In his book Between the World and Me, African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates shares an important truth he learned in college: “it began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial [American] Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.”
Shortly before Christmas Netflix debuted its true crime series “Making a Murderer,” about Manitowoc, Wis., native Steven Avery. In 1985, Avery was arrested on charges of a rape he insisted he did not commit. He served 18 years in prison, only to have DNA evidence prove that in fact he was telling the truth—and that local police had likely known who the real killer was for up to a decade before his release.
As if that were not shocking enough, two years after he was released Avery was arrested again along with his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey, this time for the rape and murder of a young photographer. And most of the people who were most closely involved in making his case were the very same people responsible for his prior false conviction and subsequent cover up.
While there is definitely evidence to suggest the possibility that Avery might have committed this crime, nonetheless this, too, is a story that only gets harder to believe the more you learn. It also becomes harder to watch; as we see videotape of detectives and lawyers elicit and manipulate false confessions which judges then incomprehensibly allow into evidence, and other lawyers fail their clients, the piece elicits both outrage and powerlessness.
One way of interpreting the case is as a strange and awful exception to the truth and justice that lies at the foundations not only of our nation’s ideals but our actual communities. “Remind me never to travel through Manitowoc” is a regular refrain online (“or at least never to get a haircut there”).
But that is not at all how filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos see the story. For them, their decade-long deep dive into the justice system in Manitowoc exposes systemic questions. “The takeaway is that the American criminal justice system is in peril. We as American people should have concerns,” they told Rolling Stone. “Why aren’t there more safeguards in our system to protect against someone who had been wrongly convicted?”
The answer, it seems to me, is that until it happens to us, to a friend or family member, we have no real sense that it actually could. The cries of the falsely accused or the many, many African-Americans who daily experience gross mistreatment from the legal system—to name just two examples—are more or less discounted, in part because the very fact that they’re in trouble with the legal system undermines their credibility, and in part because it’s happening to them. “I don’t really know what the deal is,” we tell ourselves, “but I do know that’s not been my experience.” And just like that, our early-formed belief in the American Dream rocks us back to sleep.
I was surprised to find that by episode seven a part of me no longer cared whether there had been misconduct in Avery’s case; evidence aside, I suddenly found myself physically repulsed by him, and I wanted him to go away.* After an earlier episode I was so upset I wanted to throw my computer out the window (a level of reaction shared by most who see it—if you watch the show you'll know exactly what I mean).
(*One of the least explained and most surprising parts of the series is the local community's similar repulsion towards both Avery and his entire family. Even once he's been cleared of the rape charges, there's a deep-seeded sense that he and his family are just plain wrong— so much so that when he's convicted of the second crime, the judge speaks of him as though he were still guilty of not only the rape, but many other things as well.)
Instinctively we trust such instincts. Repulsion is biological, our internal Geiger counter sounding off that something around us is just not right.
But I suspect I wanted this story to stop for the same reason many ignore or discount the cries of Black Lives Matter protesters risking incarceration as they walk along highways and through malls; their stories reveal deeply unsettling questions about us. If we actually believe in justice for all, they demand not the self-gratification of online outrage but thoughtful, sustained examination and response.
For as Christian anthropologist René Girard wrote (and Sufjan Stevens sings), there is no shade to be found in the shadow of the Cross.