The hott podcast Serial concluded this week with its twelfth episode, an episode that crystallized for me why I like it. For all the complaints – that it is white privilege in distilled radio form; that it is really about its host, Sarah Koenig – it is a pretty good dramatization of the historical process.
And it’s not only because this week one of the intrepid reporter/producers descended into an actual archive to retrieve a critical document and, despite some gratuitous mockery of the archivists, gave a sense of what it’s actually like to do that and why you would want to.
It’s ultimately because Koenig held herself to a standard of argument that’s similar to what historians use. She repeatedly questioned herself as she pursued her research over the course of months; she tried to disprove her hunches even as she followed them, and ultimately concluded with “what we know” – which is distinct from “what really happened” (yes, she goes all Ranke on us).
Here’s how she ends (SPOILERS):
What do I think? If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean, most of the time, I think he didn’t do it. For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence, but also small reasons – things he’s said to me, just off the cuff, or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear, or just the bare fact of why on earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion.
I used to think that when Adnan’s friends told me, “I can’t say for sure he’s innocent, but the guy I knew? there’s no way he could have done this” – I used to think that was a cop-out, a way to avoid asking yourself uncomfortable, disloyal, disheartening questions.
But I think I’m there now too, and not for lack of asking myself those hard questions, but, because as much as I want to be sure, I’m not.
Like Linda Holmes, I was afraid Koenig was going to end up with “a contemplation on the nature of the truth.” But she didn’t. She came down on, I can’t say for sure, but the guy I know, there’s no way he could have done this.
Which is what historians generally end up with. We can’t know for sure, but neither should we let radical skepticism stop us from saying what we know. We state the truth as we know it, leaning on the probabilities – “this does not mean,” as Barzun and Graff remind us, “‘a doubtful kind of truth’ but a firm reliance on the likelihood that evidence which has been examined and found solid is veracious[.]”
Koenig has done what few historians have successfully achieved: she has made the process of research and analysis itself a compelling narrative. Mostly when historians go that route, it’s because they’re dealing with a murder or a like crime, in which case we can depend on readers wanting to follow the narrative of discovery the same as they might with a police procedural. (See e.g. the still-brilliant Return of Martin Guerre. Also, Ari Kelman manages it in his book on the Sand Creek massacre, because he’s dealing with competing narratives about violent deaths much as a detective would deal with competing alibis.)
But absent that kind of substance, it’s difficult to arrange a narrative in which the analysis is itself the story.