to be highlighted or not. Nussbaum also suggests that documentaries are still scripted in some sense because the people are still being filmed. She writes, “Everything in a documentary is contrived, even one with a fancy HBO imprimatur. The most sincere people still know that they’re talking to a camera.”

Not only do people participate in a voyeuristic exploration of both victims’ and perpetrators’ lives but serial crime documentaries open up different methods of understanding that are typical of literary analysis. Following the release of “Making a Murderer,” Kathryn Shattuck posted a bunch of questions raised by the documentary, similar to the discussion questions found at the back of literary books. The lives of those involved in the case from families to perpetrators to victims to accusers and the accused become characters involved in narratives to be analyzed, and their lives become a form of entertainment.

What do all of these literary ties have to do with how we perceive crime in relation to media and art? Lisa Kern Griffin articulates problems with “serialized true-crime programs” but also notably points out, “At the same time, serialized true-crime programs, such as ‘Making a Murderer’ and the first season of the podcast ‘Serial,’ are bringing the failures of due process into focus: careless police work, flawed forensics, forceful interrogations, unreliable witnesses and the woeful condition of state-funded criminal defense.” On the other hand, she writes, “But Americans shouldn’t expect certainty about innocence. Sometimes the focus on finding new evidence to exonerate distracts from the question of whether or not the old evidence proved guilt.” She is hopeful for change that can be brought about if people are compelled to actions from these narratives. But these crime narratives come at their own risks: narrative, by necessity, always leaves something out, and it becomes messy when a biased narrative is presented but becomes the basis by which to formulate truth. Narratives can compel people to create change in thought and action, but just as it is important to do justice to literary fiction and understand its role and place within a theoretical context, documentaries that aim to present factual accounts need to be analyzed with the same consideration and care as any other mode of narration.

Written by Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern

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